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ADV ProductsADV Bike AccessoriesHave Smartphones Made the Handheld GPS Obsolete?

Have Smartphones Made the Handheld GPS Obsolete?

Smartphones are quickly replacing Handheld GPS on Adventure Bikes.

Published on 02.09.2014

Over the past decade, a number of electronic devices have been absorbed by the Smartphone. Most people have no intention of replacing their old MP3 players, digital cameras or even flashlights now that they can get the same functionality built into their Smartphone. The next product in the cross-hairs of the Smartphone is the Handheld GPS device. With so many people now using their Smartphones for day-to-day directions and traffic information, the future of Handheld GPS devices looks grim.

Dedicated GPS devices are still a frequent site on Adventure Bikes, but we see more handlebar mounted Smartphones appearing every day. The trend of Smartphones replacing Handheld GPS devices is underway, but it seems to be occurring more slowly in specialized markets like Motorcycling.  Are there specific advantages dedicated GPS devices offer that will protect them from being replaced by the Smartphone? Let’s take a look at how the Handheld GPS compares to the modern Smartphone in the categories that matter most to Adventure Riders:

You probably already have a Smartphone, so there is no additional cost for the device. The cost to purchase a robust GPS app for your Smartphone can range from $1 to $10, which is a fraction of the cost of buying a new handheld GPS device. If you don’t already have a Smartphone, then the cost to purchase one is typically lower than your average dedicated GPS device when you purchase it with a plan.
Winner: Smartphone

iPhone Handlebar Mount case

Handlebar mounted shock-proof and water resistant case.


Handheld GPS devices are designed to be rugged and water resistant. You can ride off-road, in the rain and they can handle a quick dousing. There are a few ruggedized waterproof Smartphones on the market like the Samsung Rugby Pro or Runbo X5 but most Smartphones are not designed for use in extreme outdoor conditions like off-road riding. You can purchase a ruggedized handlebar mounted case that will protect your Smartphone from impact and water. A Smartphone’s water-proof case may become ineffective though during charging.
Winner: Handheld GPS

In the past, dedicated GPS devices outperformed Smartphones in accuracy. Now modern Smartphones include advanced GPS chipsets, putting them on par with handheld GPS devices. In addition, Smartphones can utilize cell tower triangulation when there is no line-of-site with Satellites.
Winner: Smartphone

Battery Life
One thing you will notice if you use your Smartphone for navigating long trips, is that the battery is drained quickly. Handheld GPS devices tend to have better battery life and can utilize AAA batteries if re-charging is note an option. But this may not be a problem for motorcyclists that have a power port to continually charge their Smartphone while they ride.
Winner: Handheld GPS

Most people already carry their Smartphone with them everywhere they go, so it’s an inconvenience to carry around a second device. It’s nice to have just one device that handles GPS, photos, video, music, weather, personal tracking and more. Another problem with Dedicated GPS devices is that they tend to be loaded with software at the time of purchase, and can quickly become out-of-date.  They also may require additional fees for updated maps or traffic information. With Smartphones you get maps, traffic reports and places of interest that are free of charge and always up-to-date.
Winner: Smartphone

Thumbdogs touchscreen

Thumbdogs allow you to use a touchscreen with golves.

Operation with Gloves
Most of the Handheld GPS devices use buttons that are easy to use with gloves. Smartphones use a touchscreen that are useless with gloves on. However, you can overcome this limitation by purchasing a product for the fingertips of your gloves, making them touch-screen friendly.
Winner: Handheld GPS

Outdoor Glare
Handheld GPS devices are designed to work well outdoors and tend to have better visibility in direct sunlight. Smartphones are harder to read in sunlight, but you can improve screen readability with an anti-glare screen protector.
Winner: Handheld GPS

Processing Power
Many dedicated GPS devices have limited storage and can only handle a certain number of track points. With a Smartphone, you have the power of a computer in your hands and hardware limitations become a non-issue.
Winner: Smartphone

Offline Navigation
Many people believe they cannot use GPS on their Smartphone if they do not have a cell signal. This may be true if you are using the built in navigation software on an iPhone, but downloading advanced GPS Apps like MotionX® GPS (iPhone) and BackCountry Navigator PRO (Android) will give you the same capability of a dedicated GPS device (loading GPS tracks, saving tracks, waypoints, turn-by-turn directions, et.) offline.  If you are using an Android device, the standard Google Maps app has an offline maps feature built-in that will allow you to download maps around an area of interest. Handheld GPS devices store maps internally, so getting maps offline is never a problem.
Winner: Handheld GPS (by a narrow margin)

User Interface
If you have never used a dedicated GPS device, most likely you will find operating a Smartphone GPS app more intuitive. If you already have a dedicated GPS device, you will find it easy to adapt to using a Smartphone GPS app. Learning how to use a handheld GPS for the first time is a difficult process for most people.
Winner: Smartphone

So has the Smartphone made your handheld GPS obsolete?
Certain features may be more important to some than to others, so it is difficult to determine a clear winner here. But in the areas where the Smartphone falls short, there is usually a solution available to bring it on par with a Handheld GPS device. This may be too much fuss for some riders that want a complete out-of-the box solution.

Take our “Handheld GPS vs. Smartphone Poll” below to see what the trend is among other Adventure Riders. Results will be displayed on the bottom of this page after you complete the survey.

This Poll has ended. The Handheld GPS vs Smartphone Poll results are posted here.

Author: Rob Dabney

Rob Dabney started a lifelong obsession with motorcycles at the age of 15 when he purchased his first bike – a 1982 Honda MB5. Through his 20’s and 30’s he competed in off-road desert races, including the Baja 250, 500 and 1000. Eventually, his proclivity for exploration led him to dual sport and adventure riding. Rob’s never-ending quest to discover what’s around the next bend has taken him on Adventures in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and throughout the American West. As a moto journalist, he enjoys inspiring others to seek adventure across horizons both near and far.

Author: Rob Dabney

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Poll Results: Dedicated Device vs Smartphone for GPS » ADV Pulse
February 18, 2014 1:35 pm

[…] growing number of Adventure Riders using their Smartphone for GPS functionality in a story titled “Have Smartphones Made the Handheld GPS Obsolete?”. Smartphones are powerful devices that can match the functionality of a dedicated GPS device when […]

November 26, 2015 4:52 pm

You can create your own trail maps on your computer and download them into you handheld gps. Don’t think that can be done on smartphone. I carry both.

Rob Dabney
Rob Dabney
November 30, 2015 10:59 am
Reply to  Ron

Hey Ron. You can create your own tracks on your computer and save them as a .gpx file. Most of these mobile apps can import GPX tracks. Then for the maps, the GPS apps come with their own maps installed. You can select an area you want to download on the map and it will be available to you even if you travel out of cell phone range.

November 27, 2015 9:08 pm

How about the availability of different maps for each device?

Rob Dabney
Rob Dabney
November 30, 2015 10:56 am
Reply to  Leroy

There are many options out there for maps available for smartphones – Trail maps, Topo, etc. Many of the apps come with different types of maps included free. Check out MotionX GPS, Backcountry Navigator and Rever apps.

August 27, 2020 6:39 pm

I have used both but I prefer a rugged gps to a smart phone because they are designed to take abuse (dust / rain) and if I lose it or break it on the trail I still have a phone for emergencies. Also phones can overheat and turn themselves off in extreme conditions.


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