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

As of 2019, this is now the "OFFICIAL DISCUSSION" about smart phone hardware for use as a GPS. For example, battery life, screen resolution, etc, but not the details of the Apps. There is a separate discussion of GPS apps, see GPS Discussion Index

In the past, most people used dedicated GPS units like those made by Garmin. The advantage of using a smart phone is the screen display is an order of magnitude higher. Eg: even an old Galaxy S4 has a 1080 x 1920 display as compared with a Garmin Oregon which is 240 x 400 pixels.

Although Garmin GPS have their own topo maps, the smartphone Apps have much more detailed maps. In particular, on a smartphone you can download the NTS 1:50,000 topo maps which you see in Bivouac GMap "t2" display. There are two main types of smartphone: Android and Apple iOS. Each has it's own set of Apps. All smart phones have a built in GPS chip but to use it you need an App.
  Postings to this discussion describe what features are important, and also may discuss individual models of phone. See also the discussion on GPS Map Programs. See Smart Phone Lister for a list of current models.

 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...


#6362 - 2018.10.23 Robin Tivy - Samsung Galaxy S9 power consumption
We have been testing a Samsung Galaxy S9 for the past 2 months. Like almost all new models, it does not have a removable battery. But we discovered it will track log more than twice as long as previous models. We just tested it on our 2 day Ring lake loop, leaving it track logging for both days. This was about 15 hours since we were turning it off at night. At the end of two days it still shows 59% capacity remaining. So you could probably use it on a 4 or 5 day trip before you had to recharge from a separate battery pack.

Our old Galaxy S4 units will only run for 1.5 days continuous track logging (10 hours). However we carry numerous spare batteries.

We also tested the Galaxy S9 on our 6 day Shulaps trip. On that trip, Betsy left it turned on continuously, and marked a waypoint every half hour. It still had over half the charge remaining at the end of the trip. So using it that way, it could last on a ten day trip without recharge.

However, on a trip she did for work, Betsy found that it needed to be recharged every day because they had the screen turned on continuously to navigate while driving.

The unit has three power consumption modes. For the Shulaps trip, we had it in the middle mode, which was sufficient to mark waypoints every half hour, and take photos. But in that mode, the apps only wake up when you pull it out of your pocket. So it does not take a proper track log, there were only straight lines between times when it was pulled out. It only records a point every time you turn on the screen.

Conclusions: It seems that these new processors use less power when track logging than the older models. My previous assumption was that it was essential that a smart phone have a removable battery. Now I'd say that a removable battery is still desirable because all batteries eventually wear out. However, it seems that a phone like the S9 would be quite adequate for all 3-4 day trips, and you'd only need a separate battery pack for week long trips. The S9 costs about $900.

I initially assumed there must be somewhere on the internet where I could find some official indication of the power consumption. But I couldn't find anything. All of the power consumption benchmarks I found were comparing how many hours you could watch videos, etc. The usage pattern we want for backcountry GPS use isn't something people are documenting. Which is why I posted it here.

#6327 - 2018.08.15 Dean Richards
I went from my Galaxy S5 Active to a Galaxy S4, which I found a significant step down. I've since gotten regular S5 and find the camera and GPS considerably better than the S4

#6325 - 2018.08.15 Robin Tivy - Buying a Smartphone in 2018
I've talked to at least 3 experienced GPS phone owners who plan to get a new phone soon. Everybody was pretty satisfied with their old phones, but always interested in possible improvements in newer models. So I once again looked into what is currently available, and put the main models into a little database. See Smart Phone Lister. My main focus is phones in the $200 to $400 range, but the table contains some other phones just for reference.

Here's what I think is important.

  1. Memory
     These days I would recommend trying to get 32 GB of main memory so you don't need to use a SD card. Betsy and I had only 16 GB in our Samsung Galaxy S4 phones which quickly gets used up by Backcountry Navigator to cache maps. The Android OS alone takes 9 GB. So we both have installed 64 GB SD expansion cards in the phone and then configured Backcountry Navigator, photos and music onto the SD Card. But the folder structure you end up with when you put Backcountry Navigator onto the expansion card is quite cumbersome. Also I've been on a couple of trips when for some reason the phone can't access the SD card and then it won't start up. So I would rather avoid the SD card at least for Backcountry Navigator, and have more main memory to begin with. I want at least 32 GB and ideally 64 GB.

  2. Removable Battery
     You will notice on my list of phones that many of the high end phones do not have removable batteries. The last Galaxy models to have removable battery were the S4 and S5. The S6, S7, S8 and S9 do not have removable battery. Betsy and I have about 6 extra batteries, which cost $15 each on Ebay. If you are continuous track logging, a battery will last 8 or 10 hours, so on a weekend trip, we always have one spare. On week long trips, we have 3 or 4 spares.

    On phones that do not allow you to swap batteries, you'll have to carry a battery pack and recharge your phone each night. In bad weather this may be cumbersome. Battery packs are also heavier that spare batteries.

    Another problem with non replaceable batteries is after 2 or 3 years, your battery is likely to deteriorate and your phone becomes less useful. Although there are instructions on YouTube to somehow replace batteries in phones where user replacement is not intended, but it is often a complex process requiring special tools. On phones like the Galaxy S6 the backs are glued on, there are tiny screws and electrical connections. Check out the replacement videos yourself, and you'll conclude it's not simple.

  3. Screen Size and Resolution
     Our Galaxy S4 and S5 have 5 inch screen 1080 x 1920 pixels. This has proved to be quite adequate, but if I could get a bigger screen I would go for it. For example the LG V20 has a 5.7" screen, and many of the high end phones have 6". In the last couple of years, most trips I have only had the phone map, and so the bigger the screen the better. Also the big screen is better for browsing the Bivouac site on your phone to download gpx overlays of trails and roads.

  4. Camera
     The camera in the S4 has been excellent, and I think any new phone would have one that is just as good.
Tradeoffs: In theory a sealed battery could be more waterproof, and thus more trouble free. But the only problem I've had with my phone was the connection to the SD card. And making the battery non removable doesn't solve that problem. Even if they are more waterproof, a sealed battery still has the issue of the battery wearing out after 2 or 3 years. A couple of our S4 batteries no longer hold charge as they once did. And they were not in continuous use. And the experts think that batteries last the longest if you run them almost out each cycle then recharge. That is easy with removable batteries, but with a sealed battery, if at the end of the day it is 50% you'd recharge it, which is not optimal.

  Given those criteria, the two I would choose between are the Galaxy S5 with 32 gig versus the LG V20 with 64 GB. Those are the only two I know about. I haven't seen any Galaxy S5 Neo with 32 GB on EBay, I only see the 16GB ones. I like the LG20 with 64 GB, and that big high resolution screen.

#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.

Postscript: So I switched to the new 64 bit card and that solved the speed problem. Not sure why the old card got slow, but perhaps it was almost full.

#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.