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Don’t lose that phone or laptop: How to keep track of your tech gadgets and other possessions

How often have you lost your keys, misplaced your phone, or indeed mislaid your laptop? With advances in GPS, Bluetooth, and other technologies, more and more devices that help you find lost or misplaced items are coming to market. While many of these gadgets and services go a long way towards giving you peace of mind by making it harder to lose something precious, they don't all work as you might expect. In this article, I'm going to explain how a few of them work.

Basic lost-and-found trackers

Perhaps the most common and inexpensive type of lost-and-found solution involves tagging your property with some kind of small tracker, which often looks like a keychain but can also take the shape of a bulky sticker. Most of these lost-and-found solutions do little more than pair those trackers with a Bluetooth-enabled device (usually an iPhone or Android phone), and through an app of some sort, alert you when the item has gone out of range.

In other words, you hear an alert when the phone can no longer detect the tagged item. The problem is that you now know the item is lost, but you don't necessarily know where it is! (See how one of these systems, called Tile, works in the video below).

They way to find the item, then, is to slowly retrace your steps until the tagged item comes back into range. When it's within 150 feet or so, you'll see a dot appear on your phone's screen showing the radial distance of how close you are to it. The app won't tell you which direction you need to go, so from there, you'll have to triangulate to find it. The solution, while limited, does have its uses. Say, for example, you hook up your house keys to the tracker. If you leave home without your keys, you'll know within a few feet of being out the door. Or imagine that you're prone to misplacing your sunglasses. You can wander around your house and near your car until you see them pop into range.

On the other hand, say you leave both your phone and your tracker-tagged keys in a bag, which you leave behind at a friend's house or which is stolen. The keys and phone are still together, so no alarm sounds. Or maybe you're considering putting a tracker on your cat's collar. If the cat bolts, you'll know she's gone but won't have any clue where.

Below is a list of some of the more popular tracker-based solutions we've seen:

HipKey (£50 for one)

Find by SenseGiz (£15 for one; made for pet-tracking in particular)

StickNFind (£30 for two trackers)

Tile (pre-order one tracker for £20 including shipping to the EU; they're due out sometime this year, and should arrive by the summer).

"Find My X" solutions

Another type of lost-and-found solution is the one that's specific to an already high-tech device, such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Some devices include these services when you buy them – you just have to turn them on or sign up for an account, which could be free or might require a monthly fee.

Most Apple devices sold today, including iOS devices and Macs, inherently support a service called Find My Device (iPhone, iPad, Mac). It's free to use, but does require enabling and connecting to an iCloud account. This service can detect the exact GPS location of your Apple device – just log onto any web browser or the app... so long as your device's location services setting is on and it isn't out of battery. If you lose an iPhone when the battery is very low, Find My iPhone will at least tell you its last known location.

Android device owners can get similar benefits with a similarly named WheresMyDroid app and service. Both the Android and iOS services let you remotely wipe your device (so long as it has battery power and an Internet connection) to help protect your data, too.

LoJack for Laptops is another service in the "Find My" class of tracking devices, but it's specific to Windows laptops. Some laptops even ship with it pre-installed but keep the service dormant unless activated.

With LoJack for Laptops, there isn't a physical tag attached to your laptop – the service uses GPS, Wi-Fi, and other features of the system and operating system to deduce its location. If your laptop is lost or stolen, you can log into your account from another computer, try to physically locate the device, remotely wipe it, or call upon the Absolute Software team (who licence the "LoJack" name from the other company that makes LoJack for vehicles) for help. Absolute Software hires a lot of former law enforcement and IT professionals on its Theft Recovery Team, which can attempt to get your notebook back.

Fairy dust of the future?

In the future, technologists hope to make lost item recovery devices and services smaller, cheaper, and more proficient. One way this might happen is through RFID (radio frequency identification) "dust," which Hitachi has been experimenting with since 2001. They're literally speck-sized trackers (0.15 x 0.15mm in size and 7.5 micrometres thick) that could be sprinkled onto all kinds of things, from shipping containers to food. Hitachi has worked on a special RFID identification device that works up to 600 feet away. Oh, and the smaller-than-sand RFID chips have GPS capabilities, too.

The technology could open up amazing possibilities, but some fear the invasive nature of the potential. For example, what might happen with a GPS tracker that's small enough to literally consume? And consider how easy it would be to plant a dust grain-sized tracker on an unsuspecting mark.

Clearly, there are many issues to work out both with the technology itself and the ethics of how it might be used. In the meantime, know the ins-and-outs of how these trackers work before you buy them, as they are often limited in what they can do.