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’re cheap enough – between £15 and £35 each - that you might even 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 Tile Pro goes further, up to a claimed 300 feet. That's in perfect conditions, and in the real world range will be more limited, and you won't be able to hear a tracker ringing at that sort of distance unless it's completely silent around you.
What this means is that Bluetooth trackers are useful mainly for things you tend to lose at 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 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.
How do I choose the best Bluetooth tracker?
The best tracker will have a loud ring and a long range. It 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 many 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.
Tile Pro (2018)
To fix the problem of a non-replaceable battery, one which users had been complaining about, Tile has updated the Pro for 2018. It drops water resistance to a rating of IP55 (splash proof) but has redesigned the shell completely so it can accommodate a standard CR2032 battery and - of course - has a door on the back which slides off so you can replace it when it runs out.
We'll have to wait to test out the claims that this setup lasts a full year like the older, sealed design but there is an immediate benefit: a ringer that's much louder than before. It's 2x as loud as the Tile Mate, so it's easier to hear even if stuffed in a pocket or under a cushion.
You can subscribe to the new Premium service which gives you 'left behind' alerts, location history and a replacement battery through the post, among other benefits.
Read more about the new tracker in our Tile Pro review.
Tile Mate (2018)
If £30/US$35 is too rich for you, the Tile Mate is a cheaper option. For £19.99/US$20 you get a slightly cut-down tracker: the speaker is quieter and the range is around half that of the Pro. 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.
We’ve seen few Bluetooth trackers that are worthy rivals to Tile, but Chipolo’s Classic and Plus buck that trend.
They look similar but have a significant difference: the Classic has a replaceable battery. This means it isn’t water resistant, but every nine months or so you can pop in a new CR2025 battery – a standard coin cell that costs mere pence.
The Plus is marginally bigger than the Classic, but is water-resistant and has a non-replaceable CR2032 battery that should last a full 12 months. Both come in a variety of colours.
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’.
In testing (we used the 3rd-gen devices) we found the 200ft range isn’t exaggerated: like the Tile Pro, the Chipolos can connect at this range, although you’ll find the connection more reliable at 100ft.
The ringers are – to our ears – as loud as Tile’s too, offering the same chance of hearing them when your keys are in a coat pocket or your child’s soft toy is buried under cushions on the sofa.
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.
Currently there’s no coverage map, but Chipolo is working on producing one.
The good news is that, for the Plus, there’s a decent renewal discount of 50%. So you’ll pay £11.50 for subsequent trackers.
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.