Weigh the pros and cons of standalone GPS units and navigation apps for your smartphone, so you can choose wisely.

By Berit Thorkelson

On the one hand, dedicated GPS units have gone down in price. On the other, free navigation apps for your smartphone have gotten better and better.

Are GPS units worth the purchase? Is a navigation app enough? Read on to find out which choice is best for you.

Why you might want a standalone GPS unit: (Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom are popular manufacturers) 

They're affordable. "Prices have come way down. You can find lots of good deals for under and around $100," says tech lifestyle expert Carly Knobloch.

You won't get disconnected. Standalone GPS units come with enough internal storage to fit all their preloaded maps, says Derek Meister, a Geek Squad Agent. "You don't need to rely on local cell tower connectivity when driving through the countryside."

They're easy to read. Standalone screens can be up to seven inches, and are usually designed with a matte screen that resists road glare during the day and at night.

You like having a dedicated device. A GPS unit's job is to get you where you need to go. "You won't miss a turn because it's trying to switch back and forth between being a GPS, playing your favorite music, and alerting you to a new call, e-mail, or Facebook update from your Mom," Meister says. Plus, it can always be ready and waiting in the exact same spot in your vehicle.

You don't want to worry about draining the battery. Most have an internal rechargeable battery, but are constantly plugged into your vehicle's charging port. Consider the cons:

  • A standalone unit isn't free, like many navigation apps.
  • It's yet another gadget.
  • Features such as live traffic updates may require monthly subscriptions.
  • Units vary. Not all have perks such as voice control, free lifetime maps (updated regularly), and substantial point-of-interest (POI) databases, which fill you in on nearby attractions and services. You'll need to do your research to make sure you get everything you want -- which may cost more.

Why you might want to use a GPS navigation app on your smartphone: (popular apps include GoogleMaps, Waze, and Apple Maps)

The price is right. You already have the hardware -- your phone -- and the app is generally cheap or free, Meister says.

It's easy to keep track of. For better or worse, most people don't leave home without a phone. Which means you don't leave home without your GPS, either. You always have it with you for use on foot or in someone else's vehicle, too.

You prefer giving navigational voice commands to typing. "When you're driving, the less hands-on you are, the better," Meister says. "It's easier to say, 'Where's the nearest gas station?' to your smartphone than it is to type in an address."

You feel safe knowing you always have current maps and traffic info. On your smartphone, maps and traffic information are always current. (GPS units require you to hook up to your computer to download map updates, if offered, and some mid- to higher-end units offer live traffic updates.)

You like exploring your locations virtually. "It's easy to check on a point of interest, make a reservation, see if a store is open, and more, all while navigating," Knobloch says.

Consider the cons:

  • If you're driving faster than your phone can refresh, or if you're in an area without reception, your navigation app is useless.
  • Incoming calls, texts, and other alerts interrupt navigation.
  • Screens can be small.
  • Using GPS drains your battery, especially on long trips. (Purchasing a car charger is a good idea.)
  • Some free GPS apps require payment for features such as turn-by-turn voice directions and current traffic data.

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