Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Apple’s AirTags Are Accessible, But Their Achilles Heel Is An Inaccessible Battery Door

I spent last week on vacation in San Diego visiting family and going to places like the San Diego Zoo. My partner and I decided to fly down to SoCal from San Francisco, as we’ve flown a lot in this first quarter of the year and wanted to maintain the momentum. As an Apple-centric household, we’ve festooned our luggage (amongst other objects) with AirTags such that we can track our bags when they move about SFO, especially ensuring they make it to our final destination. When I’m not jet-setting to places, I always have an AirTag on my keychain and in my wallet to keep track of them day-to-day. They give great peace of mind.

During the trip, a bunch of our AirTags displayed low battery notifications on our respective iPhones. This matters not only from a power perspective, but because Apple says in the Find My app that an AirTag’s low battery will mean “some features aren’t available.” Having brought a pack of the necessary CR2032 batteries, I endeavored to visit the Apple Store closest to our Airbnb to ask an employee to help me.

As accessible as AirTags are—to name one example, VoiceOver users can have the screen reader give verbal directions to one’s location—it turns out the little suckers are inaccessible in terms of accessing the battery compartment. Apple’s directions, whether online or in the Find My app are clear and concise, but the mechanism by which you open and close the compartment presumes a level of hand-eye coordination not everyone can reach. To wit, try as I might to change the battery myself, I’ve been unable to open the AirTags. It’s a classic exercise in futility and a literal pain, as my palms get red trying to press and twist per Apple’s instructions. My aforementioned Apple Store visit was a last resort; surely, someone there could help me simply swap out the batteries.

As it turned out, it wasn’t one person who helped—it was four people.

There I stood at the table displaying the Vision Pro demo units, watching awestruck for 15 full minutes as four very nice, very intrepid Apple Store workers tried in vain to pry open the AirTags so as to change the batteries. One tried putting lotion on their hands, another their shirt. Still another tried using one of the $19 microfiber polishing cloths; all valiant attempts, they ultimately failed. With palms reddened and spirits dampened, a passerby employee joined the charge. He picked up an AirTag and put it between his palms, gave it a little twist, and suddenly the battery door fell harmlessly onto the table. We all cheered at the arduous and long-fought triumph, in a way Padres fans will celebrate if ever the team captures a World Series championship at Petco Park.

The point of this anecdote is to illustrate the hilarity of the situation. It should not take four people to access an AirTag’s battery compartment. I commended Apple in my Vision Pro review earlier this week for their mastery of magnetism in products like Vision Pro, as well as in the iPad Smart Cover and MagSafe Battery Pack. As I caveated in my piece, I’m no materials engineer, but in the AirTags’ case, it surely would’ve been better had Apple used magnets to open and close the battery door. My fine-motor skills assuredly isn’t the paragon of precision, which is why I so appreciate the ease with which, say, getting the MagSafe Battery Pack on my iPhone is so important. It’s also why I think the argument towards going all-in with USB-C is somewhat overwrought. As everything else disability, not everyone has the luxury of having typical fine-motor abilities. Apple’s design for AirTags operates under the presumption the user can negotiate those movements—it just isn’t true for every person.

Apple should reassess this aspect of AirTags if ever they’re updated.

Overall, AirTags are great helpers and far more accessible than our Tile trackers of yore. Their tight integration with iOS is superb, both functionally and for accessibility. I just wish I didn’t break out into a cold sweat every time my phone tells me my AirTags needs a new battery.


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