Using an Android phone as a GPS

An Android phone is a better GPS than most dedicated GPS devices.

  • It gets maps over the network so the maps are always current
  • Same with POIs
  • Traffic information is available, and can lead to better routing (routing around a traffic jam, for example).
  • Android has text to speech and great voice recognition. Better than even high-end dedicated GPS devices.

So at least in theory, you should be able to use an Android phone as a GPS. I had a chance to try this recently and it didn’t go as smoothly as I expected. Here are some observations:

It gets hot in the car window. And many phones are black. The phone I was trying this with, a Samsung Captivate, refused to charge the battery while it was in the window on a hot day, because it detected the excess heat and probably assumed it was battery trouble.

You need a data plan. At least with Android 2.2, the maps application doesn’t have maps on the device, and needs to download the map data as you’re driving. It will actually download the data for a good chunk of the route so if you go outside a service area, you’re not completely stuck, but you’re in trouble if you wander off the route and it needs to recalculate.

Tethering to your iPhone won’t work. At least, not as well as you think it will. In theory it’s a great idea: Let the Android device pick up a network connection from your cell phone, since you always have the cell phone with you. But at least with the iPhone, the problem is you need to navigate to the tethering page in Settings before the device will make the connection available. This is a pain to do whenever you get in the car.

Phones don’t like being constantly dead. GPS manufacturers know that their devices will usually be plugged in, so the devices don’t freak out when they’re low on battery. Phones, on the other hand, don’t like it. An Android phone running a GPS and a WiFi connection isn’t doing a lot of recharging when it’s plugged in – it’s using the power coming in to power all those radios. So when you turn the car off, unless you remember to turn the phone all the way off as well, it’s going to stay on, and die.

Phones take a long time to boot. You want to get in the car and start driving. A dedicated GPS device will typically boot up in a few seconds .. an Android phone takes a lot longer than that.