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If you have a hard time using maps, our articles on map use may help.  If not, and you like gadgets, perhaps Personal Navigation Device is  for you?  The latest generation of systems are easy to use and easy on the pocketbook.


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Travel Advice - Alternatives to Maps: Mapping and routing on handheld devices using GPS    (PNDs and Smart Phones)

Many people have a hard time using maps to navigate between places and might benefit from using new technology to solving this age-old problem. In this article, we examine  handheld-devices that provide useful mapping and routing capabilities.

Our conclusion is that the mapping and routing capabilities of Personal Navigation Devices are worth their expense, although the functionality of the bargain brands just don't cut it.  Navigation systems that work over cell phones also provides useful support.  Below, we review the various technologies and provide recommendations that might help you understand the variety of alternative available.

Dedicated  Personal Navigation Devices (PNDs)

A number of companies ( Garmin, TomTom and others) provide dedicated handheld devices called Personal Navigation Devices (PNDs) that provide solid  routing and navigation functionality.  In late 2011 TomTom announced that it was retreating from the PND market and would focus on in-car and smart phone applications in the future.

  • Ranging from $100 to $600 portable navigation systems integrate a GPS receiver, high quality display, storage capability, and an  input system to provide a fully functioning navigation device.
  • These autonomous devices generally perform well, although many older models suffered from the problems  regarding the limitation in the geographical area  or spatial detail that could be loaded for use (due to memory restrictions).
  • Most units can be mounted in your car and are quite effective for navigation.  Voice functionality is a standard functionality as the maneuvers required to take a route or to stay on route are "announced", letting you pay attention to the road and not the small screen.  Take our word for it, voice -assisted navigation is a must and worth every penny.
  • Several manufacturers provide communication with  allows Bluetooth-enabled phones to query traffic data and communicate this information to the base navigation device. 
  • In addition, many modern PNDs allow you to use the PND as a hands-free unit for phones, as long as the phone and the PND both have Bluetooth capability.
  • Software, storage technology and the memory capabilities of PNDs are quite good and make these hand-held GPS units a pleasure to use.  Also, the competitive nature of the market means that you can now purchase units with rich features for a very reasonable price.
  • Most PND providers also offer databases for traveling in foreign countries, allowing you to use your PND during travel abroad.


Navigation over cell phones

Cell phones (usually the models included in the category known as "smart phones") that are Internet-capable can connect to Web mapping and routing services specifically designed for use and display on cell phones.

  • The functionality is very similar to using an online service with your PC. 
  • If your cell phone is GPS equipped, then your phone will act as a mini-PND, since  software used by the phone will always know your location.  All you have to do is to tell it where you want go and the online service will calculate a route and provide verbal route guidance directions at the appropriate time.

In order to use routing on your cell phone, the company providing your cellular service must provide access to a “wireless routing” site. You must have an Internet-capable phone equipped with a GPS receiver.

Several limitations may influence your satisfaction with  the utility of mapping and routing on cell phones.

  • First, the small screen makes examining the map presentation difficult.  Larger screens and more sophisticated web browsers are making these displays more useable, but some size-related limitations remain.
  • Second, GPS units in cell phones are usually of inferior quality compared to those in PNDs and will loose the GPS signal more frequently than a PND, which means that the service will be less reliable.
  • Third, the service will work only when there is a signal to connect your phone to the cellular carrier’s network.
    • If your experience with “dropped calls” is high, you may want to avoid using these types of services.
  • Finally, be sure you understand the cost of the service and any limitations that may apply (e.g. limits on your data-plan  or restrictions on geographical area usage).  In most cases, the data roaming required to connect to routing services while traveling internationally is prohibitive.  If you are planning to use your phone for navigation while traveling internationally, be prepared for a huge bill.  It's simply not worth the expense.
  • Some systems download chunks of maps to your phone that can be used for navigation purposes and do not require you to be linked to the mother ship for this purpose.  However, the only affordable way to do this is to download the map chunks using Wi-Fi at the hotel and hope that you have enough map to get you where you are going.


Cell phone-based routing is a very handy service. Current products offered by Verizon Wireless, Sprint and others are very polished and deserve your consideration. 

Google is now offering a free navigation and route guidance application that runs on its Android software platform for cellular phones. Advances in cell phone technology and the migration to more powerful networks are providing these phones with extremely useful mapping and routing applications.

Although many cellular carries have roaming agreements in foreign countries, your routing service provider may not enable routing outside of the your home country.  In addition, the data rates for such "foreign" service usually are  excessive.  Although our group uses the iPhone, we turn them off while traveling around Europe to avoid roaming costs, which can mount to thousands of dollars in just a few days.

If you have difficulty navigating to different places while on the road, we present two additional articles on alternatives to maps. One article describes navigation systems provided by rental car companies ( In-car navigation systems ). A second article  describes Web sites that provide online mapping and routing services ( online mapping and routing ).

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