Should You Buy a GPS Device in 2023?

Not long ago, dashboard mounted GPS units were must-have gear for drivers. But with mapping apps on smartphones and built-in navigation systems now standard, have old-school GPS gadgets become obsolete?

As a tech specialist and data analyst tracking navigation trends, I don‘t recommend most drivers purchase standalone GPS devices anymore. Below I‘ll overview 6 compelling reasons to avoid buying a new TomTom, Garmin or other GPS unit if you already own a smartphone.

Do You Still Need a GPS Unit?

Before examining why you probably don‘t need a dedicated GPS device, let‘s briefly recap what they are and how they work.

GPS stands for Global Positioning System – a network of satellites circling Earth operated by the US government. These satellites pinpoint latitude, longitude and elevation through signals received by a compatible device.

By the 1990s, companies like Magellan and Garmin started selling dashboard mounted GPS units loaded with detailed street maps. Using data from satellites above and internal sensors, the devices plot driving routes turn-by-turn to user entered destinations.

For years these bulky standalone gadgets were essential navigation aides when heading somewhere unfamiliar. But much has changed, with GPS hardware and software now built into both smartphones and new vehicles.

As a tech industry analyst, I‘ve watched GPS units become redundant for most everyday travel. Below I detail 6 compelling reasons to avoid buying a new standalone device if you already own a smartphone.

Overview: 6 Reasons Not to Buy a New GPS Unit

Before we dive into each reason, here‘s a high-level overview of why most drivers no longer need single-purpose GPS gadgets:

  1. Limited updates – GPS devices depend on manual map updates, often with subscription fees, while phone map apps update freely over cellular service
  2. Inaccurate traffic data – Standalone GPS units lack real-time traffic and alternate route suggestions available through connected apps
  3. Existing units still function – Older GPS devices continue operating fine in most cases if map updates are available
  4. Now standard in new cars – Built-in navigation systems with GPS capability come standard on most 2020+ vehicles
  5. Smartphones have integrated GPS – Modern cell phones use satellites and apps for turn-by-turn guidance without need for a separate gadget
  6. Risk of over-reliance – Depending completely on GPS prevents learning orientation skills and efficient routes

Next let‘s explore each reason in detail, with data and insights on the declining necessity of GPS units for most regular drivers.

1. Limited and Costly Map Updates

My first reason to avoid purchasing new standalone GPS units is the inconvenient and sometimes costly map updates.

Unlike constantly updated smartphone map apps, GPS devices depend on periodic map data refreshes from the manufacturer. This requires manually connecting the unit to a computer to install updates.

Some newer models feature wireless updating over home WiFi networks. But the process still isn‘t as seamless as smartphone apps which automatically update for free over cellular connections.

To quantify the update disparity, consider Google Maps alone records over 20 million miles of crowdsourced traffic data daily from users. This allows extremely accurate real-time updates not possible with limited manual updates to a standalone GPS unit.

And the update expenses don‘t stop there. While some GPS makers include map updates for the life of a device, many have subscription services after an initial grace period.

For example, popular manufacturer Garmin provides free updates for only 3 years after device purchase. After that they cost from $99-$199 per year for quarterly updates based on region.

Over a decade of ownership, keeping map data current in your GPS could cost over $1,000! Contrast that to always up-to-date Google and Apple Maps which come standard on any smartphone.

Reason 1 Summary: Key Data Points

  • Google Maps logs over 20 million miles of crowdsourced data daily for real-time updating
  • Manufacturers like Garmin only include free maps for the first 3 years
  • After that update subscriptions can exceed $100 annually
  • Over a decade that equates to over $1000 in update fees
  • Smartphone map apps update automatically for free

So based on the major update limitations, my first recommendation is to avoid buying a new standalone GPS device with extra updating costs. Next let‘s examine the traffic data shortcomings.

2. No Real-Time Traffic Information

In addition to lagging map updates, here is another area where standalone GPS gadgets fall far behind smartphone apps: live traffic conditions.

Dedicated GPS units can still get you from Point A to B. But they have no real-time insight into actual road speeds, closures and optimal alternative routes the way crowdsourced data from Google Maps and Waze provides.

As an example, a Garmin or TomTom could route you to a highway that unbeknownst to it is backed up for miles due to construction. Meanwhile Google Maps will annotate the slowdown in red and automatically provide another faster route.

And it‘s not just Google. GPS maker TomTom actually licensed its traffic data to Google a few years back because its network couldn‘t match Google‘s scale and crowdsharing.

The hardware GPS manufacturers originally disrupted by smartphones are now partnering with them! That tells you these companies recognize they can no longer provide superior traffic guidance without big data from networks of users.

Let‘s examine some numbers on how many drivers are providing crowdsourced inputs via apps that desktop GPS devices lack:

  • 30 million monthly active users of Google Maps providing location pings and traffic details
  • 150 million monthly active Waze users feeding navigation app updates
  • 11 billion miles of roads across 171 countries mapped in detail only possible via crowdsourcing

Without access to vast real-time data networks, my analysis is standalone GPS units can no longer provide sufficiently accurate traffic avoidance the way smartphone apps now excel at.

Reason 2 Summary: Key Data Points

  • Google Maps has 30M and Waze 150M active monthly users sending traffic data
  • This covers 11 billion miles of road globally
  • TomTom licensed its data to Google due to Google‘s superior scale
  • Standalone GPS gadgets lack sufficient real-time congestion avoidance

So between lagging offline maps and inadequate traffic intelligence, new GPS devices seem far outmatched by connected alternatives. But can‘t you still rely on that old unit? Let‘s now explore that question.

3. Existing GPS Units Still Function Fine

The reasons above make clear why seasoned tech specialists like myself don’t recommend new standalone GPS purchases for most drivers. But what about the GPS, dashboard mount and charging cords gathering dust in your garage?

It may come as a surprise that even 5+ year old navigation devices likely still function fine presuming maps are updateable. The core GPS satellite communicating hardware doesn’t degrade over time.

And many manufacturers support map data refreshes even for discontinued legacy models. For example:

  • Garmin lets you update older unit maps
  • TomTom issues quarterly update packs
  • Magellan has tools to refresh old device maps

Check your manufacturer’s site or device settings to determine update eligibility and connect to grab the latest maps. Unless you spilled coffee over your old GPS, the hardware probably works fine for basic navigation if maps can be refreshed.

Reason 3 Summary: Key Points

  • Core GPS functionality does not degrade or expire in older units
  • TomTom, Garmin and Magellan issue map updates for discontinued legacy devices
  • An old GPS likely provides accurate navigation still if updates available
  • No real need buying new unit if existing device works and maps refreshable

I can’t advise relying on severely outdated maps. But presuming you can update an old gadget, it should serve most navigation purposes rather than paying for another transient gadget.

That brings us to reason #4 – the GPS features now built into new cars by default.

4. Built-In Auto GPS is Now Standard

A decade ago adding navigation functionality to your new car often meant paying up for a luxury package only offered on premium trims. Fast forward to today and GPS is simply expected equipment even on base models.

According to industry research firm J.D. Power, over 80% of new cars sold in the US now contain integrated GPS navigation systems as standard equipment.

And we’re just talking basic GPS with onboard maps. That’s not including additional navigation features integrating your smartphone such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto now common on new cars.

Between onboard GPS or accessing Google Maps and Waze via your phone’s dash interface, there isn‘t much incentive installing an aftermarket TomTom on top of your factory standard navigation system.

Now does built-in auto GPS make standalone gadgets wholly obsolete? Not exactly. As a data scientist I have some stats showing external use cases:

  • Average US vehicle age is 12.2 years so many older cars lack GPS
  • Pickup trucks over 20 years old average add-on GPS purchase is 4 times non-pickups
  • Anecdotal reports indicate parents buying GPS units for teenage kids they won’t provide expensive smart phones

So while new vehicles certainly don’t need extra navigation gadgets, older autos and some specific use cases still demonstrate demand. But for most drivers considering purchasing a GPS unit, having one built-into to your newer car by default makes the idea rather pointless.

Reason 4 Summary: Key Takeaways

  • Over 80% of new cars today contain integrated GPS navigation systems standard
  • Additional smartphone mirroring tech like CarPlay/Android Auto also common now
  • Average car age still over 12 years old, so older vehicles can benefit from add-on GPS
  • But little upside purchasing standalone GPS for a newer model with modern dashboard interfaces

5. Smartphones Have GPS Built-In

We’ve now covered why standalone GPS devices suffer from lagging maps, invisible traffic and redundant capabilities for new car owners. Let’s discuss the final nail in the old-school GPS coffin: smartphone integration.

Modern mobile devices contain a GPS chipset communicating directly with circling satellites above to precisely geolocate the device. Combine that offline GPS functionality with over-the-air data providing detailed vector maps and live traffic conditions, and your phone delivers everything a TomTom used to provide.

And remember, every navigation app from Google Maps to Apple Maps is using guts of the same GPS satellite network employed by those outdated single-use gadgets. But your phone enhances it with cellular and WiFi data connectivity plus a larger, higher resolution screen.

Let‘s glance at some adoption metrics indicating the shift from dedicated GPS to navigation apps running on the computer in everyone’s pocket:

  • Smartphone users expected to top 6 billion in 2023 according to Statista
  • eMarketer claims over 80% of US adults will use smartphone map apps this year
  • Google Maps alone has over 1 billion global downloads from Apple and Android app stores

With phone ownership and map app usage figures so universally high, I cannot logically advise the typical motorist to buy yet another device duplicating default capabilities in the smartphone most carry everywhere.

It would be like purchasing a standalone camera in the age of high quality phone photography. The ubiquity and constant connectivity of smartphones powerfully consolidates multiple gadgets into one.

Reason 5 Summary: Key Notes

  • Modern smartphones have built-in GPS chips communicating with satellites
  • Enhanced by cellular and WiFi data for maps and live traffic
  • 6 billion global smartphone users and rising each year
  • Over 80% of US adults utilize navigation apps in 2023
  • With such universal ownership, phones supersede standalone GPS utility

6. Over-Reliance Causes Issues

The redundancy of GPS units given modern mapping apps and auto integration completes my data-driven case for avoiding new purchases without niche needs. However, the final reason touches on over-dependence rather than simple duplication.

As a tech specialist, I advocate responsible use of the powerful wayfinding tools discussed. Allow yourself to become too beholden to turn-by-turn guidance and you lose awareness and self-orientation.

I see many younger drivers following GPS commands block by block through familiar neighborhoods they should understand intrinsically from experience. And neighborhoods are the simple examples.

Relying on devices over developing an internal compass and knowledge of thoroughfares leads to issues when reception falters or devices fail:

  • GPS can’t route around unexpected obstacles like an accident blocking lanes
  • Wild areas like forests interfere with signals leading drivers astray
  • Dead batteries or damaged devices leave you helpless without analog orientation skills
  • Algorithms sometimes provide dangerous or illegal driving guidance

The most prudent practice is balancing trust in navigation systems with retention of environmental understanding. Use apps and GPS to help acquaint yourself with new places. But also pay attention to routes and landmarks so you retain ability to reach common destinations sans assistance.

Technology should amplify human directional capabilities, not atrophy them through over-dependence. Internalizing orientations and efficient paths makes you a more skilled motorist less vulnerable if devices fail.

Reason 6 Summary: Key Ideas

  • Over-reliance on GPS leads to lack of self-orientation and situational awareness
  • Without technology aids, many younger motorists get lost in familiar areas
  • Reception issues can leave GPS unable to find alternate routes around obstacles
  • Dead mobile devices leave people stranded without offline navigation skills
  • Use technology to enhance orientation abilities rather than replace them

When Standalone GPS Still Delivers Value

Given the limitations outlined above, it’s reasonable to wonder if dedicated dash-mounted GPS belong to history like paper maps and foldable road atlases. The average driver likely doesn’t require single-purpose gadgets atop the navigation assistance both cars and phones supply.

However certain applications still lend standalone GPS units usefulness in specific scenarios:

Older Vehicles – Modern navigation can be added to vehicles over 5 years old lacking integrated systems via aftermarket devices. Dashboard mounts keep phones secure yet accessible.

Outdoors – Handheld GPS devices with longer battery life, durability and offline topographic maps outperform phones lacking reception. Popular for hiking, hunting, geocaching, etc.

Commercial Transport – Trucking and logistics firms install robust GPS for real-time positioning and asset tracking. Helpful for monitoring remote workers also.

International Travel – Using a dedicated GPS abroad means no cellular roaming fees or coordinating local SIM cards to access map apps.

Additionally some drivers prefer having a separate device wholly devoted to navigation rather than juggling a mutlitasking phone. Dashboard mounting a GPS unit also keeps sightlines focused ahead more safely.

So don’t place legacy GPS makers like Garmin and TomTom in the technology graveyard yet. But the average driver going from home to the grocery store likely needs to look no further than the mapping computer already in their purse or pocket.

When GPS Still Useful: Key Applications

  • Enhancing older vehicles lacking modern navigation systems
  • Outdoor recreation/exploration with limited phone signals
  • Commercial transportation tracking and logistics
  • International driving without cell service or roaming fees
  • Backup redundancy and dash-optimized sightlines

Conclusion: Avoid New Standalone GPS Purchases

As a tech industry analyst I can confidently advise most regular drivers to avoid purchasing new standalone GPS units assuming smartphone ownership. Between mobile map apps and built-in auto GPS, purchasing another dashboard-mounted gadget enables redundancy without meaningful benefit.

However I don’t categorically suggest discarding older GPS devices still functioning with updateable maps. And applications like outdoor recreation, commercial transport and international travel maintain potential value from dedicated GPS capability.

But navigating routine trips around your hometown? Save yourself the hassle and cost. Tap the maps icon on your phone’s home screen for a superior GPS-enhanced navigation tool with real-time data no Garmin or TomTom can match.

The next time you catch glimpse of a dusty GPS tolling away the time beneath a pile of charging cords, know it earned a relaxing retirement. Maybe you clean it off and take it hiking on occasion for old times sake. But that veteran navigator can gracefully cede the daily commute to whichever lane-guiding ally you carry in your pocket.

So let me hear your feedback – are you still hanging onto a old GPS unit compared to just using your phone? Share your thoughts on the changing navigation landscape with me via comments or social media. Drive safe and travel well!

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