AirTag Test in South Africa.
AirTag Test in South Africa.
  • Apple's new AirTag is now available in South Africa for R500.
  • For the most part, the tracking device works as advertised.
  • But its dependence on other iPhone users for tracking may limit its efficacy here.
  • We tested out three possible scenarios - a theft, a forgotten item, and a stalking - in Cape Town to see just how well Apple AirTags work in South Africa.
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Apple's new AirTag may just be the company's most underwhelming product - at least as far as initial appearances go. On the surface, the silver and white disc, which is about the size of two stacked R5 coins, does not offer that new-Apple-product excitement you can expect from a new phone, watch, or laptop.

There's also very little you can actually do with the R500 Bluetooth tracking device once you rip it out of its minimalist packaging: no buttons to press or apps to download, and very few settings to configure.

But that's the whole point. This is a no-frills, hardy tracker that works out the box, and can help you locate lost items in your home, or - potentially - stolen items on the streets.

The AirTag is heavily dependent on a large network of iPhone and Find My app users in order to be effective. In South Africa, where Android usage far outstrips that of iOS, we wanted to find out just how useful and accurate the tracking device is.

There are also a few possible use cases for AirTags - and how you intend to use it might impact how useful it is in a local context.

If you're forever looking for your keys, wallet, or TV remote control while at home, and have one of the latest iPhones, then this might be a handy (albeit quite costly) solution.

But perhaps the most South African application of the AirTag will be that of a low-level anti-theft device. In a country that grapples with the theft of items like bicycles or handbags, many will look to an AirTag to help protect their two-wheeled or Clemence leather investment.

And, concerningly, despite Apple's claims to have built-in anti-stalking features, it's alarmingly easy to slip one into someone's bag, and know exactly where they went for lunch.

We simulated examples for all three of these features, in a South African environment, to see just how useful, effective, and safe the AirTag is.

Setup of the device is quick and easy - and using the Find My app on your iPhone you can give your tag a name linked to the item you wish to track. Immediately after activating and pairing, the item appears on a map in the Find My app. And after this seamless setup, you simply need to attach the AirTag to your item by tossing it in a pocket or with the aid of a purpose-built accessory - and then, unlike all other Apple products, forget about it and hope never to have to use it.

It's when you do need to use it again, such as if your bicycle goes missing from your garage, or you drop your keys on the Sea Point Promenade, that you may just be thankful you did in fact make the purchase. Because, for the most part, it works pretty much as advertised. 

Using AirTags in South Africa

There are some serious caveats that may limit its efficacy in a South African context. As with similar tracking devices, like the popular Tile, the AirTag is only as good as the network of users that surround the device. 

The AirTag doesn't have internet or GPS tracking but instead works by subtly piggybacking off the location data from iPhones users in the vicinity. This means that unless there's strong iPhone adoption in the area that you are attempting to track your AirTag, the chances of getting regular location updates are poor. In developed countries, where iPhones are more ubiquitous, this is hardly an issue, and the widespread nature of the Find My network there is a selling point.

In South Africa, where Android makes up around 80% of the cellphone market, and iOS just 15%, quite how effective these iOS-dependent tags will be remains to be seen.

Another hurdle for South Africans is that full precise tracking is limited to the latest iPhones. To track items within a home or in a park, for example, you'll need to have an iPhone 11 or newer. Anything less still works, but with much broader brushstrokes of location identification, as our real-world tests with an iPhone SE bought just last year revealed.

With these in mind, we tested the devices in three simulated real-world scenarios to see how well they work in South Africa.

The bicycle theft

In theory, AirTags make for great bicycle tracking devices. They're small enough to subtly conceal somewhere on the frame of a bicycle, under the saddle, in a saddlebag, or on expensive e-bikes, in the battery compartment.

To test how well it might work if, say, our bicycle went missing from a Cape Town garage, we handed one to a friend going for an early Sunday morning ride - without knowing the route they would be following.

We gave the rider a 10-minute head start, an advantage a real-world thief may have. We then started tracking the device as if we'd just learnt of its theft. 

The first ping we received after 10 minutes, however, was on the suburban street corner not 10 metres away, downhill, from the house - an impossible location for the bike and with no indication of the direction the thief might be taking it. 

Four minutes later, another ping placed the "stolen" bicycle in Camps Bay - where it remained for the next six minutes.

At this stage, if we were actually chasing down a stolen bicycle, we would be on something of a wild goose chase, and still have no real idea which direction it was heading. With pings only every few minutes we were already well on the back foot. Without local knowledge of popular routes, it would be difficult to predict where the thief was taking the bicycle.

A few minutes later, though, a ping on the Find My app revealed that the admittedly uncreative "thief" took the bicycle on a popular Sunday cycling jaunt along the Atlantic Ocean coastline.

AirTag Test in South Africa.
AirTag Test in South Africa.

While a stolen bicycle in motion on the streets of a city would be an almost impossibility to track down with an AirTag, a route like this would be a rookie error for any true thief. The long, straight road with no turnoffs and nowhere to hide would be no match for a vigilante driver tracking down a stolen bicycle.

We continued tracking the device throughout the ride, and it produced some anomalies that would result in extensive delays in any recovery. For example, at one stage the AirTag confidently pinged its location thanks to an iPhone inside the 12 Apostles' Hotel, where it remained for a few minutes. Alerting security to a hotel guest who's stolen the bicycle, only to learn it was due to an entirely innocent ping from a guest enjoying a cocktail on the balcony, would be a distraction to the recovery and somewhat embarrassing.

Another ping, which showed the bicycle confusingly in the actual Atlantic, would also serve as a bit of a distraction if we were attempting to track it.

AirTag Test in South Africa.
AirTag Test in South Africa.

In this case, however, with local knowledge of the route and access to a vehicle with which we could go out and identify the bicycle riding along the route, it would be a win for the AirTag - at least until the thief hit another section of the city where alternate roads would make predicting a route more difficult.

There's another possible angle in which the AirTag would win out again - and that is if the thief immediately took the bicycle to an alternate destination like a home (awaiting an illegal online sale), or a pawn shop. With many high-ticket items like these ending up in places that pay cash for goods, you'd likely be able to track your bicycle to the store knowingly or unknowingly selling the stolen goods.

The lost keys on the Promenade

A far less adrenaline-fuelled usage of the AirTag is to attach it to important items you might misplace - such as keys or a wallet. 

If your keys fell out your pocket on, say, a walk along the Sea Point Promenade, and you only noticed 30 minutes later, your AirTag should return you directly to them - at least in theory.

We tested this scenario by having someone subtly place an AirTag somewhere on the promenade, and then attempted to return to the location of the device aided only by the Find My app. 

AirTag Test in South Africa.
AirTag Test in South Africa.

Within minutes the app pinged several locations for the keys which we knew were unlikely - once in a building on the other side of the street, and another in the middle of a large grassy patch at least 15 metres away from its actual location. 

Although the app brought us within the broader vicinity of the pining AirTag, it latched onto it from 60 metres away - and the final search area was still far too big to search by eye alone.

AirTag Test in South Africa.
AirTag Test in South Africa.

Aided by a phone that carries the U1 chip, at present the iPhones 11 and 12, we might have been led directly to the lost items - but with just a lowly 2020 iPhone SE, the search area was far too vast to locate a small item like a set of keys nestled in the grass.

The stalker

Given the AirTag's size, it would be easy to slip it into a bag, pocket, or vehicle and track someone's location without their consent. Apple has been at great pains to point out that it has several built-in privacy features that prevent this from happening - but we found some concerning shortfalls here.

In theory, if you slip an AirTag into someone's bag, and the device travels with them for a certain period, it should alert that individual to the fact that there's an AirTag tracking their movements. But that feature only works if the person being tracked without consent not only has an iPhone but one running iOS 14.5 or newer.

In cases where someone is being tracked without their consent they should receive a notification when they return home - and tapping the notification will allow them to play a sound from the tag that reveals its location.

Apple says that its tracking will also automatically alert non-iPhone users - of which there are many more in South Africa - with a sound if it's been away from its paired device for some time. 

But one media report indicates that some of these safety features only kick in after three days of non-consensual tracking - and even then, the audible alert is often just a quiet 15-second chirping sound. Other reports indicate that the alert kicked in as soon as they returned home, and that the chirps were audible enough.

We put this to the test by tracking someone (with full consent) to a Saturday afternoon appointment. The willing participant placed the AirTag in the bottom of a bag - an easy location to hide it for nefarious purposes - and then departed for somewhere in the Cape Town CBD.

Within minutes, we received a ping that the individual was driving down Cape Town's Buitengracht Street, and the device pinged again from the corner of Wale Street. A few minutes later, the device came to rest at a popular restaurant on Prestwich Street.

Worryingly, the willing participant - an iPhone user - received no notification of the tracking device, and it made no audible noise during the two hour excursion. Had this been a legitimate unwarranted tracking attempt - the victim would have no way of knowing that they were tracked directly to an exact street address in the city.

AirTag Test in South Africa.
AirTag Test in South Africa.

Apple describes its anti-stalker measures as an "industry-first", which may be fair when compared to other devices in this sector that have done little to counteract this threat - but some experts say there are still worrying oversights that may be abused by perpetrators of domestic violence.

Are AirTags worth the price in South Africa?

There's no denying that AirTags do their jobs well - provided their owners have the latest iPhones, and the number of users on the Find My network in a given country is significant. And at just R499 for a single unit or R1899 for four, it's not a massive investment and broadly delivers on Apple's promises.

The tags, paired with an iPhone 11 or later with a U1 chip, perform strongest as a way to recover innocently lost or forgotten items - keys at the park, a wallet at the mall, a bag in an Uber, or a remote control under the sofa. And they may also have some value in recovering lost or stolen items.

Their real-time live tracking on items like bicycles is limited to pointing you in roughly the right direction - and then using local knowledge and your own surveillance and recovery tactics along possible escape routes, if you are happy to confront a thief yourself. 

But in South Africa where many stolen items are resold within hours at pawn shops or online classifieds, the AirTag's best local use in the anti-theft department may well be its ability to track the stolen item down after an illegal sale to a witting or unwitting middleman - provided you concealed the AirTag well enough not to be found and discarded along the way.

* iStore South Africa provided Business Insider South Africa with a review unit for the purposes of this story.

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