GPS: Portable in-car devices vs smart phones

GPS (Global Positioning System) technology is all the buzz at the moment there are a heaps of options available. What's the best one for you?

GPS (Global Positioning System) technology is all the buzz at the moment and although the space is continuing to grow, there are a plethora of options available on the Australian market. What's the best one for you?

GPS units have made the traveller's life infinitively more convenient, especially for those of us that refuse to stop and ask for directions. When it comes to in-car navigation, there are two main choices. Portable GPS units from brands such as TomTom, Navman and Mio are a very popular selection. They can be used from car to car, are relatively inexpensive and generally straightforward to use. On the other hand, did you know your smart phone or PDA can also act as a GPS navigator? With the right software package installed and either a built-in or external GPS receiver, the phone that slips into your pocket can easily become more valuable than a street directory.

So what's the best option? Is a portable in-car GPS unit better suited for you? Or would you prefer the convenience of navigation in your pocket with a smart phone (handheld) model?

It all comes down to your specific needs. If you plan to use the navigational features on foot, then you'd be best served with a smart phone with GPS enabled. Although portable in-car units often have a pedestrian mode, their larger size and low battery life means they are better suited to in-car use than out.

The Nokia 6110 Navigator may be an ideal choice if you want a mobile GPS. It is the first mobile phone to be released with fully integrated turn-by-turn GPS functionality. Using the relatively intuitive Route 66 application with NAVTEQ maps, Nokia has done an excellent job integrating the navigator application into the handset. The downside? The display is quite small at best and the lack of a touch-screen means general use isn't as quick fire as a portable in-car unit with a touch screen.

Another highly recommended alternative for the smart phone user is a software package such as CoPilot Live 7. If you own one of the huge array of Windows Mobile smart phones on the market, this package turns your smart phone into a fully fledged GPS capable device – provided you either have a built-in GPS receiver or purchase an external one, such as Nokia's LD-4W or the QStarz BT-Q818. Whether you're on foot, in the car or even on a bicycle, this voice-guided application will steer you smoothly in the right direction.

Examples of smart phones with a GPS receiver as a standard feature include HTC's Touch Cruise, the Nokia N95 8GB, the Mio A702 and the HTC TyTN II.

If you don't necessarily wish to carry a navigational device in your pocket, then a dedicated in-car unit may be a better option for you. With larger displays, navigation straight out of the box, and a hassle-free user experience with no installation or tweaking required, a portable in-car GPS is an ideal vehicle companion. Advances in GPS technology and lower prices have made these in-car GPS units more affordable than ever before.

The distinct advantage in-car units hold over the smart phone counterparts is a larger display. Many of the latest units come with screen sizes of 3.5in and above while some newer models even feature widescreen displays. A great example of the benefits of a larger screen is Mio's split-screen technology, used in all of their current range including the DigiWalker C520. The display is split 70/30 with the largest view dedicated to the navigation map, and the other 30 per cent displaying additional information of your choice including the current time, speed and date, a list of the nearest POI's, traffic information and a list of the next four turns in your trip. Although a smart phone with GPS enabled does the same job in terms of navigation, the user experience on a whole is better suited to the larger displays that these portable in-car units can offer.

Another recent introduction is a built-in FM transmitter, used on the Garmin nuvi 760. This technology enables users to send sound wirelessly to their car stereo, ensuring you don't miss any spoken directions – a common issue on some GPS units with low volume levels.

Whatever your choice, both types of GPS unit have their advantages and disadvantages. One thing's for sure though – with a variety of models on the market now has never been a better time to throw away your street directory.

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Ross Catanzariti

Ross Catanzariti

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