GPS device or GPS Smartphone App for recording Spatial Data

Collecting Spatial data

Scientific research and data collection usually stands are falls with the spatial data collection. Location fixes or transect data are often important to accompany your non-spatial data. Whether you need the location of your camera trap in order to come back and find it again, or you are recording opportunistic data, GPS locations are a must nowadays. Usually, GPS devices are used for this, but lately, there are a lot of smartphone apps available to record GPS location. Which option is the best is probably highly related to how you make use of a GPS. This article is a small introduction to some of my other reviews about GPS devices and Smartphone GPS Apps.



A lot of people have a smartphone, so installing a GPS app is definitely an easy solution to get started. Although a smartphone’s main task is to get people into contact (phone, text, email), nowadays it can be used for a variety of tasks. They can be used as an emergency device. Most smartphones also have a decent camera, which can be used in some GPS apps and add a location to your pictures. There is a wide range of apps available and it’s relatively easy to get maps. Most apps also give you to option to save maps offline. Overall a smartphone and a GPS app can be a fast and cheap way to get started.

BUT, Smartphones have some disadvantages. First of all, most models are not made for outdoor life. In general, they are not coping well with humidity, water, dust, drops, etc. Although this can be partly solved with protection boxes (Otter Box, Griffin Survivor, Lifeproof). Furthermore, smartphone devices need a subscription plan, resulting in returning costs related to your smartphone/smartphone GPS.

Currently, one of the biggest issues is battery life. GPS apps are draining the battery down massively. Again, there are ways to solve it by getting extra batteries, like a power bank or solar charging options.

The GPS performance of smartphones is generally good. Most smartphones rely on cell towers for their positioning calculation. This is a fast way to get a GPS signal, but this signal reception can drop significantly, for example, in bad weather or in deep valleys. In these circumstances, there is a higher chance is losing signal as well.

Handheld GPS Device

A handheld GPS device is a bit more professional and it’s actually built for getting locations and recording spatial data. In general, they have a better receiver, are more accurate, and are less prone to lose signal. Handheld GPS devices are made for outdoor lifehave a rugged design and are more durable than most smartphones. Most of them are waterproof, or at least splashproof, and perform better in tough conditions. GPS devices are definitely out-competing smartphones when it comes down to battery life. Most of the GPS devices are using AA batteries, which are interchangeable. This is definitely a plus when working in remote places (if you bring enough AA batteries). On the downside, it can be a bit more complex to get maps on your device (and they can be costly). Furthermore, it’s an extra electronic device you have to take with you.


When comparing the GPS Performance, the speed and accuracy can vary between devices. In general, GPS devices have a higher level of accuracy, as they can connect with more satellites. Obviously, there will be a difference in accuracy between an open field on a sunny day and, for example, under a thick forest canopy or in a narrow valley. As smartphones make use of cell towers, often they are able to get a signal faster than GPS devices. On the other hand, smartphones are also more prone to lose GPS signal in these challenging conditions.

Smartphones are using touchscreens, whereas in GPS devices you have both touchscreen and button models options. Definitely, in cold weather circumstances, touchscreens can be a pain. Although nowadays you can buy special gloves which can interact with your touchscreen. From my experience, touchscreens are nice to work with, but are more vulnerable for defects. It’s a matter of taste, but I prefer the handheld GPS devices with buttons.

A smartphone is just a sort of multi-tool. It gives a good performance for a lot of tasks. It’s definitely worth taking your smartphone in the field, even if it’s just as an emergency tool. Besides the possible use as a GPS tool, a smartphone can be used to consult other files (identification keys, work schedule, data apps to collect other data, …). Additionally, installing a flashlight app might be worth it as well for emergencies (bringing a flashlight is always a better option).

Generally, a handheld GPS device is going to be a better choice for recording spatial data, as they are designed to collect that sort of data with the outdoors in mind. So, for detailed scientific research (in remote places) I still recommend a GPS device. However, for setting up a citizen-science project, an app which records GPS location in combination with basic monitoring data is a useful tool and more ‘user-friendly’ for a wide range of people. Most people have already a smartphone and downloading an app is very easy, so the threshold to get started is very low.

On a side note, neither a GPS or a smartphone will replace good navigation skills. Technology can fail, so it’s worth to learn the basics like map reading, using compass etc. before going out into challenging environments.

With this brief overview, you can start doing more research. Hopefully, soon I will be able to post about some useful Smartphone GPS Apps and a review on GPS devices. If this sounds like it can be interesting to you, definitely sign up to our mailing list.

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