GPS on Android is incredible for many reasons. You’ve got the obvious uses, such as recovering your device when lost or stolen or navigating your way through hiking trails, and it’s especially nifty because GPS works even when the device isn’t connected to the internet. 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
- Navigate to Android’s Settings.
- Under Personal, tap Security.
- Under Device Administration, tap Device Administrators.
- Tap Android Device Manager.
- 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.
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.
- Lookout — Lookout is more of an all-in-one solution where device tracking is just one of many features. As such, it might be a bit too bloated if device tracking is the only feature you’re interested in. But if your device currently lacks a good antivirus app, you might as well use this.
- Prey — In practical usage, Prey is very similar to Android Device Manager. The one big advantage is availability across multiple other platforms, including Windows, Mac, Linux, and iOS, so you can track your device from anywhere.
- Familonet — Though mainly used for tracking family members and sometimes even tracking your friends, Familonet is good for when you don’t want to use your main device as the tracker. Grab a secondary device, preferably a cheap one, and set up Familonet so you can track the secondary device using your main device.
Most of these are marketed as anti-theft and anti-loss security apps, 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
So yes, GPS tracking is one way to turn your smartphone into a device fit for a spy, 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.