Technology

AirTag Teardown Part One: Yeah, This Tracks

The long-rumored, tiniest Apple product (that isn’t a dongle) is finally here. Welcome, AirTag! With the entire iPhone network at its back and a truly user-replaceable battery—the first in any Apple product in years—we’re interested to see how AirTags track against tried-and-tested tech.

Apples to not-Apples

Today’s subjects/victims: Tile Mate, Galaxy SmartTag, Apple AirTag, and one U.S. quarter.

We snagged the market veteran Tile Mate, plus Samsung’s Galaxy SmartTag to judge our AirTag against its competition. Of the three, the AirTag’s Mentos-esque puck is the tiniest. About the size of a half-dollar coin, it’s not much larger than the battery that powers it. Likely spurred by Apple’s penchant for compactness, AirTag cuts corners by eliminating the keyring hole (a problem we intend to remedy). It goes without saying that Apple has a history of turning essential functions into premium, add-on accessories. 

But we’re not just here to size these trackers up—you’re getting a 3-for-1 teardown deal today! First up, let’s look inside from the outside, with the help of Creative Electron’s X-ray skills.

X-rays of Tile Mate, SmartThings SmartTag, and Apple AirTag, and a U.S. quarter
X-rays of the Tile Mate, Galaxy SmartTag, Apple AirTag, and not even close to legal tender, via Creative Electron (minus that last one).

As always, these X-rays have a lot to say. AirTags are indeed tiny—about the smallest they can get, judging by the density. Speaking of density, the relative darkness of the AirTag is due to a hefty central speaker magnet and its steel battery cover—both fairly opaque to X-rays. (For a more complete view, check out this amazing 360-degree animated spin.) The other trackers seem sprawling by comparison—and they don’t even include magnets (keep reading to learn why).

While the AirTag is impressively compact, it manages to pack in ultra-wideband (UWB) functionality—an interesting technology in and of itself. Samsung just launched a UWB version of its tracker, dubbed the SmartTag+, but two weeks after the official release date it’s still MIA stateside. We tried to secure one for our teardown, but struck out.

Opening salvo

Batteries inside the Tile Mate, SmartThings SmartTag, and Apple AirTag.

All three trackers open up with finger power—no other tools required! That said, the AirTag is by far the most difficult, especially if you indulged in a snack earlier and have greasy digits. Imagine opening a stubborn pickle jar with just two slippery thumbs, and you’ve got the idea. The other trackers have dedicated divots for separating the pieces with a fingernail—moisturize to your heart’s content!

Apple AirTag, opened for battery removal, on top of instructions.
The ultimate white whale: a tool-free user-replaceable battery in an Apple product! It even comes with written instructions.

Competing devices have replaceable batteries, so Apple may have been pressured to match the market standard in that respect. Still, we commend Apple for building the AirTag to last longer than a battery from the beginning—Tile took six years and 15 million devices to get there. Apple could have included an annoyingly-placed Lightning port or built-in (wasteful, inefficient) wireless charging functionality so the AirTag could charge from the Apple Watch puck charger—but they didn’t, and we’re here for it. That said, early patent filings showed AirTags recharging with an inductive charger. A sign of tech to come? Or more supporting evidence for an Apple product that never was?

Power hour: battery showdown

Batteries removed from Tile Mate, SmartThings SmartTag, and Apple AirTag

AirTags feature the shiny new model number A2187 (quick, name that movie reference), and included amongst its regulatory markings is a reminder of the battery type, CR2032. Handy! Both AirTags and SmartTags use 3-volt CR2032 coin cell batteries, while the Tile uses the smaller CR1632 cell. Based on standard button cell nomenclature, all use Lithium battery chemistry, but the 20 mm cells have a .66 Wh capacity, while the Tile’s 16 mm cell only has about .39 Wh. At a glance these may look similar to batteries we’ve found in teeny tiny earbuds, but these are meant to sip power for a long time, so that tracks.

Tile Mate, SmartThings SmartTag, and Apple AirTag, shell opened
Opening up the Tile Mate, Galaxy SmartTag, and Apple AirTag.

Battery replacement marks the end of the user-serviceable portion of all these devices—from here, we’ll need more than our fingers.

The Tile and SmartTag come apart readily with a spudger and a splash of heat, while the AirTag requires more persuasion. That said, Apple showed surprising restraint in sealing the AirTag. It’s no tool-free wonderland, but three clips and some glue isn’t too bad. It helps to squeeze the AirTag gently with a vise to open up the seams a bit—from there, a poke from a plastic pick convinces it to come apart. If you plan to venture this far into an AirTag, tread carefully! The gluey clips are prone to break rather than release. 

Samsung’s SmartTag is the only tracker here with no official ingress protection rating, which is surprising, considering it has the thickest adhesive barrier protecting its circuit board. Worst of all possible worlds? Or just Samsung being careful not to promise too much, à la iPhone 6S?

Apple refuses to speak easy

Apple AirTag with shell removed.

It’s circles all the way down as you head inside the AirTag. Did you notice the “button” on the underside of the cover? That’s not a clickable button, like the Mate and SmartTag have, but rather the magnet we saw earlier in the X-ray. It sits right inside the donut-shaped logic board, nested into a coil of copper to form a speaker. You read that right—the AirTag’s body is essentially a speaker driver. Power is sent to the voice coil, which drives the magnet mounted to the diaphragm—in this case, the plastic cover where the battery lives—which makes the sounds that lead you to your lost luggage. 

But why bother putting a real driver in here at all? Magnets not only add weight, they take up a lot of space. The dinky piezoelectric speakers in the Mate and SmartTag made just as much, if not more, noise in our testing, so pure volume isn’t the answer. Looks like one corner Apple refused to cut on this tiny disk is sound quality. Piezo speakers are tiny and cheap, and sound like it—we’re talking McDonald’s happy meal speakers here. Knowing Apple, and knowing how seriously they take their noisemakers, sound quality can never be compromised, not even here.

No loophole? We found a loophole

Ready for a teardown intermission? Unlike the keychain-ready competition, the AirTag’s perfectly round exterior provides no place for you to thread a keyring—at least not easily. The official method to attach one of these to your keys is (wait for it): purchase accessories. But if you can hold a drill steady—and are willing to take a $29 risk—we’ve got a DIY hack for you.

After some reconnaissance inside our first AirTag, we grabbed a 1/16” drill bit and carefully punched a hole through the second tracker in our four-pack—after removing the battery, of course. We miraculously managed to avoid all chips, boards, and antennas, only drilling through plastic and glue. The best part? The AirTag survived the operation like a champ and works as if nothing happened. 

Drill inserted into Apple AirTag
If you like it, put a (key) ring on it. Just make sure you remove the battery first. And don’t expect it to maintain its IP67 capabilities.

Amazingly, the sound profile didn’t seem to change much: measuring the decibel level  at one iPhone-Mini-length away from the AirTag, the Hole-y One™ was within a +/- 1 dB margin of error from a brand new ‘Tag (about 78-80 dB). Considering Apple is using the plastic dome itself as the speaker diaphragm, this comes as a pleasant surprise.

One last warning before we share our drilling secrets: attempt this at your own risk! Drilling in the wrong place can cause serious damage, so don’t try this at home unless you’re willing to potentially turn your tracker into a very light paperweight. With that out of the way, here’s a hastily-masked video demonstration of the “safe zones” as we see them.

To drill through your AirTag safely, you’ll need to bore through one of the notches in the circuit board / antenna shield (more on those parts coming soon!) made for the clips that hold the tag together. We’ve highlighted the three notches in the video above. You can see they roughly correspond to the clips for the metal battery cover, so you can sort of use those as a guide. In a perfect world you’ll miss the clip itself (like we happened to) and only go through glue, but if you do go through a clip, it isn’t the end of the world—or your AirTag.

While Apple sells an AirTag holder for $13, and cheaper third-party models are already filling up online store listings, a DIY hole gets an AirTag onto a keyring or loop with as little extra space and mass as possible. Even in the tiniest single-purpose device, there is room to hack, and we’ll fight for your right to do it.

Stay tuned

As tiny as the AirTag is, we’re still mining new secrets. Stay tuned for detailed board shots, a rundown of the onboard silicon, and other findings for all three trackers—right here on this page.

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