Off Track

Despite the snark and curmudgeonly grumblings I indulge in–to say nothing of the occasional grumpiness–I hate to write bad reviews.

But when I find a product that is so poorly designed and executed that it makes me want to buy an industrial wood chipper solely for the purpose of destroying the product, I feel I have a moral imperative to warn people away from it.

So let’s talk about TrackR. Yes, that’s really how they spell it: no “e” and a capital “R”. I’d be tempted to say that should have been the first warning sign, but it’s probably excessive to penalize a product for the excesses of the marketing department.

Anyway, TrackR sells a line of products which they say are intended to help you find lost items. In particular, the “TrackR bravo” (yes, lower-case “b”) is a “coin-sized” jobbie that you can attach to anything you’re afraid you might lose. According to their website, “It’s perfect for shared items like the remote, shared car keys or the family pet.”*

* I’ll skip the snark about the missing Oxford comma.

There are the obligatory apps–iOS and Android–that use Bluetooth to track the fobs. And not just your fobs. If your phone spots any fob, it uploads the GPS location data to TrackR’s cloud database. The idea is that if you lose your keys at the beach, someone else’s phone might find them, and you’ll get a notification on your device. You can also set geographic boundaries, so you’ll be alerted if a fob moves outside a particular area, and separation alerts to be warned if the fob gets too far away from your phone.

We got a set of four bravos, figuring to put them on the cats’ collars. Not so much to keep tabs on the cats, but to help find the collars when they inevitably pull them off and hide them under furniture.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? As usual, the problems are in the execution.

Let’s start with the bravo itself. “Coin-sized” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about 25% larger in diameter than a quarter and twice as thick. That’s a pretty large coin–though to be fair, it is lighter than a quarter. It’s larger than I’d want on my keychain, but that’s a matter of personal preference. Certainly none of the cats, not even little Sachiko, had a problem with the fob on their collar.

The bravo uses a coin-style battery, CR1620. It’s an unusual size, but not impossible to locate. And you had better locate a source. The fobs come with a battery installed and no insulating plastic. Of our four, one had a dead battery when we bought it.

But there’s no way to tell how low the battery is! Nothing in the app gives you battery charge information. There’s a speaker on the bravo (so you can trigger a beep when you’re looking for it), but it didn’t occur to anyone at TrackR to have a low-battery beep. There’s a a small LED as well (used in pairing the fob with a phone), but no low battery blink. The light in my car alarm’s fob blinks when the battery is low, and it’s not much larger than the bravo. There should be room for whatever circuitry is needed here.

Pairing the fobs with a phone is simple and seems to work well. The Android app kept forgetting about one of the fobs, so it was just as well that re-pairing was easy. After the fourth time I did it, I switched to the iOS app, which didn’t have the same memory issues.

It had other problems. Remember what I said about cloud-sourced location alerts? One of the four fobs was permanently stuck in “lost” mode. Every 30 seconds, the iOS app gave me a notification that somebody had spotted it.

The location was accurate as far as it went. But telling me it was somewhere in my house wasn’t very useful. Amazing though it might sound, I already knew Kokoro was in the house. And the twice-a-minute reminders that I couldn’t turn off didn’t exactly endear me to the product. I had to shut off notifications for the app completely to get it to shut up.

So much for cloud-sourced locations. But the phone-based location wasn’t an improvement. It uses Bluetooth, which isn’t directional. So it uses signal strength to tell you “You’re getting closer.” and “You’re getting further away.”

Great. Actually, that might not be a bad approach, except that it’s so sensitive to variations in the signal that it can switch from “warmer” to “colder” multiple times within a minute, even if both the phone and the fob are sitting motionless on tables a few feet apart.

This is not going to help find the family pet. It’s not even going to be of much use in finding your keys.

TrackR is aware of the general uselessness of their product in performing its intended purpose. Their solution? Sell you a new product!

Their website has been touting preorders for “TrackR atlas” (yes another lower-cased name) for months. The idea behind atlas is to plug a thumb-drive-sized gadget into a wall socket “in each room of your home.” Then you build a map of the house in the TrackR app. The atlas units triangulate on the bravo fobs to locate them more precisely than a single phone can.

Or maybe not. According to the FAQ, “TrackR atlas is accurate in rooms that are at least 3 x 3 m (10 x 10 ft).” So if your room is large enough, atlas will be “accurate”–but they’re not saying how accurate, even though the actual question that purports to answer is “How accurate is TrackR atlas?”

Nor do they give any indication of when those preorders will be filled.

But if you’re willing to pay more for the functionality you already paid for, you can preorder at $39.99 per atlas. That’s pretty stiff for “each room of your house,” so they’re offering volume discounts. You can buy four for the price of three, eight for the price of five, or ten for the price of six.

That’s make it $200 to cover my house. I’d skip putting atlases in the bathrooms and save a few bucks, but these are cats we’re talking about. They spend more time in the bathrooms than we do.

One final note: In order to register the fobs and get them into the cloud database, you have to give TrackR an email address. Care to guess how many emails I’ve gotten asking me to review them? You’ll have to guess because I can’t count that high. To compound the insult, I did review these pieces of junk in the app store. They’re still sending me emails.

Maybe they’ll find this review, but I doubt it. The evidence is overwhelming that TrackR can’t find anything.