Do I need a GPS if I have a smartphone?

Recently I wrote a post about the new Garmin Edge cycling GPS, and this got me thinking, whether I am a hiker, cyclist, runner or even just for navigating to the campsite in the car do I really need a GPS if I have a smartphone?  Whether you have an iPhone or an Android there are a whole host of mapping and fitness apps that you can use on them.  Some popular apps that I have experience of are Strava and Endomondo for cycling or running, and there are many hiking maps out there.

So do you need a dedicated GPS or can you make do with your Smartphone?

First the Pros of a dedicated GPS and cons of a Smartphone

Built for the outdoors - Generally speaking dedicated outdoor GPS’ are of a rugged design, you can get them wet and they don’t mind being dropped (a little!)

Mountable - A dedicated GPS unit is built for a specific purpose and is good at it, as it’s built for a purpose it is easily mountable, whether that means it mounts on a bikes handle bars, has a wrist strap it’s much easier to carry than a phone.  Sure a phone can be mounted but in my experience as the phone has no mounting point you need a large case which is bulky, perhaps heavy and possibly not so easy to use the buttons or see the screen.  Even if a phone isn’t in a case if you’re trying to swipe a touch screen while wearing your winter cycling gloves its unlikely to work.

Reliable - Not such a strong factor, but I’ve recorded rides before on my phone and realised that the GPS wasn’t turned on, or a call or email interrupted and overloaded the phone.  So having a dedicated device means although it only does one thing, it does it very well.

Battery efficiency, Dedicated GPS devices can be very efficient, a phone screen can drain the battery, particularly if you want to leave it on all the time to refer to while you’re riding or running, but a dedicated GPS often just has a black and green crystal screen and built with battery life in mind.

Accessories - Todays Smartphones can be paired with many external devices so this factor may be less relevant but if you want a heart rate monitor, Cadence or power output you will have less choice of devices and apps which will use these on a smartphone, while they often come as standard with many Smartphones.

Accuracy - Smartphones are getting a lot more accurate than in the past but generally speaking a dedicated GPS unit should be more accurate than a Smartphone, that said there is only likely to be a few meters difference - This may though be the difference that makes finding a Geocache or a turning on the trail.

Cons of a GPS and Pros of a Smartphone

Price - This is going to be the number one consideration factor for most people, you already have a smartphone with a pretty decent GPS so do you really want to spend between £100 and £400 on a dedicated GPS.  At the end of the day they record the same data.

Up to Date - If you want a GPS with mapping (perhaps for car journeys or cycle routing) a Smartphone will always be up to date.  Either google maps, which is free or most smartphone apps will be fairly cheap to update their mapping.  Dedicated GPS Units on the other hand broadly speaking are more expensive to update the map and potentially release updates less regularly.

Difficult to change your route / find out local information - If you’ve a dedicated GPS unit often its easiest to plan a route at home on the internet and import it to your device via a GPX file.  Once your out on the trail / road / ride it can be hard to change this, lower end sports GPS’ don’t have mapping.  If you have a smartphone though you can not only sweep and pan round a map looking for other routes, or even google a bike repair shop, local camping grounds or a cafe for a bite to eat.

So which wins?

I think I might be a bit of a fence sitter here, Dedicated GPS Units are Reliable, Rugged, Better Battery life and built for purpose.  While a Smartphone is versatile, you most likely already have one so low cost and have up to date maps.

For me a dedicated GPS wins, when I’m cycling it easily mounts on the handle bars and displays my ride data live.  The battery lasts much longer and it can cope with the rain.  But price is a big factor, I bought my GPS before I bought a smartphone.  If I had a smartphone first would I buy a GPS?  Probably not, the data they collect are broadly the same so if you’ve a smartphone and just want something for the occasional walk, run, ride or drive a dedicated GPS probably isn’t worth it.

Finally - and I can’t say this enough, don’t rely on either!  Both are electronic so can break or just run out of batteries, the last thing you want is to be in the middle of nowhere with no idea where you are!  Always carry an Ordnance Survey map or similar.

What’s your view? Do you have a dedicated GPS, or are you thinking of getting one, do you have a Smartphone you use, what apps do you love?  Leave a comment and let us know!


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