Real GPS Unit vs. Smartphone GPS Apps

How do the GPS apps for smartphones compare to a regular GPS?

Photo: Photographer:Scott Hepler, Heple

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


I am wondering how the GPS apps for smartphones compare to a regular GPS? They seem to be the latest thing but are they as reliable?

Submitted by – Steven – Bucyrus, OH


To get the best advice for you, Steven, I consulted with a man who lives, eats, and breathes this stuff: our own map editor, Andrew Matranga. Here’s what he says:

“Reliability in a GPS is an important, but also relative factor considering that even field-grade GPS units suffer battery drain and might not lock-on under dense canopies. Today’s smartphones are evolving rapidly, and the array of navigation apps makes for tough picking, depending on your needs and level of interest.

The most-recent cell phone we tested and thought was a good evolution of the species was the Motorola Defy from T-Mobile. This svelte, 4.1-ounce smart phone packs in a 5MP autofocus cam with a 3.7-inch display area in a package smaller than a deck of cards, but with plenty of real estate for web, map and photo viewing. But don’t judge the Defy by its size—it’s the best-looking, most-functional submersible on the market. Main selling features: the bomber touchscreen made of Corning Gorilla Glass that survived scrapes on rough boulders, and the case that withstood a 30-minute underwater dunking. Best of all, the Defy is backcountry ready for short trips. Cache maps to the SD card on the phone and navigate off the grid. For our test, we went up to Rocky Mountain National Park and fired up the BACKPACKER GPS Trails app. We marked waypoints and geo-tagged photos in half the time it took on a handheld GPS and camera. And stay out all day—hiking in Boulder’s Flatirons, testers held a 7-hour charge running three different processor-intensive apps (navigation/social media/browser); other phones were cooked long before.”

In a nutshell, here are the pros of using a smartphone with a navigation app: great for local hikes, daily activity mapping like runs and bike rides, perfect for snapping and georeferencing photos on the go. Maps are seamless and less expensive that what you will pay for expensive map packages from the standalone GPS dealers.

And here are the cons: Like with most smartphone, you can’t swipe the Defy with gloves; in direct sunlight the screen washes out; and the BLUR social networking software is a bit intrusive. And let’s face it: if you’re going for a week or more on a backcountry jaunt, you’ll want the convenience of replaceable batteries for your handheld GPS. Solar panel chargers need to pick up the pace to match the development of the phones they hope to power.