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There's a map for that: GPS or smartphone?

Almost every handset comes with mapping software these days, but standalone GPS devices are becoming more affordable than ever.

As mobile phones become more powerful and GPS information easier to get, it's getting to the point where we have to wonder if buying a standalone personal navigation device makes sense anymore.

Garmin GPS
Garmin is making both smartphones and dedicated GPS devices now. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Personal nav devices were the hot gift item for the holidays just two years ago, but things have changed pretty drastically in the last year. Prices on GPS devices are dropping and while they're very reasonable, almost any smartphone sold today comes with some sort of GPS or mapping feature. So which is a better choice? Separate GPS device or smartphone with mapping software?

What's best for you will depend, like anything, on your personal needs and preferences. Some things to think about:

Mapping software on phones will soon be standard
Right now, 90 percent of handsets will have GPS features included, according to the NPD Group. That's a jump of 69 percent from a year ago. So in another year, it's likely to hit 100 percent.

Other market research firms, like iSuppli, are predicting that by 2014, there will be virtually no more market for standalone devices for GPS. While that's debatable, you might easily assume by looking at GPS device makers' recent product decisions, they're not even all that confident in the standalone device market anymore.

TeleNav, TomTom, and Navigon, companies traditionally associated with standalone devices, have decided to make their software available on smartphones. It was a big deal earlier this year when TomTom announced it would be offering its maps and voice-guided directions as an app for the iPhone. It was a big change for drivers because it added audible prompts--the iPhone otherwise is only able to provide text-based instructions through Google Maps. In addition, TomTom said it would make a car kit for the iPhone, which includes a vehicle mount and car charger. Other companies like Garmin, which makes standalone GPS devices, didn't just offer their software to smartphone makers, they decided to be a smartphone maker too.

Service providers are hedging their bets as well. Not only are they offering GPS devices that are networked (like AT&T's Garmin Nuvi 1690), they're pushing smartphones that operate on their networks with lots of mapping functionality. Glenn Lurie, president of AT&T's Emerging Devices division, disagrees that the dedicated GPS market will disappear. "It's about giving customers a choice. There's a market for both," he said.

Google Maps Navigation
Google Maps Navigation is free and will be available on Android 2.0 smartphones. Google

Calculate the overall cost
Personal navigation devices are cheaper than ever. Right now, they retail for an average of $176, according to data from The NPD Group. While that's just an average (there are much cheaper and much more expensive models), it's also about the average price you'd pay for a smartphone with a two-year service contract. But remember all the associated costs: How much you'd pay monthly with that two- year contract for the phone, as well as any extras for a car-mounting kit (TomTom's iPhone app plus car kit is $220, for example), and for a mapping application or separate subscription service.

Google has recently added a new twist to this scenario, however. With its Android 2.0 mobile phone software, now running on the just-released Motorola Droid, Google is adding an application called Google Maps Navigation. With GPS-equipped phones, it can give turn-by-turn directions, and has voice recognition, and Google Street View. But more importantly: it's free. While it's not even close to being on every phone, Android is building momentum and will certainly will change the value proposition of smartphones as GPS devices going forward.

Decide how important it is to you to have a single device
If you'd rather not fuss with multiple gadgets in your purse or backpack, it's an easy choice: just get a phone that can give you directions. If it doesn't, there are plenty of reasons to get a GPS device.

Smartphones' screens are generally smaller to make them pocket-sized. As a trade-off, their screens don't make them ideal for in-car use as GPS devices. Also, phones with a GPS radio embedded in them will have their battery life affected. GPS devices that stay inside a car, usually have a car charger to alleviate the problem.

Of course, not everyone has a phone or even wants a phone that has mapping functionality. Or, you might be smack in the middle of a contract right now and want a GPS device sooner than a year or two. And what if you want to have a separate device that you can take hiking, or use separately while you're talking on the phone? There are arguments to be made on both sides, it just depends on what matters most to you.