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The slippery slope of Bluetooth trackers

The slippery slope of Bluetooth trackers


January 25th, 2017

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I've long thought that Bluetooth device trackers were a good idea, a feeling that rushes forth whenever I misplace my wallet or keys. Ever since 2013 when Tile first appeared on the scene, I've been leering at those slender fobs like the US president with backstage access to a beauty contest. So, like America, I threw caution to the wind and decided to try an unproven precedent just to shake things up. Little did I realize how slippery the slope would be.

Tile paved the way for a bevy of imitators and copycats that appeared over the last few years. Chief among them are Phone Halo's TrackR and Chipolo's Chipolo Plus. It's the latter — billed as the "the loudest tracker in the world” — that I've been testing for the last week.

I have two Chipolo Plus tags for my testing. The Plus is waterproof and features a 100db location tone. Setup was quick and painless. I attached one to my keys, while the other bobbles around inside the case that holds my glasses. Both are things I occasionally misplace but can now track on a detailed Google map from inside Chipolo's iOS or Android apps, or via a web browser. The map lets know me know the location (or the last known location before losing contact with my phone), but it's the audible alarm I trigger that helps me find my stuff inside a drawer, at the bottom of a bag, or between the creases of the couch. The range is decent, too, detecting my keys on the ground floor while I'm at the top of a three-story home. I can even give the Chipolo Plus a squeeze to locate my iPhone. It's kind of great in that oh-my-god-I-have-a-new-toy-this-is-awesome way, making me want to tag lots and lots of things in my life. Here's a shortlist off the top of my head:

  • my bike, mounted invisibly under the seat
  • my wallet, when they can make one thin enough
  • my backpack
  • my dog, when I get one
  • my too-expensive windproof umbrella
  • my winter coat
  • my snowboard

Of course, I also want to tag my wife's keys and purse and her bike and backpack and her sunglasses case and her snowboard, and the bikes, keys, and bags of my three kids. So what started as a test of two devices suddenly feels daunting. I briefly considered purchasing — and I'm not exaggerating — 25 Chipolo Plus trackers at a cost of about $415 after all current discounts are applied. But then have to recycle the units after the batteries die each year, costing me another $200 annually... which is insane, even if I'm guaranteed to receive the latest trackers in return. In fairness, Chipolo does offer a Classic model that's not waterproof, isn't as loud, but does feature a user-replaceable battery that lasts about six months. Other Bluetooth trackers offer similar options with similar compromises at similar prices.

Before using a Bluetooth tracker I never really needed a Bluetooth tracker, but now...

Before using a Bluetooth tracker I never really needed a Bluetooth tracker. But now, after just a week, I feel vulnerable without one attached to all the things I value. It's as if I had health insurance and it was suddenly stripped away by an orangutang. Still, while Bluetooth trackers are great for finding misplaced items around the home or office, I likely won't be protected if I truly lose something since they don't include GPS or mobile radios — instead they rely upon the crowd, whereby another user of my preferred Bluetooth tracker must wander within range of my lost item in order for me to get a location alert. That's great in densely populated places like New York City, but not so great everywhere else. It's this community network that gives Tile users a clear advantage given the tracker's larger user base. Despite the facts, it still feels good to have the Chipolo Plus trackers attached to my stuff, even if that's exactly the kind of thinking Carl Sagan warned us about.

At this point I can't say that the Chipolo is the world's loudest Bluetooth tracker as the company claims. I can tell you that The Wirecutter compared the new Tile Mate with the Chipolo Plus and said the Chipolo Plus "isn’t clearly louder in actual testing." Nevertheless, as a category of devices, I do find Bluetooth trackers compelling. Now I just have to decide which product to buy — and how many.