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Buying a Smartphone for GPS #4594
Back To Discussion List Written: 2016.03.19 by: Dean Richards

See also the discussion on GPS Map Programs.

I haven't owned a dedicated GPS unit before and my old Blackberry's GPS is terribly, so I'm looking to buy a used smartphone to use both as a phone but I'll most be paying attentions to features that would be good for backcountry use.

GPS Accuracy - My understanding is that since all smartphones have only one antennae, the GPS capabilities are generally fairly similar across models. Has anyone experienced otherwise? Are there specs I should be paying attention to? Is a 2012 phone going to have noticeable worse capabilities than a 2014 phone?

Battery capacity - Battery life is important, but as long as the battery is removeable, carrying a backup battery is an option. Are there massive differences between models of phones when it comes to battery life? I know I could probably take another unit to plug into an iphone to charge it, getting past the non-removeable battery issue as well.

Memory - Memory isn't likely to be an issue between different models and I can figure out what capacity I need anyways.

Weather proof - I'd like to not have to worry about using the phone in the rain, thought I'm sure weatherproof cases would be an option.

Weight - This one is fairly important, but again, maybe the variance across models isn't that much.

Any other things I should be looking out for?

Does anyone have particular models to suggest in the $100 (used) price range? I know Robin has recommended one of the Samsung Galaxy's before...


#1843 - 2016.08.31 Robin Tivy - New Comparison Table
Bivouac members are always asking me what GPS hardware to buy, so today I made a Buying a Smartphone for GPS - Hardware Comparison comparing what I think are the key features in choosing a smart phone primarily for a GPS and camera. In particular, I included the Acer Liquid Z630 that Bill Leach brought to our attention earlier in this discussion. (He's the expert).

My evaluation of the hardware is based on what you need to run a GPS map program like Backcountry Navigator and make multi-day track logs. And also take pictures. On a typical 4 day trip, we carry 2 extra batteries, and track log continuously.

Most important is a removable battery and lots of memory, or an external micro SD card slot. Although a completely sealed unit that has no extra slot, and no removable battery might be more robust, at present I'd still only really look at units with removable battery.

#1841 - 2016.08.24 Dean Richards - Samsung Galaxy S5 Active
My Samsung Galaxy S2 died and I wasn't in Vancouver where I could find an easy used replacement, so I ended up getting the closest thing, a Galaxy S5 Active. Not only 3 years newer, but the 'Active' means it's got dust, water, and shock resistance. I got a good deal on it, so I'll likely sell it soon and downgrade, but I thought I'd comment on initial thoughts in the meantime.

Backcountry Navigator finds satellites far quicker on this newer phone. On the Galaxy 2, I think it would always take at least 20 seconds, sometimes several minutes, and sometimes longer. On the Galaxy 5, in the few times I've tried (both valley bottom and up high), it's found the satellites in less than 10 seconds. There are several power saving options which are notable, including changing the screen to black and white. I only recorded a track for 3 hours, but I have no doubt that it would've lasted at least a good 12hrs doing that, and on airplane mode, the phone estimated that it could've lasted 5 days. The battery is considerably bigger and is rated at 2400mah compared to 1800mah for the galaxy 2.

The camera is also considerably better.

The biggest reason I'll downgrade though is that it's quite a bit bigger and heavier than I wanted, so I might try to downgrade to a Galaxy 3 or 4. The Galaxy 5 is 170g and 145mm x 73mm x 9mm, while the Galaxy 2 is 116g and 125mm x 66mm x 8.5mm

#1836 - 2016.06.28 Bill Leach - Acer Z630
For those looking for a phone on which they can run GPS, such as Back Country Navigator (BCN), I would recommend they look at the Acer Z630.

I purchased this phone a month ago and have started using it full time.

The phone are a large display - the BCN map is about 7 cm by 9.5cm. The processor is quad core and feels speedy. A compass is built in. Finally, this phone has a very large battery: 4000 mAh.

On a recent trip, I used it for 12 hr with airplane mode on and had 73% battery capacity left. I doubt, however, whether the precision of these battery monitors are as close as implied - I would not expect it to last another 36 hr!

Weight is 165 g versus about 260 for a Garmin 64S.

The phone does not support GLONASS, but does have A-GPS so that it acquires satellites quickly.

The phone can be had from Walmart, and sometimes Costco, for $200.

Having been using BCN for over a year, I have come to prefer it over my Garmin 64csx. Pan and zoom are much faster, and the larger display makes it an effective replacement for a paper map. Finally, I really like working with gpx files directly instead of running everything through Garmin software.

#1832 - 2016.04.11 Dean Richards - Bought a Samsung Galaxy S2
After reading some comments I decided I might look for something a bit newer, but then I came across a Galaxy S2 for $55, so I went for it. I think I've only got maybe 16gb between the phone and the SD card, so that might become an issue. I did a test run with Backcountry Navigator on Petgill Lake and was happy with the acccuracy, thought I left it on for about 10hrs and it drained the battery almost completely. That was with a track interval of 20 seconds. Would reducing the interval to say 30 seconds change the battery life noticeably? I'll try being more selective as to when I record next time and will get a second battery at some point too.

#1831 - 2016.04.11 Robin Tivy - Putting Backcountry Navigator maps on SD Card might be slow?
As you may know, I am using a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone as my GPS and camera. Earlier I've recommended putting all maps onto a SD Card, rather than main memory. This is what I've done on my Samsung Galaxy S4, such that I permanently cache from Vancouver to Pemberton, and Manning Park. I also usually use the GPX link on the mountain page to download all the roads and trails in an area. It's about 6 or 7 GB of maps.

However, I've also noticed lately that with everything on the SD card, it seems to take a long time to delete the 50 track logs. For example, when I was preparing for my trip to the Sunshine coast, I previously had downloaded all the trails and roads around Whistler and several other places. So I had about 150 roads and trails. To delete them all took more than a second per road, and was so slow I had to leave the phone sitting while it deleted the whole set.

I'm not sure what has gone wrong, but I suspect the fact I put Backcountry Navigator onto the SD Card. It seems to have slowed down, perhaps due to the massive amount of data I've loaded onto it. In this posting, I have no definitive answers, but I thought I would post some specifics, just in case you are interested. The type of card I have in the phone right now is below:

Kingston 32GB Micro SDHC Class 10 Flash card 13.99 each at NCIX on 2015.07.28

If you look up in Google, you can see Class 10 is the fastest:

Six months later, I got a couple more cards for some other friends of mine who have Samsung S4 phones. These cards are 64 GB, and also are UHS-1. The type of card was below:

AData micro SDXC card. UHS-I Class 10 50 GB. (Cost $32.00 at NCIX on December 11, 2015.

So perhaps I will switch cards. The slowdown doesn't seem to affect photos or music, both of which are also on the SD card.

#1826 - 2016.04.06 Steve Grant - Nokia N8: cheap capable phone
I see the original poster asked about used smartphones around $100. I can suggest the Nokia N8. This was Nokia's flagship phone at the time. It's now being hobbled by the lack of apps and updates because of its ophan Symbian O/S. However, it's still extremely useful. GPS, FM radio, FM transmitter, Bluetooth, Wifi, 12Mp Zeiss camera, user-replaceable battery (once you get past the tiny Torx screws). It'll run navigation apps such as the native street navigation with voice prompts, multiple types of maps in ViewRanger, Google maps with satellite view and street view. Utterly unprotected against water, and it shares the problem most of these phones have, which is the screen is difficult to read on snow in sunlight.

#1825 - 2016.04.06 Steve Grant - Samsung S5: water resistance and swappable battery
Hikers and skiers shopping for a smartphone should consider that the Samsung S5 was the last Samsung phone that is somewhat waterproof AND has a user-swappable battery. 16Gb internal memory plus a micro sd slot for up to 128Gb. There are several versions, basically the original S5 and the newer S5 "Neo". Both versions come in several "country" models, including a Canadian model. There's also a dual-sim version for international travelers. Compared to the non-Neo, the Neo drops fingerprint recognition, has a standard mini-usb port, has internally-sealed ports instead of using rubber plugs, and runs slower and cooler (which helps battery life). Extra batteries are cheap. 5" screen.

#1824 - 2016.04.06 Bill Leach - Some additional thoughts
I use an Acer Liquid Z4 that I got new at Costco for $100. It is a low performance phone, but works very well as a GPS. I've done trips recording tracks with both the phone and a Garmin 60csx, and found the them to be very close.

With the wifi and bluetooth off, the phone easily lasts 10 hr - I haven't tested the limit. I suspect that a low performance phone may have an advantage in battery life.

On the other hand, you could look at battery life comparisons such as, and use the web browsing column as a proxy for GPS use. This would at least allow phones to be compared.

I agree with Robin that memory is important for the storage of maps. I use five atlases of about 4 GB each that cover the Rockies from Jasper to Waterton plus Calgary. They fit nicely on a 32 GB SD card.

You might try to get a phone with a magnetic sensor so the app will show the compass (mine doesn't).

#1823 - 2016.03.21 Robin Tivy - Memory is an issue
I'm still recommending Samsung Galaxy S4 or S5. We all have S4, but S5 is supposedly more water resistant. As soon as you start caching maps (like in Backcountry Navigator), memory becomes an issue. You want to be able to download all the maps for your local area, and not have to keep redownloading the maps. I've got most of the 1:50K maps from Pemberton to Vancouver, and also Manning Park. We quickly exceeded the 16 GB built in memory of the Samsung Galaxy S4. (The operating system alone takes about 8 GB). However, the Samsung Galaxy S4 has a slot for a Micro SD card, and a 64 GB micro SD card only costs about $30.00. So I changed the configuration of my phone so it stores all music, photos and maps on the micro SD card.

The cards might be a bit slower to access than the main memory. And I've had a couple of cases where it said the card had a problem, and I had to reboot.

I think it makes sense to go for something like the Samsung Galaxy S4 or S5 because you can change the battery and add Micro SD cards. My sister paid $300 for one at a store in Calgary about a year ago. These days it seems there are some used on EBay for about 170.00 or new ones on Amazon for 272.00 CDN.

I don't even have a phone plan for mine now, I just use it as a GPS and camera. For me, the reason I got a Samsung S4 was because other people I knew already had one, and so we could all learn from each other. And of course you may as well use one of the 3 main GPS apps that I spent hours documenting on Bivouac. See Standard GPS Operations.