Review: Tile ("The world's largest lost and found")

We've all been there - that mad dash around the house looking for that lost set of car keys right before you're supposed to leave. Tile, a Kickstarter graduate, promises to solve that very important question: Where is my stuff?

What Is It?

Tile is essentially a Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) radio in a small keyfob form factor that can be attached to any item that could potentially be lost or stolen. When you need to locate the item, the app (currently for iOS only) will attempt to locate the Tile attached to it.

How Does It Work?

The Tile App maintains a Bluetooth connection with nearby Tiles (up to 100' away, according to Tile) and the location of your iOS device, notifying Tile's cloud with the location of each Tile that is within range. You can use the app to locate any of those Tiles by either a visual estimation of how far away the item is (based on the received Bluetooth signal) or by causing the Tile to play an audible melody, enabling you locate it by sound. If you cannot hook the Tile to your item, the Tile can be attached to your item with the adhesive pads that are included with your order.

Tile App Find Screen

But what if your item is lost (or stolen) and goes out of range for good? That's where Tile's innovative crowdsourced solution promises - but utterly fails - to save the day.

Each device running the Tile app recognizes every Tile it comes in range with, and will silently (and anonymously) report the location of your item.

Getting Started

The first thing you notice when you first grasp a Tile is that it is not exactly the small, thin device that you might have expected. It's not that it's big, per se, just that it's not tiny. I had come away from the Tile's Kickstater campaign materials with the impression that a Tile would be so thin that I might slip it, well, almost anywhere. That's certainly not the case, as a Tile is roughly the same dimensions as a common car remote key fob. While it will slip easily into a purse and is manageable on a keychain...
Tile next to keys

...you're going to be hard-pressed to fit it in your wallet, since it is roughly 6 credit cards thick (5.3mm). It's roughly double the width I was expecting/hoping for.

Tile next to credit cards

While I was contemplating keeping a Tile in my (already huge) wallet, I realized that I didn't know if a Tile would bear my weight sitting on it -- or, for that matter, how much weight it was rated to withstand. I chatted with Tile's customer support, who told me that it was not designed to bear ANY weight at all:

Kateri 10:21: Thank you for contacting Tile Technical Support. How can I help today?

Joe Tomasone 10:21: How much weight/pressure can a Tile withstand?

Joe Tomasone 10:22: I.e. If it is placed in a wallet and sat on... Will it withstand 100 lbs? 300?

Kateri 10:23: we not actually recommend sitting on your Tile or applying pressure of any kind to your Tile

Joe Tomasone 10:24: But placing it in a wallet is one of the suggested uses on your web site...

Joe Tomasone 10:28: Is that suggestion on the web site an error, or perhaps it was only meant to apply to a ladies' wallet kept in a purse?

Kateri 10:28: yes, sorry that is exactly what it means

I mentioned this in a post on Tile's Facebook page. They replied to my comment, saying that it was perfectly fine to keep in a wallet:

Joe, Tile has not been tested to excessive weight (example: over 1/2 ton). Putting Tile in your wallet, sitting on it, having Tile in your luggage should all be no problem.

I bit the bullet and put one in my wallet; and several months later it appears to have suffered no ill effects. Tile officially has no specification for maximum weight tolerance.

Issues

One of Tile's features described in the introductory Tile video is the "croudsourced location" feature, whereby all phones with the Tile app installed would help locate missing or stolen items. In practice, this feature suffers from a fatal flaw that effectively renders it useless - the Tile app must be running for it to work.

I created two accounts - one for myself and one for my wife, and had each of our iPhones logged in to our own accounts. On each account, I added a Tile attached to a set of keys.

On numours trips out of town, I would check the Tile app on my phone to see where Tile believed that my keys were. In reality, they were at home on my dresser. However, even when my wife's phone was in the same room, Tile never updated their location, showing where MY phone had last seen them (at the airport). Over the entire course of my trip, this never changed.

The folks at Tile suggested that the Tile app would need to be active on other's phones for Tiles to be discovered by it. That's fair enough, but obviously one cannot count on total strangers to walk around with the Tile app running as they are in the immediate location of a missing item. And with that, the major premise of Tile is utterly shattered. There is no "world's largest lost and found" (as it was billed), but really, Tile is only useful to find items within Bluetooth range of your present location. Need to find your keys in the house? Tile is great. Need to figure out where you left your keys in town? Good luck.

Finding Your Stuff

When it comes time to find those misplaced car keys, the process is simple. Selecting the Tile in question displays it's location on a map and indicates how close it is to you - or if it is out of range. A large "FIND" button, when tapped, causes the Tile to begin playing a melody - a homing signal, if you will. The tone is not terribly loud; if there is any appreciable noise in the room - say, a radio playing - you will have to be pretty much within arm's reach of the Tile to hear it. In a quiet room, however, it's loud enough if it's out in the open. If you lose your keys in a noisy bar, for example, you might have a difficult time hunting them down.

Less intuitive is the "radar" feature that is supposed to show you in real time how close or far away you are from a Tile that is in range. I could not fine any instructions in the App or accompanying the Tiles themselves that tell you how to activate this mode, and I actually stumbled on it by accident. As it turns out, you tap on the green-circled picture of the Tile itself, and it rotates, replacing the solid ring with one broken into segments. The more segments that are green, the stronger the Bluetooth signal, and therefore, the closer the Tile is. I found that there was a reasonable amount of lag where the app took 3-5 seconds to update the signal strength indicator; you'll want to walk slowly and methodically rather than dashing around from room to room.

Tile Find Screen

What Stuff Do I Want To Track?

Perhaps one of the more perplexing problems I have with my Tiles is what to use them for.

My keys were a given, and my wallet is more of an experiment; but what else? Despite a reasonable amount of thought, I could not come up with anything more to add to the list of items I owned that either:

  • I might lose, or
  • Might be stolen and
    • That the Tile could be hidden on

I considered some of the examples that Tile cites, but ruled them out as either things I would not lose (like my laptop), things that were not suitable to attach a Tile to (like an Apple TV remote or my kids iPod Touches), and things that I don't use enough (like my bike - don't judge!). I'm staring at 5 Tiles that I don't (yet?) know what to do with. You'll want to carefully consider what you'll want to put a Tile on before ordering some. Also, you'll want to consider that the "community find" feature is essentially non-existent at this time, so items that don't leave their immediate area are better candidates.

I did find one other use for Tile that was more amusing than useful: I placed one in my luggage, and was able to confirm that my luggage had made my flight (as it showed up on the app while being loaded on the plane) and when it made it to the baggage belt.

The Business Model

Each Tile is designed to last a year. While the battery might technically last longer, at some point past that activation anniversary, it will lose the ability to communicate and will need to be replaced. While this obviously builds in recurring revenue for Tile, it also builds in a recurring cost. Tiles are not terribly expensive, and might be worth it to save that panic when it's time to leave for work and the keys are nowhere to be found.

Just so long as you don't lose them while you're out.