Tile Bluetooth tracking tag works great — if you live in San Francisco


The tiny Tile really is small and light enough to use anywhere. Photos Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac
The tiny Tile really is small and light enough to use anywhere. Photos: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

The Tile is a tiny plastic widget that never gets lost. In theory anyway. It talks to your iPhone via low-power Bluetooth and lets you track the Tile itself, and anything the Tile is attached to.

I’ve been using one for the last couple of weeks, and it works just fine. But so far it doesn’t seem to be much more useful than one of those keychain finders that beeps when you whistle. Why? Because to be truly useful, the Tile needs to reach a critical mass of users.

The Tile works like this: Let’s imagine you have one attached to your keys (because I do). Using low-power Bluetooth, the Tile stays in constant communication with your iPhone, periodically pinging the iPhone to let it know it’s still nearby. The iPhone remembers this, along with the location where it happened.

Thus, if you leave your bag somewhere, then realize it when you get home, you can look up your Tile and see its last known location. If the bag was in the bar, you can go fetch it. If it was in a cab, well, good luck.

The killer feature of the Tile is that it can be tracked by any iPhone with the Tile app, not just yours. If your Tile is on the move, other iPhones will pick up its signal and ping the Tile servers, which will update the position in your Tile app.

And finally, when you get close, you can use the app to tell the Tile to beep at you, letting you track it to the pocket of a jacket or the exact sofa cushion it’s hiding under.

The Tile is currently iOS-only.
The Tile is currently iOS-only.

That’s the theory anyway. In practice, you’re going to need to live in San Francisco for it to work. I’m using a test unit, which is to say the Tile hasn’t yet shipped. Which is also to say that I am probably the only person in Leipzig, Germany, using the Tile app.

But even with my own iPhone, the Tile doesn’t always work. Sometimes I get home and the app tells me my keys are still in the bar where I just had dinner, when they clearly are not. Still, the little beeper function works fine, and this last map glitch is apparently just a problem with the map on your iPhone not updating properly – the actual location is correct ion the Tile servers, and the bug should be fixed before the release.

The Tile is – like the iPhone – sealed. You can’t change the battery (I tried to get inside, and you can see the damage in some of the photos – you can’t get in there without smashing the whole thing open). The idea is that you buy a new one every year. That’s fine, especially if they come down from the current $20-per-unit price. But if you have a whole stack of Tiles (for instance, if you opted fore the $180 12-pack) then things start to get expensive. Then again, maybe you can hack it?

The problem is that you need both Bluetooth and location services enabled on your iPhone, all the time.

The other problem is that you need both Bluetooth and location services enabled on your iPhone. The location tracker blips on and off, powering up when the app is open and from time to time in the background. The Bluetooth is low-power, so it shouldn’t drain your iPhone too much, but the location seemed to drain my battery even faster than usual, to the point that I switched it off, rendering the location-tracking functions of the Tile mostly useless.
Also, the Tile remains constantly connected to the Bluetooth, which has – for me – blocked the automatic connection of other low-power Bluetooth devices. For instance, I have a speaker that usually connects to the iPhone as soon as I hit the play/pause button on the speaker. When the Tile is connected, though, I have to manually connect to the speaker in the iPhone’s Bluetooth preferences.

Internet of things

In the past year, we’ve seen Bluetooth trackers like the Tile bloom. At least two or three times a week I get an email about yet another tracker. Then we have lifelogging cameras and fitness trackers, one of which is already mainstream, and the other may soon go that way.

But is there any point? I can totally see the advantage of health monitoring. In fact, iWatch-type gadgets could be a big boost to human longevity (in the well-off, at least). But right now, all the other cruft is just that – cruft. You have to charge batteries (or order new units annually), you have to do something with the footage from your always-on lifelogging camera. You have to curate your GPS tracks, sync your fitness tracker and check every damn pocket of your pants twice, so you don’t wash hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of gear.

When tech is as unobtrusive and as reliable as my watch, I'll be interested.
When tech is as unobtrusive and as reliable as my watch, I’ll be interested.

I love tech, and I especially love how it is seeping into every corner of life instead of sitting on the nerdy periphery. But I don’t like babysitting that tech. The only devices I regularly use that don’t need rebooting or updating or charging are my Casio calculator watch and … and that’s it. Everything else requires brain cycles for me to use. The Kindle is almost there (it pretty much never crashes or runs out of power), and of course all my home appliances just work.

This makes me wonder whether our smart devices are actually so smart. After all, these smart gadgets are the ones that require the most mollycoddling to keep them working. My watch can take a dip or a whack and it keeps on going, for 10 frikkin’ years. My kettle boils, my washing machine washes and my non-Wi-Fi-enabled light bulbs switch on and off. They take care of themselves, and in that sense they might be smarter than the “smart” gadgets I constantly have to tend.

It seems clear to me that Apple is trying to push its products in this direction, but there’s a long way left to go. The Tile is a step toward this, with its set-and-forget nature, but it’s still a novelty for nerds. And don’t get me started on pretty much all other consumer electronics, from hostile, user-hating camera UIs (hi Sony!) to Bluetooth speakers (and worse – AirPlay speakers) whose connections are as temperamental and highly strung as the musicians whose music they (eventually) play.

People are hungry for technology, but not the kind much of the tech industry is making. They’re treating us all as early-adopting geeks who are happy to spend time tapping a WPA password into their light bulbs. All we really want are devices that – like our appliances – just work.

tile-1Tile by Tile ($20 list)
The good: Tiny, tough, easy to use.
The bad: Expensive in multiples, requires a lot of your iPhone’s resources, too reliant on the network effect for most useful features.
The verdict: Not bad, but little more than a semi-reliable novelty.
Buy from Tile
  • Steve_Sava

    after reading the review.. glad I didn’t kick start it LOL

  • Aaron D

    I was a kickstarter for Tile, and I’ve had a completely different experience than the reviewer. I bought an 8 pack of Tiles, and I placed them on the keys for all 4 cars, the ski doo, the seadoo and the tractor. All 5 of us in the house have the Tile App on our phones, and none of us have noticed any difference in battery life. (Not saying there is no difference, just that we haven’t noticed.) We’ve had them for a few weeks now, and they’ve helped me find the tractor keys (the boy left them out in the barn), the seadoo keys (they were in the truck) and my wife’s keys. The first two were done with the GPS map, the third with the noise creation. I realize they aren’t cheap, but my oldest daughter lost the keys to her car last year, and the new electric fob cost over $200 all by itself. Also, they are waterproof (they’ve been dumped in the lake already). I realize their aren’t a critical mass of users yet, but having 5 users in our family helps a lot. Friends and family have all enquired, and I know a few have placed orders for delivery when production catches up.
    Don’t get me wrong, the devices aren’t perfect, one year is short and a way to recharge (or some kind of cheap replacement plan) would make it a lot easier to swallow the cost. But they aren’t useless and I think they’ll only be more useful as more people get on board.

  • bill

    i’m kind of with the author on this. I have 2, one on each set of keys. i’m the only one with the app in my house and in Oklahoma apparently…lol
    Unless millions of people get the app, its a crap shoot whether you can actually find something out of Bluetooth range. Also, I notice the battery drain on my phone too. While not huge, it is there, I’d say 10% more drain than usual, but i leave the app open in background

    I am going to hide one in a grocery store in town here, making sure to leave my phone at home so it won’t update its location. I will see how long it takes for someone else with the app to walk by

  • Ronnie Bajwa

    Hey Joshua, what do you think about this tracker/smart device? http://bit.ly/iota_iotera It doesn’t require mass adoption and actually has a GPS inside.

  • great article, I love the attitude of not babysitting the tech and gadgets..