The Ultimate Guide to GPS and Mobile Phones

GPS has been around in mobile phones for a few years now, but for a lot of people it’s purpose isn’t all that clear.  As well as being a basic requirement for Satellite Navigation, GPS has a number of other really useful applications that you may not be aware of.  This guide explains the basics of GPS and runs through the different types of GPS receiver and software available.

So What Is GPS?

GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers use a network of satellites in orbit around the earth to pinpoint your location (longtitude and latitude) to within a few metres. GPS receivers don’t require a signal from a mobile phone company to work, they just need to be able to see the sky.  Locking on to GPS Satellites normally takes a couple of minutes, sometimes longer if you’re already on the move.

Over the last couple of years GPS receivers have found their way in to a number of mobile phones. Mobile Phones work slightly differently to stand alone GPS receivers as they can triangulate their location using nearby transmitters. Mobile phones combine the information from nearby transmitters with the information received from the GPS receiver to give them an exact location.  A brief internet connection is normally required to find your location. This type of receiver is called A-GPS (Assisted Global Positioning System).

Both GPS and A-GPS have their strengths and weaknesses.   External GPS Receivers tend to lock on to more satellites for more stable tracking.  They also have better battery life than A-GPS as they don’t need an internet connection and have no screen to run the battery down. Phones with A-GPS tend to lock on to your location a little bit faster and may still be able to track you if you are indoors or under cover.

GPS Receivers

Generally speaking most GPS receivers are designed to communicate over a Bluetooth connection.  Bluetooth is a way that 2 devices can talk to each other wirelessly and is found in most mobile phones and computers.  If your PC doesn’t have Bluetooth built in, you can add this function easily by purchasing a USB Bluetooth Adapter.

If you want to use a GPS receiver with your phone, you just need to make sure that your phone has Bluetooth and you’ll need to pair the GPS receiver with your phone. When you launch an application on your phone that requires GPS data, your phone will automatically make the connection to the GPS receiver as long as your receiver is turned on.

External GPS Receivers can add functionality to your phone

External GPS Receivers can add functionality to your phone

GPS Software

If someone were to say to you “GPS” the first thing that comes to your mind will probably be Satellite Navigation, mainly because of the phenomenal success of TomTom’s Sat Nav products, but GPS is not all about Navigation.

There are 5 main categories of GPS software available and chances are that you’ll be able to find a use for at least one of these in your day to day life. There are applications to help you find the nearest petrol station, can track your route while you’re out walking, jogging or cycling or maybe you want to be able to add your location to photographs that you will be uploading to Flickr.

GPS receivers can be used with a range of tracking, location aware, geo-tagging mapping and directional applications and I’ve spent the last few days looking around at all the different GPS software that’s available and here are a few of the best free applications that I’ve found for each type of application. I’m only going to list a few examples here, but I’ve compiled a list of  GPS applications for each of the main mobile phone platforms on a separate post.

Whether you’re off trekking in the Lake District, going for a run and want to track your training progress, or maybe you want to track your employees where abouts while they’re out working there are a range of free applications that will let you do all of these things.

Location Aware
Location Awareness is the ‘big thing’ in mobile phone applications at the moment. The way that these work is by looking up your GPS location against a database of shops, bars, banks, cashpoints hotels… the list is almost endless. Once you know where you want to go, some location aware applications will then provide directions on how to get there.

Geo-tagging is a fairly new feature that is making it’s way in to digital cameras. The idea behind it is simple, when you take a photograph the longitude and latitude of where the photograph was taken is added to the meta data of the image. (Meta Data is information about the photo such as time and date it was taken,the camera used and the exposure/aperture settings). As not all camera’s have the ability to connect to GPS receivers, you may not be able to tag your photo’s as they are taken – in which case you would need a GPS receiver that supports GPS logging.

GPS Logging
Some devices will support GPS logging.  This is where the GPS receiver records your position at set time intervals.  When you get home and transfer this data to your PC,  you can then add the location (of where the photo was taken) to the image, by matching the time and date your photos were taken with the coordinates recorded at the same time and date on the GPS Receiver.  It might sound complicated but it is an extremely simple process!

Mapping applications are different to Sat Nav applications as these will just let you plan routes and work out where to go.  They can show you where you are in relation to your planned route, but won’t provide turn by turn instructions. This can be extremely useful if you are out and about on foot, or are looking to find out how far away places are before you set off or plan your journey.

Sat Nav & Turn by Turn
Without doubt this is the main reason that most people will look to get a GPS receiver for their phone.  With Sat Nav software on your phone you won’t need to use a separate Navigation device as the phone will be able to guide you from door to door.  There are a number of different options available for most phones, some software is free, others you have to pay for, the main difference between them being the additional features they offer and how they look on your phone.

So now you’ve got a better understanding of GPS on mobiles, you’re probably wondering what applications are available for your phone and where can you download them from – take a look at our Ultimate Guide to GPS Applications and we’ll show you what’s available and where you can get it from.