(Pocket-lint) - In 2021 Apple joined the Bluetooth tracking fray, moving into the market that was very much established by Tile a number of years earlier.
Samsung's Galaxy SmartTag and SmartTag+ was announced in early 2021, but is actually a second-gen device from Samsung, who originally launched the SmartThings Tracker, an LTE device, in 2018.
Suddenly the Bluetooth tracker market is a congested space, so here's how these three platforms compare.
- Apple Find My
- Samsung SmartThings Find
- Tile app
Both these trackers work within a walled garden: only Apple devices will locate the AirTag, only Samsung Galaxy devices will locate the SmartTag. Both of these networks are potentially huge as they are market leaders in smartphone sales - but there's a catch for Samsung.
Apple requires you to use an Apple ID for your iPhone (meaning there's potential for all iPhones to find an AirTag), but Samsung doesn't require the use of a Samsung Account on a Galaxy device.
For Galaxy SmartTag to work, you have to be signed into a Samsung Account, so there is the potential that not all Samsung phones will detect Galaxy SmartTag, because some people will choose not to use the Samsung account.
This means Apple's network is potentially larger, the billion iOS devices that Apple likes to talk about.
Tile, on the other hand has a brand agnostic approach and can be used by iPhone or Android devices. This opens the doors to all devices able to locate Tiles, but there's a catch here: only Tile users with the app installed will detect a Tile, although in the future this will potentially include all Amazon Sidewalk devices too, which would allow Tile detection from a wider range of devices.
That means that Tile is simply limited by the number of current active users, facing a bigger challenge than Samsung, but with Apple having a clear advantage with the sheer number of potential detection devices. The addition of Sidewalk could add an advantage to Tile in the future.
How these services work
- Bluetooth Low Energy
- Location logging from smartphone
In essence, there's very little difference in how these devices actually work. All use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to maintain a connection to the tracker device, logging the location from the phone's location data so it knows where that device is.
While you're in contact with the device, you'll be able to get it to play a sound to locate it.
When you lose a device, you'll be able to see, in the respective app, the last location where you were connected to that device.
If you lose a device, the process is much the same again. You can mark the item as lost, at which point, if the tracker is detected by compatible phones in the wider network - using BLE in the background - you'll get an anonymous and secure notification, telling you where your device was found, so you can go and get it.
Bluetooth Low Energy is especially good at this because it needs very little battery power to say "I exist!", meaning the battery will last for about a year across all these devices - although in the latest generation of Tile devices launched in 2021, the Tile Mate, Tile Slim and Tile Sticker offer 3 years of battery life.
In essence, all these devices work the same way.
What about ultra-wideband?
- Apple U1
- Samsung also has UWB
- Tile Ultra will offer in 2022
Ultra-wideband - or UWB - plays a part when it comes to precise location finding. This is when you've lost your keys at home and you just can't see them - UWB can guide you to the precise location, giving a precise range, which is a nice feature.
For Apple, this is provided by the U1 chip in both the iPhone (11/12/13) and the AirTag to give you a graphical guide back to your device. It's a clever use of this technology but Apple isn't alone in offering it.
Samsung also offers UWB for precise location tracking on the Galaxy SmartTag+, but not the regular SmartTag.
Of course, you also need to have a Samsung phone with UWB and that's currently only the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the Galaxy S21+ and the Galaxy S21 Ultra. Again, Apple has put UWB in more devices (iPhone 11 models and iPhone 12 models) so it's easier for Apple users to take advantage of the advanced UWB tracking.
Tile will be launching a UWB-compatible device in 2022 called Tile Ultra. This will look the same as the Tile Pro (2021). The advantage that Tile offers is that it's brand agnostic, so will work with the UWB chip on both Apple and Android devices - but there aren't many Android devices that currently support this outside of the Samsung phones we've mentioned.
- AirTag: 39.1 x 39.1 x 8.0mm, 11g
- Tile Pro: 42 x 42 x 6.5mm, 12g (old); 58 x 33 x 7mm (2021)
- Galaxy SmartTag: 38 x 38 x 8mm, 12g
The sizes of these device are close, with AirTag like a round button, Samsung adopting the squircle and the older Tile Pro a square, while the 2021 update to the Tile Pro is shaped like a keyfob.
The big difference is that Samsung and Tile have a hole in so it's easy to attach to things, but for Apple, you'll need to buy an accessory - a whole new market - although Apple seems to have designed the AirTag to be shown off, whereas Tile and Samsung feel like devices you'd have tucked away.
All offer water resistance, Apple with IP67, Tile Pro (2021) with IP67 and Samsung with IPX3. Apple and Tile offer the same waterproofing - but it's also worth noting that Tile offers a range of styles, including the Tile Sticker, Tile Mate and Tile Slim, all of which are IP67 too and suit a range of different uses.
The AirTag, SmartTag and Tile Pro all use a CR2032 battery which is replaceable. Tile Mate, Slim and Sticker don't have replacable batteries - but do offer 3 years of life.
- AirTag: Unstated, 10 metres effective
- Tile Pro: 120 metres claimed, 80 metres effective
- Galaxy SmartTag: 120 metres claimed, 40 metres effective
Apple didn't officially declared the range at launch, but both Samsung and Tile give a maximum range of around 120 metres. This is a technical maximum range dictated by Bluetooth, but will be affected by the device you are using to detect it and the environment that you are in. We've tested all these devices outdoors on flat ground to compare the range.
Comparing the three devices side-by-side is revealing. The AirTag is the first to lose contact and we found we needed to be within about 10 metres to be connected to it. The U1 chip will guide you into the precise location when it comes to finding, but you'll have to be much closer than the other devices to trigger that process.
The Samsung Galaxy SmartTag will make contact about 40 metres away, allowing you to trigger the sound and use the signal detector to get you close to it.
The Tile Pro offers considerably more range and we found it was still in contact about 80-100 metres away. This would allow us to play the sound to help locate it. Tile Pro's speaker is also a lot louder, so you're much more likely to hear it.
The advantage of longer range is you're much more likely to be connected to the Tile, or reconnect to the Tile when you come close to it - the other devices will rely on others reporting the location or using the last known location to get you close to it. Tile is the easy victor when it comes to range.
- Apple: NFC contact details
- Tile: Smart Alerts (Premium), Tile sharing
- Samsung: Programmable button
While the location tracking features of these devices is similar, there are different functions offered outside of UWB precise location finding.
Apple's unique feature is the ability to use any NFC device (yes, even an Android phone) to tap an AirTag and get contact details for the owner of that tag - if they've provided them. The idea is so you can call the owner if you find their bag.
Apple also has a feature that will let you know if you appear to be moving around with an unrecognised AirTag. This is to stop someone slipping one into your bag so they can track you. Samsung also offers the same feature. Tile will be adding a similar feature before the end of 2021.
Samsung's unique feature is that the button on it is programmable. A double press will ring your phone, in case you've lost that, which Tile also offers.