GPS vs Smartphones


GPS vs Smart Phones - Introduction When GPS devices began to grow in popularity, it was clear that the days were numbered for map folding, Thomas Guides, and stubborn husbands refusing to ask for directions. (Well, maybe not that last part.) With a GPS device, maps were always at your fingertips, and drivers always knew exactly where they were and which way they were heading. As GPS devices evolved from their basic monochromatic roots, they added features such as speed zones, elevation, ETA, detouring, and even live traffic updates.

Now, it seems GPS systems may be the latest in a long list of technology to be upended by the rise of smartphones and mobile data. After all, why spend money on a GPS when you can just download a free app, right?

While it's hard to argue with free, the answer isn't quite that simple. Here at, we've compared and contrasted the two technologies in our GPS vs Smartphone smack down. We'll be helping you decide if a new GPS device should be on your shopping list this Black Friday, or if you're better off sticking with a simple navigation app.

Navigation Capability

Navigation Capability When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, all that drivers in unfamiliar territory really need is a device that can get them there quickly, safely, and easily. While both GPS and smartphones can't be right 100% of the time, GPS devices offer many advanced navigation features that have yet to be matched outright in a single smartphone app.

Modern GPS devices offer options such as avoiding toll roads, shortest route vs. fastest route, and they can even help avoid low clearance underpasses for those driving an RV or pulling a trailer. The latest Garmin GPS devices featuring lane assist can even display a computer re-creation of exits and junctions to show the driver exactly what to expect and into which lane they should move when approaching an off-ramp or intersection.
Winner: GPS

Around Town

Around Town For commuters, especially in urban areas plagued by traffic issues, a smartphone with a social media-enabled GPS app such as Waze wins hands down over a GPS device. Yes, there are GPS devices that offer traffic updates, but those devices rely on services such as Garmin or MSN traffic to report congestion and simply can't compete with up-to-the-second updates provided by drivers themselves. With apps like Waze, drivers are a few taps away from reporting road hazards, street closures, and speed traps. Not only that, but the app itself compares driving speed to posted speed limit to determine traffic congestion, and updates nearby users accordingly, without any input from the driver.

Because of technological limitations, these are features with which GPS devices will never be able to compete, the only exception being newer models that pair with your smartphone to mimic this feature. Either way, the obvious choice for most drivers will be a smartphone.

Even if you're not stuck in traffic, a smartphone still reigns supreme for navigating around town, and with voice-controlled assistance like Siri and Ok Google, finding directions to a local hotspot or a great eatery is just a few spoken words away.
Winner: Smartphone

Road Trip

Road Trip When you're gassing up the tank and hitting the road on an adventure with friends or family, a dedicated GPS as your copilot is the way to go for a variety of reasons. First, having a GPS mounted to your dashboard or windshield means you're always just a glance away from knowing exactly where you are and which way you're headed. Yes, a smartphone app would do the same, but smartphones are also used for other things like phone calls and music, so switching away from your app to take a call or to dial up some new tunes means potentially missing a turn or forgetting to switch back to the navigation app altogether. It should go without saying that another major downfall of using your smartphone while driving is that it is extremely dangerous for both yourself and everyone around you. Don't do it!

Second, and perhaps most importantly, GPS devices will function where smartphones will not. Many rural areas lack sufficient data coverage to make navigation apps reliable, but GPS devices will always function as long as they have a charged battery and a clear view of the sky. If you manage to get lost while taking a detour, or drive off the beaten path to take in the view, a smartphone without data coverage could leave you high and dry.

Speaking of battery, if an emergency should arise where a smartphone could be indispensable for calling for help, using a separate GPS device will ensure you don't drain the battery on your phone by using it for navigation. Navigating with a smartphone that has not been charging can leave you with no juice left to make an emergency phone call.
Winner: GPS


Cost Cost is a factor that can be debated in several ways depending on your point of view. If you've already got a smartphone then you might be content to call navigation free and avoid spending the extra money to buy a dedicated GPS device. Even if you don't factor in the price of the smartphone itself, what should not be discounted is the added hit you will take on your data package if you're using your smartphone for navigation on a long road trip or in an unfamiliar city. Since maps, points of interest, and satellite images are downloaded on the fly, relying on a smartphone could add a large and unexpected data fee on your next wireless bill.

On the dedicated GPS side, there have been many strides in recent years to cull the expense of the device after the initial purchase. While you'll spend around $100 and up for the device itself (or less on Black Friday!), nearly all GPS devices include lifetime map updates from the manufacturer, which are usually released annually. Since these maps are stored locally and there are no data charges, a dedicated device can save you money in the long run if you or your family does a lot of traveling.
Winner: Tie

Map Updates and Detail

Map Updates and Detail The frequency of map updates is somewhat of a mystery on the smartphone side. With most navigation apps pulling data from Google Maps, the frequency of updates is sporadic, with most map data being 1-3 years old. The good news is that Google is constantly updating this data, and since your device is always pulling from their servers, you will have the most up-to-date maps available when you are navigating any given area.

GPS device manufacturers tend to release large updates annually or semiannually, and it's up to the user to make sure to download and install the latest maps as they become available. This adds an extra step and means if you haven't checked with your manufacturer, you could be using a map that is outdated.

Furthermore, services like Google Maps offer different map overlays, allowing you to view satellite imagery, transit lines, or topography. Users can even log into the Google Maps website and create their own custom map overlays and drawings over the maps and send it right to their smartphones, a customization feature that just isn't possible on GPS devices.
Winner: Smartphone

Final Thoughts

It's hard to deny the impact that smartphone apps have had in the world of technology in general, and especially in the realm of GPS navigation. Despite all the advantages of smartphone apps, there is still a legitimate and worthwhile reason to reserve a spot on your dashboard for a dedicated GPS device, particularly if you're hitting the open road for a long vacation.

Of course, deciding on any purchase is made easier when there is a killer deal to be found, and Black Friday is the best time of year to pick up a dedicated GPS device, smartphone, or any piece of technology that may be on your wish list this season. With many of the best GPS devices available typically dropping under $100, the cost could be low enough to make it worth the added peace of mind that comes with owning a dedicated GPS, even if it isn't used very often.

Whether you use your smartphone, tablet, or PC, keep your browser destination set to for the latest in ad leaks, price breaks, and hot deals throughout the holiday season.

October 13, 2015
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