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March 23, 2013

GPS vs Phone

I use GPS extensively for finding geocaches and navigating along roads and trails to get near them (and a few other things of course). I own quite a few different dedicated GPS units, from computer attached to handheld to car mount and I also own a smartphone that includes full GPS functionality. Typically I'm carrying both my handheld GPS and my phone when I'm traveling about and normally I'll use my handheld GPS for navigation tasks. Why? Because it works well, I know how it works, I've got it setup well for the tasks I need and it does a good job of navigating. My car mount unit will do a bit better job when driving, especially in new areas I've never visited before, but when geocaching I'd have to preload all the data beforehand, so it's yet another unit to prep and manage. Normally it doesn't get called out for duty as the handheld is more than capable of handling the task and I have a mount for it also in the car. As for off the road usage, I've not even tried with the car mount unit, it really isn't suited for that task, limited battery life and mapping and I've not even bothered to determine how or if its software navigates off road.

There are times when I don't want to carry my handheld GPS around (because it's heavy and bulky) and I've used my smartphone instead. For geocaching in urban and wooded areas I've found the GPS in the phone to be accurate, I'd say as accurate as my handheld GPS. I do find that the software on the phone does not update the position as frequently however, so a little more wandering around occurs while you try to zero in. This all makes sense since a modern phone has a state of the art GPS receiver built in, it's big deficiency being a tiny weak performing antenna. The draw back with the phone I find is that with the plethora of waypoints now available, narrowing them down in real time is difficult, even with the filtering options available in software. My handheld is somewhat worse and better at this, it can't really filter at all, but it still seems easier to peruse the list and pick out what is desired. Both are basically really good at finding a waypoint that you are currently near, so for a successful outing some preparation is in order to get to the right spot and determine the size of the area you plan to cover.

For road navigation I haven't used my phone much since I have dedicated units to rely on instead. I have some apps loaded for it and used them on occasion when my other GPS was unavailable or malfunctioning. I've not really spent much time finding the best app or learning how they work, so it was a bit clumsy and I had to pull over and park a few times to review the map but it eventually got the job done. I'm sure there are apps that do it better or as good as my GPS, they're probably not free though and the free ones are sufficient for my use in a pinch. And there's the rub, while the dedicated GPS units are pretty much fully functional out of the box, the smartphone starts out with minimal functionality but is highly reconfigurable over time.

I was recently traveling in the city and needed to find a bank and a gas station in the area. I wasn't familiar with where the locations were or which was nearest in the area. I am somewhat prepared for this, as I've taken the time to preload my GPS (both the handheld and the car mount -- the car mount even has custom icons :)) with all the locations of my desired gas station so I can always find the nearest one. But I pulled out my phone instead and used the gas station's app to find the nearest locations. Why? Well I had forgotten if or how I could filter and make it easy to find those gas station waypoints amongst all the others on my handheld GPS (it turns out I can and it's easy). I also knew it would take a minute or two for my GPS to lock on satellites before it could do anything useful. Meanwhile my phone can use assisted GPS from the cell network to get a lock in seconds. Plus my other need, I don't have the bank locations loaded on my GPS, there might be some preloaded into the map data, but those are known not to be up to date or accurate all the time. (They are still quite useful for finding stuff though) So once I found my gas station, I just fired up the bank app and found the nearest location, verified that it was still open from hours in the app and I was good to go. (I did the routing in my head without GPS since I knew the major roads well enough)

And that's basically the impression I've settled on these days for many things. The hardware is uniformly awesome and it's gets even better and more amazing with every iteration, it's really hard to pick anything that won't be good. But it's really down to the software to make or break the product (and by software I mean the various bits of code that runs on any and every device these days, everything has some software running). It's been many years since I got my handheld GPS and while there have been numerous new products released in that time, with incrementally better hardware (although the increments have been quite small since GPS has hit a ceiling plateau on performance) and incrementally better software, the modern units are almost worse and it all boils down to the software. Every new unit released so far that I'm aware of has come with a "bug" in GPS accuracy or performance. Some of these bugs are shared amongst units and some have been fixed or minimized. Even though the GPS hardware performance has improved, once the software has processed and presented it, the overall end user result gets worse. The functionality of the software has also significantly increased with some highly useful features added. Unfortunately many of those have also come with bugs. The biggest issue has become the user interface. What was already a complex user interface has become very confusing and bloated with all these features added in. My GPS already exhibits this complexity even with a much simpler feature set, luckily most of the complexity resides in features that are rarely or never used and the most often used features operate in a simple manor. That has unfortunately been lost in newer units, with each feature adding to the layers of complexity. Overall I find the software to be lacking in design and refinement, performance and quality. I really wish there was some better software to show off and take advantage of the new hardware.

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