Travel Advice - Alternatives to Maps: Mapping and routing on
handheld devices using GPS (PNDs and Smart Phones)
Many people have a hard time using maps to navigate between places and
might benefit from using new technology to solving this age-old problem.
In this article, we examine handheld-devices that provide useful
mapping and routing capabilities.
Our conclusion is that the mapping and routing capabilities of Personal
Navigation Devices are worth their expense, although the functionality
of the bargain brands just don't cut it. Navigation systems that
work over cell phones also provides useful support. Below, we
review the various technologies and provide recommendations that might
help you understand the variety of alternative available.
Dedicated Personal Navigation Devices (PNDs)
A number of companies ( Garmin, TomTom and others) provide dedicated
handheld devices called Personal Navigation Devices (PNDs) that provide
solid routing and navigation functionality. In late 2011
TomTom announced that it was retreating from the PND market and would
focus on in-car and smart phone applications in the future.
- Ranging from $100 to $600 portable navigation systems integrate a
GPS receiver, high quality display, storage capability, and an
input system to provide a fully functioning navigation device.
- These autonomous devices generally perform well, although many older
models suffered from the problems regarding the limitation in the
geographical area or spatial detail that could be loaded for use
(due to memory restrictions).
- Most units can be mounted in your car and are quite effective for
navigation. Voice functionality is a standard functionality as the
maneuvers required to take a route or to stay on route are "announced",
letting you pay attention to the road and not the small screen.
Take our word for it, voice -assisted navigation is a must and worth
- Several manufacturers provide communication with allows
Bluetooth-enabled phones to query traffic data and communicate this
information to the base navigation device.
- In addition, many modern PNDs allow you to use the PND as a
hands-free unit for phones, as long as the phone and the PND both have
- Software, storage technology and the memory capabilities of PNDs are
quite good and make these hand-held GPS units a pleasure to use.
Also, the competitive nature of the market means that you can now
purchase units with rich features for a very reasonable price.
- Most PND providers also offer databases for traveling in foreign
countries, allowing you to use your PND during travel abroad.
Navigation over cell phones
Cell phones (usually the models included in the category known as
"smart phones") that are Internet-capable can connect to Web mapping and
routing services specifically designed for use and display on cell
- The functionality is very similar to using an online service with
- If your cell phone is GPS equipped, then your phone will act as a
mini-PND, since software used by the phone will always know your
location. All you have to do is to tell it where you want go and
the online service will calculate a route and provide verbal route
guidance directions at the appropriate time.
In order to use routing on your cell phone, the company providing your
cellular service must provide access to a “wireless routing” site. You
must have an Internet-capable phone equipped with a GPS receiver.
Several limitations may influence your satisfaction with the
utility of mapping and routing on cell phones.
- First, the small screen makes examining the map presentation
difficult. Larger screens and more sophisticated web browsers are
making these displays more useable, but some size-related limitations
- Second, GPS units in cell phones are usually of inferior quality
compared to those in PNDs and will loose the GPS signal more frequently
than a PND, which means that the service will be less reliable.
- Third, the service will work only when there is a signal to connect
your phone to the cellular carrier’s network.
- If your experience with “dropped calls” is high, you may want to
avoid using these types of services.
- Finally, be sure you understand the cost of the service and any
limitations that may apply (e.g. limits on your data-plan or
restrictions on geographical area usage). In most cases, the data
roaming required to connect to routing services while traveling
internationally is prohibitive. If you are planning to use your
phone for navigation while traveling internationally, be prepared for a
huge bill. It's simply not worth the expense.
- Some systems download chunks of maps to your phone that can be used
for navigation purposes and do not require you to be linked to the
mother ship for this purpose. However, the only affordable way to
do this is to download the map chunks using Wi-Fi at the hotel and hope
that you have enough map to get you where you are going.
Cell phone-based routing is a very handy service. Current products
offered by Verizon Wireless, Sprint and others are very polished and
deserve your consideration.
Google is now offering a free navigation and route guidance
application that runs on its Android software platform for cellular
phones. Advances in cell phone technology and the migration to more
powerful networks are providing these phones with extremely useful
mapping and routing applications.
Although many cellular carries have roaming agreements in foreign
countries, your routing service provider may not enable routing outside
of the your home country. In addition, the data rates for such
"foreign" service usually are excessive. Although our group
uses the iPhone, we turn them off while traveling around Europe to avoid
roaming costs, which can mount to thousands of dollars in just a few
If you have difficulty navigating to different places while on the
road, we present two additional articles on alternatives to maps. One
article describes navigation systems provided by rental car companies (
In-car navigation systems
). A second article describes Web sites that provide online
mapping and routing services ( online mapping and
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