Not long ago, traveling to unfamiliar locations meant relying on verbal directions and paper maps. The incorporation of GPS technology into smartphones changed all that. Applications that tap into the GPS capabilities of today's smartphones make accurate navigation a reality almost anywhere in the United States and abroad. GPS apps are available for all of the major mobile operating systems.
For more than half a decade in the 2000s, personal GPS navigation was the domain of dedicated handheld devices. Although companies such as Garmin, Magellan and TomTom still sell portable devices designed solely for this purpose, these companies and others have made the leap into smartphone GPS navigation. Smartphone GPS navigation is now a thriving market with apps available from some of America's biggest technology companies, including Google and Apple. Smartphone apps from traditional GPS companies include Garmin StreetPilot, TomTom US & Canada and Magellan Roadmate.
How They Work
As of March 2013, some two dozen U.S.-based GPS satellites orbit Earth, ensuring that a minimum of three of them are available at any given time almost anywhere in the world. Smartphones with GPS transponders communicate with at least three of these devices at once to triangulate the smartphone user's location. GPS apps then take this information and superimpose it on a digital map. Users can track their movements in real time, obtain directions to locations and access databases containing local points of interest, all from the convenience of a device that they were already carrying around to make phone calls, check email and send text messages.
Though the drawbacks of smartphone GPS navigation are few, they are important to be aware of. One of the primary drawbacks to combining phone and GPS functionality is that one can disrupt the other. If, for example, you are using a smartphone app with turn-by-turn verbal directions, you will lose the ability to hear these directions if you receive an incoming call. Another drawback, according to PCMag, is that smartphone GPS chips are not yet as accurate as those in dedicated GPS devices. Many mobile phones rely on cellular data connections to download maps on the fly, which can present problems for accurate navigation if you're in a location with poor cell reception.
What to Look For
Each smartphone GPS app is different, and the availability of developer-specific apps varies depending on your phone's operating system. Before deciding on an app, make a list of essential functionality. If you plan to use GPS in a big city, for example, look for an app that has public transit information. Apps such as Google Maps incorporate schedules from buses, street cars and subways, making navigating public transit easier. If you plan to use the GPS app in a rural area, far from cell phone towers, consider downloading an app such as Garmin StreetPilot that stores entire maps on your phone instead of downloading them on the fly.