Bluetooth trackers have become popular gadgets over the last few years: they’re cheap and perfect gifts for forgetful friends and relatives who regularly misplace their keys, wallet and other items.
They cost between around £15 / $15 and £35 / $40 but you might want to buy a few to keep tabs on your own stuff, and there are often discounts for buying in bulk.
How do Bluetooth trackers work?
Put simply, you pair a tracker with your phone, attach it to an item you’re likely to misplace, then use an app to find it when it’s lost. When you hit the ‘find’ button, the tracker will emit a high-pitched tune that you can use to locate it.
The most important thing to understand is that a Bluetooth tracker is not a GPS tracker, so you don’t see its location live on a map.
Instead, it’s a short-range device, limited by Bluetooth’s range, which is roughly up to 200 feet (61m). The latest models claim up to 300 feet but that's in perfect conditions and in the real world it's much less than that, especially if there are walls in between, or your tracker is locked inside your car outside your house.
Plus, you won't be able to hear a tracker ringing 300 feet away unless it's completely silent around you, and there are no obstacles.
What this means is that Bluetooth trackers are useful mainly for things you tend to lose around your home or in the office.
Most of these devices additionally offer a crowd-sourcing system to increase range so you can find lost items almost anywhere, although in practice you’re only likely to locate something dropped or left behind in a busy city or at a station, for example.
That’s because these systems depend on other users of the same app to pick up the location of other people’s trackers whenever they’re within range. So if you drop your wallet at King’s Cross and it has a Tile tracker in it, another Tile user passing through the station might get close enough so the app detects your tracker and anoymously reports its location.
When you mark your tracker as ‘lost’ you then wait for a notification that it has been ‘found’ by another user. Obviously, the more people who run the app the more likely the system is to work.
We’ve seen few Bluetooth trackers that are worthy rivals to Tile, but Chipolo’s ONE bucks that trend.
Don't confuse this with the older models which were also circular. The new 2020 model has a replaceable battery, but unlike the older Classic model it is water resistant to the IPX5 standard.
That means it will survive being out in the rain - but not totally submerged. It also uses a CR2032 battery which lasts up to two years rather than the old CR2025 model that needed a new battery every nine months or so. We have only had the Tile one for a few weeks so cannot yet say whether it lasts the full two years or not.
You can choose from six colours, which is nice.
Fire up the app and you’ll notice a lot of similarities to Tile’s app, so there’s a clean interface that’s intuitive to use.
The pairing process is also identical: press the + button in the app and then the button on the Chipolo itself. Once paired you can choose a category (which determines the icon) and type in any name you like for the tracker, such as ‘Jim’s house keys’.
A new feature is left-behind alerts. It's on by default and when you walk away with your phone far enough (beyond the 200ft connection range) you'll get an audible alert from the app asking if you meant to leave your item behind.
We found this system worked better than Tile's, alerting us much sooner. Plus, unlike Tile's you don't have to pay for the feature by subscribing to a premium tier of the service.
You can also hook up Chipolo with Alexa or Google Assistant (or Siri on your iPhone). Then you can simply ask the assistant in question to ring your item, which is faster than unlocking your phone, opening the app and waiting for the device to connect.
In real-world testing the ONE's range wasn't quite 200ft, but the ringer is very loud. And this is crucial because the chances are that your keys are in a coat pocket or sown the side of the sofa cushions.
Like Tile, the Chipolo lets you ring your phone from the tracker itself and there’s a ‘Community Find’ system for tracking lost items outside of Bluetooth range. However, this is a lot smaller than Tile’s user base, so the chances are slimmer of your lost tracker being located by another Chipolo owner.
Another bonus is that – unlike Tile – you can log in with your account details to Chipolo’s web portal in any browser to see where your trackers were last seen. You can’t ring them, but you can mark them as lost and you can ring your phone, so long as it has an internet connection and the Chipolo app is running in the background.
The latest Tile Mate is smaller than before and uses a replaceable CR1632 coin battery that lasts up to around a year.
For £19.99/$24.99 you get a slightly cut-down tracker compared to the Pro: the speaker is quieter and the range is around half at 200ft. But it still does the job reliably and you still benefit from the same set of features, the same app and the same crowd-find system.
It's not as loud as the Chipolo ONE which is only fractionally more expensive and you have to sign up for the Tile Premium service (£2.50 per month if you pay annually) if you want extra features such as Smart Alerts that are free with the Chipolo ONE.
Tile Pro (2020)
The new Tile Pro is only different from the 2018 model in a subtle design update. Instead of textured plastic it's now smooth.
Tile used to specify the water resistance rating of IP55 (splash proof) but the new model is just called 'water resistant'.
The new model has exactly the same dimensions - 42 x 42 x 6.5mm and still uses the same CR2032 battery that lasts up to a year. If it's anything like the 2018 model, though, battery life is longer at about 14 months.
The ringer is twice as loud as the Tile Mate, so it's easier to hear even if stuffed in a pocket or under a cushion.
But as with the Mate, you still have to subscribe to the Premium service if you want 'left behind' alerts, location history and a replacement battery through the post at the right time.
Amazingly, the Smart Alerts are still in beta after two years. And from our tests, they haven't really improved: you can still drive for around a mile before the alert sounds on your phone.
At £29.99 / $27.99, a Tile Pro is more expensive than the Chipolo ONE with fewer features. So it's only worth the extra money if you think you'll benefit from Tile's much larger user base that might just find your lost item if its out of Bluetooth range.
How do I choose the best Bluetooth tracker?
The best trackers have a loud ring and a long range. They should also be water-resistant, otherwise if you lose it outdoors and it rains, the electronics could get wet and stop working, rendering it useless.
Some trackers have replaceable batteries, but others do not. This means they’re disposable after around a year. However, some manufacturers operate a ‘renewal’ scheme which gives you a discount on the regular price once the battery of your original has run flat.
You’ll find extra features on some devices, the most common being the ability to press a button on them to ring your phone. This is basically using the system in reverse, but is also very handy if your keys are in your pocket (with the tracker attached) and you can’t find your phone.
Above all, though, you want a Bluetooth tracker that’s reliable since you need it to work instantly when you’ve lost your keys and need to leave the house in a hurry. And you can’t check for reliability in the manufacturer’s specs list: only reviews can give you that information.
Why are the Trackr Bravo and Pixel not in your list?
We’ve extensively tested the Bravo, close to a dozen of them in fact. The reason for this is that early samples proved unreliable and the batteries ran flat in a matter of weeks, rather than the claim of 12 months. Being able to replace the battery is one of the Bravo’s selling points, but poor battery life and a lack of water-resistance makes this somewhat moot.
We received updated models, but they too suffered the same battery life issues. And on top of that, we found the range disappointing: less than 20ft on occasion which meant we couldn’t even locate a lost item which we knew was only in the next room.
Similarly, the range offered by the Pixel was below expectations and its battery ran out well before it should have.