Apple AirTag Batteries Start to Fail, Without Alerting Users

An Apple AirTag

By Jonathan Spira on 27 April 2022
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For Apple users who are used to an audible notification, such as a chime, when their MacBook Pro battery is dangerously low or a stern message to that effect on an iPhone, it may come as a surprise that there is no active alert when an AirTag – which may be stored away in an automobile or bag or on a dog’s collar – no longer works.

As we noted in these pages one year ago, Apple AirTags, which became available at the end of April 2021, may very well be one of the most useful home and travel accessories to come to market in recent years.

Simply place the AirTag on or in your wallet, bag, keychain, or another object you wish to track and the Find My app will locate the item when requested.

The AirTag is a new type of item tracking tag that uses advanced technology to provide location information with much greater precision than older Bluetooth beacons, such as those made by Tile. The ultra-wideband signals that sets the AirTag apart from most other trackers provide both a heading and a range on the display of an associated iPhone. This allows users to locate misplaced items with remarkable speed in many cases.

Apple’s billion-strong Find My network anonymously helps track the location of any given AirTag virtually anywhere in the world.  The combination of this network that will pinpoint items on a map along with the ultra-wideband precision make the AirTag very useful indeed.

There have been all sorts of success stories since launch as well as controversial accounts as stalkers have attempted to track people without their knowledge by surreptitiously slipping an AirTag into someone’s bag.

There is, however, a major issue: Like every battery-powered device, the CR2023 lithium coin battery that comes with an AirTag will eventually lose its charge.

AirTags, it turns out, aren’t smart enough to alert users via a banner on the associated iPhone that the battery is nearing end-of-life.  As a result, an AirTag would just disappear off the map and the Find My… app  won’t show it.

I experienced this firsthand.

After receiving four AirTags on the day of launch, I placed one in a protective silicon case and put it in the deep crevices of my automobile’s interior.  I named it “Mercedes Limousine” (the German word “Limousine” means “sedan” in English, not limousine) and not only did it alert me when I was being separated from it by a distance of over 300’ (91 m), it would show up if I wanted to see, just for fun, where I had parked my car.  (The “parked car” feature in Apple Maps will show this information when you disconnect from CarPlay as well.)

Except one day, it didn’t.

The AirTag “is designed to keep going more than a year on a standard battery,” Apple says on its website.  That isn’t exactly true.

I frequently park my car on the street in the West 50s of Manhattan.  It’s a safe area with a mix of some charming buildings, high-rise apartment complexes, and schools.  In this manner, the streets look quite similar and, the one time I wasn’t sure which street I had actually parked on, the Find My app failed to show the auto at all.  I didn’t really have any trouble finding the car as I guessed correctly where it would be but, even when I was next to the car, it didn’t show up on the network.

Because this was less than a year after I had received the AirTag, it never dawned on me that the battery could be dead.  I had assumed I would get an alert to that effect on my iPhone.  So I called support, and that’s where the fun began.

The first representative I spoke to seemed quite baffled by my question and quoted various statements from her knowledgebase on how to pair an AirTag with an iPhone and so on.  I asked for a senior advisor, who at the beginning seemed to understand what I was asking.

She explained to me that my AirTag’s battery was clearly low.  “What should I do?” I asked.  “Well, you’ll need to charge it,” she replied.  “How?” I asked.  “Using the charger that came with the device,” was her reply. “I told her I didn’t recall getting a charger with the AirTags and asked what it looked like.  She went speechless at this point.

I thanked her and ended the conversation very quickly.

First of all, AirTag batteries – the CR2032s – aren’t rechargeable.  Second, a charger isn’t included with AirTags because, well, they aren’t rechargeable.  I then employed the HUCA method of calling a company. (HUCA means “hang up, call again”).

On the next call, I spoke with a rather well-informed representative – also a senior advisor –  who, without laughing too much, confirmed that there was no charger included with the AirTags and further confirmed the batteries weren’t rechargeable.

The new senior advisor also explained that there was no alert for the AirTags such as the active notification on a MacBook Pro or iPhone.  He showed me what effectively is the only way of checking the battery, which is done by going to the Find My app and tap the Items tab.  Select the AirTag whose battery charge you wish to check and the battery charge level will be displayed via a battery-shaped icon under the name of the AirTag.

If the charge is very low, there will be a banner stating “Low Battery.”

Effectively, it turns out that Apple is selling a device that one would in many cases secret in a place where it won’t see the light of day.  In such cases, the principle “out of sight, out of mind” takes hold.

Only if I actively check the app for the battery condition perhaps 11 months after replacing the battery will I have any idea of whether it will work when I really need it to work.

Briefly forgetting my car’s parking spot is a rather benign example that would be more worrisome to someone prone to forgetting where he parks.  What troubles me is what if Snickers the Wonderdog were to wander away and the battery in his AirTag (secreted in a special AirTag holder on his collar) has lost its charge.

Several polls shortly after the product’s launch indicated that as much as 60% of all iPhone owners have an interest in purchasing one or more AirTags and buyers tend to buy the four-pack of AirTags over a single one.  This places the potential total number of these location beacons in at least the 60-million range.

In theory, the fix is relatively simple: The iPhone already knows a given AirTag’s battery status, but it’s clear no one thought about what happens when the AirTag runs out of juice.  Given the potential import of what might be tethered to an AirTag (I’m sure some parents have placed AirTags in their children’s knapsacks), having a prominent and active alert is a necessity.  Period.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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