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Saturday, April 13, 2024

These Tools Can Help You Find Your Lost Devices

You might have noticed Apple AirTags in headlines lately—as new Apple products tend to be—but these little tracking discs are just the latest in a long line of options for keeping tabs on where your phones, tablets, and laptops are.

The location tracking features built into our devices come with valid privacy concerns, and the more advanced they get, the more problematic they can be (see this piece on how Apple AirTags can be a gift to stalkers and harassers). But they also mean our precious gear can report back on their location around the clock—making it much more difficult to lose something.

With AirTags—and Galaxy SmartTags, Tile trackers, and all the other similar products—this sort of location monitoring can extend to all kinds of items, from bags to key chains. Even if something isn't reporting its location, it can be attached to a device that is.

If you're determined to always know where your most valuable items are, you have more options than ever before.


Let's start with Apple, as it just launched AirTags. These little trackers work through the Find My app that you can find preinstalled on iPhones, iPads, and Macs. It's also available through the iCloud portal, so you can get at it through any computer with a web browser.

Most modern Apple products can report their location through Find My—not just phones and laptops but also AirPods and the Apple Watch. The Apple Pencil can't be located through this app, but as far as Apple devices go, it's in the minority. To make sure your devices are being tracked, tap your name then Find My in Settings on an iPhone or iPad, or select Security & Privacy then Privacy in System Preferences on a Mac.

You'll see your devices on a map when you launch Find My, and you can see details including how battery charge they have left, where relevant. Select a device and you can erase it remotely, lock it to protect against unauthorized access, or get it to make a sound (very handy if it may have fallen down the back of the sofa).

AirTags work a little bit differently. They don't report their location directly, but communicate using short-range connections to your other devices (via Bluetooth and the more accurate Ultra-Wideband). As long as they're nearby (Apple hasn't given an exact range), they can be found through the Find My app on your devices.

So what happens when an AirTag goes out of range? You can still see when it was last connected to your phone, which should at least help you figure out if you've left something at home or at the office. Apple will also enlist the help of everyone else who owns an Apple device—anonymously and securely, according to them—to locate your AirTag.

In other words, if another iPhone user walks past your lost item and it has an AirTag attached that's registered to you, you'll get a ping with the location—though you won't know anything about who found it and they won't know anything about you.


Google doesn't have any AirTag-esque device trackers to its name—not yet, anyway—but it does have a similar feature to the Find My app that Apple offers. Every phone or tablet that's linked to your Google account can be shown on a map by typing "find my devices" into the Google search engine when you're signed in.

If you've got multiple devices to your name, you can select the one that you're interested in through the drop-down menu. On the right are two options: Ring (for getting the device to ring, even if it's set to silent) and Recover (for locking or wiping the device.)

The Recover option takes you a list of your devices in your Google account on the web: You can also go directly to this page here. Click on any of the phones or tablets listed, and you can review recent events on the device, try calling it, sign out of your device, or erase it remotely. The options you'll see will vary depending on the model of the phone.

You have a few more options for tracking down lost devices through Google. You can use the Find My Device portal on the web, or the Find My Device app for Android to access the same options we've already spoken about, and to see where your device last recorded its location over GPS.

You can also use Google Assistant on any device where Google Assistant is available: Say "find my phone" to get your primary device to ring. Unlike the other methods, this also works with iPhones—say "find my iPhone"—as long as Google Home is installed on iOS, and signed into your Google account, with notifications turned on.

Google's Find My Device apps can also track down Pixel Buds earbuds and Wear OS smartwatches that have been linked to your Google account too. At the time of writing, Chromebooks haven't been added to the mix. To make sure your phone and tablet are available for tracking, pick Security then Find My Device from Settings.


Like Apple, Samsung offers both an app for locating your lost gadgets and a dedicated tracker device that you can attach to anything. The tracker devices are the SmartTag (Bluetooth) and the SmartTag Plus (Bluetooth and the more precise Ultra-Wideband), and they work more or less exactly as the AirTags do.

If the tags are within range of your phone, you can track them down on a map or get them to make a sound. If not, Samsung (anonymously and securely) enlists the help of the Galaxy devices of other users to see if the trackers and whatever they're attached to can be found that way.

To locate SmartTags, Samsung phones, and Samsung Galaxy Buds, you can use the SmartThings app for Android (the tracking feature isn't available in the SmartThings app for iOS). Choose SmartApps from the main app menu and you'll see the SmartThings Find option, which shows your gadgets on a map and lets you force them to emit a sound.

Tap More options and you'll see the older Samsung Find My Mobile service (which is also available on the web.) If you need to track down a Galaxy phone, you can remotely wipe it, remotely lock it, and remotely back it up from here.

For your Galaxy phones to show up, however, you need to turn on tracking in the options on the device. Open up Settings on your phone, then choose Biometrics and security—depending on the model of phone you've got, it might be labeled Lock screen and security or just Security. Then tap Find My Mobile and turn the feature on.

With Galaxy phones being Android phones, you can use the tracking service from either Samsung or Google to keep tabs on where your handsets are, or you can use them both together in tandem.

Tile and Others

Besides the options we've already mentioned, there are a number of companies who will sell you trackers very much like the AirTags or the SmartTags—and many have been in the business of finding lost gadgets for much longer than Apple and Samsung have.

Perhaps the most prominent of these is Tile, which offers a variety of trackers of different shapes, sizes, and capabilities. The smallest trackers in the Tile range are small stickers that can attach to just about anything.

Through the Tile app for Android, iOS, or Windows, you can communicate with your Tile via Bluetooth, looking for your item's last recorded location or getting the tracker to emit a sound. You can also press a Tile tracker to get your phone to ring if your handset is lost. If a Tile goes out of Bluetooth range, the app will anonymously and privately ping other Tile users to see if they spot it on their travels.

Chipolo trackers are another alternative that work along very similar lines—the brand is actually releasing a tracker that's compatible with the Apple Find My app, though Chipolo makes a mobile app of its own for finding out where your gear has got to.

The usual features are available here again, with the Chipolo tags able to make a noise on request or send you an alert if they go out of range. If your phone and a Chipolo tracker lose contact over Bluetooth, you can get help from other Chipolo users to find the item—as with other services, this all happens automatically and anonymously in the background.

There are other options on the market too—which one is right for you will depend on how much you're willing to spend, the sort of features you need, and the type of devices you're using. The good news is, there are plenty of options to pick from.

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