Motorcycle Navigation: Did the Smartphone Kill the GPS Unit?

Oct 28, 2015 View Comments by

Motorcycle Navigation: Did the Smartphone Kill the GPS Unit?The Motorcyclist’s Guide to the Galaxy –

(Follow these links to read Yuval’s previous articles in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)

It’s hard to believe, but 10 years ago there were no smartphones. In 2007, the iPhone was released and the term Android was associated with Star Wars movies. That was the golden age of automotive GPS units, too. Navigation with these incredible devices was an easy task. They were simple to operate, albeit being a bit expensive. For most people, they were better than using maps or asking bystanders for directions.

The emergence of smartphones and fast cellular networks, combined with the game-changer Google Maps application, has revolutionized the world of automotive navigation. Indeed, the sales of GPS devices have shrunk considerably in recent years as evidenced by financial reports from market leaders Garmin and TomTom.

Now riders have the option to buy a stand-alone GPS or use their smartphone with Google Maps at no additional cost, which can also provide more functionality than a dedicated GPS unit (e.g., email, web browsing, music, games, etc.).

Motorcycle Navigation: Did the Smartphone Kill the GPS Unit?In this article, I will analyze the gaps between smartphones and stand-alone GPS devices in the context of hardware.

Smartphones and motorcycle GPS units are both stand-alone touch-screen devices that share many things in common and even have similar physical dimensions. In particular, they are alike with a microprocessor, RAM (random access memory), Bluetooth and USB communication, GPS antenna and processor, operating system, navigational database (i.e., maps with waypoints), and navigational application.

Hardware Gaps
With so many commonalities, it is interesting to see what gaps exist between these two unit types. If those gaps can be overcome, then the smartphone might be a legitimate motorcycle GPS receiver, at least from a hardware perspective.

1. Touch Screens
There are two main touch-screen types: resistive and capacitive.

Resistive screens operate with physical pressure. The finger pressing on the touch screen changes the screen resistance, which allows the unit to identify the touch point coordinate. Therefore, this technology works with or without gloves, and since most riders operate the GPS receiver with gloves, it explains why all motorcycle GPS receivers have resistive screens.

Motorcycle Navigation: Did the Smartphone Kill the GPS Unit?If that was a perfect solution, smartphones would use it, too, but resistive screens have some major drawbacks—they have low image clarity, are quite dim in bright sunlight, and require some pressure to get the screen to react. They also scratch easily due to their soft-top plastic layer, but the plastic doesn’t shatter on impact.

Capacitive screens, like those found on our smartphones, work on a different principle. They rely on the touching finger to transfer charge between the human body capacitance and the screen, which is why gloves do not work with smartphones screens as they are isolators. However, there is an easy solution for that in the form of special gloves that contain a thin conductive thread in the tip of the finger.

Capacitive screens have excellent image clarity, are bright, and require only a light touch to initiate a command. They are also resistant to scratches with a robust top glass layer, but on the other hand, the glass can shatter on impact. One major limitation is that water drops can cause erroneous identification of finger touches, a nonissue with resistive screens, but in recent models that has improved.

Motorcycle Navigation: Did the Smartphone Kill the GPS Unit?2. Weather Resistance
Being able to ride in any weather condition without damaging the GPS receiver (be it a stand-alone unit or smartphone) is one of the primary requirements for motorcyclists. It takes just one strong rain or too much direct sun exposure to destroy a unit that is not weather resistant. Most smartphones today are not weather resistant, but that is changing, as there is an increased demand for weather-resistant models due to a growing fitness trend. Samsung released the Galaxy S6 active and Sony the Xperia Z3 models, to name a few. There are also waterproof cases that can protect the smartphone with full control of the touch screen and buttons. Additionally, smartphone technology is advancing in such a way that it includes military-grade specifications (or close to it). Some newer phones can tolerate extremely high heat, high altitude, and humidity.

3. Power Supply and Mounting
GPS units are notorious for short battery life span, part of this is due to the high power consumption of resistive screens and another is because battery technology and power management in those units hasn’t progressed much. As a result, having a steady power supply for the GPS unit is mandatory for long trips. Most smartphones today have batteries designed to last many hours and have sophisticated power management techniques on the operating system level. However, continued use of navigation on your phone can take hours off of the battery life, and you don’t want to find yourself without a means of communication if an emergency should arise.

Motorcycle Navigation: Did the Smartphone Kill the GPS Unit?A motorcycle-specific GPS mount provides charging contact points that don’t require a special plug-in for quick mounting and removal. With a smartphone it’s not that easy. A mini-USB plug needs to be inserted or removed upon mounting or dismounting the smartphone. It’s a bit more cumbersome with a weather-resistant case. Nevertheless, charging a smartphone can be done.

Inductive charging, done through electromagnetic induction of coils, enables the smartphone to be charged by placing it over a charging surface. We could expect to see it in the near future on motorcycles. The Samsung Galaxy S6 active, for example, comes with a built-in inductive charger adapter.

It is evident that the hardware gaps are not that big, and they will continue to diminish as smartphones obtain some of the features of GPS units and vice versa. For now, dedicated GPS units can’t easily be replaced by a smartphone for motorcyclists, as they are durable, purpose-built units with a very specific job function, especially when using custom-made routes.

There are other gaps on the software level and analysis of those will determine if, indeed, the smartphone has killed the GPS unit.
The next article will discuss satellite navigation software applications on the smartphone.

By Yuval Naveh


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