By Nick Guy
Bluetooth trackers are small gadgets you attach to important items you’re worried about losing (such as keys or a bag) that let you use an app on your smartphone to locate those items—usually with an audible tone on the tracker itself and a map on your phone’s screen. After 10 hours of research and another 10 hours of hands-on testing, we found the best Bluetooth tracker for most people is the second-generation Tile. Not only is it the least expensive of the trackers we tested—with an even lower price if you buy multiple Tiles—but it also has the longest range, making it the most useful for finding your stuff.
How we picked and tested
The Bluetooth trackers we tested. Photo: Nick Guy
After checking Amazon and Google for major players in this category, we used comparative reviews from The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo to compile a list of five models to test. We quickly dismissed the XY Find It (which has since been replaced by a newer version we haven’t yet tested) because it can’t ping your phone, and the Pebblebee Honey because it uses a silent push alert that’s all but worthless. We were left with three models: Tile, Protag Duet, and TrackR Bravo.
We went to a park to test how far away we could move a connected smartphone from each tracker before the Bluetooth connection was lost; longer ranges are better because your phone is more likely to stay connected to the tracker and thus help you find your lost item. After ensuring that only one tracker was paired to the test phone at a time, we set that tracker down on a bench, then we walked away while measuring the distance using a measuring wheel. Once the tracker’s app showed the tracker as out of range, we recorded the distance before walking back toward the tracker until the connection was reestablished, and then recorded that distance. We also tested the loudness of each tracker’s alarm and incorporated those findings in our recommendations.
The Tile in its natural habitat. Photo: Nick Guy
The best Bluetooth tracker for most people is the second-generation Tile. It maintained its connection to a smartphone at the longest range, and reconnected from the farthest distance. We got about 120 feet away before the connection was lost with the Tile, while the Protag Duet disconnected at 84 and the TrackR at 56. As for how close we had to be before the tracker and phone reconnected, the Tile at 40 feet was right behind the Duet at 42 feet. The TrackR came in a distant third at 19 feet.
Though the Tile’s alarm isn’t the loudest—the Protag Duet was louder in absolute terms by about 7 decibels—we could hear it better in a quiet park than we could hear the competition thanks to the tone sequence the company uses. Specifically, we could still hear the Tile’s alarm from about 100 feet away in the park, whereas we couldn’t hear the Protag Duet from more than about 40 feet away. We also like that the Tile keeps making noise until you manually turn it off, whereas the Duet’s tone plays for only 10 seconds. The Tile also has a crowd-finding feature that lets other users of the Tile smartphone app help you locate items that are out of Bluetooth range.
Finally, setup is as easy as it gets, thanks to Tile’s use of Bluetooth LE, which makes connecting devices easier and also extends battery life.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Perhaps the biggest downside to the Tile is its lack of a replaceable battery. When the charge runs out after a year, the hardware is dead. Tile does have a replacement program that’s a pretty good deal: For $12 per Tile–about half the price of a fresh purchase–the company will ship you a replacement, and it’s the most current version of the hardware at that.
The company will include an envelope for you to mail back the old Tile for recycling, which we’re happy to see. Yes, it’s more expensive than just putting a new battery in one of the competing trackers, and it’s more wasteful than if you could simply replace the battery, but getting new hardware every year is a big plus.
Although the Protag Duet was the runner-up in our distance test and a favorite among reviewers, we can’t recommend it based on both our own testing and really, really bad Amazon customer reviews. For example, when we paired the Duet with a Galaxy S6, the Protag app showed the device’s location in Africa, instead of our actual location of Buffalo, New York; and one of our review units also made a weird clicking noise. On Amazon, 49 percent of the 154 reviews are one star. We rarely see any sort of product with ratings that bad. Most of the complaints are about the build quality, reliability of the Bluetooth connection, false positives (the tracker’s geofencing alarm going off even when the Duet is in range), and poor geolocating.
TrackR released a new version of the Bravo at the beginning of October 2015. It supposedly had improved range and a louder alarm than the previous version. In our testing, however, the Bluetooth range was poor, even with the new hardware: The TrackR Bravo disconnected from our test phone at less than half the distance of the Tile (56 feet) and didn’t reconnect until it was only 19 feet away. These results were terrible compared with the other models we tested.
We also considered testing the Pebblebee Honey and the XY Find It. The Pebblebee Honey has some great attributes, at least at first glance. The battery is replaceable, and the tracker has a crowd-finding feature. Unfortunately, when you press the tracker’s button to trigger an alert on a missing phone, it sends a silent text alert, rather than playing an audible tone. A message popping up on the screen doesn’t do much good when you’re looking for the handset.
The XY Find It, on the other hand, offers proper geofencing, something most of the competition lacks. But the tracker has no way of pinging a paired phone, disqualifying it from a top spot.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.