In the “How did we ever live without it?” department, there is no doubt that GPS joins the ranks of cell phones, velcro and zip lock bags as a relatively new invention that has become an indispensable part of our lives.
First invented for use by the military, the Global Positioning System became available for civilian use in the 1980s, when then-President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available after the downing of a Korean Airlines passenger flight carrying 269 people that accidentally strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace. It is comprised of a network of twenty four satellites, launched between 1989 and 1994, that orbit the earth twice daily transmitting signal information to GPS receivers that can calculate the user’s precise location. GPS functions anywhere in the world, 24/7, no matter what the weather, with no subscription or setup fees.
Consumers were more than happy to embrace the new technology, much to the dismay of cartographers everywhere. Gone were cumbersome maps that were impossible to refold, replaced by in dashboard navigation systems as well as stand-alone devices that could be transferred from vehicle to vehicle.
But with the prevalence of smart phones, featuring apps in all price ranges (including for free), is it time to give up the Garmin? Toss the Tom Tom? Can we rely on our phones to guide us safely to our destinations or is there merit in having a dedicated navigation system in your car?
An excellent question. So glad I asked it.
There are definite advantages to using your smartphone to get you from point A to point B. For starters, there is no need to spend money on an additional GPS system and if you have been relying on a portable navigation device until now, you never have to worry about accidentally leaving it home. Also, while we drivers love our GPSs, they are the darlings of street thieves as well, who have no qualms about breaking into cars and stealing them.
While portable GPS systems are convenient and far less expensive than factory installed in-dash systems, they do have their limitations. Subjecting them to extreme temperatures is a no-no, which means that in my climate at least, the Garmin had to be taken out of the car both during the dead of winter and those summer days so hot you are sure you are going to melt into a pool of sweaty goo on the sidewalk. Also, users are advised to wipe off the telltale suction cup marks the device leaves on the windshield, the equivalent of a neon sign flashing the words “You are cordially invited to steal my GPS!!” to would be thieves, who know that those small circular outlines on the windshield indicate that there is likely a navigation device tucked away somewhere in the vehicle.
A few other disadvantages to a portable GPS? I can tell you that my own device is probably about five or six years old and I have no doubt that its maps are hopelessly out of date, although many of the newer portable devices do come with lifetime maps. And while I don’t know if this has happened to you, I can’t even begin to tell you how many times my GPS has fallen off my windshield in the middle of the trip, making it particularly challenging to figure out where I was supposed to make that all important right turn.
That having been said, while there are advantages to using a navigation app on your smartphone, there are still key areas in which dedicated GPS systems rule.
First and foremost, your smartphone GPS app is only going to be of use if you are driving within range of a cell phone tower, so if you find yourself in a remote location where there is no phone service, you are going to be flying solo, with no friendly voice telling you to turn left in 200 yards. Also remember that using your phone as a GPS will run down your battery while eating up precious minutes of your data allowance, so be sure to keep your phone plugged in and to monitor your data usage if you don’t have an unlimited data plan.
While it goes without saying that if you want to see the map as you drive you will need to mount your phone in a visible location on your dashboard or windshield, it pays to note that the screen on your smart phone is way smaller than that of your dedicated GPS, making it much harder to read the actual directions, particularly for drivers in their forties and beyond who may have trouble reading those itty bitty letters that come up in your navigation app. Obviously, any decent GPS app will announce the directions as you go, but if you are one of those people who wants to see turns, exits and other significant locations coming up on the map, it is something to bear in mind. Finally, if anyone in the car was planning on using that same smartphone to make calls, listen to music or play games, they are going to be out of luck.
Something else to consider if you are using your phone as your navigator du jour: a California court recently ruled against a man who was pulled over for using a map app on his iPhone while driving. According to TheBusinessJournal.com, Stephen Spriggs of Fresno was attempting to navigate around freeway construction while driving on Highway 41 in January 2012. Spriggs, who was issued a $160 ticket for the infraction, brought his case to a California appellate court, but lost the case, with Judge W. Kent Hamlin ruling that any non-hands-free use of a mobile phone violated California law. While according to reports on ABC News Spriggs is taking his case to an appeals court, this is clearly an issue that will likely recur nationwide and will necessitate further clarification of cell phone laws, so be advised that if you are going to use your phone as a navigation device, it is probably in your best interests not to hold your phone in your hand.
Bottom line: which is the better choice, a dedicated GPS device or your smartphone? There is no easy answer. If you frequently travel to remote locations that have minimal cell phone service, there is no question that a dedicated GPS is the way to go. Otherwise, there are pros and cons to both choices. Yes, a dedicated navigation device is an added expense. But if using your phone as your GPS is going to routinely blow your data plan, that is going to cost you as well. Take your time to weigh the advantages and disadvantages and see which choice works best for you.
And if like me, you are just a map geek? Go for it. No matter how technologically advanced we get, there is something to be said for opening up a map, spreading it out in front of you and seeing the world come to life before you on a gigantic piece of paper. As for refolding the map when you are done? Send me an e-mail and I will talk you through it.
About the Author: Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and many private clients. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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