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GPS on Android is incredible for many reasons. You’ve got the obvious uses, such as recovering your device when lost or stolen 2 Easy Ways to Recover a Lost or Stolen Android Phone 2 Easy Ways to Recover a Lost or Stolen Android Phone These methods can help you find your lost or stolen Android phone or tablet. Read More or navigating your way through hiking trails 6 Android Apps Every Hiker Needs 6 Android Apps Every Hiker Needs How can your Android device improve your next hiking trip? These six apps can challenge you, help you explore, and provide incredibly useful information. Read More , and it’s especially nifty because GPS works even when the device isn’t connected to the internet The Top 4 Free Offline GPS Apps for Android The Top 4 Free Offline GPS Apps for Android No data connection? Don't worry! With these apps, you can continue to navigate without an issue. Read More . When navigating, you just need to download maps ahead of time.

But with GPS, an Android device could also be used for tracking. It may not be the most reliable method, and it does comes with some not-so-insignificant limitations, but it can get the job done. Here’s how you can use your device to pinpoint a person’s or object’s location.

Tracking with Native Features

Most Android devices released in 2014 or later have a built-in feature called Android Device Manager. This service constantly pings your device’s location back to Google’s servers so that Google knows where your device is. You can then use Google’s web interface to see where your device is at any given time. You’ll need a Google account to use this feature.

How to Enable Android Device Manager

  1. Navigate to Android’s Settings.
  2. Under Personal, tap Security.
  3. Under Device Administration, tap Device Administrators.
  4. Tap Android Device Manager.
  5. Tap Activate.

In order to activate this service, you’ll need to allow three permissions: the ability to erase all data, the ability to change your screen-unlock password, and the ability to lock the screen. The nice thing about Android Device Manager is that it’s not just a tracker — it lets you control the device from afar in these ways. Learn more in our overview of Android Device Manager Find My iPhone for Android? Meet Android Device Manager Find My iPhone for Android? Meet Android Device Manager Jealous of the iPhone's Find My iPhone app? Well, lucky for you there's an equally awesome app for Android called the Android Device Manager! Let's take a look at it. Read More .

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How to Use Android Device Manager

Once enabled, all you have to do is launch a web browser, navigate to the Android Device Manager dashboard, and sign into your account (the same one associated with your device). Click the Locate Device button for said device and it’ll show its last known location. It’s fairly accurate in my experience, but can be off by up to 20 meters in areas with poor GPS visibility.

Tracking With Android Apps

If you don’t like Android Device Manager for whatever reason, you can always resort to one of the many third-party alternatives available on the Play Store. Fortunately these apps are easy to install and you don’t really have to do anything beyond creating an account to use them.

Most of these are marketed as anti-theft and anti-loss security apps 4 Android Anti-Theft Solutions Compared: Which Is the Best? 4 Android Anti-Theft Solutions Compared: Which Is the Best? Be sure to install one of these anti-theft apps before your device is stolen. It could happen to any of us. Read More , and they’re certainly useful for those purposes, but you can just use them for straight-up tracking if you so wish.

Making Your Android Mountable

Once your device is set up as trackable, whether using Android Device Manager or a third-party app, there’s only thing left to do: attach the device to the person or object that you want to track. Obviously, this is much easier said than done.

The easiest and most effective option is to use a magnetic car mount. Most kits come with a magnetic insert that you place inside your device case along with a magnetic base that you mount somewhere. With a good model, the magnetic force should be strong enough for your phone to “snap” onto the base and stay there even across bumpy terrain.

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The WizGear air vent mount is very convenient. If you’d rather stick the mount on some other surface, perhaps out of sight, then consider the WizGear suction cup mount (meant for dashboards but can be used elsewhere). If you don’t have a phone case, you can use adhesive metal plates instead, such as these by Pop-Tech.

Nothing Beats a Dedicated GPS Tracker

With all the above being said, don’t expect your Android device to pass for a serious tracking device. There are three main drawbacks that you should be aware of, and if any of these drawbacks prove problematic for you, then you should really consider using a dedicated tracker instead.

  1. Battery Life — Smartphones are complex. There’s a lot of software running in the background at all times, including system-level services and third-party apps, and all of that processing is a burden on the battery. For this reason, a dedicated GPS tracker can last much longer than a smartphone even on a much smaller battery.
  2. Signal Quality — Though GPS trackers aren’t perfect by any stretch, their signals are far superior to smartphone signals. As such, not only are dedicated trackers more accurate, but they can keep tracking even in areas where smartphones would normally cut out.
  3. Risk and Cost — Are you willing to lose your Android device? Imagine mounting it to the undercarriage of a car only to have it fall off in the middle of some highway. Dedicated trackers are easier to mount, and even if they’re lost or damaged, they’re much cheaper to replace than smartphones. The overall risk is lower.
Spy Tec STI_GL300 Mini Portable Real Time GPS Tracker Spy Tec STI_GL300 Mini Portable Real Time GPS Tracker Perfect for tracking vehicles, teens, spouses, elderly persons or assets Buy Now At Amazon £42.95

So yes, GPS tracking is one way to turn your smartphone into a device fit for a spy 3 James Bond Gadgets You Can Make From an Old Smartphone 3 James Bond Gadgets You Can Make From an Old Smartphone The smartphone is the most sophisticated gadget we carry with us everyday. And while we don’t have our own Q Branch working for us in a secret lab, thanks to a few intrepid DIY-ers and... Read More , but it should be more of a last resort option. For something more serious and reliable, we recommend the Spy Tec Portable GPS Tracker or Optimus GPS Tracker.

What kind of tracking do you need? Do you think a smartphone is reliable enough, or is this a job better suited to dedicated devices? Share your thoughts with us in a comment below!

Originally written by Matt Smith on September 30th, 2011.

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  1. thecolor
    September 30, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    mobile devices (aka phones) are decent.  If you can at least figure a way to mount the device near a window in a car or the like and provide a constant power source, they can use GPS and wifi and cellular for the best location... even more accurate sometimes with the combined efforts of all three.

    Then, with the pre-paid service (as @Plasbot noted above), you've got a winner.  :D

    • M.S. Smith
      September 30, 2011 at 11:53 pm

      That's a lot of work! 

  2. Plasbot
    September 30, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    I have been using Mologogo for cheap gps tracking. It runs on boost phones. The only cost is the boost 'data' plan, which is .35 cents per day.  If the phone gets lost or damaged it's not expensive to replace, and it doubles as an emergency phone.