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A guide to GPS

What is GPS and what can you use it for?

GPS (Global Positioning System) is one of the most important technologies in the world. Its use has become integrated into many activities beyond simply locating your position or getting someone to a destination.

Having originally been designed for military purposes, with the first satellite being launched way back in 1978 we now have many satellites in orbit ready to provide us with location based data and time referencing.

GPS is an American technology. There are Russian satellites creating the GLONASS network and Chinese satellites creating the Beidou network. Many modern 'GPS' devices, can in fact make use of the GLONASS and Beidou networks for added accuracy or coverage when GPS is not perfect.

The question is how you can take advantage of this technology to simplify your life and we will start by looking at driving solutions which can be broken up into three types of GPS device-


Standalone systems include everything you need in one box to help you navigate from A-B. The prime example are thr original "satnavs" from the likes of TomTom and Garmin.

These are still available, although their use has declined with the integration of GPS technology in mobiulke devices and integrated car systems.

This does mean though that standalone satnavs can be found relatively inexpensively. A standalone system is also far less likely to be affected by conflicting software on a smartphone and will almost certainly prove to be a very reliable unit for your needs.

Software based

The adoption of software-based GPS systems can be a more cost efficient way to attain full GPS functionality without paying for a full system.

You need to have a PDA or smartphone that is compatible with the software and also has a built in or separate GPS receiver.

Almost all modern smartphones running Android, iOS, Windows and BlackBerry OS will be compatible, with the GPS receiver now being built directly in to the processor on modern phones.

Most software based systems will have an up front cost to purchase, download and install the application. There may then be subscription based services added on for added features such as updating with new traffic camera locations.


A PND (Personal Navigation Device) can be used to describe a standalone system but is more commonly used to describe devices which include GPS as their main feature alongside extras such as music playing, movies and even games.

They tend to be a lot smaller and are often well priced - be aware though that smaller is not always better for GPS because you need to see information if driving.

Common Extras

The main requirement of any GPS system is to get you to your desired location as quickly as possible. To do that with the ever increasing amounts of traffic on the road, and of course the ever growing number of safety cameras, you may want to take advantage of extras that are included in some systems.

We'll detail some of these below.


Many service providers now offer a subscription service for providing real time traffic updates. This is one of the ways that the companies such as TomTom & Garmin continue to sell their services now that sales of standalone GPS units have declined.

For instance TomTom offer "TomTom Traffic" as a subscription service. This provides real time traffic information via a GPRS enabled mobile phone. Their newest devices have Bluetooth built in, so that you can connect to a separate mobile. Of course if you are using their software on your smartphone everything is built in to one unit.

You can set the software to automatically avoid traffic and to choose the quickest route as updates are delivered. This can reduce not only the time you are driving, but also the stress involved. Note that data charges will likely apply for receiving traffic information.

TMC is another option which is either available built in to some systems or via an optional extra component. In the UK it works primarily on major roads only but this is where the majority of traffic problems are so you should be OK. It is rare to be charged a subscription for TMC use.

Some manufacturers also include alternative traffic monitoring in their software so make sure you read the description if this is a feature you require.

Safety Cameras

Safety camera databases are included with certain software GPS titles and standalone systems and they can help to pay for the cost of the device itself.

The location of safety cameras in the UK is public information, so it has been clarified that there is no longer any legal issue with using these systems.

You will often find that a preset amount of safety camera information is provided with any GPS unit or software package. You may find special offers such as "free updates for a year". This is because these services are often by subscription based (or an annual payment), to allow you to receive updates to the database as they are made.

Points of interest

Almost all GPS devices and software solutions include a Points of Interest database which can prove very useful.

From Petrol Stations to cash machines or toilets, they can be shown on your map and you can choose the appropriate one when needed in a hurry.

Almost all Points of Interest databases are more than complete so you should not overly concern yourself with checking the detail - just make sure such a database is included.

Further Extras

As the GPS market expands so does the amount of add-ons you can purchase or subscribe to. From up to date weather forecasts, to audio books, the GPS developers are starting to find ways to expand the usefulness of their systems even further.

Ditch the car

GPS is not all about driving - another very popular use is for navigating when walking.

If you do extensive walking and hiking then you may want to invest in a modern PND, this will avoid draining the battery of a smartphone.

Other GPS units such as the Trackimo are designed as a location finder - thery're less about letting you knowwhere you're going and more about helping others locate you, possibly in an emergency os if you get lost!

What to look for

In terms of tracking quality, there is no longer one particular brand of receiver to look out for.

Once it would be the case that particular GPS manufacturer was recommended, for instance devices with SiRF technology came highly regarded.

In modern devices, GPS technology has been successfully miniaturised and integrated into other components. In smartphones for instance, the GPS technology is built into the SoC (System on a Chip), which contains the processor, other radio antennae and core technologies.

Check the battery life claims if you are expecting to use a unit away from power for extended periods of time. Most units come with car chargers and AC power chargers so if driving is likely to be your main use the battery life may not be an issue.


There are many accessories available for GPS devices and some will certainly help prolong the life of your device, whilst others will enable you to get more from your purchase. Almost all devices come with everything you need to get started such as windscreen holders and the relevant chargers.

GPS does not always get a good press but the reality is that used properly it can be one of the most useful investments you will ever make.

A couple of missed speeding tickets, a few hours not being stuck in traffic on a hot sunny day, and the security of not having to spend hours looking at maps to work out your route are just a few of the advantages.