I am a person who loses things. Many things. Frequently. I am also a person who believes that the road to Hell is paved with cheap, unresponsive technology, or, in this case, that we will be forced to use it incessantly to get there, so I have never bought anything sold directly on TV, in SkyMall catalogues, or through unsolicited mailers that convey the solutions to life's problems with a sticky caps lock key. So it was with great interest that I took on the challenge of evaluating three affordable key-finding devices, of which I was highly suspect, as is my nature.
The three key finders we evaluated were Brookstone's Smart Find, The Sharper Image's "Now You Can Find It!" (henceforth dubbed NYCFI), and the Find One Find All (FOFA). The former two companies should need little introduction, but the Find One Find All is made by a single-product company, Melbourne Designs, that is run by a husband-and-wife team in Arlington, Texas. (I know, we're all suckers for the little guy. Just wait.)
The Smart Find and NYCFI both feature a base unit that calls out to receiving units. The Smart Find, at $60, has four - two key fobs and two flat lozenges to stick on other items; the NYCFI, sold for $50, has eight, all of them key fobs. FOFA units are sold in two-key-fob packs ($24) and individual credit-card ($12) versions, and every unit both sends and receives signals, which means once set up, each unit can call every other one. All three systems are manufactured in China.
All of each system's parts functioned fine on an initial check at close range, except one Smart Find lozenge, which we eliminated from the running as a lemon. The Smart Find was already operating at 75% effectiveness.
Playing With the Units
The first order of business was to get a general impression of how each model worked - in other words, to play with them. To accomplish this, we turned to our trusty assistant Elmo.
Our three-year-old daughter Z and I took turns hiding Elmo in various locations in our living room and then watching each other try to find him using each of the key-finding devices. All three models performed well at ranges under 10' with the single fob we tested, even when Elmo was covered by a blanket, but we immediately noticed that the FOFA's signal was much easier to hear. Whether this was because of the pitch or the decibel level, we can't say, but the improvement was obvious and helped when searching for an Elmo who was covered by a blanket. Since the FOFA units can all send and receive signals, the developers also added a nifty bonus feature: When a fob is called, it responds with a signal of its own, and the "calling" unit beeps once and flashes an LED light when it receives this signal; the time it takes for this acknowledgment can help you determine the distance of the object you're looking for.
So far, so good. It was time to get serious with the testing. Life conveniently intervened, and all three sets lived happily in a box for a while, except one fob of each type, which we affixed to keys we use regularly to evaluate their carrying weight and bulk over time.
Testing the Units
We tested each model's performance within a 40' range under three conditions:
- Laid out in plain sight on the seat of a chair,
- In the pocket of a heavy wool WWII-era Swedish army jacket, facing the tester, and
- In the pocket of the same jacket, draped over the chair back so the pocket is covered by the rest of the coat.
At a distance of forty feet, all NYCFI units chirped happily in response to our calls, regardless of where the base unit was pointed; at shorter distances, it worked even when we turned away from the fobs.
The Smart Find gave us a rude awakening, as its second lozenge had perished of loneliness during its month in The Box. Smart Find had another man down. Additionally, we quickly discovered that the Smart Find's ability to successfully call its fobs depended on some combination of luck and careful, remote-control-like aim, both of which defy the logic of a key-finder's intended function. At times, the Smart Find's fobs quickly responded to the call, even when we had our back turned and were holding the base unit upright. At other times we stood 15' away and pointed the thing directly at an exposed fob, and received not a peep in response. Since the Smart Find also advised users to depress the call button for a full five seconds to receive a response, this made for some tedious and frustrating button-pressing, and that's without actually trying to find something you've lost.
The FOFA again distinguished itself by its mysterious establishment of a "link" of some kind from one unit to another. Upon an initial call, it could take up to a few seconds to generate a response from the receiver, as was the case with both the Smart Find and the NYCFI; but once that first FOFA call had been received, subsequent calls placed less than a few seconds after the first response had ended led to an instantaneous response from the receiving unit. There is, of course, a technical explanation for this phenomenon, and that explanation is this: Magic. All magic aside, the effect could be quite helpful in finding lost objects. FOFA again proved that its design had its lone LED eye squarely on the ball.
We were pleased to see that while covering the fobs with one layer of wool (the pocket front) or an entire wool coat had the effect of shortening the working distance of all models - none performed with greater than 50% consistency beyond 25' - all performed equally well under both conditions. If we had to pick a loser in these events, it would have to be the Smart Find, which again infuriated us with its inconsistency, which was present at almost every distance measured. One surprising revelation was that the FOFA wallet fob responded much more readily in its "covered" state when one side was "up" rather than the other, with a distance differential of a full fifteen feet.
Conclusions, Accusations, and Recommendations
First off, the Smart Find is for suckers. It's the most feature-deprived, the poorest-functioning, and the least reliable brand we tested. It's also the most expensive, at $60 for a base unit and four receivers, which may or may not work right out of the box. Throwing your keys down a well would be cheaper.
The Sharper Image's "Now You Can Find It!" was a solid performer. All parts functioned out of the box and a month later, and it responded consistently at distances up to our measurement limit of 40'; beyond that distance, a key finder isn't going to help you much anyway. The $50 price tag still seems a bit steep to us, but you get eight receivers for your money, which is probably more than you need. The set comes with sticker labels you can put on the base unit buttons to designate which fob is attached to what, and includes all manner of unlikely items like remote controls and, inexplicably, sunglasses, to which you are supposed to affix the fobs using small pieces of Velcro. The receivers were reasonably-sized as keychain attachments.
The NYCFI's base unit comes with a magnetic mounting bracket; the natural place to put this would be a refrigerator. The remote also has both numbers and Braille, but I will go ahead and make the perhaps unfair generalization that blind people generally learn how to put things away in their proper place. Overall, the NYCFI is good enough that I am tempted to keep it and implant the eight receivers in Z's eight most-sought-after stuffed animals and dolls so that she could find them when needed and use them to play RF-enabled hide-and-seek. Instead, we're going to give it away to a ZRecs reader.
The Find One Find All was the clear winner in our book, and we're going to keep it. The credit-card version is too thick (the minimum width of a technology like this is, at least for now, dictated by the width of a slim watch battery, which all of these brands' receivers use), so we will probably treat that one as a base, hang it on our fridge somehow, and use it to find lost keys. We're impressed with its feature set, its consistent performance, and its price - you can get a pair of key fobs for $24 plus shipping, which is a great deal. This makes the FOFA system the only one you can try out without spending $50 or more, and we think it's probably the least frustrating way to find something that is lost.
There is a new, powerful device now on the market that we were unable to get our hands on for testing. The Loc8tor has an LCD display and can measure distance as well as direction, and generated significant buzz in its launch by claiming you could keep track of your kid in a crowd with it, one it has wisely since removed from its website. The Loc8tor costs over $100 for a base unit and two fobs, and the company was unresponsive to our requests for a unit for testing.
We think the next great leap forward for "finding" devices requires not just advances in location sensing, but a reduction in the size of the power supply. Whether this advance will come from a new form of battery or from some other technology, it is the key to helping people who lose stuff find it - not just keys, but all of the things the NYCFI stickers claim you should stick your fobs on. OK, that just sounded obscene. Can I stop saying "fob" now?
In the spirit of Home Organization Week, we must point out that all of this technology begs the question of what lengths a person will go to in order to avoid the difficult task of changing habits so that they put things in places where they can find them. At our house we have "the rooster," a small black box that sits on a shelf in our living room and has a painting of a rooster on the lid. Keys, wallets, and sunglasses are all supposed to go there and only there, and both Jenni and I have each had periods of militancy and of lassitude in this regard. For keys alone, a row of key hooks could work just as well - it just takes a little discipline. For now, we'll rely on a system like FOFA, but ultimately, I'd rather wean myself of the need for it altogether. Even then, we'll probably still leave the fobs on our keychains - for "emergencies" - or who knows? Maybe we'll operate on Spot yet - we are down to one, after all.
Want to win the Sharper Image "Now You Can Find It!" system? Comment on this post with a "LOST:" classified ad for something you have lost but think is around somewhere, with the format as follows:
LOST: [Funny description here.] If found, contact [your email address or name].
Enter as many times as you like; we'll pick our favorite original entry on Feb. 6 and ship the winner our $50 NYCFI testing unit, sans excess packaging. If you prefer not to include an email address in your entry, plan to check back at the "Claim Your Prize!" section of our sidebar after the giveaway. The winner will have five days to claim their prize, and we will name a few runners-up; if the winner doesn't come through, the first runner-up to have contacted us will score the prize.
Deadline: 11:59 p.m. Feb. 5, 2008
Thanks to the Sharper Image, Brookstone, and Melbourne Designs for supplying units for review.