Sunday, March 18, 2012

Auto GPS vs. Smartphone: Do you need both?


With so many apps and options available to customize your smartphone into a handheld wonder, it may seem like the dedicated GPS devices are being replaced by their smaller multitasking cousins. But are smartphones really better than more traditional GPS devices? We’ll take a look and you can decide.

For the sake of comparison, we will judge both the GPS device and smartphone based on a few basic attributes.


Convenience – Smartphone

Obviously, the smartphone is going to win out on convenience a majority of the time, simply because most people have their phones on them at all times. There is no need to remember to grab your GPS or meddle with stashing it away from car thieves. Smartphones are terribly convenient, and adding GPS to their growing list of things they replace is ridiculously easy for most situations–provided you weren’t planning on using the phone for anything else while navigating.

Battery – Tie

Your dedicated GPS device is probably going to be better with battery because it doesn’t have to save its power for any other functions and will generally last for longer trips. While GPS modes can be turned on and off on most phones to prevent battery drain while you aren’t navigating, when you do run the navigation program it will tax your battery. You can, of course, plug the phone in to counteract this which technically makes it a tie between the two.

Screen – GPS Device

Without a doubt, the GPS Device has the upper hand with screen size. While there are some phones with enormous screens, most phone screens aren’t as large as GPS devices. Most GPS devices have 5 inch screens, making text simple to read while driving. Also, GPS devices have fewer bells and whistles so they tend to be a little sharper as far as appearance. And even for the apps that are equally sharp, the small screen of most phones makes it hard to properly appreciate.

Signal – GPS Device

The clear winner in this category is going to be GPS devices because they use (as the name implies) GPS satellites and can get a signal where no cell phone would dream of succeeding. Most smartphones that have GPS actually still rely on their cell phone network, using what is referred to as AGPS (assisted GPS) meaning they will still fail to acquire a signal in the middle of nowhere. GPS devices do, of course, occasionally run into trouble with heavily foliage creating an obstacle between them and the sky, but nothing is perfect and it does vary from device to device. Overall, your dedicated GPS will have better signal a majority of the time than your phone will.

Accuracy – Tie

Accuracy is a solid tie because while the phones automatically update their maps and can give you realtime updates, it is all dependent on how your service signal is and what app you are using. GPS devices, on the other hand, are completely reliant on your map. If you download an old map, then your directions are going to be wrong, plain and simple. Most GPS devices now come with free lifetime map updates, but they don’t all update automatically so you may not realize until too late that your map is wrong. All in all, this category is entirely too situational to really have a clear winner.

Simplicity – GPS Device

While it may seem that smartphones should win this tie because most people are already familiar with their usage, navigating with a tiny screen while driving is anything but simple. GPS device are designed to be used while driving, so the letters are often larger and easier to read. In addition, the microphones for your GPS device often will be louder or will easily sync into your car speakers so you can hear over road noise.  So, as far as operating while driving, the GPS hands-down beats a smartphone and is safer to boot.

Cost – Tie

When they first came out, GPS devices were easily in the $500 range and you had to pay a monthly fee for the service PLUS pay money for additional maps. Nowadays GPS devices are more affordable than ever–in part because of the stiff competition from GPS apps and smartphones–and you can purchase a simple one for around $100 and many come with lifetime map updates. Smartphones, on the other hand, have risen steeply in cost in the last few years and, while most people already own a smartphone, the navigation and map apps and necessary mounting equipment can quickly add up to easily equal the price of a cheaper GPS device. For this reason, they are probably tied.


Based on these categories, the GPS device clearly is more suited to navigation than your smartphone because of its larger size, simplicity to read while navigating and reliable signal. However, the smartphone is incredibly convenient for simple, short trips–especially if you have a passenger to operate the phone. Ultimately, it will depend on how you use your device and your own personal preferences.


  1. Cellular devices can’t start routing you without cell signal either. I find Garmin screens very readable even in direct sunlight despite their drastically lower resolution, whereas phone screens are far more reflective and hence hard to read in the sun.

    Not included in your list is updates and functionality. For example everyone using Google Maps got lane guidance recently automatically. Anyone with a Garmin that didn’t have lane guidance had to buy an entire new unit to get it.

    I have both a Garmin and Android phone next to each other in my car. Garmin displays the maps better and gives route instructions like a human would. The Google display is clinically 100% correct but harder to quickly grok, and the instructions are noticeably worse.

    Traffic is interesting. The FM radio based ones aren’t much use because of limited coverage and update times, and you usually have to pay to get better traffic info. Google Maps includes pretty decent traffic, but other smartphone apps often also require paying.

  2. offthegrid says:

    In part this depends on which carrier you use. Verizon still doesn’t allow simultaneous voice and data AFAIK and Sprint did on a couple of phones but not the new ones.

    You really can’t do any better than TomTom on a Nexus 7 or some other tablet through wifi which means you can use a regular phone. You can use Yelp for address look up rather than TT’s dated data base.

    Unfortunately because of the smartphone takeover there is no push to build decent feature phones. They are getting worse not better.

  3. I don’t understand how you can say that a Smartphone is more convenient than a dedicated GPS? My GPS is always in my car mounted on the windshield and plugged in. Soon as I turn the ignition on the GPS powers up automatically. What could be more convenient? With my Smartphone I have to remember to bring it with me. I usually forget it about once a week when I leave for work. I then must fasten it to the windshield, plug it in to prevent the battery from draining and then power it up and run the GPS app. I would have to go through this routine every time I get in or out of the car.

  4. danderlion says:

    You car GPS is ready to go because that is how it is set up and how you use.
    You could have a cradle for your phone, maybe even a powered one to keep it on charge.
    The real downsides are the smaller screen, lower volume unless you add an external speaker to it, etc.
    You should not have your eyes on the screen when driving anyway, and the voice from Androids latest (beta software) is impressive and does repeat commands, typically more often than what a portable GPS does..I don’t think it is nuisance most of the time, but either there is or should be a way to it manually.
    I am not saying SmartPhones will replace GPS devices anytime soon, but they are GPS devices. Eventually, they will be even better. Folks still like integration in small packages and while we can’t speed that up, it’s coming nonetheless.

  5. Simplicity GPS devices win? Their programming design is prehistoric. So many screens to go through just to go to a point. In Google maps a few taps and you’re on your way.
    Other than the signal, I don’t see GPS devices winning on anything over a good smart phone.
    GPS devices program design is prehistoric and not practical. Not to mention way overpriced for a thing that can only do GPS. I paid $360 for a Garmin zumo for motorcycle, VERY tempted to return that medieval thing, but haven’t found a decent reliable case to use my phone as GPS on the motorcycle. That particular design of the Garmin is disgusting tho, well, the GPS device design is standard, but the thing to hold the GPS on the motorcycle is just wrong, I’ve put together ikea couches simpler to assemble than that thing.

  6. cell phone use your data the other do not real satellites.

  7. The GPS built in to my brand new Nissan is archaic compared to my Nexus 5 smart phone. I do not require cell access, the phone is fully capable of GPS function without cell signal, map updates are free and I can download maps for offline use if I desire. Try saying “okay google”, “navigate to or , etc” to your GPS and see what happens. For premium sound I was forced into navigation at a cost that is roughly 4 to 5 times what my smart phone cost yet the dedicated GPS doesn’t come close to the ease of use of the smart phone.

  8. offthegrid says:

    Built in navigation systems are the worst of all worlds. The new Garmins are focused on safety features that aren’t available in Google Maps.

  9. danderlion says:

    I don’t see what is difficult about using a GPS.. plus it is so much easier to see when you need to.
    Once you have a route set (and now you can have voice command) you don’t have to mess with the antiquated software and multiple screens. As I stated phones are getting better and closer, but a GPS is still the most convenient while leaving the phone alone to do what it is best at.
    I have seen more people fumble with phones in the car much more than their GPS, while driving!

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