GPS vs Smartphone in 2013
I asked this question every couple of years because it seems that the market has been changing quite rapidly. When the iPhone first hit the market, it made sense to carry a GPS device separate of your phone. Nobody wanted to drop a $500 smart phone in the drink, and GPS units were a fair bit more accurate, had better run-time, etc.
Today, there are quite a few smart phones that are not only cheaper and have similar battery life, but also include modern GPS technology like GLONAS support.
I've been holding off on buying both a smart phone and a GPS for this reason.
Garmin just announced an Android based Monterra GPS unit that can finally do something other than GPS functions. However, at $550, it's a hard pill to swallow. I could purchase 2 Google Nexus 4 at that price.
Even the relatively basic Garmin eTrex 30 is still more expensive than the Nexus 4 or even a used iPhone 4S.
So, in 2013, is the GPS vs Smartphone debate still murky?
GIS/GPS Pro using ArcFM for Utility Mapping - Always willing to connect with other MTBers in the industry.
I'd say that the debate was never murky. for casual use, smartphones have always found their niche. the vast majority are still not waterproof or rugged enough and require the purchase of additional cases and mounts for protection.
the vast majority still suffer with GPS reception issues. they may have better chips than they used to, but accuracy is still noticeably lower than with a dedicated GPS receiver.
battery life is less of an issue than it used to be, but it still is an issue. Fitness GPS receivers tend to be meant for shorter activities and have similar battery life to a good phone battery with good power management. But handhelds meant for more extended use still win in the battery life department, and the ease and expense of dealing with dead batteries (AA's vs. proprietary LiPo batteries).
phones finally have enough accessories to handle ANT+ and Bluetooth fitness sensors, so they have improved there. But for a phone, more accessories to buy when many fitness GPS receivers are bundled with those items already. Or at least are easily purchased as bundles.
I was reading Garmin's page regarding the Monterra and it's clear to me that the device, while it may well be perfectly usable by the average consumer, is not really marketed to the typical consumer. A big feature I kept reading on Garmin's page was the capability to handle GIS maps. This device also has a UV sensor. How many average consumers are going to use features like that? There's no word on the GIS file format(s) this device will accept, but how many folks use GIS maps? I do. But the numbers are tiny. This is a "Prosumer" device. This is intended to pull some market share from Trimble's low end Juno receivers. And it's actually $650 on Garmin's site MSRP.
I've been tracking rides on iPhones for 3+ years (3gs, 4 and now a 5) using the CycleMeter app. Been to Moab, UT, CA, all over CO, PA, MT and up and down the East Coast. This combination has done a fine job of mapping routes and tracking mileage.
I always carry my phone so carrying a second device really doesn't appeal to me and I have no problem trading accuracy for hauling less stuff. Of any stats, elevation as compared to a Garmin 800 is not as accurate (no big deal IMO). The iPhone 4 battery is awesome compare to 4s and 5 so if you go that route get a 4. I've had the iPhone battery once on a ride... ~54 miles into an 87 miler with a lot of stopping due to others having mechanical and cramping issues.
I have a small stem bag that I mount on my seat post to carry the phone. It is water resistant enough to tolerate a dunking and I keep a plastic bag in there in case I get caught in heavy rain.
Sorry in advance for the long post
I do long-distance hikes and plan to do the same with bikepacking, eventually. So minimizing weight and number of devices is important. If I could get by with a smartphone to do acceptable navigation duties, I could leave my dedicated GPS at home. Of course, all the things previously mentioned - battery life, GPS accuracy, and durability - play into this decision.
For multi-day trips where I won't be recording long tracks, I've been playing around with a smartphone (Android) + external Bluetooth GPS combo. The advantage over the smartphone alone is a superior GPS receiver in the external unit, and Bluetooth being less of a battery drain than the phone's internal GPS.
The Bluetooth GPS is this: Qstarz BT-Q818XT 10Hz Bluetooth GPS Receiver
The phone is a Motorola Atrix HD. Using the OruxMaps app below, the display is very nice and looks better than on my Garmin Oregon.
The mapping app is OruxMaps. The description speaks for itself. So awesome. Many map options, both online & offline.
The intent is to have pre-loaded maps with routes identified via stored tracks or map overlays. The phone would be used primarily with the mobile radio and GPS turned off, and Bluetooth on. I'd leave the Q818XT unit on while moving and only turn on or wake up the phone when I need to check my position, or do some off-road/off-trail navigation (e.g. to get to an off-trail water source). In the latter case I may also start a track, mainly to be able to trackback to the main road/trail.
Before I activated service on the phone, I did an experiment just for battery life, where I turned the Q818XT on for 8 hours, turned the phone on & off about once per hour determining position while on, and turned both units off for the night. The phone lasted 4 days before I got low battery warnings. Of course, this ignores using the phone as a camera and communications device. The Q818XT was not showing a low battery indication.
I also tried an experiment with the smartphone/Q818XT combo recording a 14-mile ride simultaneously with my Oregon 400, both set to 1 sec. recording intervals. On relatively straight sections the 2 tracks lined up within a meter of one another, but in switchback sections they separated. The Oregon's track very accurately traced the trail in Google Earth; the combo track did not. When I checked the "combo" tracklog it showed 4 sec. intervals. Hmm. There's a 1 Hz / 10 Hz switch on the Q818XT which I had set to 1 Hz, but I can also plug it into my PC USB port and set a different refresh internally.
So the jury's still out, but with some weather-proofing this "single-and-a-half" device solution is showing some promise.
Dedicated GPS devices still have a use for serious riders who take their riding seriously. They're so serious about riding they hardly smile anymore on the bike. No company's throwing money at them to bike but they still require super accurate GPS data tracking technology accurate to the inch. So don't expect to see Angry Birds on a Garmin device pretty soon. Not on the "prosumer" models at least.
Btw, Sony's Xperia series has several Android models (Go, Acro S and Z) that are AGPS, GLONASS and water and scratch resistant to boot.
Awesome post! I would definitely be interested if you were able to get 1-second interval recording on the bluetooth-GPS+ORUX combo. I have a dedicated GPS, but the BT-GPS+ORUX combo would be perfect to pinpoint locations on unfamiliar trails, among other things.
Originally Posted by random walk
List of smartphones using GLONASS Navigation - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
I have an HTC OneX+ and I use Sports Tracker as my default tracking app. https://play.google.com/store/apps/d...om.stt.android
I like this app because whenever I snaps pics with the phone while the app is active, it will automatically upload those pics along with the ride data to the website and display on the map where those pics were taken.
My son uses a Garmin 500 and uploads to Strava. We both use BT HRM's.
Our usage cases are different. He looks at his Garmin during a ride to check temperature, speed, distance covered, time, heart rate, etc. He races so he tracks those things pretty closely. I start a new session at the beginning of a ride, use auto-pause under 1 mph, throw the phone in a bag or pocket and ignore it until I'm stop. I then sync the data to the website and look at the data afterwards. Usually I'm too blown out trying to keep up with him to pay attention to anything else.
Accuracy wise, my phone was actually more accurate than his 500 until he did the firmware update. Now it's about the same, maybe his is a bit more accurate, but then his also seems to "lose" him every once in a while in the dense redwoods where we ride. That shows as a straight line between where he was when the signal was lost and where he re-acquired. My phone never does that, it seems to either keep lock or use some sort of dead reckoning, not sure which. It might veer off the actual trail a bit occasionally but never just draws a straight line.
So based on my anecdotal data, I would use a dedicated GPS if you want to refer to it during a ride, and use a GLONASS capable phone if you just want to record data to view later.
It's not quite as cut-and-dry as that.
My suspicion is that folks who have trouble with reception on the 500 have trouble primarily because the device is small and has a small antenna. It's not so easy to know how big the GPS antenna on phones (or even dedicated receivers) are unless you want to tear one apart to see the components. I suspect the GPS antennas on some phones are larger than others, which would explain the disparity in phone accuracy between brands/models. But it's not so easy to know that right offhand. It's certainly not listed on any spec sheets.
Additionally, you have the processing that's occurring in the background. Any device worth anything does background processing. A notable example from your dense forest case would be the processing of multipath signals (reflected signals) that bounce off of the trees and foliage. Garmin has been refining its algorithms for processing multipath longer than most companies out there. They're not perfect, of course. Many phone apps do a pretty poor job of this, and this is generally reflected in the tracklog of your device by a track that diverges from the path you actually took. Some phone apps do better than others, though. It all just depends, really, how the app handles the raw data given to it by the phone's hardware.
In my usage experience, which includes both consumer and high accuracy GPS hardware, consumer GPS gear will ignore locations with a high PDOP (positional dilution of precision) based on some unknown preset value. On high accuracy hardware, you are given the ability to set a cutoff. Many applications in science and industry require data with a maximum PDOP for QC reasons, so you set the value and the GPS ignores locations with higher PDOP.
Many phone apps seem to care very little how accurate the location is that they are given from the phone's hardware.
A good way to improve phone GPS reception is to use a separate BT GPS puck. This will help your tracks because a good one will be sending higher quality raw data to the app than the phone's internal hardware. But as with phones, not all are equal. Price is a partial predictor of accuracy of these devices, but not entirely so. A possible benefit of these things is that it offloads some battery load to a separate device instead of the phone. But then you have multiple devices with batteries to manage. It's hard to say for sure.
If you're the type who tosses the device into a pack and ignores it until you get home, you might find more benefit from a basic GPS datalogger. These are commonly used by photographers who wish to geotag their photos from an outing. They're essentially a set-and-forget item. Turn it on, make sure it has a signal, put it somewhere it's less likely to lose the signal, and leave it alone. They save a little bit of dough because there's no operating system, no extra frills, nada.
You are correct, however, that different usage scenarios may dictate or be more compatible with different hardware. I frequently dredge up my archived GPS tracks to produce maps for the general public. I am working on two large separate mapping projects right now. I'm part of a small crew doing some scouting/mapping for possible new trails that will become a component in a larger trail network, serving to connect multiple trail systems. I am also working to produce maps/trail guides for existing trails in the state to help visitors navigate our trails and find rides. I find that using a dedicated GPS allows me to record quality data for the variety of things I may do with it. It's not that I couldn't use a phone. I could, but to get comparable accuracy of data with hardware that's protected from the elements, I'd have to drop a lot more money into the setup for protective case(s), mount(s), external GPS hardware/antenna, extra battery(ies) and quality app(s) that do the things I need.
Originally Posted by AirKuhl
Cassoulet forever !
I just bought a new phone, a Samsung Galaxy S4 active (wich is waterprof), and plan on using it to replace my garmin oregon 550T.
I plan on using OruxMaps, the maps details are really very good.
Only problems for now is that bluetooth 4.0 is not yet supporter by android (for hear rate straps), but it is coming. Second is phone mount. Handlebar or on the top tube between the legs ? We will see..
I was happy enough to use a smart phone when it was just to record a track and congratulate myself for my Strava segments afterwards.
Since starting to do some structured workouts, I've switched to a Garmin Forerunner 610. Honestly, the GPS function is almost incidental. I like to be able to see how my heart rate and timing correlated to climbs, after the fact, but I use it primarily either just to record and track training load or to do structured workouts by heart rate. Certainly nice to have all the data in the same file, but I could probably do most of the same with a HRM with no GPS. I've done navigation with a cycle computer that used a wheel sensor only.
My killer app for getting a smart phone was getting email and a calendar function, without having to carry two devices. Though the driving directions are a nice feature that only the presence of a GPS device allows.
Bottom line is that the GPS function isn't really the main event for either of my devices, but I do appreciate it on both.
"Don't buy upgrades; ride up grades." -Eddy Merckx
Keen to watch this.
What is the best app people are using on a Galaxy S4
I have a 6 Berth Motorhome that I rent out . It is based in Tauranga, New Zealand
The combination of GPS tracking and a screen on full brightness will kill a cell phone battery fairly quickly. At the very least, a separate GPS cyclocomputer gives you a separate battery. They're also inherently more rugged than most phones.
I use my Xperia Active, paired with an ANT+ HRM band (which also works nicely with my Oregon 300).
You don't get a much more rugged phone...
Last edited by NordieBoy; 07-31-2013 at 02:27 PM.
These are some of the factors on my decision how to go forward.
Originally Posted by willtsmith_nwi
Like I said in a previous post, I'm trying out a bluetooth external GPS "puck" so I don't have to use the phone's internal GPS which is a battery hog. I still think, all else being equal, that the Oregon 400 battery life will be several days longer than that of the phone + ext BT GPS. With the Oregon I can take spare pair(s) of AA lithium primary cells which I can just pop into the unit when needed. With the phone I would need some sort of external charger which could also use individual AA cells, so there would be a small weight penalty.
My Oregon has very good readability in direct sunlight (actually better than when the sun is hitting it at an oblique angle). The smartphone is just plain difficult to read in direct sun, even at full screen brightness. Under tree canopy, they're about equal in readability with the superior resolution going to the phone.
The ruggedness factor is really no contest with my current phone, but a ruggedized version could swing that.
I just started using Strava a few weeks ago (at a friend's request).
No map is no biggie, since the last thing I wanna do while riding is look at a map.
My only issue is that the Topeak headset mount broke last week during a nasty fall...phone is ok though, since I use the Lifeproof case (shock and waterproof -case modified to mount with Topeak).
As for potentially getting lost on a new trail, well, I was raised in the country. A compass (built into the iPhone 5) and a road map (also standard on smartphones) are all I need.
I had a paper map and an actual compass with me yesterday.
Sent from my Nexus 7 using Tapatalk 4
"Don't buy upgrades; ride up grades." -Eddy Merckx
6'4"-6'9" with the afro
RE: GPS vs Smartphone in 2013
Love the paper and actual compass! Would be even cooler if you mailed in your post via US Postal Service, with an actual stamp and envelope.
Sent from my RM-820_nam_att_100 using Board Express
Actually the usability of a paper map is pretty great. I fold it to expose the part I'm interested in and once around all the other crap I have with me, put everything in a ziploc bag, and put it in a jersey pocket. No problem reading a backlit screen in bright sunlight, and no big whoop if I have a problem getting a GPS fix. Most of the time, I don't really even need the compass. But it's nice to have backup if it's overcast or I can't find the sun for whatever reason.
"Don't buy upgrades; ride up grades." -Eddy Merckx
the map and compass are not obsolete. you must never have experienced an electronics failure and had to rely on something else to get you out.
Originally Posted by Fletch F. Fletch
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