Do Car Key Locators Work?

lost keys
Losing your keys is one sure way to ruin your day. David Cornejo / Moment / Getty

Question: How do car key locators work?

I have a problem with losing my keys, and I’m getting tired of frantically searching the house every morning only to find them somewhere weird like inside a recliner or in the fridge. After exhausting every option I can think of, I think that I’m probably going to get one of those key locator doodads. Before I do, I’m wondering exactly how they work, or if they work at all.

Answer:

Car key locators come in a couple different flavors, and although each one works to one degree or another, the different technologies have unique strengths and weaknesses. Some key locators rely on Bluetooth technology, others use non-Bluetooth radio transmission and receiver devices, and some newer ones even make use of RFID technology.

The other main differentiating factor you'll see is that some locators use a dedicated locating device, while others rely on your smartphone. Units with a dedicated locating device often have a wider range, but the locating device is just one more component to misplace.

Bluetooth Key Locators

Bluetooth car key locators rely on Bluetooth, which is the same technology that you can use to pair a headset or head unit to your phone or connect your phone to a hands-free calling system in your car. The advantage is that just about every modern smartphone has Bluetooth functionality, so you can use your existing phone to locate your keys.

The disadvantage of Bluetooth key locators is range. Although Bluetooth devices often boast ranges of 30 feet or more, you typically find that those ranges are significantly smaller in the real world. In practice, you’ll often find that a Bluetooth key locator will only work if you’re within ten feet or less of your missing keys.

Since various obstructions, like walls, can impede a Bluetooth signal, the specific place where you lost your keys can also be an issue. If they happen to be shut inside your fridge, for whatever reason, the actual range will probably be even less than the 10 feet you might expect otherwise.

Other Radio Frequency Key Locators

Although Bluetooth technically broadcasts on part of the radio frequency band, it uses a proprietary pairing and communication method. Most key locators that don’t use Bluetooth technology still make use of RF transmitters and receivers, but they use dedicated locator devices instead of apps.

The main advantage and disadvantage of these devices is that they use small dongles instead of smartphone apps. While it’s an advantage for anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone, it’s a disadvantage for anyone who is already prone to losing small items like keys and key locator dongles.

Some of these locators boast ranges of 60 feet or more, although they suffer from the same issues as Bluetooth locators when it comes to obstructions. Although radio waves readily penetrate solid objects like walls and refrigerators, doing so attenuates to the signal and reduces the available range.

RFID Car Key Locators

The newest, and quite possibly coolest, type of car key locator uses RFID technology. Instead of a bulky dongle receiver unit, these locators use small RFID stickers or tiles. In the most basic application of the technology, an RFID sticker is paired with a locator unit that typically has greater range and the ability to actually pinpoint the location of your keys. This is handy since the RFID stickers are tiny, passive devices that don’t make any sound.

Although car key locators all suffer from some potentially annoying weaknesses, they are the best way to guard against losing your keys.

You may still find yourself frantically searching the house in the morning, but at least you’ll have something to go on. And even if the signal on your locator is attenuated down to almost nothing, the fact is that almost nothing is a whole lot better than nothing at all.

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