Apple’s AirTag and RFID (radio frequency identification) technology seem similar on the surface – both are used to track and locate items. But they actually work quite differently under the hood.
This in-depth guide examines how AirTag and RFID compare on critical factors like technology, range, use cases and more. By the end, you’ll understand the pros and cons of each and when one makes more sense than the other.
How Does AirTag Work?
The Apple AirTag is a small, round tracking device that helps locate lost items like keys, wallets, laptop bags and more.
AirTag uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Ultra Wideband (UWB) technology to communicate its location. Here’s a quick rundown:
- It pairs to an iPhone or iPad using Bluetooth. The owner can then see the AirTag’s last known location in the Find My app.
- When in Bluetooth range, the UWB radio provides precise directional information to lead you right to the AirTag.
- When out of Bluetooth range, the AirTag leverages the global network of hundreds of millions of Apple devices to relay its location back to the owner via encrypted Bluetooth connections.
The owner is notified as soon as the AirTag comes back in Bluetooth range of their iPhone or iPad. The Find My app displays the AirTag location on a map.
Overall, AirTag provides accurate indoor and outdoor tracking globally by combining Bluetooth, UWB and Apple’s vast Find My network.
AirTag Technology Summary
- Communication: Bluetooth Low Energy, Ultra Wideband
- Range: Bluetooth up to ~30 feet, UWB up to ~200 feet
- Network: Leverages Apple’s global Find My network when out of Bluetooth range
- Use cases: Tracking small valuables like keys, wallets, purses, luggage
What is RFID and How Does it Work?
RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification. It’s a technology that uses radio waves to identify objects.
An RFID system has 3 main components:
- RFID tag – Antenna programmed with unique ID data to identify the object
- RFID reader – Scans and picks up signals from nearby RFID tags
- Software – Converts radio waves into identifiable information
RFID tags can be active (battery-powered) or passive (no battery). Passive RFID gets power from the radio waves emitted by the reader.
The RFID reader scans tags within a certain proximity, usually up to 20 feet. The tags transmit stored data back to the reader, allowing items to be tracked, identified or authenticated.
RFID is commonly used for asset management, inventory tracking, access control and more.
RFID Technology Summary
- Communication: Radio waves
- Range: Up to 20 feet typically
- Network: Localized to RFID reader
- Use cases: Warehouse inventory, asset tracking, access control
Now that we’ve covered the basics of how AirTag and RFID work independently, let’s compare them head-to-head.
AirTag vs RFID Comparison
|Bluetooth, Ultra Wideband
|2.4 GHz, 6 GHz
|LF (135 kHz), HF (13.56 MHz), UHF (865-956 MHz)
|~200 ft with UWB, global with Find My network
|Up to 20 ft typically
|CR2032 replaceable battery
|Active (battery-powered), passive (no battery)
|Leverages Apple Find My globally
|Localized to RFID reader
|1.26″ diameter, 0.31″ depth
|Tracking small personal items
|Inventory, warehouse management, access control
|$29 per AirTag
|$0.10 – $100 per RFID tag
As the table illustrates, while both involve wireless technology to identify and track objects, AirTag and RFID differ quite a bit in their technical details and ideal use cases.
Let’s dive deeper on some of the key differences:
One major advantage of AirTag over most passive RFID systems is much longer range, thanks to Ultra Wideband and Bluetooth technology.
Passive RFID is typically limited to about 20 feet or less from the RFID reader. AirTag can leverage Bluetooth up to ~30 feet away.
But when in range of newer iPhones with UWB radios, AirTags provide precise directional accuracy up to ~200 feet away.
And if your lost AirTag is totally out of Bluetooth range, Apple’s vast Find My network allows it to update its location worldwide by relaying encrypted signals between Apple devices.
So AirTag provides the advantage of long-range tracking that can work globally – far beyond what passive RFID can offer.
Because passive RFID tags don’t have a battery, their read range is very limited – usually up to 20 feet at most. They rely on power from the radio waves transmitted by the nearby RFID reader.
AirTag uses a replaceable CR2032 coin cell battery, allowing it to proactively send out Bluetooth and UWB signals up to 200 feet away to provide accurate location information.
So AirTags are better suited for tracking items further distances.
A key advantage of AirTag is that it can leverage the global Apple Find My network of hundreds of millions of Apple devices. This allows AirTag location to be updated worldwide when out of Bluetooth range of your iPhone.
On the other hand, passive RFID relies on a localized setup – an RFID reader with antennas placed in strategic locations. Tags can only be read when they pass within a relatively short distance of the readers.
So RFID provides localized asset tracking, while AirTag offers global item tracking.
At 1.26 inches diameter and 0.31 inches deep, AirTag is designed to be very compact and portable. This makes it ideal for attaching to keychains, bags, wallets and other small valuables.
RFID tags come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Large RFID tags can be several inches long for assets like cargo containers. Tiny RFID chips are also implanted in credit cards, passports, products and more.
Individual AirTags retail for $29 each. They are designed for tracking small personal possessions.
Passive RFID tags can cost anywhere from $0.10 to $100, depending on the type and quantity. Their affordable price makes them well-suited for large volume asset tracking use cases.
Ideal Use Cases
Given the technical differences covered, AirTag and RFID are best suited for quite different use cases.
When to use AirTag
AirTags excel at tracking small, valuable personal items like:
- Wallets, purses and backpacks
- Luggage and suitcases
- Laptop bags or briefcases
- Musical instruments
- High-value sports equipment
AirTag provides reliable tracking whether your belongings are lost around the house, across town, across the country or even across the world. For personal items that are small and portable, AirTag is hard to beat.
When to use RFID
RFID shines for large volume, commercial asset management use cases such as:
- Warehouse inventory
- Supply chain tracking
- Manufacturing asset management
- File tracking
- Hospital equipment tracking
- Inventory control
- Smart shelves in retail
- Access control and authentication
For managing and tracking hundreds or thousands of assets in a localized area, RFID can’t be beat for convenience and affordability.
- AirTag uses Bluetooth and Ultra Wideband technology for tracking. RFID uses radio waves.
- AirTag offers longer range tracking thanks to Bluetooth (~200 ft) and Apple’s global Find My network. RFID is typically limited to ~20 feet from the reader.
- AirTag is powered by a CR2032 replaceable battery. RFID can be battery-powered or passive (no battery).
- AirTag is designed for tracking small personal items globally. RFID is ideal for large volume commercial asset tracking in localized areas.
- AirTag costs $29 per tag. RFID tags range from $0.10 to $100 depending on type and quantity.
While AirTag and RFID may seem similar at first glance, they are quite different technologies optimized for distinct use cases.
AirTag excels at helping everyday people track small valuables worldwide via Apple’s Find My network. It offers convenience and peace of mind. Be sure to only purchase authentic AirTags from authorized Apple retailers to avoid fake AirTags that could present security risks or not work properly. Learn more about identifying fake AirTags here.
RFID is ideal for organizations managing large volumes of inventory, assets and items locally. It provides efficient, automated tracking at scale.
So consider your specific needs. If you’re an individual looking to keep track of daily essentials, AirTag is the way to go. If you run a warehouse or manage large inventories, choose a commercial RFID solution tailored to your needs.
Hopefully this breakdown clarifies the key differences between AirTag and RFID. Both are fantastic technologies that provide tracking and automation capabilities to make life easier. The right choice comes down to your particular use case.