How we picked and tested
Over the past few years, we've tested more than a dozen Bluetooth trackers. The major players in this category are well-known, but to make sure we didn't miss any, we turned to Amazon and Google during research for a previous version of this guide. The latter turned up some great comparative reviews from The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo, Tom's Guide, and Wired.
Here's what we look for in a great Bluetooth tracker:
- Size: A tracker that's too obtrusive to carry around with you or attach to the thing you want to track is useless. Smaller and lighter is better.
- Range: The longer the range, the farther you can be from the tracker and still be able to find your lost item.
- Volume: If you're near your tracker but can't hear it, that's no good. Despite having little space for a speaker, some of these can get quite loud!
- Network size: Most Bluetooth trackers can utilize other phones with the tracker's app installed to silently search for other peoples' lost objects, so the more people who use a platform, the better chance you'll have of recovering lost stuff.
- Other features: A replaceable battery isn't absolutely required, but it's a big plus. We also prefer trackers that can be used to trigger an alarm on your phone. A good app experience is also important.
Perhaps the most important test we conducted was to determine each tracker's potential range—how far away we could move a paired smartphone from the tracker before the Bluetooth connection was lost. 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 each tracker on a bench, then walked away with our paired iPhone while measuring the distance using a measuring wheel. Once the tracker's smartphone 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 and calculated the average distance for each tracker for both measurements.
We also tested the loudness of each tracker's alarm chime—a feature that's useful for finding a lost device that's still within earshot—by placing it 12 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.
Our pick: Tile Pro
The best Bluetooth tracker you can buy is the Tile Pro. Tile trackers are the most popular by far—important if you ever need to take advantage of the crowd-finding feature (more on that in a bit)—and this latest model is by far the best we've seen from the company thanks to a longer range and a louder ring than any other tracker we've tested. The Pro, like the latest version of the less expensive Tile Mate, also has a user-replaceable battery, addressing the single biggest drawback of older Tile devices, and it's small enough to fit on a keychain.
The Tile Pro is a round-cornered square about 1.64 inches across and 0.26 inches thick—smaller than a matchbook—made of rugged-feeling white or black plastic with a metal border and an flat button in the center. (The white model is available only by purchasing a multipack.) An opening in the top-left corner lets you attach a keychain, lanyard, or similar tether.
In our park test, the Tile Pro had the best range we've ever seen from a Bluetooth tracker. We were able to get an average of about 184 feet away before losing the connection with our iPhone, with some tests measuring around 250 feet. That's less than the 300 feet Tile advertises, but still an impressive number—almost twice as long as that of the other trackers we've tested. After disconnection, we had to walk back to within 101 feet for the Tile to reconnect, but that's still double the reconnection range of the next-best tracker.
Tile advertises the Pro as being twice as loud as the Tile Mate and 50 percent louder than the previous generation Pro (aka the Sport and Style). At a foot away, the Pro registered at 80.9 decibels, and we measured 99.5 dB right next to the sound meter, making the Tile Pro by far the loudest tracker we've ever tested. It's impressive how much sound can come out of such a tiny device: We were able to hear the Pro through three walls on the opposite side of an apartment—farther away than with other trackers we've tested.
Other trackers have similar crowd-finding features, but the Tile's big strength here is the size of its crowd. Tile tells us it's sold more than 15 million trackers, a claimed 92 to 94 percent of the Bluetooth tracker market. According to the company's figures, 4 million items are found daily, and of those marked as lost, Tile says 90 percent are found. (As a point of reference, the Tile app tells you how many other active Tile users are within roughly 5 to 6 miles of your current location: In August 2018, the app reported 45,271 in that range in New York City; 5,045 in Long Beach, California; 3,911 in Saint Paul, Minnesota; and 1,434 off the Las Vegas strip.)
With older Tile models, each tracker lasted only about a year before its internal battery was drained and the entire tracker had to be replaced. The current Pro and Mate models use replaceable batteries—a standard CR2032 lithium battery that's easily accessible via a slide-off door on the back. Tile says the battery will last a year before it needs to be replaced; you can easily find these batteries for less than $1 a piece. (If you recycle older Tile trackers through the reTile program, you'll receive one of the new ones.)
One downside of a replaceable battery is that the Tile Pro is no longer waterproof, but it's still considered water-resistant. The company told us that test units survived 1,000 cycles in a dryer, so you should expect the hardware to last longer than the battery.
Alongside the new Pro, Tile introduced Tile Premium, a $3/month (or $30/year) subscription service that offers both hardware and software features. For that price, you'll get free battery replacements shipped to you every year, a warranty extension from one year to three, and SMS-based support. On the software side, there's a 30-day location history, unlimited sharing of your Tiles' locations, and smart alerts that let you know when you've left home without any of your Tiles. The last feature is based on you entering your home address, and in our testing, we could get a third of a mile away before getting the alert, which isn't super handy.
Setting up the Pro is simple: Instead of having to go into your phone's Settings menu to add the Tile, the Tile app (Android, iOS) handles everything. 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 Sport 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 under your account—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 (via Bluetooth) with the phone at once.
Once a Tile is paired with your phone, you can use the accessory in a few different ways. If you lose track of a Tile-equipped item that's still in Bluetooth range, you can see its current location on a map in the app and optionally trigger the Tile's alarm to help you locate the item by sound.
If the Tile is out of Bluetooth range, you can view a map displaying its location the last time your phone made contact with it. If it's no longer 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.)
When you designate a Tile Pro (or any other Tile) as lost in the app, that activates Tile's 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.
You can also use a Tile Pro to find your phone—if it's within Bluetooth range: Double-pressing the Tile's center 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. And if it's not nearby, you can use Tile's Web service to find linked phones or tablets in any Web browser. The service is 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. You can also use Amazon Alexa or Google Home to find your Tile-connected devices or call for them using Siri Shortcuts on iOS 12.
The Tile family is 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. And Tile is also building out its platform, incorporating its tracking technology into third-party devices. Examples include the KeySmart Pro, a key holder, and Bose Headphones. Because the Tile platform doesn't require special hardware, just firmware on a standard Bluetooth chip, the company hopes to expand its partnerships greatly.
If you're concerned about the privacy implications of using a Bluetooth tracker, Tile has told 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 is particularly invasive for a device that you're purchasing to find you and your stuff.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Tile Pro lacks geofencing features (to let you know when you've left a tracked item behind) unless you pay for Tile Premium. Even then, we've found its performance to vary widely: One Wirecutter staffer who uses this feature regularly receives notifications within a few blocks of leaving home, while another doesn't get notices until he's nearly 10 minutes away. But it's at least an option, if you're willing to pay for it.
Unlike every other tracker we tested, you can't simply unpair a Tile from your phone through the app. The Tile app does at least let you transfer a Tile to another person running the app—a task that previously required you to go through the company's customer support channels—but once a Tile is activated, you can't simply unpair it to, say, store it for later use.
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 constraints, your phone and the Tile won't be able to communicate and you'll get a notification on your phone to that effect. (You'll also get an alert whenever Bluetooth is disabled—for example, when you put your phone in airplane mode.) We haven't had an issue in testing with a variety of iPhone models, the oldest being 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."
A less expensive Tile with shorter range
The Tile Mate is the least expensive way to get into the Tile ecosystem, and it works well if you have the right expectations. It offers the same features as the Pro, but its range is shorter and its alarm isn't as loud. In our tests, the Mate lost its connection to the phone at a little more than half the distance of the more powerful Pro model (98 feet on average, compared with 184 feet), and didn't reconnect until it was about 48 feet away, which is far closer than the 100-plus feet of the Pro. We did find the the Mate to be more consistent though, with a smaller variation in the distances before it disconnected and reconnected.
The Mate also lacks volume compared to the Pro. In our tests, its ring was 66 dB from a foot away and 81.7 dB right next to our meter. These distances and volumes may be good enough for around the house, but we think it's worth paying more for the tracker that makes it most likely you'll find your stuff when you need to.
Physically, the Mate is a little smaller than the Pro at 1.37 inches square and only a fraction of an inch thinner. It uses a similar CR1632 coin cell battery and otherwise packs all the same features.
For your wallet: Tile Slim
If you've bought into the Tile ecosystem and you're looking for a thinner option—say, to fit in a wallet—go with Tile Slim. While it has a larger footprint (2.1 inches square) than the Pro and Mate and it lacks a place to connect a keychain or other tether, it's only about the thickness of three credit cards, making it more versatile if you're looking for a tracker that'll fit in narrow spaces. In our testing, the Slim had shorter range and lower volume than the Tile Mate or Pro, and one of our testers who had a Slim in a thin wallet 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.
Orbit offers a number of styles of trackers, including the Orbit Glasses, which fits on eyeglasses or sunglasses, and the Orbit Card, a card-style tracker even thinner than Tile Slim. They're intriguing if you need tracking in those specific designs, but unfortunately, the network is just too limited for us to recommend choosing Orbit over Tile. Anecdotally, I lost a pair of sunglasses outfitted with Orbit Glasses in busy and tech-heavy New York City, and despite marking them as lost in the app in hopes of an Orbit user passing by and finding them, I never received a notice that it was found by another Orbit user. Additionally, I wasn't notified when the Orbit Card was running low on battery, which could potentially lead to a lost wallet with no way to find it.
TrackR's Pixel is noticeably smaller than the Tile Mate. Measuring just about an inch in diameter, it's about the size of a modern dollar coin, and it's as thick as a stack of three quarters. In head-to-head tests in June 2017, the TrackR Pixel averaged distances of 45.1 feet before disconnecting and 24.5 feet before reconnecting, shorter than the numbers for any of the Tile models. The TrackR's shorter range, combined with the Tile's larger user network, keep us from recommending the TrackR Pixel.
The Chipolo Plus is an impressively good clone of the second-generation Tile (which is no longer available). It's shaped like a circle rather than a rounded rectangle, but it's exactly the same thickness, height, and width as that Tile. Like the older Mate, the Chipolo Plus has a non-removable 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, but its ranges and alarm volume were comparable with those of the second-generation Tile Mate, which was quieter than current models. Chipolo also has fewer users than Tile, making its crowd-finding system less robust. Unlike Tile, though, Chipolo's Web service allows you to see the location of each tracker 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, many buyers complain 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 older Tile, and didn't reconnect until it was only 19 feet away. These results were terrible compared with the other models we tested at the time and are much worse compared with current Tile trackers.
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.
Pally Tech's Smart Finder is physically larger than most of the units we tested and iOS-only.
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.
The PingGPS Ping is roughly the same height and width as a Tile tracker, but almost half an inch thick, and it uses GPS and a cellular connection instead of Bluetooth to (ostensibly) help you find your stuff. As with the Tiles, you can use your phone to trigger the Ping to play an audible alarm, but unlike with Tiles, there's no way to find your phone using Ping. In theory, you should be able to see where the Ping is on its app's map without needing to be within Bluetooth range, thanks to the GPS and cellular features (the cellular connection is free for the first year and $3 per month after that). In our tests in New York City, however, the location never updated when we separated the Ping and our phone. When we asked the company about this issue, Joshua Lippiner, PingGPS's president and CEO, didn't have specific answers but told us via email, "We have thousands of users without issue and hundreds with issues. Nature of a cellular gps device that pushes the bounds of physics."
We waited well over a year to try the Pixie tracker, intrigued by the promise of its augmented-reality companion app. We finally tested it in early 2017, and we were disappointed by how impractical it was. 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 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, it just doesn't work as well. 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.
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