Let’s examine these devices a bit closer. A smartphone is a small general-purpose computer that does a lot of things but doesn’t always do them particularly well: power is sacrificed for portability. Most smartphones are designed for everyday use in moderate climates and to be charged nightly from a mains socket. They have fast processors which are great for web browsing and running apps but use a lot of battery power. The capacitive touchscreens show lots of detail but also draw a lot of power and don’t work with normal gloves. Smartphones have GPS receivers but they are weak so mobile data is also utilised for positioning. This works well in urban areas with a strong mobile signal but not so well in remote areas with little reception.
A dedicated GPS device is also a small computer but one purposely designed for route-finding and positioning, which generally means it has much more sensitive GPS receivers and is built for rugged outdoor use. Battery life tends to be better on dedicated GPS units and many will work with AA batteries – which can be purchased just about anywhere – rather than relying on mains charging. Dedicated GPS units tend to be waterproof and shockproof so will function in heavy rain and extreme temperatures. Some have physical buttons and/or joysticks so can be operated wearing normal gloves. Dedicated GPS units have sophisticated mapping, positioning and routing functionality. Some have other features like barometers and thermometers. Generally they will not run third party apps. For outdoor activities where accurate navigation is critical a dedicated GPS unit is more suitable than a smartphone.
Dedicated GPS units are not without their downsides though. For starters they tend to be complicated to use; I’ve encountered people who have bought Garmins and hardly used them due to the learning curve. They also tend to have relatively small, low resolution screens and slow processors which can make them seem primitive compared to modern smartphones. The small screens make high-level route planning difficult so you will probably need paper maps too (though routing can be automated). What’s more, if you have a smartphone anyway a GPS unit is just one more device to carry around. There is generally no mobile connectivity so if you are recording the GPS data from your tour and want to share it a smartphone will be more useful. GPS units are catching up with smartphones though and higher end ones offer sharing capabilities using wifi or Bluetooth (but you will still need a phone or computer). Touch screens are becoming more prevalent and many are of comparable size to those on smartphones. It is even possible now to buy GPS units that run third party apps.
The lack of reliance on internet connectivity makes dedicated GPS units powerful. Most smartphone mapping apps require, or work best with, an Internet connection. If you’re travelling abroad this could make using a smartphone for navigation costly, and even impossible in remote locations without mobile broadband. It is possible to obtain offline maps for smartphones but in remote areas dedicated GPS units will work much more accurately and reliably. On the other hand, most GPS units are supplied with only very basic maps so if you want to use high quality maps you may need to purchase them, and they can be very expensive – sometimes costing more than the device itself! Free maps are available but aren’t always suitable.
So should you buy a dedicated GPS unit? If you have a smartphone anyway it’s best to try that first with some mapping apps and see if it will suffice. If you find you need more reliable positioning, better weatherproofing and longer battery life it may be worth considering a dedicated GPS device. Choose carefully though. GPS units aimed at cyclists may not be the best type for long-distance cycle touring as they tend to use usb charging rather than AA batteries. However, they will come with reliable mounts and satnav-style routing functionality that is well suited for cycling.
Remember that for many years cyclists have toured without any GPS equipment. It is certainly not essential but hard to give up when you are used to it. GPS tends to be most useful to cyclists in urban areas where the number of roads makes carrying and following paper maps impractical. But if that’s all you’re using it for a smartphone may be more suitable. In remote places there tend to be few roads, which actually makes navigation for cyclists much easier. However GPS is still useful for knowing altitude, speed and direction.
Pros of dedicated GPS unit
- good battery life
- many work with AA batteries
- more sensitive receivers so better positioning
- not reliant on internet access
- often have dedicated mounts for bikes
- more powerful mapping/gps functions
- some work with normal gloves
- one extra thing to carry
- bit of a learning curve
- small, low resolution screens
- slow processors
- usually no spoken directions
- maps can be costly
Pros of smartphone
- you probably already own one
- lots of app choice
- navigation apps can give spoken directions
- easy sharing of routes and trips
- relatively easy to use
- free online maps
- relatively large hi-resolution screens
- weatherproof models available
- poor battery life – will need constant charging
- often require internet connection
- GPS receivers not very sensitive
- not very sturdy or weatherproof
- don’t work with normal gloves