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Technology Untangled: Bluetooth key finder works with your smartphone

December 28, 2016

technology-bourThe tracking down of lost keys is a regular ritual in my home. That’s why it is always nice to have an extra set or two of keys available. However, one of our cars is down to its last key fob. Duplicate keys for newer cars are expensive. That gave me the idea to investigate a low-cost, high-tech method to keep track of that key.

The product I ordered for review is the Tile Mate, which looks like a tile — white and about 1.5 x 1.5 inches — sized to fit on your keychain. There is also a larger, yet slimmer version designed to fit in your wallet or adhere to the back of your iPad or laptop.

Setup with the device was straightforward. It began with downloading an app to my smartphone. The app then walks you through the process of pairing the device with your phone via Bluetooth. The fact that this technology uses Bluetooth concerned me a bit. I consider Bluetooth a short-range communication protocol. Could it really be useful for finding my keys if they were on the other side of the house or out in the backyard? I have never had much luck playing music on my Bluetooth speaker when it got more than a few yards from my phone. My informal tests were positive. I had no trouble locating my keys anywhere around my property, both inside and outside.

To locate your missing keys or other Tile-equipped device, you simply open the app on your phone and designate the Tile you are trying to track down. If the Tile is within communication range, you will see a green circle indicating so. Then choose “Find my Tile.” The little device will emit a series of musical tones that get louder and louder the longer the music plays. That volume-increasing feature is a nice touch and is especially useful if your keys are buried in the couch or deep in a coat pocket.

If your Tile is out of range, a dashed circle appears on the display within the app. This means that paging the Tile with your phone will not be successful, but there are additional features that will still give you a chance to find your missing object. The app acts as a proximity sensor of sorts. As you walk about, headed toward the last known location where you remember seeing your keys, you can watch for the green circle to turn from dashed to solid, meaning you are headed in the right direction. But what if you lost your keys while out on your morning run? The app reports via a map the last known location of your keys before the Bluetooth signal was lost. This is a big help to get you headed in the right direction.

Another nice feature allows you to use the Tile to find your phone. Pressing the button twice on the Tile will cause your phone to ring a special tone, even if your phone is set on silent. If your phone is out of range, you can log on to the Tile Mate website to help locate your phone’s last known location on a map, as well as send the phone a lock-screen message that will show instructions for anyone who might find it. With that level of two-way communication, I find one feature conspicuously missing. It should be easy to have the Tile on your keychain notify you if your keys and phone get too far apart from each other. This would prevent the problem of occasionally leaving the phone behind during the rush out the door on hectic days. I hope they add this geo fencing option in future versions.

The most curious Tile locating feature involves invoking the help of the entire community of Tile users. If you permit it, any phone that has the Tile app running in the background can continuously scan for your Tile and, if it comes in range, then it anonymously and automatically informs a cloud database with the location of your missing Tile. The map on your phone will update with this information. This feature, while technically intriguing, strikes me as a little creepy and invasive since every person with the Tile app possesses the ability to communicate with every nearby Tile.

I have some concerns about phone battery drain. This technology requires both the app and the Bluetooth link to be on continuously. This must adversely affect phone run time, but I have not yet determined if the impact is small or large. My other reservation is about the battery life of the Tile itself. It is rated to last one full year, but it is not user-replaceable. You have to sign up for a yearly automatic replacement program to refresh your Tile. There is an additional recurring cost for that.

An individual Tile costs about $25, but there are also multi-pack special deals available so you can put a tile on all your important things. You can learn more at www.thetileapp.com.•

Stephen Bour (bourtech@iquest.net) is an engineer and legal technology consultant in Indianapolis. His company, the Alliance for Litigation Support Inc., includes Bour Technical Services and Alliance Court Reporting. Areas of service include legal videography, tape analysis, document scanning to CD and courtroom presentation support. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

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