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Comparison of Garmin GPS versus Smartphone #4842
Back To Discussion List Written: 2017.05.05 by: Robin Tivy

This discussion is a very basic discussion of the pros and cons of a dedicated GPS unit like Garmin versus using a Smartphone as you GPS. If you want more detail of which smart phone, see Buying a Smartphone for GPS.

If you go with the Smartphone, you may as well spend 10 or 15 dollars and buy at least one of the three GPS programs we have extensively reviewed in Bivouac, just so you can compare it with whatever free program you've got. The three we know all about are Backcountry Navigator, ViewRanger and Gaia. They all download the background maps as raster tiles. Compare them for various operations using Standard GPS Operations. And compare them with Garmin. Currently I slightly prefer Backcountry Navigator. To get an idea of how these smart phone apps work, see GPS Comparison: Backcountry Navigator vs ViewRanger

I have heard of various smart phone "vector" maps, but so far haven't seen one with as good a maps as the raster ones.

  1. Maps
     Get a GPS that will display maps. It's not worth carrying one that doesn't. If buying a Garmin GPS, make sure you get the maps built in. It's not worth trying to manage and install the separate "Topo Canada" package, which costs about $115 separately. On a smart phone, you typically can choose from 3 or 4 useful map packages, but you can only download a fragment of them at a time.

    Now to compare. Both Garmin and the typical CanMatrix (1:50K maps) have the same contour lines. Usually 100 foot contours. The contours are easier to read in bright sun on a Garmin than on a smart phone. On a smart phone, I am always looking for the shade of a tree to read the maps. But the screen on a smart phone is much larger and more resolution than any Garmin. So you can see a lot more map on a Smart phone.

  2. Simplicity of operation
     Assuming you buy a Garmin with built in maps, map loading is simpler. But once you've got the maps the leading Smartphone apps are simpler to operate than the software on a Garmin device. For example, it's easier to make track logs. If you import a gpx with dozens of roads and trails, on the smart phone apps they typically show up automatically. On the Garmin, you have to turn each line on. And it's easier to import .gpx files because your phone has a built in browser. And easier to pan the map to a new location. For a complete comparison, just compare a few standard operations using Standard GPS Operations.

  3. Robustness
     You often hear that the big advantage of a Garmin GPS is that it is more robust. But how robust does it need to be? If you've got multiple people in the group, chances are there will be more than one GPS. I switched from a Garmin Oregon to a Samsung Galaxy S4 Smartphone GPS several years ago, and haven't yet had a failure. I keep it in my pocket, so temperature is not an issue. However, there was one trip I was glad to have my old Garmin Oregon, and that was our Powell Divide trip. It was sleeting heavily, and we were desperately trying to retrace our track log down a series of ledges. The weather was so fierce Betsy had put her Samsung Galaxy into a safe plastic bag. But I was able to continuously refer to the Oregon, even as rain and sleet spattered the screen and everything was soaked.

  4. Accuracy and speed
     Neither has a significant advantage. The smart phones figure out your initial position just as fast, and the track logging is just as good.

  5. Touch Screen versus buttons
     It is important that any touch screen not operate when in your pocket. The cell phone makers have got this figured out. However, on some of the Garmin units, like the Montana, there is a real problem with the touch screen operating when it is in your pocket. My Garmin Oregon was better, simply because the touch screen required a lot of pressure to operate. Most people with Garmins prefer to stay away from touch screens. The units such as Garmin 62s operate by means of buttons, not a touch screen. Although theoretically you can "lock" the screen so it won't reconfigure, this is too cumbersome. I want a unit that I can just pull out of my pocket repeatedly and check my progress. I've never had a problem with the Smart phone touch screen. The screen turns itself off when you've got it in your pocket so it's pretty hard for the program to do anything.

  6. Camera, altimeter:
     The smart phones have high quality cameras, which means your photos can be accurately geo-referenced. So you save weight, and can also record audio notes at waypoints. They also have barometric altimeters and compasses just as good as the Garmin.

  7. Batteries:
     The Garmin units usually have the option of standard rechargable batteries. Smart phone batteries are Lithium Ion, which is a bit more energy per unit weight. If possible, get a smart phone in which you can change the battery. We've got 4 good quality batteries, they cost $15 each at Amazon. They weigh 44 grams each, as compared to 50 grams for a pair of AA batteries. Each battery lasts me about 12 hours continuous track logging. This is about equivalent to a Garmin GPS.

    Within smartphones, you have the decision of whether to have replaceable batteries or not. Models like Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5 have easily replaceable batteries, whereas an Apple iPhone does not. On the Samsung you just pop the back cover off with your thumbnail and replace the battery. If you don't have replaceable batteries, then on long trips you need to carry a separate battery pack. This solution weighs more, due to about a 30% loss during transfer. It also means you can't just stop in mid trail and put in a fresh battery. See discussion Solar Chargers, battery Packs.

  8. Available Software
     There are two main operating systems on smartphones: iPhone and Android. Programs like Gaia come in two versions, one for Apple and the other for Android. Unfortunately my favorite "Backcountry Navigator" only runs on Android.

  9. Memory and separate SD Cards
     Storing a lot of maps requires quite a bit of memory. On my Samsung Galaxy S4, it only has 16 GB memory, and half is used by the OS. So I installed Backcountry Navigator so it puts the maps onto a separate SD card. It was a bit tricky. Bill Leach in Calgary built 4 separate "atlases" for his Acer Z630, one for each part of the Rockies. But putting the maps onto these cards is an advanced procedure using external programs. My Garmin Oregon also will take SD cards, and Backroad mapbooks sells maps for each province on these cards. However the trails are often not accurate. A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this simple comparison. For most people, what you want is more main memory, ideally 64 Gigabytes.


#6047 - 2017.05.06 Steve Grant - More Features
Some smartphones, like the Samsung S5, are sufficiently waterproof to be briefly submerged, so they are ok in rain and sleet.

Usually smartphones have a control allowing you to shut off the screen. So you can do this before stowing it and not worry about it doing all those things it will with the screen active. The navigation app should have a control to enable or disable the gps while the phone is asleep.

The smartphones can do things a plain gps cannot do. On the smartphone you can save browser pages of things like trail descriptions or photos. You can download satellite views, which can be invaluable finding or avoiding hospitable or nasty terrain while bushwacking.

All smartphones sold in North America have FM recievers in the chipset. Unfortunately the vendors choose to disable these receivers, robbing you of hardware you paid for in order to force you to burn up connect time to stream music. Unfortunately this disables a potential source of emergency information when other media are unavailable. The CRTC washes their hands of this.

Google Earth is accumulating a lot of trail tracks and recently added capability to store maps on the phone.

Many hiking pants nowadays have thigh pockets. They are the perfect shape and position to stow your phone. The phone is kept warm, is very accessible, does not interfere with gear or movement, and is safe as long as you remember to close the zipper.

I never carry a gps or camera any more.