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GPS Units vs. GPS Phones

by Paul Sanders

GPS unit on a dashboard mount

When GPS technology first appeared, it was only available through dedicated GPS units, but GPS navigation is now standard on many cell phones and smartphones. How do these GPS phones stack up against traditional GPS devices? We compare both GPS systems below.

Comparing GPS Devices:

  1. GPS navigation method: Traditional GPS navigation -- with either a portable GPS or a car GPS unit -- uses satellite communication to locate your receiver on the GPS map. GPS phones, however, communicate with cell phone towers to determine your position via your wireless carrier's network. The quality of GPS navigation offered by either method depends largely on the signal strength. Both network signals for GPS phones and satellite reception for portable GPS units can be disrupted by obstacles such as skyscrapers, rock formations and building materials.

  2. GPS feature availability: Advanced GPS systems often offer extra features, like live traffic data, turn-by-turn spoken directions and even Internet access. Your portable device may or may not offer these features. GPS phones may offer them, but the carrier will often require a monthly subscription to access the advanced services. Since the features vary between each device, there's no clear winner when it comes to features.

  3. Device portability: Both types of GPS navigation can be very portable, but portable GPS may have the advantage when it comes to trekking in the wilderness where cell phone towers are scarce; all you need with portable units is an open view of the sky. Some GPS phones do actually use global satellite positioning, however, so your GPS system will still work outside your cell network.

  4. Map updates: Depending on your GPS phone, your map updates may be free with your subscription. For portable GPS units, you may need to purchase periodic map updates to keep your device current. Lifetime map updates are available with some GPS systems, but they vary in price. This comparison point requires that you compare monthly subscription costs with periodic map update costs.

  5. Ease of use: Before smartphones began including larger screens, portable GPS was easier to use; however, most GPS phones now feature large touch screens, making them nearly as simple to read and use. Usability is largely a question of how user-friendly the GPS software used by your phone or portable GPS will be.

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