From the Kickstarter Files: Finding Stuff With Chipolo (and Tile)

Are we entering the golden age of finding lost keys, wallets, purses, favorite coffee mugs, iPhones, and perhaps ultimately socks? Over the last few years, more companies are taking advantage of the built-in networking capabilities of iPhones and Android devices. With the drop in the cost of Bluetooth chipsets—here’s one for under $12—it became feasible to put these chips in lots of things.

Someone quickly realized that if you can connect a device with a remote BT chip, then it’s within range and so it’s findable. The first product coming out of this idea that I heard about is called Tile, which encased the BT chip in a small white plastic tag. Tile is a Kickstarter baby and has done quite well for itself.

Yes, I am an owner of a Tile tag, and it has been a great help for this founding member of “I forgot where I put my keys” club. In fact, it recently saved me from having to buying a new set of car keys and remote when my wandering keys were spotted by a member of the Tile community.

For the first time in my life, I received an email from the cloud saying that my keys had been spotted. Thank you IoLT (Internet of Lost Things)

Then along comes Chipolo, yet another startup from … Slovenia. I am partial to Slovenian startups—they do good work with marine craft—so I was intrigued to see how they handled the lost-thing market.

After receiving my review version, I put the Chipolo through its paces. I placed it around my house in various spots—under pillows, in draws, and under an open book, which is a favorite place of mine to find lost stuff.

Chipolo performed nicely, as long as the tag was within the Bluetooth range—something like 30 feet. With the Chipolo app installed on my iPhone, I was able to ring the blue tag by clicking an icon. That’s the simple part. Now the problem becomes localizing where the sounds comes from.

This is not necessarily easy to to. The digital squeaks and tones are not very loud. It’s a complaint I had with the Tile tag as well. But at least you know the lost item is residing somewhere in your mess.

The Chipolo app has a very primitive range finder. When it tells you “very near” that means you’re something like 20 inches away, and “very far” implies about 10 feet. Anyway, this brings up the subject of distance, and the claims made my by the vendors. Chipolo says, as does Tile, that it’s most effective at the 30 feet range. Though Chipolo also states that it can work at up to 200 feet, which is really, really far away for BT.

For both Tile and Chipolo, I would assume something around 30 feet is at the limits of their capabilities. In my brief tests, I’m noticing that— sorry Chipolo — my newest Tile tag has an edge in terms of range.

And keep in mind that we are dealing with Bluetooth, so expect flakiness. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had problems pairing BT devices, say wireless speakers, when I’m holding the darn things in my hand.

The other neat feature about Cipolo is that it can pair geo coordinates with the tag. Using the GPS chips in iPhone, it assigns an approximate location to the tag. So if you happen to leave your Cipolo-tagged car keys in a coffee bar, their app will tell you the last known coordinates and show it on a map.

Obviously, it’s a very powerful feature. And if you still can’t find the keys, you can alert the Chipolo community, which enables the find-lost-tag feature on everyone’s devices. Tile has the same feature, which is how I found my keys.

One neat advantage of Chipolo over Tile is that you can replace the battery in the tag.  Yeah, I was annoyed when my Tile app told me the battery was dying and I had to order another tag for $12. Inconvenient.

Chipolo’s battery lasts around six months. The tag costs about $30. Tile will run you around $25, and their battery lasts about year, but you’ll have to buy another one after it dies. You do the math.