How to use an external GPS with a smartphone

The best GPS for a Brit searching for prehistoric stones is a GPS which has OS maps built in.

GPS with OS maps
GPS with OS maps

The trouble with these is the sticker shock, you’re looking at about £300-400, which is still a bit stiff. If you start with nothing, it’s probably still the best way, and you will undoubtedly get a better moving map experience, particularly with a GPS including an electronic compass, which will orient the map correctly for you.

I had a smartphone and Viewranger. I’d bought the Landranger 1:50k set of OS maps on viewranger for about £70 – once you buy digital mapping you’re locked into that provider unless you want to pay up again.

Smartphone GPS is awful and power-hungry

The big problem with a smartphone is that GPS performance is dreadful. Quite how dreadful I hadn’t realised until I got out on Dartmoor and tried to use Viewranger, which made no attempt made to track current position.Well, pretty much until I was on my way back to the start point. I had a paper map anyway, although the smartphone version was easier to control in the wind!

A-GPS doesn't help you here
A-GPS doesn’t help you here

The problem with a smartphone GPS is that by design it will fail you when you need it most, on a featureless moor with no signal. It is new-born each time you start it up. Rather than maintaining the ephemeris (knowing where to look for the satellites) when the phone is off, smartphones use A-GPS – getting the rough location from the network connection and using this to simulate the ephemeris.

Which is OK in towns, and no good to man nor beast in rural areas, because there’s no network connection. So you get to do a cold start of the GPS which can take over half an hour. No fun at all when you are out on Dartmoor. Even in towns the performance of smartphone GPS is dire, compared to a handheld GPS, as I found out looking for birds. Plus it’s power-hungry – running about 43mA @ 5V with continuous GPS on, compared to 25mA with a BT GPS.

Go for a separate Bluetooth GPS

A secondhand CoPilot GPS3 The default Bluettoh code for one of these is 0183 (from NMEA 0183 protocol, I guess)
A secondhand CoPilot BTGPS3, 2003 vintage
The default Bluetooth code for one of these is 0183 (from NMEA 0183 protocol, I guess)

and use an app to get the location signal into the phone, something like Bluetooth GPS to set this as a mock location provider. Then shut off the internal GPS to save power. Start the hardware, then start the app before starting Viewranger, and everything will work better than before. The CoPilot battery is good for six hours, ebay has many more modern equivalents which probably have better battery life. You can save more smartphone power in the sticks by putting the phone into flight mode and specifically re-enabling Bluetooth, this shuts down the power-hungry wifi and phone data systems. Plus it stops Google knowing where you are in real time 😉

I still hanker after a Garmin GPSMAP64 because while this sorts out the poor GPS performance, it is hard to see the smartphone display outdoors, even under a wide overcast sky, and impossible with sunlight falling on it. Nevertheless, the smartphone app is a lot more practical now.

One thought on “How to use an external GPS with a smartphone”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the smartphone’s GPS function in rural areas without strong signals. These handheld GPS devices are much better in my opinion, but you’re right, people will need to hand over a few hundred dollars. I think the technology in the smartphone’s GPS is improving, along with cell phone networks getting more advanced, but for those out in the open, a handheld device like this is best. A side note, Garmin seem to be leading in this area last time I did some consumer review research. Cheers.

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