GPS Smartphone Apps vs. Dedicated Car GPS Devices

Which is better for your needs?

GPS unit in a car

sutiporn somnam / Getty Images 

GPS navigation has grown into a robust product category with many options for consumers. App stores offer a variety of smartphone navigation apps, while manufacturers such as Garmin and TomTom sell dedicated GPS devices for your car. We examined each type of technology to provide you with decision-making guidance.

The car GPS systems discussed here are not to be confused with factory-installed systems, such as OnStar, that offer advanced features such as automatic crash response or vehicle diagnostics.

Overall Findings

GPS Smartphone Apps

  • Clear, sharp displays.

  • Small fonts and menus make them hard to use in a car.

  • Voice directions offer clear guidance.

  • Bigger smartphones are good for dash mounting.

  • Quality and functionality of mounts varies.

  • You always have the latest version of downloaded maps.

  • Always connected to a cellular network.

  • Drains battery and uses mobile data.

  • Usually free.

Dedicated GPS Devices

  • Large, resistive touchscreens.

  • Menu systems and controls optimized for arms-length viewing.

  • More information on the display.

  • Come with windshield mounts and power port chargers.

  • Mounts are adjustable and adaptable.

  • Access to high-quality maps and databases.

  • Have to pay a monthly fee to maintain connectivity.

  • Can be expensive.

While both dedicated GPS personal navigation devices (PNDs) and smartphone navigation apps offer high-quality, accurate maps and directions, those concerned about using the device in a car may prefer a PND, which offers a larger screen and a dedicated mount. On the other hand, because smartphones are always connected to the internet and boast capacitive touchscreens, many users prefer their ease and flexibility.

Some top navigation apps include Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps. Well-known PND manufacturers include Garmin and TomTom.

Smartphone apps such as Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps are free to download, while dedicated car GPS systems can cost from $100 to several hundred dollars or more.

Screens and User Interface: Bigger Might Be Better

GPS Smarphone Apps

  • Clear displays and touch functionality.

  • Small displays hard to use in car.

  • Not optimized for arm's length viewing.

Dedicated GPS Devices

  • Larger displays are designed to work at arm's length.

  • Screens include more information.

  • Simple and durable.

Smartphones such as the iPhone, or various Android-powered models, have sharp, clear displays with capacitive touchscreens. Hold them in the palm of your hand for easy operation. However, because of their small fonts and menu systems, they're hard to use at arm's length, such as when mounted on a windshield or dash mount.

It can be difficult to see and operate a smartphone GPS app while driving. Most GPS turn-by-turn navigation apps have tried to adapt to this type of use with larger fonts and buttons, but these are still smaller than those found on a typical dedicated GPS device.

PNDs, on the other hand, have resistive touchscreens that are generally larger, typically 4.3 inches or 5.5 inches diagonally, compared to about 4 inches for a typical smartphone. Evan larger-screen PNDs, with 5-inch screens, are becoming more common.

PND menu systems, touchscreen keyboards, display letters, and numerals have been optimized for arms-length viewing and tuned for usability while driving.

The simplicity, durability, and larger size of the dedicated GPS PND resistive touchscreen wins out in this comparison, and this is one of the biggest factors to consider in the smartphone vs. PND choice.

PND displays have room to include more information about the distance to upcoming turns, upcoming street names, speed limit information, time-of-arrival information, and more.

Windshield and Dash Mounting: PNDs Have the Edge

GPS Smartphone Apps

  • Smartphone windshield mount may be costly.

  • Some mounts don't allow phone charging.

Dedicated GPS Devices

  • Mounts come with the unit.

  • Mounts have chargers and other features.

Many use their smartphone's turn-by-turn navigation while the phone rests on the passenger seat or some other flat area, or they simply listen to the directions, but a windshield or dash mount provides optimal viewing for turn-by-turn in-car directions.

Smartphone windshield mounts range from simple, one-size-fits-all holders that have no charger ports or any additional features, to sophisticated units with a charger, speaker, supplemental GPS chip, microphone, and more. A smartphone windshield mount may be costly, so factor that into your decision, and make sure the mount includes a charger or that you have an accessory power port charger for your smartphone.

Dedicated PNDs, by contrast, all come with windshield mounts and power port chargers included. Mounts from the major manufacturers are well-built, very adjustable, and adaptable to various mounting points with the use of an included sticky-backed disk.

While there are nice smartphone windshield mounts on the market, getting one takes time, effort, and money. By contrast, PND mounts are no-brainers and come in the box, so PNDs have the edge in mounting.

Third-party alternative mounts for GPS devices offer even more functionality and features.

Quality of Maps and Directions: Both Are Accurate

GPS Smartphone Apps

  • Use high-quality maps and databases.

  • Accurate directions.

  • Map sets either onboard or downloaded on the fly.

Dedicated GPS Devices

  • Use high-quality maps and databases.

  • Accurate directions.

  • Map sets onboard.

Smartphone map and points-of-interest databases are either downloaded initially with the purchase of the app, as with TomTom for iPhone, or are downloaded on the fly, as with MotionX GPS Drive. When you download maps on the fly, you'll always have the latest version. The downside is that you may be without maps in remote areas out of cell phone tower range. If you do a lot of rural driving, stay with onboard maps.

Smartphone turn-by-turn apps generally use the same high-quality maps and databases provided by mapping giants TeleNav and NavTeq, as do the PND manufacturers. (Google has gone its own way with Google Maps.) We've generally had good experiences and accurate directions from name-brand smartphone turn-by-turn apps and PNDs.

PNDs keep map sets on board; most makers now offer free map updates periodically.

Connectivity: Smartphone Connectivity Gets the Edge

GPS Smartphone Apps

  • Some have sophisticated connectivity features.

  • Have excellent web browsers.

Dedicated GPS Devices

  • May or may not include network connectivity.

  • Minimal-function or no browser.

Smartphones have the big advantage of always being connected to the cellular network and the internet. Some smartphone GPS navigation apps take advantage of this connectivity with sophisticated search, real-time traffic detection and avoidance, and services such as gas prices, while others make scant use of the internet. Check out the app's connectivity features before you download it.

Dedicated PNDs may or may not include cellular network/internet connectivity. Check the specifications and note that you'll need to pay a monthly fee to maintain connectivity in a PND.

Smartphones generally have excellent web browsers, while PNDs have minimal-function browsers or no browsers.

Smartphones have the edge in the use of connectivity.

Though smartphone connectivity gets the edge, it's important to note that using a PND protects your cell phone's battery life.

Final Verdict

There's a lot to consider in the smartphone navigation vs. PND debate, but the good news is buyers have many excellent products to consider in both categories. Think about ease of use, how often you'll be using navigation, and where you travel. If you generally listen to voice directions and don't need to access your navigation while driving, an app is fine.

If you're concerned about battery drain, mobile data usage, small smartphone screens, and mounting problems, a dedicated car GPS service might be the right choice.