Android phone GPS tips

Android phones know where they are, but add a few apps and they'll tell you where to go, how to get there and what to expect when you arrive.

Simon Handby
5 min read

Everyone knows satellite navigation is great for drivers, but the global positioning system (GPS) is even better for the latest generation of smart phone users.

With GPS, an Android phone knows where it is, but that's just the beginning. Add a few apps and it'll tell you where to go, how to get there and what to expect when you arrive.

Here's our rundown on how to get the most from your Android phone's GPS. Our screenshots were taken on a Samsung Galaxy S running Android 2.3, but all these tips are relevant to any Android phone.

Android GPS tips - Enable GPS

1. Enable GPS

An obvious first step, but it's worth mentioning. The quickest way to switch GPS reception on is to drag down the Notification bar and tap the icon. You can also get to it from the Settings menu: press Menu, tap Settings, select 'Location and security' and tick 'Use GPS satellites'. If your phone supports it, tick 'Use sensor aiding' for increased accuracy (see below).

Most Android phones support assisted GPS, a system which uses Wi-Fi or mobile data to speed up getting the information needed for an initial position fix. To benefit, turn GPS on a few minutes before it's needed -- ideally when still connected to Wi-Fi.

Android GPS tips - how can I use it?

2. When can you use it?

GPS works by receiving signals broadcast by several satellites -- receivers generally don't broadcast anything unless they're using assisted GPS (see above).

As such, it should be fine to use your phone's GPS on a plane or anywhere else where mobile signals are barred, provided you place the handset in flight mode first to switch off all broadcasting.

Leaving GPS reception on drains the phone's battery more quickly. Although the effect isn't as bad as you might expect, remember to turn it off if you're not using it.

Android GPS tips - improve accuracy

3. Improve accuracy

Getting a GPS fix requires signals from at least four satellites, but the signals can't penetrate far through anything solid.

With no obstructions it's possible to 'see' between six and nine satellites from the Earth's surface, but buildings, vehicles and trees all get in the way.

If you're struggling to get your position fixed in a built-up area, try again at an upstairs window, or better still, walk somewhere away from buildings. GPS is much more tolerant of obstructions once it's got an initial fix.

Android GPS tips - Google Maps

4. Install Google Maps

If there's one must-have app for an Android phone it's Google Maps, available free from Android Market. With GPS on, starting Maps will show you exactly where you are, usually to within a few feet. Tap the icon that looks like a stack of papers to see the Layers menu. Here you can switch between satellite and terrain views and even toggle traffic information on and off, letting you get a clearer view of your surroundings.

Use the search box at the top to look for a specific place by name, postcode or with a voice search. Once you find it, tap the box above the map pin and tap 'Street view' to see what it looks like.

Android GPS tips - satnav

5. Turn your phone into a sat-nav

Google Maps includes Navigation, which turns your phone into a free sat-nav. Tap the box above any map pin and tap Directions to find your way by car, public transport or foot. Alternatively, start the stand-alone Navigation app, select your mode of transport and speak or type the destination.

Using your phone as a sat-nav will exhaust its battery, possibly more quickly than an in-car charger can replenish it. Go easy on it by tapping the power button to turn the screen off -- you'll still get voice instructions. Buy a purpose-made car mount to keep the phone in position.

Android GPS tips - navigation

6. Make the most of Navigation

Like any other sat-nav, Navigation gives visual and verbal directions, but it's got a couple of tricks up its sleeve. For rush-hour journeys, press Menu and choose Layers then switch the Traffic view on. This zooms out and gives advanced warning of any snarl-ups on the road ahead.

Use the same menu to find parking, petrol stations, or even to switch to a satellite view. While this looks great, remember that it's downloading images as you go, potentially hammering your data connection.

On that note, Navigation always needs to download a little data, so using it abroad can be punitively pricey. Get a roaming data plan, or buy a full sat-nav app from the Market.

Android GPS tips - layers

7. Check the place out

Several apps use GPS data to list nearby eateries, hostelries and assorted fripperies. Google Maps includes Places, which is simple and useful, but download Layar from Android Market and you can superimpose searches for shops, restaurants, transport or interesting architecture on to images of the environment around you. It looks flash, but it's also great for navigation.

Wikitude is a similar augmented reality app, using data from various sources, including Wikipedia. Turn it on, walk outside your front door and spend the day learning about your neighbourhood.

Android GPS tips - Locale

8. Phone, configure thyself

'Artistic' wallpaper and a dubstep ringtone might be fine at home, but if your image at work is more James Blunt than James Blake, you don't want your phone to blow your Christmas bonus. If Android knows where it is, couldn't it smarten itself up for the office?

Locale was developed to solve just this problem. A £3 download from Android Market, it keeps track of your phone's location and uses it to apply appropriate 'situations'.

Defined entirely by you, situations control ringtones, display brightness and so-on. Free plug-ins are available for even more control.

Android GPS tips - Runkeeper

9. Keep on track

If you're a runner, cyclist or just a keen walker, it's good to know how far and fast you've been.

Apps such as Google's My Tracks can use GPS data to track your path, later overlaying it on a map so you can see exactly where you were.

RunKeeper is available as a free app, which tracks outdoor activities, later uploading them to a website where you can view routes, climbs and even the calories you burned.

If you're trying to get fit, pair up with 'Street Teammates' for mutual encouragement.

Android GPS tips - location to tweet

10. I'm in the library!

If you like sharing what you're doing, GPS opens up new possibilities. Apps for social networks like Twitter or Facebook can match an accurate location to a place or venue and let you add it to your status or updates.

Foursquare, on the other hand, is all about checking into locations like restaurants or pubs. Install the app and use it to get local recommendations from other users.

Start checking in to earn points, but do non-users a favour by not publishing your check-ins on Twitter.