Handheld GPS units are dedicated single-function devices used for hiking and land navigation, including a hobby called geocaching. Smartphones are general purpose computing devices that have a lot of different functions. Smartphones, like cell phones before them, are part of a trend that converges several formerly separate devices into one gadget.
The camera phone has largely replaced the small point-and-shoot camera, and the smartphone is in the process of taking over the product niche of the dedicated handheld GPS device.
GPS technology is built around dedicated receivers for satellite-based signals that convey orbital information and a time stamp. Using four signals at once and spherical trigonometry, those signals are checked for an overlapping point that gives a unique position on the Earth’s surface accurate to about 10 to 20 meters (military GPS is accurate down to about 30 centimeters).
This technology is used on airplanes, boats, and turn-by-turn navigation for cars and trucks; handheld GPS receivers are used for hiking and geo-caching, or, when coupled with a mapping program, walking to an address in a city without getting lost. GPS receivers are radios with some specialized computer equipment – which isn’t that far from the description of the hardware on smartphones.
Advantages of Dedicated GPS Devices
A dedicated handheld GPS system will run for anywhere from 15 to 20 hours from its batteries, while a smartphone using a mapping application runs the battery dry in five to seven hours. Dedicated GPS receivers have another advantage – user replaceable batteries, which can be important when out on a long hike in the wilderness.
Dedicated GPS devices are easier to read in bright sunlight than most smartphones, and they are much likelier to be ruggedized and waterproof. While not strictly handheld devices, in-car GPS receivers are built larger so they’re easier to read on the dashboard.
Advantages of Smartphone Apps
Smartphone apps are designed around a set of user interface conventions set by their phone operating system. If you know how to use other apps, you’ll figure out your mapping application. Entering an address is easier with a smartphone app than on nearly any handheld GPS device, and smartphone maps download over the air for the most part and are advertising supported.
Getting a new map onto a handheld GPS procedure can involve more steps and cost a bit of money for each map set purchased. The final advantage of an app is that it’s going to be cheaper than buying a second device.
Multipurpose vs. Single Function
Mapping applications make smartphones more useful, but results in the problem of needing a small device with a small screen handling a lot of tasks simultaneously. When your smartphone is being used for navigation, a phone call coming in at the wrong time can obscure the screen, and you can’t hand it to the kids to play games while you drive.
Depending on how you use GPS systems, you may be just fine with a mapping application – a single driver using their phone for navigation in a car won’t have too many demands on the gadget. The more you use your GPS device for navigation while doing something else, the more appealing a dedicated GPS device will be.