The development of a new kind of Bluetooth radio system, Bluetooth LE (for “low energy”), has unlocked entire new categories of tech gadgets, including smartwatches, fitness trackers, and now, tiny tracking devices.
There are tons of competing models in the new Bluetooth tracking devices category. I rounded up a few to test:
Introducing the PROTAG Duet, the Tile, the LassoTag, the Tintag, the TrackR sticker, and Find’Em Tracking.
(By the way, Bluetooth LE is also called Bluetooth 4.0 and Bluetooth Smart. It’s all the same thing.)
What they do You attach these trackers to things you don’t want to lose: keys, wallet, purse, laptop bag, camera, luggage, TV remote, self-respect. (Kidding.)
You pair the tracker with your iPhone or Android phone. Another nice thing about Bluetooth LE is that you don’t have to dive into your phone’s Settings menu to pair stuff, as in the old days; you can do it right in the tracker’s companion app.
From then on, your phone silently pings the tracker every couple of seconds. “You still there? You still there?”
If the tracker is within Bluetooth range — about 33 feet — all is well. You can see its location on a map.
If you and your tracker get separated, though, your phone lets you know with a message or sound. If you accidentally leave your wallet or purse on the counter, you’ll find out before you get very far away.
This part works very well on all the trackers.
Most of them offer other handy features, too. For example:
Silence within a geofence If your phone started going nuts every time you wandered 33 feet from your wallet, you’d go nuts, too. Every time you go upstairs to get dressed — BEEP! Every time you run out to get something from the car — BEEP!
What you really want is to say, “When you and I are both at home, don’t beep me. I haven’t really lost you.”
The best Bluetooth trackers, therefore, let you declare your home Wi-Fi network as a safety zone. Whenever the tracker is within your home hotspot, it won’t freak out if you wander out of its 33-foot radius.
The Trackr sticker can use either the Wi-Fi hotspot or a Nest thermostat’s radius as its safety zone.
The Tile and LassoTag don’t offer a geofence feature at all, so they go off all the time.
Hear the tracker If your lost thing is somewhere in the house, you can open the app and press a button. The tracker starts making a tiny, chirpy beep, so you can hunt down the couch cushion or pile of clothes it’s hiding under. (Watch my video, above, to hear an example.)
Hear the phone Most of these trackers can go the other way, too. If you have the tracker (because it’s on your keys, for example) but can’t find your phone, you press a button. Your phone starts chiming, wherever it is, even if the ringer is off.
Once again, the Tile and the LassoTag are the laggards; they don’t let you ping the phone in this way.
Play “warmer, colder” Another way to find your lost thing in the house: Use the Radar feature. (That’s the PROTAG’s name for it.) As you walk around, a graph on your phone screen shows you if you’re getting closer to the tracker or farther from it, like the old “warmer, colder” game.
It’s not as crisp and responsive as you’d hope, and these products can’t tell you which direction an item is from you, but they can help you find things.
Crowd GPS The elephant in the room has a question:
“What good are these things if they have only a 33-foot range? If you leave your purse in a cab, or your bike gets stolen, how will you ever find it again?”
These Bluetooth trackers do not have GPS, so it’s not like you can look their location up on a map. (You can buy GPS-equipped trackers — for your pet, for example — but they’re much bigger and bulkier.)
Instead, some of these companies have added what the TrackR guys call “crowd GPS.”
Anytime someone with a Tile, LassoTag, or TrackR walks by your lost thing, that person’s phone silently notices it and lets you know! Your phone lights up and shows the passerby’s location on a map. Those total strangers never even realize that they’ve helped you pinpoint your lost item’s location.
It’s a cool idea. But, honestly, I have zero percent expectation that this will work. These companies say they’ve sold tens of thousands of trackers, but there’s no concentration of Bluetooth tracker owners big enough to blanket the country — maybe New York and San Francisco, but that’s probably it.
Still, the TrackR people posted a convincing video where they left a bike out until it got stolen. Ten days later, they were notified of its location at the thief’s house via crowd GPS.
OK, I have 2 percent expectation.
Capsule summaries Here are some quick notes on the trackers I tested:
Tile ($25). Heavily advertised. Cool-looking tracker, lovely app, but feature-poor. No geofence silencing, no way to find your phone by pressing a button on the tracker, no alert when you wander away. Worst of all, you can’t change the battery. When it dies in a year, you have to throw away the entire tracker and buy another one!
Environmentally irresponsible much?
LassoTag iBeacon ($20). Least expensive. Three- to six-month battery life. (A larger model, called the LassoTag HD, has a rechargeable battery instead.)
Lots of unusual features — for example, the app shows you the tracker’s battery life and temperature. And you can specify what sound your phone makes when you’re too far from the tracker — even record your own voice. (“Hey, nutbrain! You forgot your wallet!”) You can see your lost thing’s last recorded location on a Web map.
But no geofence, no way to make your phone chirp. Worse, there’s an annual fee for some of the features. Forget it.
Tintag ($30). Four-month battery charge — but this one is rechargeable. The price includes a charger. So you don’t have to waste time and money buying those tiny hearing-aid batteries.
And feature-packed. Even the prototype I tested has all the core features, and more; for example, one tracker can be paired to multiple phones, so you and your spouse can each use the app to find the same car keys.
This one is an Indiegogo-crowdfunded project. It met its goal but hasn’t started shipping yet. It’s one to watch, though.
TrackR sticker ($25). It’s another tracker that started out on Indiegogo. It raised more than $1 million.
It’s not much to look at — a thick plastic disk — but it’s loaded with features. One-year battery life. All the core features, including crowd GPS. Comes with adhesive on the back.
I’m really looking forward to the next generation of this one, the TrackR Bravo ($30). It’s one of the few trackers that doesn’t look cruddy. It’s metal and attractive and really thin, making it walletable. Comes out in January.
Find’Em Tracking ($25). Looks like a credit card, so it can slip into your wallet. Eighteen-month battery.
I had a lot of trouble getting any response from the company, though; the whole thing smells iffy. I’d steer clear.
PROTAG Duet ($30). Yet another Indiegogo-originated product.
Instructions are incomplete — it’d help if they showed which way the battery goes in! — but otherwise, this one’s the winner. Small, attractive, rugged, with a great-looking app and all the core features. Four to eight months per battery. Choice of colors, adhesive option, lanyard attached, two batteries included. PROTAG has even just launched its own version of that “crowd GPS” business.
This one’s my favorite.
Finding the finders The takeaway here is this: Bluetooth trackers are a cool new category. But they’re an infant category. The instruction sheets are terrible, the hearing-aid batteries are fumbly and short-lived, the software is often homemade-looking.
The PROTAG Duet or the TrackR might wind up being a useful part of your routine. The others are more likely to wind up being another sloshing particle in your gadget drawer. But at least you won’t lose them in there.