Technology Explained

Smartphone vs Sat Nav: Should You Buy a Dedicated GPS Device?

Andy Betts 16-09-2015

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 6 Technologies That Will Change How You Use Your Smartphone What will our phones look like in five years? Let's talk about the exciting technologies that could change the way we use our phones in the near future. Read More 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.

Image converted using ifftoany


Smartphones come with a full mapping package pre-installed. Both Google Maps Google Maps on Android: Everything You Need to Know Does Google Maps on your Android device feel a bit daunting? We've got you covered. Here's everything you need to know about using Google Maps on Android. Read More and Apple Maps Is Apple Maps a Reliable Navigator Yet? After replacing Google's navigation, Apple Maps endured a rocky start, heaps of criticism and some very funny jokes – but has all been forgiven? Read More 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 8 Best Free Offline GPS Navigation Apps for Android Need directions on your phone but don't have an internet connection? These offline GPS apps for Android will help you navigate. Read More , 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.


here maps

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 Low on Storage? Save Space on Android With Great Apps Under 10 Megabytes Running low on storage space on your phone or tablet? These tiny apps should be able to remedy that! Read More 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.


tomtom iphone

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 The 5 Best Dashboard Car Mode Apps For Android Compared Want a safe way to use your Android smartphone while driving? These car mode apps make it easy. Read More , and smartphone screens are also generally larger and higher resolution than those on dedicated satnavs.

apple carplay


The emergence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto What Is Android Auto And How Can You Get It? Android Auto generated a lot of buzz at CES this year, but what exactly is it and how can you get your hands on it? Let's examine it. Read More 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 4 Best Dash Cam Apps for Android, Compared What's the best dashcam app for Android? Here are the top options to help you decide which to use while on the road. Read More .

Garmin nuviCam LMTHD 6" Navigation with Built-in Dash Camera Garmin nuviCam LMTHD 6" Navigation with Built-in Dash Camera Buy Now On Amazon $239.00

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.

handheld gps

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 6 Great Cases For The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus There is a huge range of cases available for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, covering just about every usage scenario you can come up with. Here are six of them. Read More , 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.

etrex 20x

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.

Garmin eTrex 20x, Handheld GPS Navigator, Enhanced Memory and Resolution, 2.2-inch Color Display, Water Resistant Garmin eTrex 20x, Handheld GPS Navigator, Enhanced Memory and Resolution, 2.2-inch Color Display, Water Resistant Buy Now On Amazon

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.

Other Features

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 The 5 Best iPhone Compass Apps Read More , 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 What's the Best GPS Tracker for Your Car? A GPS tracker for your car lets you keep track of it anywhere. Here are the best car GPS tracker units for a variety of uses. Read More .

Image credits: TomTom Go 500 via, TomTom iPhone via, Handheld GPS via Darron Birgenheier, eTrex 20x via, Viewranger via

Related topics: Buying Tips, GPS, Satellite.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. pierre
    December 7, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Im not seeing a clear difference here. YES compared to shoddy live app ssuch as google,waze apple etc. HOWEVER £35 for three years of TomTom app gives you the same benefits - offline maps when signal drops, traffic instant updates, always updated etc.

    I also bought a phone with a battery that lasts 2 days, or on satnav 1% per 10 mins usage... that would take 1000 (16 hours driving) to drain without plugging in.
    I also have a high spec charger in the car if needs be.

    So, hit the sat nav icon, i have tomtom, bluetooth radio, all in one. No need to buy a dedicated device.

  2. Mike G.
    September 12, 2017 at 8:37 am

    My feeling is that while smartphones are convenient, and fairly easy to use there are several places they fall short or have too much confidence placed in them..
    1. Batteries. It's easy to have 2 spare batteries for your phone, if your phone allows this.
    A. It is also easy to have a solar charger - but what good is this if you don't have any sun, for 2-3 days or more.
    B. By carrying a solar charger you are carrying way extra weight that CANNOT be used anywhere else.
    C. Wouldn't it be better to carry a power source that can be used in more than one instance. Ex. A headlamp ?
    2. You can carry several extra lithium AA or AAA batteries for your gps as well as your headlamp.. and they last longer. They won't break when you drop them.
    3. Gps are much more rugged than smartphones and 100 percent waterproof.
    4. Gps s also pick up many more satellites than the phones do.
    5. Smartphones - you will use them to:
    A. Communicate - call for help or most likely talk to your party.
    B. Flashlight
    C. Play games on in evening
    D. Navigate
    E. DROP on more than 1 occasion, on some very hard rocks
    F. Take Pictures - lots of them

    Honestly how long do u think u can do all these things on a winter trip? Or one that forecasts cloudy skies.

    You have just turned this wonderful signaling device into 5-1 toy.. when u run out of juice, or drop it to many times, or left your solar charger at the previous camp 8 miles back, HOW the F... are u going to contact anyone.

    Most things are excellent at 1 or 2 things. They are never excellent at 5. They are only marginally good. Would u trust your life on something 'good'. Or something 'excellent' ?

    Btw I have never seen a phone operate very well in sub freezing temperatures. The batteries just don't last..
    What happens when your phone has a brain fart, and needs to be restored ? Or reset? Do u lose your maps? The odds of 2 devices breaking or crashing is 50 % less than if u have just 1..

    The one good thing about the phone when it does break on you, is that it will be incredibly awesome for skipping across a lake!!!

  3. Matt
    June 11, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    I use the GPS to find garage sales and help me save time and miles. I can punch in a bunch and just leave it on my dash. I need to bring my phone with me into the sales. So if I used my phone, I'd have to keep plugging/unplugged it up to 50 times in a day, forgetting to take it out of my pocket or bring it with me and it seems to be such a hassle. Plus what if someone calls you and you need to grab the phone and now don't know where you're going?

  4. Larry
    April 3, 2017 at 1:28 pm

    One very crucial point that has been missed is most GPS maps on smart phones becomes useless when in rural areas that cell signal is not available. I have travelled many parts in US and Canada where there is no cell signal. This is where the stand alone GPS shines as they use satellite signals that are not available to any smartphone that I am aware of. This is exactly why city dwellers get stranded or lost when outside there city cell signals.

    • Cloudu
      May 25, 2017 at 4:48 pm

      Latest smart phones have dedicated GPS chip. You can download offline maps on your phone and use as a outdoor GPS. Just turn on your phone's airplane mode and try it out.

  5. Rikumanoro
    December 2, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    What about Galileo compatibilité?

  6. David Wilcox
    October 12, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    I have a newer Garmin GPS and recently updated it. Here in Jacksonville my son's new home and subdivision (Nocatee) is not available on the Garmin but is on my iPhone6. Also, the iPhone updates on the fly while the Garmin is "recalculating". With the flow of traffic around here the Garmin is too slow. The iPhone wins hands down for city driving for me.

  7. John
    August 16, 2016 at 3:26 am

    I've been using my Samsung s6 for hiking for a year or so. It's good, but I don't have anything to compare it to. Sometimes, it's not tracking where I'm actually at on the map...but I've found the map to be inaccurate. Without a handheld GPS to validate my concerns, I don't which would perform better.

    Every time I've used GPS apps, I've had to go back to compass and folded up map...old fashioned orienteering, to find my way. But I just can't blame it on the GPS alone, the maps (USGS TOPO) aren't accurate.

  8. C C M
    June 17, 2016 at 1:45 am

    We bought a car with a navigation system. The smart phone won out, though, after a few weeks. We have not used it, since. As for the GPS on our smart phone, we were lost in the Uintas late at night, on a Razor. After several attempts to get directions/help returning to base with the rented Razor, we realized that if we could make a call from it, we could use the GPS! It worked and we returned, cold and worn out. A very memorable experience.

  9. JD
    May 22, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    GPS essentials (android app) replaces all the hiking GPSes for me. Load maps from a number of different sources or take a scanned map and tell the app about some key points - bam - you have GIS-topo maps for that Alaska or Nepal trekking.

    Offline maps are critical - google doesn't like it when you go offline, but NAVMii doesn't care and has free OSM maps. Plus it doesn't report where you are when there isn't any data. Offline is nice.

    After all, it isn't like we will leave our phones at home, so why carry 2 devices? Battery life? Get a quality USB charger. Have 3 of these - for extending 1 day, overnight or going for a long weekend of hiking. Got an unbelievable deal on a highly rated, 3-day charger, ($11 via amazon). This charging pak is smaller than many GPS devices and weighs a little more, but I'd rather power my _portable entertainment device_ than a 1-trick pony like a dedicated GPS.

    -Data-less in Atlanta

  10. Nicpolsta
    March 15, 2016 at 11:51 pm

    What about the cost of running the apps through the phones? the use of memory etc? What happens if you dont have internet coverage on your phone for some reason? Does that mean you have no idea where you are?

    • Andy Betts
      March 17, 2016 at 1:46 pm

      Offline mode in Google Maps has improved considerably in recent months. You can now download large regions and get full search and navigation without needing a data connection. It won't cost anything and will work anywhere. All you have to do is remember to download the maps before you set off.

      • Joe
        September 14, 2018 at 2:08 pm

        Yes it has. And it's still absurdly limited and a waste of time. And note this is 2 years after your comment.

      • Joe
        September 14, 2018 at 2:11 pm

        This is 2 years later and onboard Google Maps is still absurdly limited and a waste of time.

  11. Rene
    January 13, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    What about costs of data comsumption online mode in smartphone vs using a dedicated gps?

    • JD
      May 22, 2016 at 3:39 pm

      Zero data used with offline GPS apps - lots of those exist. Forget the built-in GPS tools. Also, need to have a smartphone that doesn't require data for the GPS stuff to work. In the android world, most of the phones work this way. Just avoid A-GPS on the specs and get full GPS devices with multiple satellite systems supported. My Nexus4 has this feature. Had a Galaxy S3 - it did too. I've hiked in very remote places with just the Nexus (well traveled paths with a guide usually).

      I cannot speak for iDevices. Don't know anything about them - except when hiking with a relative trying to use her iPhone as a GPS and it didn't. It needed a data connection. THAT is not a GPS-worthy device, IMHO.

  12. Anonymous
    September 22, 2015 at 9:24 am

    I have found that even if plugged in to a charger, the battery slowly runs down on my two smartphones (one very newest technology) making it ultimately risky on long journeys. It seems that the power required to run the screen, and GPS receiver and online data connection simply overwhelms the phones. This is a great shame.

  13. Anonymous
    September 17, 2015 at 9:39 pm

    For around town driving, I rely on my Galaxy Note & Navigator. It has something I've never seen on dedicated GPS devices: Street View. Absolutely indispensable to me!

  14. Anonymous
    September 17, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    Don't forget SECURITY and PRIVACY! Car installed GPS's record your movements to the cars computer. Some report back to a monitoring location such as, but not limited to, OnStar. Rental cars are prime users of these systems.

    Smart phone GPS's have broad splattering permissions, including remote monitoring and information collecting. How do you believe the attraction at the next corner got into your display?

    Hand held GPS's keep there information to them selves. The operator can prevent ("bread crumbs" Off) and delete information.

    • Anonymous
      November 5, 2015 at 7:37 pm

      I don't agree with the point raised by you. Let anyone track wherever I am going. If I am doing right thing what should be I afraid of? But I would prefer that I should have ability to turn off GPS whenever I want to

      • babygal
        January 21, 2016 at 8:33 am

        It is a matter of privacy. You can that you do not care now but when someone digs onto you, then you will be even worse than us.

      • JD
        May 22, 2016 at 3:34 pm

        That isn't the point at all. It is none of their damn business where I am or what I'm doing without having "probable cause" AND a warrant signed by a judge - ever heard of that?

        If you don't care about your privacy, please just post your email login and password here. You don't have anything to hide, right?

    • radav
      December 15, 2016 at 1:08 pm

      If you carry a phone that's switched on, you're trackable.
      If you're connected to the internet right now, you're trackable.

      It's a question of how prep/paranoid you want or need to be (or how much spare time&energy&money you've got)

  15. Anonymous
    September 17, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Hiking GPS:

    First thing I'd say is whatever electronic aids you may chose to use you should never go into wild country without a paper map and the skills to use it. In UK the mountain rescue teams are becoming overwhelmed by the growth in numbers of walkers needing help because they were relying solely on a mobile phone. Often it's the same people who go out ill equipped in other respects too so having got lost or injured also get cold, hungry, thirsty.

    Only a couple of weeks ago in the hills we were approached by a guy asking for directions. We said you shouldn't set out without a map. He promptly got out a very good (UK Ordnance survey) map of the area - the problem was he didn't know where how to use it.

    I use a dedicated GPS very regularly. The requirements are very different to mobile phone GPS. Fully waterproof, very robust, clear large text with backlight, attached to me by a lanyard, 20 hour battery life with widely available AA spares. The dedicated circuitry and good aerial means I can get a fix when friends' mobiles can't. Better software - for example friend's mobile gives significantly wrong altitude. I pre-load a route or at least waypoints from desktop mapping software. I record the route actually taken so can backtrack if necessary and download to desktop afterwards so I can repeat the route at a later date.

    I always carry a paper map, even on a large screen mobile phone the area covered without scrolling is too small for wilderness navigation. I print the areas of map I need on A4 and waterproof them.

    I looked at and rejected dedicated GPS with on-board full colour mapping. They're expensive and I'd still not walk without a paper map anyway. All I really need is my current coordinates so I can locate myself on the paper map but I find route following and track recording a worthwhile benefit.

  16. Anonymous
    September 17, 2015 at 11:39 am

    I have a tablet mounted to my car's console. The screen on that tablet is much, much brighter than any portable GPS I've seen. The author doesn't mention this issue, but it definitely can be a factor for daytime driving.

    In practice I've also found that it's much easier to keep maps up to date on a mobile device than a dedicated GPS, and if your device has an internet connection, there's also a lot to be said for real time road condition reporting.

    • Andy Betts
      September 17, 2015 at 11:50 am

      For city driving there's almost no downsides to using a smartphone (or even a tablet), since you'll always have a network connection to pull in your maps and other data.

  17. Anonymous
    September 16, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with the second section about handheld gps units for hiking. They are tougher, waterproof, and have far better battery life for navigating and recording tracks all day long. Meanwhile, the phone apps like Backcountry Navigator have better maps but you generally have to download the area you are interested in in advance because you don't want to store several gigs of them on the phone all the time.

    Personally, I prefer to carry both, with the phone being a backup since I often no longer carry a paper map on hikes, at least not on dayhikes. But on shorter hikes closer to home and in areas I'm familiar with I often carry only the phone (and a small drybag for it in case of rain) allowing me to skip carrying both a gps and camera.

    • Andy Betts
      September 17, 2015 at 11:47 am

      I'm not sure I'd want to trust my smartphone if I was out in the middle of nowhere. It's one of the few things it's not really suited for.

      • Anonymous
        September 17, 2015 at 12:55 pm

        I don't disagree with you on that. Like I said, or at least suggested, I will rely on the phone only in areas I am familiar with for shorter hikes. If I'm on a longer hike, especially in a remote area or somewhere I am not familiar with, I will have a rugged, dedicated gps for my primary navigation. And though I oftentimes no longer carry a map, I always have a compass in my pack - and I will have a printed map in these types of areas.

        But especially in areas one is familiar with, and in less remote settings for shorter hikes, I think the phone can sometimes be sufficient as long as you are confident in your ability to get back to the road without it if it fails. The decision needs to be made on a case by case basis though and will differ for individuals.