Smartphone vs Sat Nav: Should You Buy a Dedicated GPS Device?
The smartphone has replaced a growing number of standalone devices: the iPod, the alarm clock, the compact camera. And, the satellite navigation device. With GPS and maps built into literally every smartphone, there’s no obvious need to buy a dedicated GPS device anymore. Or is there?
Is there still a good reason to buy a dedicated in-car sat nav, or a handheld GPS for outdoor use? Let’s take a look.
The In-Car Sat Nav
Every modern smartphone has GPS capability that works just as well as that of a dedicated device. In fact, in some cases they may actually get a faster fix on your location since smartphones are able to use cell tower triangulation to augment the GPS technology.
Smartphones come with a full mapping package pre-installed. Both Google Maps and Apple Maps are mostly reliant on having an Internet connection to download maps as you go. If you’re in an area of poor coverage, or traveling overseas, this isn’t always available.
Google Maps is among the free GPS apps for Android with offline support , while Nokia’s HERE Maps — in the process of being bought by BMW, Audi and Mercedes — also offers full, downloadable worldwide maps for free on every smartphone platform.
Offline coverage is preferable, since it ensures your sat nav system won’t stop working the moment you drive into a tunnel, but they do consume space on your device. In HERE Maps, the whole of the USA requires more than 4.5GB of storage, with individual states averaging between 200MB and 500MB each.
This is one of the few areas where a dedicated device wins out. Many users won’t want, or be able to, afford so much of their limited smartphone space to maps. With a dedicated sat nav, you have no such concerns; with many manufacturers offering lifetime map updates, they’ll stay up to date too.
Ease of Use
The other area where the specialist system wins out is that they’re physically designed to be used in cars. They come with windshield mounts and battery chargers (you’ll need to buy each of these for your smartphone), and have speakers that can be heard over engine and traffic noise. The speakers on many smartphones are simply not up to this task.
If yours isn’t, then Bluetooth audio is an option if your car stereo supports it. Otherwise, you’ll need an adapter, or mount with built-in speakers.
Sat nav devices used to have better interfaces for in-car use, designed to be understood, and prodded, at a glance. It’s not quite so true now. There are many apps that switch your smartphone into car mode , and smartphone screens are also generally larger and higher resolution than those on dedicated satnavs.
The emergence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto will only help cement the role of the smartphone in the car.
Live Traffic and Other Features
Beyond this, the benefits of a dedicated sat nav over a smartphone can be chalked off one by one.
The free Google, Apple, and Nokia apps are a good starting point, covering all the basics such as 3D routing, live re-routing and comprehensive points of interest (including speed cameras).
If you want something more advanced then the paid TomTom and Garmin apps give you virtually the same software that you get in one of their devices. This includes features like multi-point routing and lane guidance.
Moreover, live traffic information is included as standard in all of these apps, and extras such as real-time gas prices are common too. They require an Internet connection, so to get them on a dedicated sat nav you need to connect it up to your smartphone anyway.
With all this in mind, sat nav makers are exploring new features to add to their products. An example is the Garmin NuviCam, which incorporates a dash cam into the device. Even so, smartphones have already got it covered .
The Case for a Dedicated Sat Nav
It’s hard to argue the advantages for the dedicated sat nav these days. Apart from a few small areas, the smartphone is at least as good, if not better.
If you’re a professional driver, you might prefer to have a device you can just leave in the car. Everyone else, though, will find that what they’ve already got does the job well enough.
The Handheld GPS
The other most common type of navigation device is the handheld GPS. Used for hiking, cycling, geocaching, or any other outdoor pursuit, it is also based on technology that has been subsumed by the smartphone.
Yet it also has a different set of strengths that the smartphone is less adept at competing with.
Tougher and Longer Lasting
Handheld GPS devices are used outdoors, in a variety of weather conditions and terrains, and far away from a convenient charging point. This is well outside the comfort zone of most smartphones.
You can get a rugged case , such as an Otterbox, for your iPhone or Android phone, to protect it against the elements. External charging packs can also give your phone an extra boost of power when it is needed. Both of these solutions add considerable bulk and turn the pocket-sized device into something altogether more unwieldy.
Handheld GPS devices, on the other hand, are far more rugged and have much better battery life. A typical mid-range device like the Garmin eTrex 20x, for instance, is waterproof and dustproof, and provides up to 25 hours of battery life. And it runs on AA batteries, so they can be swapped out easily when you need to.
If you’re well off the beaten track, the last thing you want is for you phone’s battery to die just when you need it the most.
Handheld GPS devices are also able to incorporate niche elements that the userbase requires in a way that smartphones cannot. Their screens are designed to be more easily viewed outdoors, button-based models are usable while wearing gloves, and hardware features such as a compass or altimeter are often built in.
The iPhone has an electronic compass , as do some high-end Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6, but mid-range and lower smartphones tend not to.
Mapping and Software
On the side of the smartphones you’ve got a larger, higher resolution display, faster performance and a built-in camera.
There’s also a greater range of maps, not limited to the first-party options that handheld devices use. As with the in-car systems, these will eat into your available storage. Offline mapping is not really an option when you’ll frequently be using it in areas with no network coverage.
Some outdoor mapping products, such as ViewRanger GPS, can share basic routing and other info to an Apple Watch or Android Wear smartwatch, while your phone stays safely in your pocket.
Otherwise, the basic functionality is the same across the two types of device. Key features you’ll need such as routing, waypoints, and support for GPX files (the standard format for GPS data) are present in both.
The Case for a Handheld GPS
A handheld GPS is a much more specialist device than an in-car system. As a result, it has certain requirements that a smartphone cannot yet provide.
If you’re just taking the dog for a walk in a nearby forest, then your smartphone and Google Maps (with cached maps for offline use) will ensure you don’t get lost.
But for more serious use, whether hiking, cycling, or even playing golf, then the added toughness and superior battery life make a handheld GPS device the right choice.
For more GPS advice, check out our thoughts on the best GPS tracker for your car .