In the past, on any long car trip, at some time somebody in the car unfolded a paper map to figure out how to get to the destination. As of the 21st century, paper maps are almost little more than a memory. Online mapping software and GPS products now guide the majority of people to their destination. Many new cars have GPS devices built into the dashboard and portable devices can be purchased as well. Due to the advent of smartphones, it is also possible to use online maps even while on the road. Which option is better depends on exactly where you drive and how you drive. There are a lot of factors to take into account when choosing a navigation option.
Coverage – If you’ve ever looked at the coverage map for a cell phone, you will see a lot of areas that have no coverage or limited coverage. On the other hand, satellites literally cover the entire Earth. This doesn’t matter much if you tend to travel in highly populated areas like California or the northeast, but it can be a disaster if you tend to travel around the wide open areas of a state like Arizona. Even the best smartphone will have dead areas, so if you use a smartphone for navigation, make sure to print out directions before your trip when traveling to small towns or through unpopulated areas.
Up to Date Maps – One of the nice advantages of a smartphone is that you are always using the most up to date map possible. Whether you are accessing Google Maps or Mapquest, you can generally be sure that the map is no more than a week out of date. Even if the maps of your preferred service are out of date, you can just switch to a different navigation website and it probably won’t be. GPS companies generally keep maps updated as well, but not as frequently and your GPS unit can’t automatically download it. You need to physically plug it into a computer or some other internet connected device and manually download the new maps. Additionally, you generally have to pay a subscription fee for that service, which can easily cost as much as $100 a year.
Battery Life – The GPS that is built into your car will only run out of battery life when your car battery dies and the vast majority of other standalone GPS units include a power adapter to connect to your car. In either case, if you are using a standard GPS unit, you can basically be assured that it will never run out of juice. Smartphones, on the other hand, drain power very quickly, especially when constantly connected to the internet. Unless you have a car adapter, your smartphone will almost certainly run out of power in just a few hours and even if it doesn’t run out of battery life, it will be low when you get to your destination.
Current Events – Possibly the biggest advantage of a smartphone is that it can warn you about current events that would affect your trip. For example, if there is an accident 50 miles ahead of you that has stopped all traffic, your smartphone can tell you and redirect you along a new route. A standard GPS that isn’t connected to the internet, at best can be programmed to roughly understand high traffic times for certain areas and might include information about a long term detour. This doesn’t matter too much if you are traveling to areas that have a lot of roads, but it can be critical when driving in areas with limited options.
Safety – It is illegal to talk or text on a phone while driving in most states, for a very good reason. Distractions cause accidents. You don’t need to worry about the distraction of using texting while using a smartphone as a navigation device, but there are safety issues. GPS devices that are built into cars are designed to distract as little as possible and the screen is located in a place that is easy to quickly glance at while driving without losing your view of the road, much like looking in your rearview mirror. A standalone GPS is designed to be attached to your dashboard in a similarly safe manner. Smartphones, though, rarely come with any way to attach to your dashboard, which means you generally have to hold it in your lap or in a hand. Either distracts your attention more meaningfully and in similarly dangerous ways to texting or talking on the phone. You can avoid this danger by purchasing a dashboard mount for your smartphone.
Portability – Obviously the GPS built into your car has absolutely no portability. Either you are in your car or you are not. A standalone GPS can be unmounted, but it is generally heavier and bulkier than a smartphone. On the contrary, your smartphone is nearly infinitely portable. It goes everywhere you go. This can be particularly useful if you fly a lot and then rent cars at your destination. Even though you aren’t anywhere near your car, you still have your navigation device with you at all times.