Bluetooth trackers are small gadgets that you attach to (or put inside) important items you’re worried about losing, such as keys, a bag, or a wallet. You can then use an app to track those items on a map on your phone’s screen; most also let you play an audible tone on the tracker as long as it’s within Bluetooth range. After doing 20 hours of research and 30 hours of hands-on testing of the top contenders over the past two years, we think the best Bluetooth tracker for most people is the Tile Mate. In our testing, it had among the best range (for both maintaining a connection and reconnecting), and its alarm is louder and easier to hear than the alarms on other trackers. Its crowd-finding feature lets other Tile users anonymously help you locate items that are out of Bluetooth range of your own phone, and from what we can tell, Tile has the largest network of its kind. Taken together, these features mean you’re more likely to find your lost items without as much hassle.
Putting a Tile Mate on a keyring or in a bag pocket, or sticking it to the underside of a bike seat is easy. Once the Mate is paired to your phone via Bluetooth, the companion smartphone app continuously monitors the location of your goods. You can use the app to trigger an audible alarm on the Tile Mate when you’re searching for your keys around the house; conversely, you can press a hidden button on the Tile Mate to make your phone play a tune if it’s the phone itself that’s lost. The app even marks the Mate’s last known location if you wander out of its range.
The Tile Slim is a wider but thinner tracker from the same company. Because it’s the thickness of about three credit cards, it can fit in your wallet or on other items for which the Tile Mate may be too thick. The Slim’s alarm isn’t as loud and its range isn’t as good, but it’s really the only tracker with a design this thin, and it still benefits from Tile’s crowd-finding reach.
The major players in this category are well-known, but to make sure we didn’t miss any, during research for a previous version of this guide we turned to our good friends Amazon and Google. The latter turned up some great comparative reviews from The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo, and Tom’s Guide. For that initial version of this guide, we tested three different trackers.
Few reputable sources have reviewed 2016’s notable trackers (Wired’s brief review of the latest Tile models aside), but we found a few new models to test for the latest update. Tile’s new Tile Mate and Tile Slim were givens, considering they replaced our previous top pick and come from a company that’s more or less eponymous with the category. We also included the Chipolo Plus because of the company’s claims that it’s the loudest tracker.
Perhaps the most important test we ran was to see how far away we could move a paired smartphone from each tracker before the Bluetooth connection was lost. This test shows a tracker’s potential range; longer ranges are better because they mean your phone is more likely to keep in touch with the tracker and thus help you find your lost item when it’s still nearby. To test range, we went to a park along the water, away from any buildings or structures that might potentially interfere with the Bluetooth signal. We set down each tracker on a bench, then walked away while measuring the distance using a measuring wheel. Once the tracker’s app showed the tracker as out of range, we recorded the distance. We then walked back toward the tracker until the Bluetooth connection was reestablished, recording that distance. We repeated this test at least 10 times per tracker, using both an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 6s, and calculated the average distance for each tracker for both measurements.1
We also tested the loudness of each tracker’s alarm chime by placing it 6 inches from a digital sound pressure level (SPL) meter and noting the peak volume. We then repeated the test with the meter directly above each tracker’s speaker openings.
In addition, we performed some real-world testing of alarm volume: With the trackers on the first floor of a quiet home, we went to the second floor to make sure we could hear the alarms going off. This wasn’t a scientific test by any means, but combined with the decibel-meter readings, it provided a good sense of overall loudness. (Different alarm frequencies—and sweeps of frequencies—are more or less audible than others because of the way human hearing works, even at the same absolute loudness.)
The best Bluetooth tracker for most people is the Tile Mate. Tile has more or less established itself as the name brand when it comes to trackers, and though the Tile Mate doesn’t perform quite as well as its predecessor (the second-generation Tile), its hardware still has the best combination of features: Its range is comparable to the best of the current crop of contenders, and it has the loudest alarm in real-world use.
The Tile Mate is a round-cornered square about 1.3 inches across and 0.2 inch thick (slightly smaller than the original Tile), made of white plastic with a silver button in the center, flush with the unit’s face. A round opening in the top left corner lets you attach a keychain, lanyard, or similar tether. (Some trackers come with an adhesive pad for sticking the tracker on a flat surface, but the Tile Mate does not. You could buy it from Tile, or supply your own if necessary.)
Setup is about as easy as it gets, thanks to Tile Mate’s use of Bluetooth 4.0 (aka Bluetooth LE), a version of Bluetooth technology that’s found in most recent smartphones that makes it easier to connect devices and also extends battery life. In the case of the Tile Mate, BTLE means that instead of having to go into your phone’s Settings menu to add the device, everything is handled within the Tile app (Android, iOS): To connect your phone and a Tile Mate, you just launch the app, tap a button to add a new Tile, and press firmly on the Tile’s center button when prompted.
In the app, you can name each Tile whatever you like and also add a photo; for example, if you have a Tile Mate in your backpack, you can add a photo of the backpack for that particular Tile. You can view your devices—all Tiles, your paired phone, and any other phones and tablets running the Tile app—in list or map modes. You can pair an unlimited number of Tiles with a phone, but only eight (on iOS) or four (on Android) Tiles can be actively communicating with the phone over Bluetooth at once.
Once a Tile Mate is paired with your phone, there are a few different ways you can use the accessory. If you lose track of the Tile-equipped item, you can see its location (if it’s currently within range) or last known location (if it’s currently out of range) on a map in the app. While in range, you can trigger the Tile’s alarm to help you locate it by sound. Alternatively, tapping the icon of the Tile displays an on-screen circle that fills in as you get closer to the device. (Tile should make this feature clearer, as there’s no obvious indication of what the circle means and it’s not intuitive.)
If the Tile is out of range, you can see (on a map) its location the last time your phone had contact with it. If it’s not at that location—or you’re worried it won’t be—you can mark the item as lost, which invokes Tile’s crowd-finding feature. (More on that in a bit.)
You can also find a misplaced phone—if it’s within Bluetooth range—using the Tile Mate. Double pressing its silver button triggers a tune to play on your phone at full volume, even if the volume is otherwise turned down or the phone is set to vibrate.
In our park test, the Tile Mate had among the best range, as we were able to get an average of 108 feet away before the connection was lost while using an iPhone 6s—beating the 100 feet that Tile advertises, but not quite as far as the 115 feet we saw with the Chipolo Plus. (With an iPhone 7, our measured distance was 94 feet, a difference Tile says is due to issues with Bluetooth on the iPhone 7.) After disconnection, we had to walk back to within 48 feet for the Tile Mate to reconnect, a notably shorter range than some of the competition.
Tile advertises the Tile Mate as having an 88-decibel alarm (down from 90 decibels for the previous-generation Tile), but our testing—with a digital sound-level meter, without a wind guard installed, positioned directly over the speaker—showed levels as high as 120 decibels. With the wind guard in place, it was about 105 decibels. This is comparable to the Chipolo Plus’s alarm, which is advertised as 100 decibels, but isn’t clearly louder in actual testing. We also like that the Tile keeps making noise until you manually turn it off; some trackers play their alarms only for a set amount of time.
If you designate a Tile Mate (or any other Tile) as lost in the app, you can use the Community Find feature to help find it. This feature takes advantage of anyone using the Tile app on a phone or tablet: If one of those devices passes within Bluetooth range of your lost tracker, you get an alert on your phone and an email with the location at which it was detected. This all happens in the background, invisibly—the person running the app will have no idea where your stuff is, or even that they’ve helped you locate it. This feature worked as advertised in our testing.
Other trackers have similar features, but the Tile’s big strength here is sheer volume. Though we don’t have sales figures to determine how many of each tracker are actually out there in the wild, everything we’ve seen indicates that the Tile is the most popular. This includes not only its position as the best-seller on Amazon, but also the number of reviews it has there, and our anecdotal experiences seeing the Tile in use in the wild.
The Tile is also the only Bluetooth tracker we encountered with an Apple Watch app that shows connected Tiles on a map and lets you trigger alarms. This isn’t a huge advantage, but it’s a nice bonus.
The only professional review we’ve seen of the Tile Mate so far comes from Wired, where it was awarded a rating of eight out of 10. Christopher Null says, “Tile is affordable and brain-dead easy to use.”
You can also use Tile’s Web service to find linked phones or tablets in any Web browser. It’s very similar to Apple’s Find My iPhone tool: It displays your devices on a map, and if one is lost, you can ring it or display a message on its lock screen. We consider this a nice extra, but it’s a shame you can’t also use the website to locate the actual Tile trackers, as you can in the app.
Tile has confirmed to us that the company uses your phone’s location data in four ways: determining where you are in relation to your stuff, periodically determining the location of each tracker, noting your location if you’re in range of someone else’s lost tracker, and—if you contact Tile’s support staff—determining the approximate location of your computer or device by IP address. We don’t think any of these uses are particularly invasive for a device that you’re purchasing to find you and your stuff.
Perhaps the biggest downside to the Tile Mate is its lack of a replaceable battery. After a year, the app begins to pester you about the battery running dry—when it does die, the hardware is dead. Tile does have a replacement program that’s a pretty good deal: For $12 per Tile–about half the price of a fresh purchase–the company will ship you a replacement, and you’ll get the most-current version of the hardware. The company even includes an envelope for you to mail back the old Tile for recycling, which we’re happy to see. Yes, it’s more expensive than just putting a new battery in one of the (few) competing trackers that offers a replaceable battery, and it’s more wasteful than if you could simply replace the battery, but getting new hardware every year is a big plus.
The Tile Mate also lacks geofencing features: It won’t send a push notification to your phone if you walk away from your keys or whatever else the Tile is attached to. It’s meant to be a tool you use when you want to see where something is, not one that alerts you every time you leave your stuff behind.
Unlike every other tracker we tested, Tile doesn’t let you unpair one of its devices from your phone through the app. Instead, you must email the company’s customer support with a list of information to transfer ownership. We see this as somewhat anti-consumer: You can’t sell or give away a Tile without going through a needlessly complicated process that Tile has its hands in.
As with all the other trackers, the Tile app has to be running, at least in the background, for it to communicate with the hardware. If you force-quit it or it automatically quits because of memory restraints, your phone and the Tile won’t be able to communicate and you’ll get a notification on your phone to that effect. We haven’t had an issue in testing with an iPhone 7 Plus, but it’s possible on a phone with less RAM that the app could be purged from memory. A company representative told us, “When put in the background, it runs in more of a sleep state, but as actions occur, the app is woken up to update locations.”
An issue with Android 6.0.0 (Marshmallow) caused connectivity issues between the Tile and Android phones. This was remedied with Android 6.0.1, so if you’re still experiencing problems, make sure your phone received the update.
Tile Mate is quieter than the previous-generation Tile, at least on paper. Some of our editors have noted that it sounds quieter in real-world use, but our measurements showed them as fairly comparable—more important, the Mate is as loud as any other tracker available right now.
If you’ve bought into the Tile ecosystem and are looking for a thinner option—say, to fit in a wallet—go with Tile Slim. It has a larger footprint than the Tile Mate at 2.1 inches square, but it’s about the thickness of three credit cards. In our testing, the Slim had a shorter range (see the chart above) and lower volume (about 98 decibels with the meter directly over the speaker) than the Tile Mate; the Slim also has no place to connect it to a keychain or other tether, so it’s not as versatile as the Mate. And one of our testers who had a Slim in a thin wallet also occasionally activated the “ring your phone” feature when sitting down, which was annoying. But the Slim is really the only option if you want something super thin, and it has all the other benefits you get with a Tile.
We saw a handful of new trackers at the CES 2017 trade show that we’ll be testing when they’re available. Chipolo will be introducing the Chipolo Clip—the company’s answer to the Tile Mate—this spring, and the Chipolo Sticker in late 2017. The Sticker, the smallest tracker yet, is designed to stick to small things like eyeglasses. It recharges wirelessly, a feature that sets it apart from any other device we’ve seen.
TrackR will be launching three new products this year: The TrackR Pixel is a plastic version of the company’s flagship tracker, while the TrackR Wallet 2.0 is about the size of two credit cards. Each has a replaceable battery, which is particularly notable for the thin model. Finally there’s the TrackR Atlas, which isn’t a tracker itself but rather a mapping device. Plug one into a wall outlet in each room in your house, and the company’s smartphone app will give you more-precise location information about your trackers—for example, it’ll differentiate between rooms and let you know if your keys are in the bedroom or the kitchen. TrackR told us the Atlas will also work with Bluetooth trackers from other companies, something that would make it interesting even to people who aren’t in the TrackR ecosystem.
The Chipolo Plus is an impressively good clone of the second-generation Tile. It’s shaped like a circle rather than a rounded rectangle, but it’s exactly the same thickness, height, and width as the previous Tile. It has a nonremovable battery, a mail-in upgrade program, and an app that looks a heck of a lot like Tile’s. The Chipolo Plus worked well in our tests, with ranges comparable to the Tile Mate’s and roughly the same alarm volume as the Tile Mate has. However, Chipolo has fewer users than Tile, making its crowd-finding system less robust. Unlike with Tile, Chipolo’s Web service allows you to see your trackers and your phone or tablet from any Web browser. Chipolo’s app is also the only one we’ve come across that works even when it’s terminated.
Though the Protag Duet was the runner-up in our distance test for a previous version of this guide, and a favorite among reviewers, we can’t recommend it based on both our own testing and really, really bad Amazon customer reviews. For example, when we paired the Duet with a Galaxy S6, the Protag app showed the device’s location in Africa, instead of our actual location of Buffalo; and one of our review units produced a weird clicking noise. On Amazon, 44 percent of the 121 reviews were one star at the time of our original review. We rarely see any sort of product with ratings that bad. Most of the complaints are about the build quality, reliability of the Bluetooth connection, false positives (the tracker’s geofencing alarm going off even when the Duet is in range), and poor geolocating.
An updated version of the TrackR Bravo was released in October 2015 with supposedly improved range and a louder alarm compared with the original. In our testing, however, Bluetooth range was poor, even with the new hardware: The TrackR bravo disconnected from our test phone at 56 feet, less than half the distance of the second-generation Tile, and didn’t reconnect until it was only 19 feet away. These results were terrible compared with the other models we tested.
The Pebblebee Honey has some great attributes, at least at first glance. The battery is replaceable, and it has a crowd-finding feature. Unfortunately, when you press the tracker’s button to trigger an alert on a missing phone, it sends a silent text alert, rather than playing an audible tone. A message popping up on the screen doesn’t do much good when you’re looking for the phone itself.
The XY Find It offers proper geofencing, something most of the competition lacks. But the tracker has no way of pinging a paired phone, disqualifying it from a top spot. A newer version, XY3, does offer this feature but has middling reviews and was totally unavailable at the time of publication.
LassoTag’s iBeacon lacks any sort of Android support, and its iOS app has in-app purchases—every other tracker’s companion app is totally free. Those purchases include a service that will text or call you if you leave your tag behind, and the option to unlock support for additional devices beyond the first. When we tested it for the initial version of this guide, the app crashed in iOS 9, making the whole iBeacon system useless.
Pally Tech’s Smart Finder is physically larger than most of the units we tested and iOS-only.
The Tintag is the only tracker with a rechargeable battery, in contrast to those that make you replace the unit when the battery dies (such as the Tile) or swap out a battery cell (as with some other competitors). When the Tintag’s battery runs out, you simply put it on the included USB-powered charging base. The company promises four months of use from a six-hour charge. Unfortunately, the tracker itself leaves a lot to be desired. You can ping it from your phone, and you can use it to trigger the phone to make noise, but we found the latter action to be flaky at best: First you have to find where to press on the Tintag (the hard-plastic tracker has no obvious button), and in our testing, once we did ping the phone it rarely made a noise, although several push notifications would appear at a time. Without an audible tone, this feature is useless. We also found the Tintag itself to flash bright red lights at seemingly random intervals for no discernible reason. Some of these problems may be fixable via software updates, but for now we can think of no reason to pick the Tintag.
Wistiki offers the Voilà, a tracker specifically designed for your key ring. The hardware is nice-looking, but it’s expensive—the Voilà sells for twice as much as a single Tile—it doesn’t do anything other trackers don’t, the battery isn’t replaceable, and the company doesn’t have an upgrade program for replacing a tracker with a dead battery.
We chose not to test the Mynt Smart Tracker. It makes plenty of lofty promises in terms of both features and design, but owner reviews are particularly negative, citing bad connections, short battery life, and poor instructions. No professional reviews say any different.
We waited well over a year to try the Pixie tracker, intrigued by the promise of its augmented-reality companion app. We’ve finally been able to test it, and we’re disappointed by how impractical it is. Available in sets of two or four trackers, the Pixie system requires one of those trackers to be attached to your phone, either with adhesive or nestled inside a custom silicone case (currently included with purchase). This means you’re really getting only one or three trackers, respectively, for your stuff.
Every other tracker we’ve tested uses audio cues to help you find your stuff; the Pixie, in contrast, is silent. To find an item that has a tracker attached, you open the app on your smartphone and pan back and forth until it finds the item and directs you toward it: You see the camera’s view with a series of floating dots leading you in the right direction. When you get within about 20 feet, the live view goes away and you get a fairly accurate direction and a distance indicator. Finally, in the last few feet, you see a more precise display indicating when you’re “hot” or “cold.” (Unlike with Tile trackers, you can’t ping your phone from a Pixie tracker.)
Compared with listening for a loud tone, this method of finding stuff is cumbersome—and, more important, not as useful. In a test where we tried to locate three hidden trackers in a house, we found the process frustrating. It took the better part of a minute to pan back and forth. Even when the app told us we were close to a tracker and showed us the general direction, knowing exactly where to go was difficult. We also saw no clear indication when a tracker was on a different floor—something we would have quickly figured out with an audible tone. The Pixie’s augmented-reality display combined with standard Bluetooth tracking features could potentially be useful, but on its own the Pixie just doesn’t work well.
Originally published: December 14, 2016