Can dataless smartphones still use GPS navigation apps?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains how to turn a smartphone into a personal navigation device, even without a data connection.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

Cost-conscious wireless consumers have figured out that you don't need to pay a hefty monthly data fee to a wireless carrier to still enjoy many of the apps and functionality found on smartphones.

Of course, there are limitations to going without a carrier data plan. For example, you can only access the Internet when you are in a Wi-Fi hotspot, which means you won't get coverage everywhere. And you will likely have to pay full price for an unlocked device. (You could always buy a cheaper one used or use someone friend's or family member's old smartphone.) And you will likely have to forgo a carrier's voice service, since most U.S. operators require all smartphones to have a data plan.

But will you really be able to use apps like navigation, even when you don't have a carrier data connection or access to Wi-Fi? That's the question I answer in Ask Maggie this time. I also explain why I think it will be possible for a Samsung Galaxy S3 user to share information via S Beam with future Galaxy S4 users.

Offline GPS Navigation

Dear Maggie,
I would like to know if I can use GPS navigation on a smartphone without data plan? For example, if I buy an unlocked Samsung or Nexus Android smartphone, I don't want to buy a data plan. But I would like to use the device in Wi-Fi and for navigation while in my car. Can I download maps in memory to roam more freely?


Dear Gaurang,
I've got good news for you. There are several apps available that will allow you to download maps onto your device and use the Wi-Fi and GPS capability on the device for turn-by-turn navigation. And you don't need a data plan to do it.

That being said, I don't think I would buy an unlocked smartphone for this purpose alone. You can get an inexpensive Garmin system for about $100 on Amazon. But an unlocked new smartphone is going to cost you anywhere from $300 to $700, depending on the device you buy. What's more some of the navigation apps that allow for offline navigation comparable to a stand-alone navigation device, will cost you $50 or $60. And if you add more maps, you'll have to pay more money.

But if navigation is only one feature you plan to use on your new unlocked smartphone, then go for it. There are tons of apps that you can download onto a smartphone that will work just fine with Wi-Fi instead of a carrier's data network.

In fact, I am seeing more and more people use smartphones without data plans. While wireless carriers will require you to buy a data service plan if you connect your smartphone to their network even just for voice services, if you forgo the carrier network altogether, then you can just use Wi-Fi. Of course, this means you won't have the same type of ubiquitous access as you would with a carrier data plan. But it's a heck of a lot cheaper.

What apps are out there?
Since you mentioned that you would buy either a Google Nexus device or smartphone for Samsung, I am going to concentrate my answer on Android apps. But there are also plenty of apps, even some of these same apps, that are also available for Apple iOS. All you have to do is search the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, or whatever app store your device has access to in order to find out what's available.

Google Maps is probably the most well known mapping and navigation app out there. Google has updated Google Maps so that it now offers maps offline. This means you can download maps and store them on the device and the navigation portion of Google Maps can access the data even when you don't have data access.

NavFree Geolife Ltd.

But there are a couple of drawbacks to the offline use of Google Maps. And it may not be ideal for a long trip or to use the device as an in-car navigation device replacement without a data connection. Even though you can download maps while in a Wi-Fi hotspot to avoid using carrier data, Google only allows you to download maps in certain "map tiles," which means that you can't download a map for the entire U.S. or in some cases an entire state. On a long road trip or if you venture outside an area where you have a preloaded map, you'll have to stop and download the next piece of the map.

Navfree is another navigation app that is free. And it can be downloaded and used offline. The company that developed NavFree claims that unlike other satellite navigation apps for smartphones, Navfree offers a "fully featured, non-time limited turn-by-turn navigation" app. There are no hidden payments for additional map downloads and you're able to use it forever and download free updates when you need them.

CoPilot GPS is a free app that also allows you to download maps for an country or region. It also offers "millions of points of interest." This makes it easy to locate nearby restaurants, hotels, and more. But if you want voice guided directions, you'll have to upgrade to a more expensive version of the service. You can get the U.S. map version for $10.

Sygic also works offline by allowing you to download maps offline. But this app costs money. The company charges different rates for downloading different maps. It's currently offering a 30 percent discount offer for many of its maps. The North American map, which typically sells for $50, is only $35 right now. The map for Europe, Asia, Africa, and the U.S. is $80 right now. It typically costs $120.


Navigon is a mobile app owned by the satellite navigation and mapping company Garmin. Like the other apps listed here, this navigation and map app works offline as well online. It offers turn-by-turn navigation with a voice guide. And it includes information on points of interest. It is not a free app and will set you back about $40 for the version that includes a U.S. map. If you want European maps or maps for other parts of the world, you will have to pay extra.

I'm not advocating for or endorsing any specific navigation or map app for you. If I were you, I'd check out the free ones first and see how well they meet your needs. I didn't list every navigation app here. But before you spend the money on any app, I'd read the user reviews and do a Google search to see what others have said about the app. Also ask your friends about the apps they use. And of course, check the comments to this story. Hopefully, Ask Maggie readers can chime in with their own suggestions.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

Will S Beam work on the Samsung Galaxy S4?

Dear Maggie,
My partner has the Samsung Galaxy S3. And I am thinking of getting the Samsung Galaxy S4 when it comes out. I was wondering if we will be able to transfer information by touching our phones together, the way I have seen people do it on TV between two Galaxy S3s.


Dear Chardin,
I can't say for certain which features the Samsung Galaxy S4 will have since it hasn't been officially launched yet. But I have a very good feeling that it will include NFC or near field communication, which is necessary to initiate the touch-based transfer of information. I am also fairly certain that Samsung will include the S Beam functionality in the S4.

Samsung Galaxy S3
S Beam on the Samsung Galaxy S3 makes terrific use of NFC. Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung introduced the S Beam application with the Samsung Galaxy S3. This application builds on the functionality of Android Beam, a feature in the Android software. It allows you to easily share content by putting the backs of the phones together. The connection is initiated through NFC. And then the data is transferred using W-Fi Direct, a short range Wi-Fi technology that allows for quick data downloads.

Samsung offers a how-to guide that shows you how to use the application.

For more information on the Galaxy S4, check back later this week. CNET will be live-blogging the Galaxy S4 launch in New York City on Thursday. And we'll have more information then about all the new features. Also stay tuned to Ask Maggie later this week, as I'll have more advice on whether or not to buy the Samsung Galaxy S4.

I hope this advice was helpful.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.