The search is over: smart trackers from Apple, Samsung, and Tile compared

The search is over: smart trackers from Apple, Samsung, and Tile compared

This year will go down in history as the year we entered the golden age of Not Losing Your Stuff. Well, in addition to some other historic milestones, somewhere in the top 100 hits of the year will be the introduction of smart tracker tags from two major mobile device manufacturers: Samsung and Apple.

Tracking tags have been around for a while now, and Tile has been the best-known brand in the space. With new options from the two most popular US phone manufacturers entering the picture, tracking tags may be poised to go mainstream. If you’re thinking of picking one up but unsure where to start, then you’re in the right place. We tried out three top tracking tags — the Samsung SmartTag Plus, Apple AirTag, and Tile Pro — to see how they compare.

First, a word about the very real privacy concerns about these tracking devices. Since their introduction, critics have noted that they could all too easily be used as tools for stalkers, since they’re easy to hide in someone’s bag or car. These concerns were amplified when Apple’s AirTags arrived, given how ubiquitous Apple’s Find My network is. Apple built in certain anti-stalking safety measures at launch, but reporters quickly identified ways that these safeguards fell short.

The company has addressed some issues, like shortening the length of time before an AirTag will sound an alert when it’s separated from its owner, and is working on an app that will allow Android users to find unwanted AirTags near them. But some potential for misuse will remain even with more safety measures in place.

Apple (justifiably) attracts more scrutiny for its safety practices given the size and effectiveness of its tracking network, but it’s hardly alone in its somewhat reactive attitude toward stalking concerns. Samsung introduced a SmartThings app feature that scans for unfamiliar SmartTags, and Tile says it’s working on a similar feature. It doesn’t help that these devices more or less live inside their own manufacturer’s walled garden — a unified, cross-platform approach is sorely needed. Anyway, it’s illegal (and highly immoral) to track someone without their knowledge, so don’t do it.

Per usual, adding new tech to your life involves more terms and conditions to agree to. However, in this case you may have already accepted them when you set up your Apple or Samsung phone. Tile’s app, which you must download to use the Pro, presents its own separate set of terms of service.

Personal trackers are nothing new — GPS and cellular options have been around for quite some time, and offer more precise, real-time location tracking. They also tend to come with a higher price tag, recurring subscription or wireless data fees, and require more battery power. This newer class of Bluetooth trackers are more practical for most people, with battery life measured in months rather than days and smaller, keyring-friendly form factors.

Essentially, the three tags compared here all do the same thing. Pair it to your phone, attach it to something you want to keep track of, and you’re ready to go. When the tracker is within Bluetooth range of your phone, you can have the tag play a sound to help locate it. All three devices support out-of-range finding with their own particular device user networks, and they all include the same kind of user-replaceable CR2032 coin cell battery.

Their main difference is whether or not they include AR-assisted finding by way of Ultra Wideband (UWB) connectivity: the Samsung and Apple tags have this and the Tile Pro does not. To take advantage of the AR feature, you’ll need a phone with UWB; on the Apple side that’s an iPhone 11 or newer, and for Samsung it’s a Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Z Fold 2, S21 Plus, or S21 Ultra. There are also compatibility differences: Apple’s tracker only works with iOS devices and Samsung’s only works with Galaxy devices (no, you can’t register it through the SmartThings iOS app, I tried), whereas Tile works on both iOS and Android.

Apple AirTag

The AirTag comes in just one flavor: a small, $29 disc shape. It’s the only one of the three to include an official IP67 rating, meaning it can survive a dunk in a bit of water. It also allows you to store your contact information so it can be read by any phone with NFC (near-field communication) — even Android phones. Setup is dead simple — just bring the tag near your iPhone and you’ll be prompted to pair the two. It’s also a little less expensive than the other two, but there’s no hole built in, so if you want to attach it to a set of keys you’ll need to pay a little more to add a holder. (We don’t really recommend drilling a hole into it, though iFixit has a guide if you insist.)

When it’s outside the Bluetooth range of your phone, the AirTag taps into the massive network of iPhone devices using Find My to provide an approximate location. This is a huge benefit, especially in the US where iPhones abound. As long as your item is in a place with people, it will likely be “seen” by an iPhone nearby.

In-range, AR-assisted finding does a good job of tracking down an object that’s out of sight. A big, easy-to-follow arrow appears on screen when the signal is strong enough (you’ll be prompted with a vague message to move around if you’re too far for a strong signal) and guides you in the right direction. I had no problem locating a tag under a couch cushion in my house. It would be helpful if the “weak signal” message indicated if the signal got stronger as you move around (Samsung’s AR finding does this) but that’s my only complaint.

If you’d like to altogether avoid the headache of leaving something behind, Apple is adding a separation alert feature in iOS 15 that may help. Once set up, it will send a notification if it detects that your iPhone (and by extension, you) have gone out of range and left it behind. Tile also offers this feature with its Premium subscription.

The search is over: smart trackers from Apple, Samsung, and Tile compared

Samsung SmartTag Plus

The $39 SmartTag Plus is Samsung’s UWB-equipped tag; there’s also a non-UWB version for $10 less. The SmartTag Plus offers broadly similar Bluetooth-range finding and AR-assist as the AirTag, with a few differences. AR finding mode provides a view through the phone’s camera with guiding arrows that appear on the screen, which is a little more helpful than Apple’s arrow-only guide.

You can also use the button on a SmartTag as a kind of remote starter for smart home automations if you’re invested in Samsung’s SmartThings ecosystem. On the downside, the SmartTag has the shortest battery life rating of the three trackers compared here: up to 165 days (less than six months) compared to about a year for the Tile and Apple options. SmartTags don’t offer separation alerts at the moment either.

Out-of-range, the SmartTag Plus relies on other Galaxy devices that have chosen to participate in Samsung’s Galaxy Find network — Galaxy phone users aren’t opted in by default, and need to give consent in the SmartThings app. Samsung says that as of April 2021, there were more than 70 million “helper devices” participating globally; Apple counts hundreds of millions of users in its Find My network. There are simply fewer people in the US with Galaxy phones than iPhones, so it can’t quite compete with the AirTag, but that’s a moot point anyway since nobody is likely to be comparison shopping between the two.

Experiences will vary — more so than with an AirTag — but at least in the northern suburbs of Seattle, there were enough Galaxy Find users out and about to track a tag on a cross-town journey with multiple stops. Knowing the actual location of the object, er, spouse who agreed to let me track him, the SmartTag did identify his position accurately at two of three stops. It only returned a location a couple of times when he was on the interstate getting to his destination, but in a fairly busy business park and at a restaurant, the SmartTag gave me an accurate enough location that I could have driven up I-5 myself and located the tag.

Tile Pro

Tile has been the tracking tag category heavyweight of the last few years — at least until Samsung and Apple showed up. The Pro is the company’s highest-specced model at $34, with a bigger Bluetooth range (400 feet) and a louder maximum ring volume than other current Tile tags. There’s no Ultra Wideband here, and thus no AR-assisted finding.

Separation alerts are available as part of Tile’s $29/year Premium subscription, but all of the essential features are included with your Tile tag purchase, including out-of-range finding. This “community find” feature relies on other Tile users — and as of June 14th, Amazon’s Sidewalk network — the way Samsung and Apple’s trackers rely on other Galaxy phones and iPhones.

Even with help from Sidewalk, the Tile Pro’s peer-location network seems to lag behind Samsung and Apple’s. On the same journey up I-5 that the SmartTag Plus took, the Tile Pro returned a location ping less frequently, and only got one of the stops on the trip precisely right (it was close but across the street on another one) where the SmartTag was accurate on two locations.

This was honestly a better performance than I was expecting, though Seattle probably has more than its usual share of Sidewalk-supporting Amazon devices for obvious reasons. Even if it’s an atypical result, it’s fair to say that the community find feature would work well enough to tell you that you really did lose something, even if it’s less likely that you’ll be able to hunt down its exact location.

I do have one minor complaint to lodge against the Tile app: the subscription upsell. A couple of app menus include features that are only available with the Premium plan, and tapping them brings up a page prompting you to start a free trial to access them. I expect to see those kinds of things during setup, or if I’m using a free app like Strava, but it’s a little annoying from something I’ve already paid for.

Tile also offers its trackers in a couple of different form factors, including a wallet-friendly Slim version and a small adhesive-backed Sticker tag. There are plenty of third-party cases and holders for AirTags in particular if you want to adapt it for different objects, but you can’t buy an AirTag or a SmartTag in a fundamentally different shape.

AirTag or Tile Pro?

If you have an iPhone, there’s a very simple answer to this question: just get the AirTag. The Apple Find My network is so extensive (at least in the US) that you’ll have the best chance of tracking down something the tag is attached to. Maybe there’s an exception to this recommendation if you really want Tile’s subscription features or mix of form factors, but by and large this is a no-brainer.

SmartTag Plus or Tile Pro?

If you have a Samsung phone you’ll probably be better off with the SmartTag Plus. The Galaxy Find network isn’t as robust as Apple’s, but it’s still ahead of Tile’s. If you already use smart home devices in Samsung’s SmartThings network, then there’s even more reason to choose SmartTag since it can act as a remote control for automations. The shorter battery life is a shame and the lack of separation notifications stinks, so if those are sticking points you could consider the Tile Pro. Otherwise, the SmartTag Plus (or non-UWB version, depending on your phone) is the way to go.

Tile or… ?

If you don’t have an iPhone or a Galaxy device, your choice is between the Tile Pro and… everything else. Tile’s out-of-range network can’t compete with the number of devices Samsung and Apple have in our pockets, but it seems to be getting a healthy boost from Sidewalk, and can only get better as more people add Echo and Ring devices to their homes.

If community finding features are less important, Chipolo is worth a look. We didn’t test it in this batch, but it does include separation notifications without an annual fee. Overall, the Tile Pro feels like a good compromise between paying for something more expensive and power-intensive like a cellular tracker, or a more basic, Bluetooth-only tracker.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge