Gadling gear review – nio Bluetooth property security tag

It was back in March when I posted a product announcement for the nio Bluetooth security tag, and as with many gadgets, I’ll admit that I was losing faith in the product actually hitting the market. So, imagine my surprise when I was contacted last week asking whether I wanted to review the actual product. Obviously, I owe nio an apology for doubting them!

Today, nio arrived, and as is customary with any new gadget, I immediately unpacked it, put the user guide aside and started playing with it.

But first a quick reminder of what nio is – the product is a small “tag” that can be attached to your personal belongings. Inside the tag is a complete Bluetooth radio, a loud buzzer and a battery pack.
The tag itself is very small, and it weighs next to nothing. It has no visible buttons (there is a small reset button hidden behind a hole).

The battery is behind a cover with a screw, so there is no risk of it falling off. The nio tag can be recharged using MiniUSB, and a charger is included. Thankfully, MiniUSB is so prevalent nowadays that most people will already have a charger in their bag.

The idea behind nio is that you “pair” it with your mobile phone, and allow the two to stay in constant contact. If you attach the tag to your suitcase or laptop bag, both the tag and your mobile phone will start beeping loudly if they move too far away from each other.

At the moment, nio supports Java enabled phones, Blackberry devices and Windows Mobile. For my review, I took it for a spin on a Windows Mobile phone (the Sprint Touch Pro).

Getting the software installed is pretty easy – you can point your mobile browser towards the nio download site, or you can have nio send you a text message with the download location. The application itself is 1.12MB, so on a 3G network, it’ll be downloaded in under a minute.

Once installed, the first step is to have your phone search for the nio tag. This involves putting the tag in pairing mode (by pressing the small reset button). You’ll need a paperclip to do this.

Once paired, the application allows you to configure a number of settings on the tag. The most important settings are 3 different security “zones”, enabling or disabling the motion sensor in the tag and activating the “locate me” beacon on the tag.

The security zones are pretty simple – you pick how far away your tag can move before it warns you. I found the high sensitivity setting to work to about 5 or 6 meters, and the lowest sensitivity let me move about 20 meters away before setting off the alarm.

The alarm on the tag is loud enough to be heard by anyone around it, but don’t expect to hear it from the other side of the airport if someone walks off with your bag. I do suspect that any thief will drop whatever he or she stole if the item starts beeping loudly, most thieves don’t like drawing attention to themselves. In order to hear the tag, you’ll need to have it on the outside of your bag.

The Windows Mobile software client was a little tricky – my first installation was on an HTC Touch Pro2, which did not work, most likely because this newest HTC device uses a different Bluetooth stack than other Windows devices (Broadcom versus the Microsoft stack). In nio’s defense, the Touch Pro2 is not listed as being compatible, so I can’t really hold this against them.

So, now of course it is time for the most important part of any gadget – does it work? Well, I’m happy to report that it does, and it actually works very well.

Separating the tag and my phone set off an alarm every single time I tested it. My phone also connected to the tag every time I turned it on.

That covers the important parts – the hardware appears to be rock solid, and very well designed. The software on the other hand needs some work. At one point I ran into an issue where the application would no longer start, and I had to uninstall, manually remove some stuff, and then reinstall in order to get things working again. This is obviously an early stage of the product, and software can easily be fixed (unlike hardware), so I’ll not hold this minor issue against them.

Update: The software appears to be a little buggier than I initially realized – last night (at 3 am), the nio software decided that I’d slept long enough, and set off its alarm (note; only the phone alarm, not the nio tag itself). The “silence alarm” button did nothing, so in a semi-asleep state, I had to pull the battery from my phone.

The practical applications of the tag are pretty easy to spot, though they may not be applicable to everyone. In my personal setup, I could really benefit from having a nio tag on my laptop bag, I’ll often have over $4500 in equipment in that bag, so anything that can keep us from becoming separated is more than welcome. Tags could also be great on a handbag, a purse, keys or a camera. And finally, you could even pop a tag on your kid(s). The tag has everything you need to prevent your kid from getting too far away, plus you can activate the locator feature if you want to scare them.

The software version I tested did not have a timer or scheduling feature, so you will need to manually disable the tag any time you voluntarily become separated (like having to gate check your bag). If you don’t, the tag will assume it is being stolen, and will start beeping.

The same applies to putting your bag in the overhead compartment of the plane – if you are out of range, the tag may start beeping during flight, and a federal air marshal will shoot you if you try to disable it (ok – just kidding there, but seriously, a beeping bag mid-flight is probably not a good idea).

So – is $70 for a nio tag a good investment? Only you can be the judge of that. If your belongings are worth enough, then yes, I could certainly see people investing in it. That said – software support is still rather limited, and is currently only offered on Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Java devices. This means people with an iPhone, Palm (PalmOS or WebOS), Android and anything else out there are going to be out of luck.

There are plans to release versions for other platforms, but this obviously requires support from the manufacturer, and the ability to actually communicate over Bluetooth. Some devices (like Android and the iPhone) are limited in what they’ll allow over Bluetooth, so it may take some till till they offer nio support.

Final thoughts

I really like nio – I think the concept is brilliant, and I think it is surprising that it has taken this long for someone to embrace the concept of a Bluetooth enabled luggage tag.

The hardware portion of the tag is very good, and works perfectly, but the software obviously needs a little more work. For $69.95 (and $8 shipping to the US), you get a tag, a MiniUSB cable and a USB charger. Surprisingly, no attachment hardware is included, so you’ll need to recycle a keyring, or make a trip to the local hardware store.

You’ll find nio, and how to order one, over at their web site.