Android Phone as a Navigation Device

copilotWill Android phones become the default automotive navigation device for consumers? Personal navigation device (PND) use has sky-rocketed in the last few years. With the advent of color touch-screens, simple to use interfaces, advanced features–all at lower costs–these devices have gained mass appeal. Consumer choice in the PND market is robust but one is not limited to PNDs for navigation. Mobile phones are also an option, as there is software available from many of the major PND manufacturers, not to mention navigation apps from the carriers and stand-alone software such as ALK’s CoPilot.

The same features that have made PNDs popular are also becoming increasingly available on modern phones. From Android to BlackBerry, iPhone to WebOS and Windows Mobile, the features are all there: built-in GPS radio, large color touch screen, external speaker, Bluetooth, and data connectivity. The latter seems to be the next big thing in PNDs but the majority, if not all, the above-named mobile platforms are used on data plans. Why pay for data twice? Why buy a separate device that only serves one purpose when the mobile phone can perform that same service and much more? As with many things, there are some pros/cons to each device.

[quote]With the PND, the big pro is the screen size. Most new PNDs have screen sizes from about 3.5 inches to over 4 inches when measured diagonally. The mobile phone screens make for their smaller size with higher resolution. For example, while a Garmin nüvi® 1490T has a 5.0 inch display its resolution is only 480×272. The HTC Hero has a 3.2 inch display with a resolution of 480×320. Aside from screen size, the dedicated PND does navigation very well. One might argue that since it only does navigation, it will be less likely to have glitches while in use. But, dedicated use is also a con for the PND.

Consumers are paying several hundred dollars for a device that only has one use. And when it’s not in use, one must also think of storage. Most people, men in particular—except perhaps the “man-bag” crowd—, do not want to carry their PND with them. They are faced with leaving it in the car and risking theft and/or damage from high temperatures in the summer months. There has been more than one occasion where my wife’s purse ended up holding our PND while we walked around, and she wasn’t that thrilled about it, either.

The mobile phone’s greatest pro is that it can do many things AND still be used as a navigation device. Gas prices? Check. Weather? Check. Traffic? Check. Local search? Check. All these connected features of the new and/or upcoming PNDs are already available on mobile phones. Plus, there’s more. Geotagged pictures can be used as a destination. One can navigate to a tourist destination and then use an augmented reality application to walk around and learn about the area, all with the mobile phone. Of course, the mobile phones’ main con is their screen size. Even with a higher resolution, the screens are on the smaller side, but this is changing. While mobile phones most likely won’t be able to match a PND’s 5-inch screen, there are phones on the horizon with high-res 4-inch screens. There is also the convenience of only having to buy one device that is very portable and on hand on almost all occasions.

PND manufacturers may have already seen the writing on the wall. Garmin is developing nüvi phones and TomTom sells mobile navigation apps as does Navigon. It may not happen right away, but sooner rather than later the most popular navigation device will the mobile phone. The trend that could very well tilt the scales in favor of the mobile phone is the low-cost entry into smartphone ownership. The upcoming HTC Tatoo and Motorola Cliq are both expected to be free on contract with some carriers, and…just like that…these customers have a device that is well suited for navigation.

Consumers should expect to see more low-end and mid-tier Android phones enter the market over the next year. Garmin, TomTom, et al will be hard-pressed to compete with such low cost and wide spread entry into the navigation market.

  • Dara Parsavand

    I have been occasionally following articles on Android and Navigation and I'm currently a bit disappointed. I have an iPhone now (after bailing on a T-Mobile account and a G1 which I was not at all impressed with), but plan to go back to Android sometime in 2010. I have downloaded a few stand alone (no network connection needed) US topographic GPS applications for the iPhone (TopoPointUSA and Topo Maps, haven't tired iTopoMaps yet) which work OK but not as intuitive as I would like. I haven't found an Android app of the same functionality, which surprises me – this is the main functionality I require for a GPS.

    As far as the potential of phones to take over PNDs, display size isn't the only problem. I've thought a lot about how big a display I would want in my perfect Android phone, and I think I can comfortably pocket a phone that is say 120x66x14 mm (one piece design with a big battery) and that big a form factor can house a 16×9, 11 cm (4.33") diagonal screen which is enough to compete in the market for car PNDs (just barely). I want to see a lot more resolution in displays eventually. There is no reason not to get 1280×720 pixels on this size screen (340 dpi) since viewing the display at 10" is sufficient to use all that resolution at the average 1/60 a degree per pixel capability of people's eyes. But probably 854×480 is the biggest that will be built for a while. But even with such an ideal screen, the other problem is that GPS subsystems on phones currently are lousy compared to dedicated devices (e.g. my cheap Garmin eTrex). Just check out any of the more technical GPS forums and you will see them universally panned. I don't see why it has to be this way, but perhaps cell phone companies are cutting corners on the RF side of the design. The chip processing side is easy – modern cell phones have plenty of processing power to do all the correlations needed to get good performance.

    Perhaps the new Garmin nuvifones will perform exceptionally well and put pressure on other platforms (Nokia, Blackberry, iPhone, Windows, and Android) to compete. I hope so.

    Dara Parsavand

    • Jeremiah Bostick

      I was speaking primarily of automotive navigation. That said, I currently own an HTC Touch and a Garmin eTrex Legend and my Touch outperforms the eTrex under the cover of trees and in downtown areas of cities. I go jogging on a trail that is mostly under the cover of trees. My Touch tracks my route using the GPS and an app called RunGPS. When I compare the route from the phone to a map the route is perfect. I have done the same route with my eTrex and couldn't get a solid signal for the majority of the route.

      I have never used my phone for Geo caching or orienteering. Do you have some specific examples of why phones are lousy compared to dedicated GPS devices?

  • Dara Parsavand


    That's great that you are getting such good performance out of your HTC Touch (or bad performance out of your Legend – is it the newer high sensitivity model?). I don't have any links handy, nor have I done rigorous testing comparing my iPhone to my eTrex, though the limited times I've carried both into tree cover, the eTrex H (the latest $100 model) has gotten a fast lock when the iPhone failed. If I get a chance after work to find any links disparaging phones, I'll post them here.

    When I had my G1, I would walk down the street where I work looking at Google Maps (El Segundo, CA which is hardly an urban canyon), and it would often (once per 5 or 10 minutes I recall), just pick up the current location on the map and move miles away. I kept thinking – geez, Google needs to program in a walking mode for this app which tells it I won't ever go more than 5 miles an hour so don't change position faster than that.

    So my main claim is that the sensitivity is not as good (though you are getting good results). With comparable screen size and form factor, and if you need/want the phone anyway, I totally agree that it's a drag to carry around two devices. (Though I no longer trust my iPhone to be reliable at all even when fully charged – I just got the bug where no 3rd party apps worked until I downloaded another free app and re-synced – I hate Apple – I'll probably bring my eTrex as a backup even when I get a good GPS phone solution).

    Other problems which might occur for people are reliability (outside of bugs, phones are probably not as rugged to drops as hiking GPS units are), power consumption (to be fair, models with similar size and resolution screens must be compared – my eTrex with a small B/W screen obviously is going to win against an iPhone, though I think the power efficiency of the GPS section itself is also better), and for some c) certain features may never be on phones such as the ability to use an external antenna (not something I care about though).

    All in all, I'm still bullish GPS and phones about the long run, but I haven't had as much luck as you in the short run. Trying to find detailed performance tests was difficult for even the iPhone's GPS which has a much bigger market than the G1. Hopefully the nuvifone because it is from Garmin will get thoroughly tested and we can use this performance as a benchmark against future Android phones (if it is any good).

    Update: I googled some for iphone etrex compared, iphone vs etrex, etc. and I haven't found that much interesting yet. I did find this:

    which shows the iphone kind of going crazy when it there is more tree cover. If you find anything useful, you could add to this thread.

  • Jeremiah Bostick

    Unfortunately, my eTrex Legend is the original model without the high sensitivity receiver. When I upgrade I will go with one of the newer Garmins like the Oregon or the Colorado.

    It sounds like we are making different points. Both are valid.

    I completely agree with you in regard to using one's phone for hiking and such; it is not the best solution. I choose my old eTrex over my phone if I'm hiking. Phone's just aren't built for that kind of activity.

    Have you tried using your iPhone for navigation while driving? When driving on roads, I find that a GPS equipped phone with navigation software compares favorably to a Nuvi or a TomTom. Both of which I have used extensively. Automotive navigation is different that using a GPS to track one's location in the wilderness. It needs to locate the operator on a road and track heading and speed but most of the heavy work such as route planning and traffic analyzing is done by the software and CPU. Phones excel in this area.

    The iPhone and my HTC use different GPS solutions (Infineon Hammer Head II for the iPhone and Qualcom gpsOne for HTC Touch–and all current HTC phones including Android phones) but they both operate the same way:

    -Standalone – Your handset has no connection to the network, and uses only the GPS satellite signals it can currently receive to try and establish a location.

    -MS Based – Your handset is connected to the network, and uses the GPS signals + a location signal from the network.

    -MS Assisted – Your handset is connected to the network, uses GPS signals + a location signal then relays its 'fix' to the server, which then uses the signal strength from your phone to the network towers to further plot your position. You can still maintain voice communication in this scenario, but not 'Internet/Network service' ie Web Browser, IM, streaming TV etc..

    -MS Assisted/Hybrid – Same as above, but network functionality remains. Normally only in areas with exceptional coverage.

    Hammerhead II
    -Ms-based (calculation of position in mobile handset)
    -Ms-assisted (calculation of position in base station)
    -Autonomous (no assistance by network)
    -Enhanced autonomous (using four day assistance data)

    So, without good network coverage both chips rely on their standalone GPS architecture. Based on your experience it would be safe to assume that the SIRF III chip in the Garmin is superior to the Hammerhead II in the iPhone when the iPhone is using GPS-only mode. I have not used an iPhone and the only GPS with a SIRF III that I own is my Dash Express, which I don't take hiking, so this comparison is anecdotal.

    My experience with my Touch is positive because I use it in an area with excellent network coverage. Thus it is able to utilize both the GPS and network towers/signal strength to get a fix on my location. That combination is more accurate that the GPS chip in my old eTrex. I am not sure how it would compare to a new GPS that uses a SIRF III.