Smartphone vs GPS for navigation 

Following technological developments in recent years more people are using their smartphones, tablets or iPads as navigation tools. It makes you wonder if you really need a GPS for travelling.

Nowadays the average smartphone comes equipped with a location service feature and a plethora of apps are available for navigation.  Most people use their smartphones for city guidance but are not sure if that is sufficient for navigation off the beaten track.  Indeed many hardcore overlanders who have been using their GPS’s for travelling feel that their phones just aren’t good enough.

Also read: The right GPS for navigation with Tracks4Africa maps

It is true that none of these devices have all the features one would find on a dedicated GPS, but the advantage of a smartphone is that you can load apps according to your needs.  For instance, if your navigation app does not record GPS tracks and you require that, then you can install a free or inexpensive app.

Consider the technology

There are also apps available that do not offer navigation as such but allow you to download raster maps which display your GPS location on the map as you drive.  This is like a digital paper map with your location indicated on the map. These offer a good alternative if you are willing to work out the routes yourself.

In our opinion it is feasible to use your smartphone, tablet or iPad for navigation outside the cities, provided you consider the technology of your device and the content you take with you.  You must also get a proper mount and a permanent power supply for your device as a navigation app will keep your screen and GPS receiver on all the time which consumes significant battery capacity.

Also read: The cheapest way to communicate while travelling in Africa

Your device must have a built-in GPS receiver

The very first feature that determines whether you can use your electronic device for navigation is whether it has a GPS receiver or if it only offers GSM and Wi-Fi based location services.  This is especially important for iPad users as iPads which do not come with 3G/4G do not have built-in GPS receivers. If you intend to use your iPad for navigation you must ensure that you buy a 3G/4G model.

As soon as you leave town you are bound to drive into areas where there is no cell phone reception, let alone Wi-Fi connectivity.  The only service you can then rely on is the GPS receiver which works pretty much everywhere except indoors. However, you need to know if your phone has this capability prior to departure.

Also read: 15 Things you want to know before you travel Malawi

Online or offline?

The next thing to consider is what app you will use for navigation.  Map or navigation apps are divided into two categories, namely online and offline.  The online apps rely on an internet connection to download map information as you travel whereas the offline app would have all the maps already installed on your device.  Again, in remote areas or just for the sake of roaming costs it would be highly advisable to have an offline app, which is also usually much faster.

Examples of online apps are Google Maps and Apple Maps.  Some of the online apps provide the functionality to download and cache map data but this has limited coverage and is a temporary arrangement which is not suited to overland trips.  For obvious reasons you cannot rely on online apps for navigation in remote areas.

There are many offline navigation apps available and a few examples include Garmin’s Navigation app, Tom Tom, Sygic, iGo, Here Maps and the Tracks4Africa Overland Navigator.  These apps are downloaded when you first install them and are often large files which include various country maps.  Once installed you do not need to connect to the internet to use the maps. However, some of these may require an internet connection for searches, so test them before you leave home.

Ensure you have a good quality map

The last consideration for using any of the above apps would be the suitability of the map content for your trip.  Make sure that not only are all the countries you intend to visit included but that the level of detail you would need is also available, especially in remote areas. The Tracks4Africa Overland Navigator is an app for iPad and iPhone and is available on the iTunes Store.

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8 thoughts on “Smartphone vs GPS for navigation ”

  1. So glad to hear about the t4a app – just waiting for the android version. Will be great for touring by car or for oneday hiking trips. For mountain biking I will stay with my garmin etrex handheld. I cable tie it to my handlebars (with a piece of foam beneath it for the worst shocks) and away I go. It last 12hours with 2x AA batteries and I can take spare batteries along in my backpack and it does not mind a couple of raindrops. Have seen a couple of beautiful places with the help of t4a. For me, a phone is fragile and for backup.

  2. All you need for an iPad that does not have GPS built in is a DUAL XGPS150 receiver or similar. Bluetooth the two together and away you go. It worked faultlessly for three months last year all over Southern Africa, and if you leave the T4A set to always record your track then as soon as everything is fired up in the morning you will have a permanent record. The only problem is when stop start around town as T4A records a new route every time you turn the ignition on! The T4A app for the iPad was obviously written by someone from a different planet as it will drive you nuts for at least the first week of use until you get tuned in to its weird way of working.

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