Department of First World Problems: the Tile tracker system

One of the good things about Florida is that you can walk out of your apartment or house without bothering to put on shoes or more clothing than gym shorts and a T-shirt. The downside is that you are often leaving wallets and keys somewhere inside, thus leading to a search challenge a few hours later when it is time to drive to a restaurant. Also, your typical Floridian may have at least three vehicles for which keys are required: car, pickup, golf cart. Putting these all on one huge keyring is cumbersome.

The New York Times/Wirecutter says that the choice of tracker should be limited to Apple AirTag and Tile.

If you’re already paying $1000+ per year to be part of the Apple ecosystem, why not Apple AirTags? They’re great if you lose things outside of the house because there are so many other people paying $1000+ per year to be part of the Apple ecosystem. They’re bad in every other way, though. You can’t put them on an existing keychain because there is no hole in an AirTag. You can’t put them in your wallet because there isn’t a version that is shaped like a credit card. The AirTag’s speaker isn’t as loud. If a heretic in your house decides to use Android, he/she/ze/they won’t be able to locate anything that is attached (using a proprietary Apple keychain that costs $29 to $449) to an AirTag.

The advantages of Tile:

  • thoughtful physical packaging (e.g., a hole for your existing keyrings)
  • no need to buy all new keyrings, wallets, etc.
  • a variety of physical packages (e.g., a “thick credit card” for your wallet, a small cylinder with included adhesive for sticking to TV remotes and similar)
  • there are a lot of devices that are already “tile enabled”. Laptops from HP, Dell, Lenovo, ASUS, for example
  • louder speaker to facilitate finding within the house or yard
  • multi-platform
  • press button on Tile to make your phone sound an alert even when it is on silent (i.e., if you’ve found your keys or wallet it will be easy to find your phone)
  • lifestyle video advertising the product includes a golden retriever on the couch (sadly, lower down on the page is a photo of a hipster)

With Apple there is no subscription service offered. With Tile you can use all of the core services without paying, but if you pay $30 per year (free for the first year) you get more location history, free battery replacements, and some insurance for lost items.

It took me about 5 minutes to download the Tile app for the iPhone, create and verify an account, and activate the the first tile. Additional tiles take about 1 minute to activate. Giving a tile a custom name, e.g., “Awesome Honda Odyssey Keys” instead of “Keys” takes a scroll and an extra press or two (would be nice if this were an option when activating, which it is if you select the “Other” category). The tiles are pretty rugged. I crammed one into the clip of a Stanley FatMax contractor-grade tape measure, which also includes a strong magnet, and it works perfectly. They’re spec’d to handle immersion in water for up to 30 minutes (IP67).

Now that I’ve played with the system one question that jumps out is “Why don’t car keys, all of which already have batteries, come with Tile built in?” Surely Honda, GM, Toyota, and Ford don’t want consumers to lose their keys. The list of Tile partners is extensive so plainly it wouldn’t be tough from a business or technical point of view to integrate Tile.



15 thoughts on “Department of First World Problems: the Tile tracker system

  1. I’ll be curious to see how this works for you if you actually leave your things someplace outside of the home.
    I fully admit be being a full-on Apple Fanboi, but in the case of trackers I think it might be warranted, if only because my guess is there are orders of magnitude more Apple devices that can track things than there are running Tile tracking processes.
    I have no argument against the flexibility and user friendliness of the Tiles vs AirTags.
    Of course you don’t need lots of things to be able to track your Tiles; you just need one to find it.

    My own AirTag story:

    We went on our first commercial airline trip in many years in December when we came to Miami. I had a hat with an AirTag with it, and the hat was in one of our two checked bags. We got to Miami and got our first bag, but the second one was no where to be found. I pulled up the Find My app, expecting to perhaps see that the bag was someplace in the MIA baggage complex. But the app said my bag had last been seen 2 minutes ago .. in the middle of Georgia?

    I then pulled up the Delta app to see what the story was with the second bag .. and the app revealed our second bag had been loaded onto a later flight. So … in fact, our bag *was in fact* in the middle of GA when we looked for it – in the baggage hold of Delta jet! Some one had a Apple device, had it connected to in-flight wifi, and our bag (actually my hat) was located at 30,000 feet.

  2. Trackers are an old news. I bought radio tag trackers in Radio Shack as a present for my better part two decades ago, they were never used. Maybe attachment to the phone makes them special…

  3. Basic system: near your door have a bowl for all keys, put key in/out as your enter/leave your house.

    Smarter system: near your door have a bowl full of dummy keys that will confuse car thieves when they break into your house, have a real key-bowl in a nearby drawer.

    • I just leave the keys in my unlocked cars at home. Most people don’t know how to drive stick shifts anymore.

  4. Good example of something no-one ever heard of becoming essential in 5 years. Paying $30 for said unheard of thing & not being allowed to access your own location history without paying a subscription fee is well into Greenspun paygrade.

  5. After reading all the aforementioned and being one hapless soul who is not a part of the Apple Ecosystem, I like the Tile system in theory. But some people from DuckDuckGo, the Tor project, Signal (messaging app) and other like-minded people should get together and make a product that does the same thing except:

    1) Your location history and other metadata are never sold or exchanged with anyone. Period.
    2) You have exclusive and secure access to said history, with the option to delete it all on a regular basis.
    3) They charge you a modest fee for the system, the hardware and the software to keep everyone employed and the engineers working, but not to pimp you out to everyone+dog.

    Aside: I have a clumsily large keyring with lots of keys on it. I find that I don’t lose it simply because it is so clunky to carry around that I always remember where it is. If I take keys off of it for one reason or another, I instantly LOSE those keys.

  6. I’ve played with both Tiles and AirTags – the ubiquity of iDevices make AirTags far more useful if you lose your item outside of your own house. Tile claims sub-10,000 users in Toronto (not many!) – I’ve tested walking through crowded malls, transit stations, office food courts for hours without my tile device getting identified by another Tile user.

    It’s possible (but not practical) to make your own AirTags, and leverage the Apple Find My network, without identifying yourself. You do need an Apple ID to retrieve locations, but all you need is an email to get an Apple ID. Check out this project:

    • Anon: How do you do test to see if your Tile has been identified by someone else? Do you say that you want to be notified when your keys are found and turn off Bluetooth on your phone so that your own phone is guaranteed not to find the keys tile?

    • Yes. Also, if you subscribe to the Tile service, you should be able to see the location history. If you turn your Bluetooth off, and walk around with your Tile, ideally, you should see the Tile leaving your house on the map after returning from your walk. In hours (not days) of testing in a crowded urban area, it never got picked up. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but Tile has something like 5000 users, city of 3,000,000 – presumably, 1 in 600 are running the app, and I would have walked past thousands. Someone else I know tested them and had a similar experience – would be interested to hear if yours is better.

  7. I tried them. The weak point in Tile is the batteries. In my experience, when you need the thing, the tiny batteries are invariably dead. Notification that the batteries need replacing isn’t included. Ugh.

    These are now e-waste. We upgraded to Airtags.

    Perhaps they’ve improved them in the last couple of years, but I won’t be buying any more to find out.

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