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USING SMARTPHONES FOR GPS

by Jim Hagar
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There are a lot strong feelings in the outdoor community one way and the other about the increasingly popular use of smartphones as GPS units. Here are some pros and cons to consider. Of course if you have both you can use both, and you can learn a lot doing that.

PRO:

  1. May already have one, no extra cost. No cost for maps. GPS apps inexpensive.
  2. No need for the extra weight of carrying two devices and their extra batteries.
  3. Easy to use.
  4. The best smartphone apps have nearly all the features of a mid-range dedicated GPS unit, sometimes more.
  5. Accuracy is similar to standard GPS units under most conditions. Remember, accuracy is related to how many satellites the unit can get a signal from, not the software algorithm.

CON:

  1. Fragile compared to a dedicated GPS unit, not usually waterproof. Carry paper maps as a backup if you have to rely heavily on them. Some people use waterproof shockproof cases if this is a concern.
  2. Screen is often more difficult to see in bright sunlight.
  3. Battery life is an issue with both GPS units and smartphones, and with smartphones it varies enormously by brand. ust as GPS users carry spare batteries, having an extra external battery is very useful. Battery life depends on how much data is being recorded, and there are tricks to maximize battery life.
  4. The antenna is less sensitive than higher end GPS units, so reception is reduced. May not always be able to get a reading in heavily wooded areas or narrow canyons, or may be less accurate.
  5. Lower accuracy compared to higher-end "enhanced" GPS units equipped with WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) capabilities.
  6. Compass usability and accuracy varies by brand and model, and may vary from good to marginal. If you plan to use a smartphone for its compass feature, always bring a regular compass to compare with until you get to know your phone, and recalibrate it periodically.
  7. Doesn't have a true altimeter or barometer. It reports altitude based on information from the GPS system. Not necessarily a drawback. With a good signal, altitude accuracy is about double the horizontal accuracy, rarely more than 120'.

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