Does it still make sense to buy a GPS?

They're slimmer, more capable, and more affordable than ever before, but should you bother buying one when your smartphone can get you where you're going?

CBS Interactive

A GPS is one of those things I don't know how we as a society ever lived without. Like Google. And cell phones. And Nutella crepes.

Back in the stone age of satellite-assisted navigation (I'm talking 2003, around the time my thoroughly inept book on GPS technology came out), you could expect to pay hundreds of dollars for a slow, bulky, cumbersome device that might get you from point A to point B -- provided you didn't so much as think about visiting point C. (Points D and E were right out.)

What a difference a decade makes. Right now, there's a CNET exclusive on the 4.3-inch Garmin Nuvi 1390T, which costs a mere $89.99 and includes lifetime traffic data. Ridiculously good deal.

And over at eBay, Beach Camera is offering the 5-inch Garmin Nuvi 1490LMT for $129, a price that includes not only lifetime traffic, but also lifetime maps. Insanely good deal.

The question is, does anyone need a standalone GPS anymore?

If you own a smartphone, there's a very strong case to be made for "no." As Android phone owners know, the Google Maps app possesses keen navigation skills, and it costs absolutely nothing. (It can even help you navigate indoors , something no automotive GPS can manage.)

As for iOS devices, Google Maps offers rudimentary navigation, but there are countless apps that'll turn your iPhone or iPad into a killer GPS. (Many folks swear by MotionX GPS Drive, which costs all of 99 cents, but I continue to be partial to Navigon USA.)

And think about it: your phone is almost always with you, so it doesn't matter if you're in your car, your spouse's car, a friend's car, or a rental -- you've got GPS. What's more, apps like Google Maps and MotionX provide free traffic data and always-up-to-date maps, so you can bypass the hassles and expense associated with those items.

A phone also makes it infinitely easier to deal with points of interest -- especially if you're looking to call one of them. One tap and presto, you can check if a tourist attraction is open or make a reservation at a crosstown restaurant. Plus, because many GPS apps tap Google for search, you've got the largest and most up-to-date POI database known to man. The info on a standalone GPS can't compete.

On the other hand, there are some downsides to using your phone as your navigation system. For starters, unless you rely solely on voice-powered navigation, you'll need a way to mount your phone at eye level so you can peep the map. So plan on spending a few bucks for a universal windshield or dashboard mount. And get a decent one, because a lot of those gooseneck windshield mounts are way too wobbly.

Then there's the matter of power: GPS apps put considerable strain on your smartphone's battery, so if you're driving somewhere that's more than an hour or two away, make sure you have a car charger. It's a minor hassle, but a hassle all the same.

And let's not forget: when your phone is strapped to your dashboard for GPS duty, it's harder to use as, well, a phone. Not that you should be texting or dialing when you're driving anyway, but what if you're the passenger and want to while away the car ride playing Temple Run?

Maybe it's because I "grew up" using a standalone GPS, but when I need help finding my destination, that's what I reach for -- even though I know my Navigon-equipped iPhone is the better navigator.

And obviously not everyone owns or wants a smartphone, which itself is not an inexpensive purchase. There's something to be said for spending $90 or $130 one time, no additional fees or accessories required.

How about you? What's your navigation tool of choice these days: standalone GPS or GPS-savvy smartphone? I'm eager to hear your opinions.

 

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