The GPS on in my phone is becoming indispensable lately! I find it much easier to follow the verbal on-time direction than following a map or even print-outs of directions obtained from Google Maps. Using offline maps, I have gotten around in completely unknown cities without much trouble.

This got me thinking: Are standalone GPS devices any better? What advantage does a standalone GPS now have over cellphone GPS?

As far as I know, both use offline maps. A cellphone may even have online data with a data plan. Both can be powered by the car, since most cards have USB ports nowadays. So what would be reasons to get a standalone GPS?

  • 12
    I think the main reason is better antennas and thus more accuracy (and probably longer battery time, though that's probably only relevant for handheld use, not in a car).
    – dunni
    Mar 14, 2017 at 0:01
  • 20
    A dedicated GPS cannot broadcast your location
    – Mawg
    Mar 14, 2017 at 10:07
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JonathanReez
    Mar 16, 2017 at 5:44
  • For me a big plus to a standalone GPS, is safety. If I use a standalone GPS, the odds are I have my phone in my pocket. If I were to get into a car accident, access to your phone could save your life. If you have it on a mount, there is a decent chance of it coming loose. You might also be ejected from the car, leaving the phone behind on the mount or on the floor. This reason was the strongest factor in me deciding to go with two separate devices. Mar 22, 2017 at 8:27

6 Answers 6


Disadvantages of cell phone GPS services:

  1. They rely heavily on cell phone and wifi access points for the initial fix.
  2. They are only as good as the maps on them; see for instance google maps vs. apple maps.
  3. It is not trivial to get other information (such as elevation) from these applications.
  4. They are primarily designed for urban areas; they are very easily confused in desert or off-the-beaten-path tracking.

Advantages of cell phone GPS services:

  1. They are constantly and frequently being updated thanks to the Internet.
  2. They offer rich integration and multiple modes of transport; for example walk 15 minutes, take bus number 5 for 3 stops, etc.
  3. You are always carrying a phone, so it is one less thing to carry with you.
  4. VG is more customizable (in my Garmin unit, I can download other character voices, but that's it); on my phone I can choose the language and speed.
  5. Easily switch mapping providers; with dedicated devices you are stuck with whatever map provider the device comes with.

Advantages of dedicated GPS devices:

  1. Fast, accurate lock on GPS. At least twice as fast in my anecdotal testing.
  2. Battery last a lot longer.
  3. Provide rich positional data (elevation, grade, etc.)
  4. Exceptional when going off-road, the one in my friend's Jeep allows him to leave a breadcrumb of markers which the GPS can follow back.
  5. Some offer exceptional features (lane warnings / change direction; speed traps / cameras).
  6. Navigation is not interrupted by other functions.

Disadvantages of dedicated GPS devices:

  1. Map updates are not that frequent
  2. You are stuck with the map provider which is licensed with your device. In other words, you are stuck with whatever level of detail / coverage your map maker has.
  3. Another device, another charger to carry.
  4. Easy targets for theft.
  5. Are only good at one thing - difficult to use the same device for car and then walking navigation, or to get directions using ferries, etc.
  • 3
    "Fast, accurate lock on GPS. At least twice as fast in my anecdotal testing." - only when offline. With en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assisted_GPS phone acquires its position in seconds.
    – Mark
    Mar 14, 2017 at 10:02
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    With the right (free) apps you can mitigate a lot of the downsides of phone GPSs, or at the very least have them fall back to the features of a basic dedicated GPS. For example. OpenStreetMap or other free data; something like GPS status for android: lat/long, speed, elevation, orientation. Plenty of bike computer type apps will allow you to reverse or at least see your path, with no data or cached maps; there are also hiking apps that allow you to set waypoints (including typing locations read off a paper map) and then point you to them. A battery pack and sensible settings also helps Mar 14, 2017 at 10:11
  • 1
    ... I've got both, but can't remember the last time I used my Garmin Mar 14, 2017 at 10:12
  • 1
    Most of the current model stand alone GPS devices use micro USB chargers by now, so you can charge them with the same cable, and also hook them up to a power bank.
    – simbabque
    Mar 14, 2017 at 10:39
  • 2
    @simbabque: Yep, I know all that. But it's not quite as simple as tying the two pins together. The fifth (normally unused) pin has to be connected to ground with a 17.3 ohm resistor, because that's how Garmin detects if it's plugged into a computer or not.
    – user42547
    Mar 14, 2017 at 20:17

Note: I write this answer from the perspective of somebody who has a Garmin GPS. There are others, but from all accounts (The Wirecutter, etc.), Garmin makes the best ones. The post below might sound like I'm trying to sell somebody a GPS, but I just really love mine. I have no affiliation with Garmin.

I think there's something to be said about the pure convenience of a dedicated GPS. If you don't live in a high-crime area and always leave it mounted on your dashboard, it will always be there, and you will come to always use it and depend on it, even if you don't enter a route. Would you go to the hassle of pulling out your phone, mounting it to your dashboard, plugging in the charger cable, unlocking it, and opening the maps app every single time you drive your car? I think not. You might not think this is a big deal, but it is. Usually you would only start up the maps app when you're lost or don't know how to get somewhere, but if the dedicated GPS is always there and on, you will use it for much more than guided navigation.

If your car has a switched power outlet (i.e. it turns off with the car), a GPS will turn on when you start the car and automatically go to the maps screen, without touching it. If your car doesn't have a switched outlet, like mine, it is very easy to add one (pretty much anyone could do it, all it takes is plugging in a piggy-back fuse into an existing fuse slot and connecting the other wire to a metal part to ground it).

If you buy a bit of a higher-end GPS, it will come with voice control. That is, just by saying "Voice command", you can control it hands-free. My Garmin doesn't do so well with odd-sounding street names or locations, but for the basic stuff like "Go home", "find pizza", "find walmart", etc., it works super well. I'm not sure how well Google Maps, etc. does this, but when I had my iPhone a year ago it didn't seem to have anything like that (except Siri).

GPSs also have much larger screens than most phones, which means they can show that complicated interchange that much better.

Glancing at the screen to see the name of a cross-street or your speed and the speed limit will become second nature, and you'll miss it when it's not there.

There are loads of other things my GPS does that I really, really like, that most (if any) phone apps, or even GPS's from even a couple years ago, do not do. For example:

  • If I'm on the freeway and there's a route set, it will tell me to "be in the second lane from the left", or "be in any of the right three lanes". This was huge for me when I first heard it. Before, it just said, "keep to the right", without telling you that there are actually three lanes that exit and you don't need to worry about trying to get to the far right lane in heavy traffic. Also, it will use very natural-sounding speech, like "turn right at the stop light", or "turn right at the tee", or "take the second left". In my experience (last year when I had an iPhone), Google Maps isn't this good, but maybe they're improving it.

  • "Up Ahead" is something my Garmin has. Basically, it's a little panel that sits on the side of the screen, and it shows the distance to the next gas station, restaurant, rest stop, Tim Hortons, etc. on your route, and if you tap it, will show a list of all the matching locations. I only use this when travelling long distances, but it's great to know that there's a place 10 km ahead where you can stop to empty your bladder or grab food, for example.

  • Predicted destinations: If I have a destination saved in my GPS and I am driving in the same general direction on the same day of the week as I last navigated to that location, my Garmin will show on the top bar "Work: 45 min, heavy traffic", or "Church: 10 min, no traffic". It's great for getting a "heads-up, there might be traffic", or even just to know how long it actually takes you. Usually, I would not actually have a route set for these locations because I know how to get there, so the voice would just be annoying.

  • Driving log: My GPS draws a blue line behind you as you drive. If you're in an unfamiliar location, this is great for recognizing where you are. For example, in 2015 I moved to a large US city from Canada, having never been there. That little blue line was critical for me learning my way about, because as soon as I saw that blue line on the screen, I knew where I was. In my experience, relying on automated voice directions means you never really learn the roads.

The one thing that dedicated GPS devices do not do is real-time, crowd-sourced traffic updates like Waze. For example, my Garmin receives traffic updates through FM radio, and if my phone is in the car and has a data connection, it will also pull traffic updates from that via Bluetooth, but in both cases, I think it will only do this at most once a minute, and only for major roads, which usually means just freeways.

In my experience, manually updating maps once a year is just fine. Roads don't change very fast, and updating maps is dead simple. It takes a few hours to download, but once you plug it in and press Update, it does it on its own.

I will also go against Burhan here and say that a standalone GPS is more customizable. Sure, you can get funny voices on your phone, but you can do that on the GPS too. Pretty much any language is available, so that's not an issue, and you can even change the car symbol on the screen. But more importantly, the UI is customizable. So if you don't need to see the elevation, put something else there instead.

There's more I could say, but I think you get the point: yes, a stand-alone, dedicated GPS is miles better than a phone GPS, but for most people, Google Maps is just fine.

@stanri brought up a good point in the comments: "my phone overheats on a hot day, sitting in the windscreen, especially if I'm driving around all day and charging it at the same time. I wouldn't suggest that having a phone in the sun, charging, on a long drive, is a very good idea."

  • 1
    "Would you go to the hassle of pulling out your phone, mounting it to your dashboard, plugging in the charger cable, unlocking it, and opening the maps app every single time you drive your car?" In my case, yes. I rely on TomTom's live traffic data to get me through my gridlocked city. In my defence, my iPhone holder is one-hand operated and the Lightning charging cable is always there and easy to connect. I leave everything but my phone in my car, also for security reasons. Also, almost all mentioned features exist on the (paid ofc.) TomTom app. ;-) Mar 14, 2017 at 12:23
  • 5
    Some things Google maps is good at, but the thing that makes me want to throw my phone out the window for every time is that it will say, "turn right" but then won't bother to tell you whether you're going to turn left or right next, even if you're on a 6-lane highway, so where do I even need to be, Google, huh? </rant> Mar 14, 2017 at 13:43
  • 1
    @Voo, so let me ask you, because I'm curious: do you actually start up Google Maps every time you drive, even if you're not entering a route? Because my point was that if it's always there, you'll habitually use it for the omnipresent floating map that it is, but if it's only there some of the time, you won't really get used to it. When you suddenly have to ask yourself, "is it this road or the next one?" because you're unsure, you don't have time to open up the app and check, but with the GPS, all it takes is a glance to check.
    – user42547
    Mar 15, 2017 at 0:07
  • 3
    Another thing I've noticed (that I'm not going to post an answer just to say, but you can add it to yours if you want) is that my phone overheats on a hot day, sitting in the windscreen, especially if I'm driving around all day and charging it at the same time. I wouldn't suggest that having a phone in the sun, charging, on a long drive, is a very good idea.
    – user30833
    Mar 15, 2017 at 8:00
  • 1
    To be fair, features like Up Ahead, driving log and lane directions are not unique to dedicated GPS devices, I have seen them on mobile phones too. Mar 15, 2017 at 8:01

My GPS works fine when I'm off the cell net. Around here that means highways other than the interstates. Every national park I have visited has at best been marginal for cell service, generally no service at all.

  • 11
    With Offline Maps, so does my cell. I've been using it countries without a local SIM or Roaming. Plus, I'm impressed how the index is complete as I can search (and find) most hotels, B&Bs, national parks, points-of-interests, restaurantes and more.
    – Itai
    Mar 14, 2017 at 2:14
  • 2
    I've been using Maps Me for years to navigate with my phone when off the cell net, so I think this is not a good argument. Mar 14, 2017 at 12:02
  • @MartinArgerami You can download maps for an area but if you're going a long ways with no service that's an awful lot of data. Mar 14, 2017 at 17:27
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    @LorenPechtel maps are fairly compact, compared to the capacity of a typical phone today. I have the whole of the UK installed on my phone with Maps.Me. It's 883MB. If I needed the space, I could remove some parts of the country, but I don't. The UK is a small country, but has lots of roads. Countries like Germany take a similar amount of data.
    – slim
    Mar 14, 2017 at 17:31
  • Its the same amount of data as on a GPS. Right now my phone has 6 GB of data for 15 countries I am in process of visiting, all downloaded from the comfort by my home via fiber Internet before going away.
    – Itai
    Mar 15, 2017 at 0:34

Let's look at the Wirecutter because it's widely considered as a reliable site for reviews -- and we won't even rely on it too much. To quote, the best standalone GPS can (I edited out specific company and model because we are not here to advertise and it's not relevant to the question):

In addition to being easy to use, the [model] includes free lifetime map updates and traffic alerts, and—like all the models in [company]'s new [..] series—a new suite of safety-oriented driver alerts. These alerts include, but aren’t limited to, warnings about upcoming sharp curves, speed-limit changes, railroad and animal crossings, school zones, and red-light and speed cameras. They even tell you if you’re going the wrong way on a one-way street. We also like that the [...] units can double as a display for an optional wireless backup camera or rear-seat baby cam.

While surely a smartphone could do these I am absolutely unaware of any actually doing any of these (sharp curve warning? Rear seat baby cam?) much less all of them.

  • 6
    Waze can do road camera warnings and it has a mode to avoid sharp turns.
    – JonathanReez
    Mar 14, 2017 at 0:48
  • 1
    Garmin has their Navigon apps on Android and iOS that do some of these. However, they cost $50-$70, which is waaay more than pretty much any other app.
    – user42547
    Mar 14, 2017 at 6:35
  • 3
    Free map updates, traffic alerts, speed limit changes (limited rollout so far) and using your smartphone as a backup camera or baby cam are all possible with Google Maps/Android. Mar 14, 2017 at 10:29
  • While I have no doubt what you wrote about the dedicated GPS is true, this is pretty much equally true of Offline Maps with exception of the baby cam (although I am not sure about the Speed Camera).
    – Itai
    Mar 15, 2017 at 0:43

I find few reasons for buying a dedicated GPS now. Indeed I know of keen ramblers who use old (i.e. cheap, used) iPhones for back-country GPS positioning, and nothing else.

Now many GPS units come with "free lifetime map updates", but the definition of "lifetime" is hazy, and this is a new development. I recently offered to update my mother-in-law's TomTom, only to discover it cost £30 to get new maps: I told her to use her phone.

Apple Maps / Google Maps have maps that are bang up to date, aware of traffic conditions, and are free. They are able to cache map areas for offline use. The down-side is that their mapping his heavily biased towards roads and urban use.

For driving and urban/suburban walking/cycling in your own country, I can't find a rational reason to use a dedicated GPS over a phone.

But that doesn't cover all situations:

Foreign Travel

If you're travelling somewhere you don't have data, Google Maps / Apple Maps' offline capabilities may not be sufficient for your needs (although they're pretty good). You have two options here:

  • pay for the data you need (buy a SIM where you're going, or rent a portable WiFi hotspot)
  • use an offline app. I find Maps.Me to be an excellent, free offline maps app -- it uses OpenStreetmap mapping data, covers the whole globe, and does a good job of route planning and turn-by-turn navigation

Back Country Use

If you're in the wilderness, it's likely that being online isn't an option. What's more many of the mapping applications don't have the kind of mapping you need. OpenStreetMap has some rural trails, but it's not an adequate substitute for a hiking map, reliably, for large parts of the world.

However there may still be an offline mapping app that suits your needs. In the UK, Ordnance Survey MapFinder allows you to buy 1:50000 or 1:25000 OS maps for the 1km squares you choose. These are the digital equivalent of the paper maps any British hiker would choose.

  • Maps.ME is the one I use and I found it fantastic. Even for trekking, it gives you distance, direction and a profile of the elevation of the terrain! It has let me found my way around most cities in Brazil over the last few weeks.
    – Itai
    Mar 14, 2017 at 18:49
  • @slim: You make some good points. My parents' 9 or 10 year old Garmin has lifetime maps, though, and it still gets updates. I see no reason why they would drop support. And I don't see how maps a couple months "out of date" is really a problem. Roads don't decide to move across town suddenly. As far as walking/biking GPS, well that's a whole different ball game (and probably out of the scope of this question). Free is good, too.
    – user42547
    Mar 15, 2017 at 3:38
  • @FighterJet "Roads dont decide to move across town suddenly" - well, that depends where you live. I've certainly encountered situations where new roads, or new road layouts, completely confuse satnav.
    – slim
    Mar 15, 2017 at 8:43

Dedicated GPS devices are still better than phones in offline use. Commercial maps are more compact than offline areas (on my GPS, both France and Germany are under 100MB, compared to 800+MB in case of Google offline areas) so you can fit the whole continent on the device. Plus, my GPS has a TMC receiver, so I don't need Internet to get traffic information either.

Another important point is that GPS becomes a commodity (used ones are sold for $30 or so) so there's less incentive to steal them. You can just leave it on your dashboard / windscreen which saves time.

  • 32GB high-speed MicroSDs cost less than $20. Why wouldn't you be able to fit 800+MB on your phone then?
    – JonathanReez
    Mar 15, 2017 at 9:35
  • I would, but AFAIK google offline areas have to be updated regularly, otherwise they expire. So my phone will be constantly consuming traffic, battery, and wearing off the SD card. Plus I'll have to thing about new areas I need to download before each trip, whereas with a dedicated GPS I just drive there. Also, I'll have to buy a phone with GPS which will be far more than $20. Mar 15, 2017 at 9:47
  • 1
    @JonathanReez Many phones don't have SD card slots.
    – MrWhite
    Mar 15, 2017 at 22:17

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