Mobile GPS devices

I use my smartphone everyday. No question about it, it’s always with me.  The same is probably true for you too. Even if you’re the one in a million left who has stuck with the rotary dial phone, you will be phased out eventually.

Rotary Dial Phone

Or maybe you don’t use a phone at all, the fear of radiation, or some kind of reverse FOMO has made you someone who doesn’t need to communicate via the method of the era.

Your phone

The point is, practically speaking, everyone has a cell phone. A device which puts an incredible amount of computing power in your pocket. After a quick google search, I discovered that “your cell phone has more computer power than all of NASA back in 1969 when it sent two astronauts to the moon.” And that’s from a book written in 2012, so our 2014 smartphones are even more powerful than that.

With all that power in your hand, the possibilities are amazing, and all it takes is genius programmers to continually change the way we operate our lives. Now combine massive computing power with mass amounts of people, and this little piece of technology called GPS. It’s a pretty remarkable combination.

For mobile phones, the introduction of GPS started in 1999 with the Benefon Esc! Around the same time, dedicated personal GPS receivers were becoming smaller and more affordable – a new essential tool for the hiker/biker/hunter, etc.  In the decade to follow the Esc! the majority of cell phones would be equipped with a GPS receiver, for the expensive ones anyway it’s been a prerequisite.

Check out the Esc!

For the last decade or so, it’s been a wash when comparing the two. No question about it, if you needed GPS, you would buy a Garmin, or a Magellan, or a TomTom, or if you’re really serious about it you could shell out some big coin for something like a Trimble. Today though, the cell phone is just as useful, and in many situations, much more useful, than even a $5,000.00 device (for high-end surveying, of course the big boys are still used, but that’s not exactly what the majority of people are using GPS for). The main reason why a cell phone could be better than a dedicated device? Cell towers and Russian satellites. Basically every phone with the ability to locate your position uses three systems to do it:

  1. Global Positioning System (United States Government)
  2. GLONASS (Russian Aerospace Defence Forces)
  3. Cell Tower Triangulation (Local)

GPS is a network (or constellation) of at least 24 satellites working to find your location and managed by the Americans. GLONASS is basically the exact same thing but managed by the Russians. And then there is cell tower triangulation. With all three of these working together, you have tons of coverage, even in areas with a limited view of the sky (thick canopy, big mountains).

Your smartphone has all of these methods already built into it (GLONASS has only been accessible world-wide for roughly 3 years,   for a full list of smartphones that use GLONASS, click here). Dedicated GPS devices are moving towards accessing both networks by default, but currently you have to pay more if you want a device that can do it.

The bottom line here is that a smartphone will most likely fit your GPS needs. It’s important to realize how powerful your phone is, and then to utilize that power. Check out my page of favourite GPS apps to see what you can do with your device, you may be surprised.


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