In today’s world, a GPS to help you navigate the streets of almost anywhere in the world is very nearly a given. As a directionally-challenged person (I can get lost even with GPS, believe it or not) I always felt like I had to stick to one, pre-determined route when going anywhere, because otherwise there was a very good chance I would end up somewhere else and have no idea where I was or how to get back on track. But with GPS, even when I do go off track, miss a turn or just get turned around, I get the “recalculating” message and I know everything will be fine.
But if you are the market for a new GPS system, there are now multiple choices, not just of brand, but of system types. Today, there are three GPS categories: in-dash systems, standalone GPS devices or modern smartphones running GPS apps. All three have their pros and cons, and choosing the best one for you is a matter of knowing what features you value the most.
In-Dash GPS Systems
In many modern car makes and models, in-dash systems are becoming more prevalent. They have expanded from only high-end, luxury vehicles to the sedans, SUVs and other vehicles that the average driver is likely to purchase. However, in almost all of those cases, the navigation system is not standard, coming as part of a technology, navigation or entertainment upgrade with costs that vary widely between manufacturers.
There are a few big pros to this type of system that may sway you toward the investment. First and foremost is the screen size. In GPS, size matters; in-dash systems give you a large, clear picture that allows for a greater variety of extra information and views on screen at the same time, while not detracting from the driving directions. These can include a detailed turn-by-turn list alongside the traditional GPS view of the road ahead pointing out turns, a detailed look ahead at the next upcoming turn, or time and mileage to destination. These screens are also usually placed in the dashboard itself, where it is easy to view them, and they don’t obstruct the windshield in any way.
Another big pro is the integration with your vehicle. In-dash systems are designed for that specific car, and they can move seamlessly between radio, accepting Bluetooth calls and using other voice commands, all without interrupting the navigation. You don’t have to worry about an incoming call shutting off the navigation, or having the radio turned up too loud and missing a command—the car adjusts all of that automatically because all those systems work together as one.
There are, however, some cons. An in-dash GPS system comes pre-loaded with maps, and depending on the age of your vehicle and the manufacturer in question, you might be limited to only the maps that come pre-loaded which, over time, could become outdated. Another big con is that the in-dash GPS can’t be taken with you—you can use it in your own vehicle, but if you are in a friend’s car, a rental, or buy a new vehicle, you lose your GPS, including not just functionality, but all of your saved addresses, points of interest or favorite routes.
Dedicated GPS vs GPS Phone Apps
A dedicated, handheld GP system was, for many years, the only choice for those who wanted navigation. They were the original option, first designed for the military, and then opened up for consumer use in the 1980s, and they were very expensive when they first came on the scene. The price has dropped considerably since then—you can find a decent unit for around $100-$150. The other alternative in the hand-held category is to use your smartphone, running a GPS app. There are GPS options that span the price range in all of the major platform app stores, so there is an option for everyone. The question is, which one is right for you?
The biggest pro for a dedicated or smartphone GPS system over in-dash is the portability. You can take either of them with you when you buy a new car, go with friends or have a rental on vacation, and always have a familiar system to guide you along. But that’s where they start to diverge.
A dedicated GPS is designed to do nothing except provide you with navigation, whereas a smartphone is juggling many other things at the same time. The dedicated system, in general, is going to have more features and options for personalization than the smartphone app. On the other hand, most people today already have a smartphone of some kind in their pockets right now, giving them access to basic navigation without needing to invest in any additional equipment. That also leads to another advantage that smartphones have over dedicated GPS devices: Your phone is likely already always with you, whereas you have to make an effort to remember to grab the GPS if you are using it anywhere other than your regular vehicle.
Another point of difference is battery life. Because a dedicated GPS is only doing one thing, and doesn’t need to connect to cell towers, look for WiFi, notify you of Facebook comments or do anything else other than tell you where the next turn is, it uses a great deal less power. Depending on the make and model of the GPS, a single charge could be enough to get you to your final destination with no issues. A smartphone, on the other hand, is often doing all of those things and more, and power is an expensive commodity. Again, depending on the model, using the phone as a GPS could drain the battery in a matter of hours.
More About GPS Smartphone Apps
However, to make up for that, smartphone apps are going to offer the most up-to-date maps of any of the options, with the apps often connected to the cloud and updating every time you start the app. They also tend to have access to the widest range of points of interest such as restaurants or shops along your route, and rather than just give you an address, a smartphone will let you find the business’ Website, call them, read reviews, etc.
Also, in the past, a downside of using a smartphone GPS was that you had to remain connected to the Internet via WiFi or a cell tower, or you lost not only your signal, but your navigation as well. Today, many of the apps have addressed that problem with offline caching, but it is not available in all of them, and you have to remember to tell the app to save your route while you still have a signal—which can be a problem if you are going somewhere remote and want to use the smartphone GPS to get you home again later.
At the end of the day, all three options have a time and a place where they are either superior to the others, or alternatively are terrible in comparison. To choose the one that is right for you, take a long look at the types of driving and navigation you normally do. Do you keep a vehicle for long periods of time, and generally you are the primary driver? Then an in-dash system might be right for you. Do you often travel to places where cell phone towers and Internet access are limited? Then a dedicated GPS might be the way to go. And if you are the type of person who just uses navigation occasionally, and you never know where or when you might need it, just downloading an app on your smartphone is a good choice. And it might not be a single solution to fit all of your needs maybe you have an in-dash system for most uses, with a free smartphone app downloaded for backup or the rare occasions you need GPS outside of your own vehicle. Or perhaps you prefer to make your smartphone your primary GPS, but then have a dedicated unit in the glove box for those times when you go out of range of a signal.
Whatever your choice, GPS has come a long way in the 30 years it has been available, revolutionizing the way people navigate the world. And all three options will continue to evolve, offering new features and points of differentiation along the way.