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If a tablet includes a GPS receiver, it can offer you a huge variety of mapping and other related navigational and location based services.

Some of the same sensors that can be used for mapping can also be used to transform the tablet into a motion-sensing game controller too.

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A Buying Guide to iPad and other Tablet Devices :  Part 6

GPS, Mapping, Location Based Services, and Game Controller capabilities

The larger screen of a tablet device is well suited for a displaying variety of navigational information, as well as traditional mapping type applications.

This screen shot shows how you can point an iPad at the sky and it shows you the names of the stars you are looking at.



The inviting large clear screen on a tablet calls out to be used for mapping type applications, and if the tablet has a GPS unit and other motion/location sensors, it can become an extremely sophisticated navigation device, and not only for traveling on land, but on the water, through the air, and even looking up at the heavens above too.

But there are some potential traps when choosing GPS type applications in terms of their 'cost' to you in data downloading and whether or not they require a 3G data service too.

This part of our buyer's guide series considers GPS and LBS issues, and their related extension of using tablets as interactive game controllers too.


Okay, I'll translate.  I was referring to a couple of 'Three Letter Acronyms' that are becoming increasingly common and arguably essential on tablet and phone devices - GPS, which probably requires no further explanation, and LBS, which stands for 'Location Based Services', most of which require GPS as a base from which to extend.

One of the potentially appealing uses of a tablet is to use its lovely large screen as an electronic map and GPS unit.  Okay, you're probably not going to want to mount an iPad on your car windshield, and for sure, if you did, you'll want to take it off and hide it whenever you're leaving your car unattended, but if you're traveling with a companion, they could become your navigator with the iPad or other tablet device in their lap - assuming the device has a GPS unit and some type of mapping software.

Where is the map data stored

There is one important thing to appreciate with GPS and mapping software apps.  Some of these will use a map that has been downloaded to the device in advance, and some of these will be interactively downloading the map data for exactly where you are, as variously needed, while you are traveling about the place.

A single map file for the US can require up to 2GB of data storage.  This isn't a problem with a 64GB iPad, but if you have a different type of tablet that only has 2GB of built in storage (some of which will invariably and unavoidably be needed for assorted other essential applications and their related data) plus one Micro-SD card slot, you'll need to use the Micro-SD slot for the map data and that will then prevent this slot from being used for other things at the same time.

In such cases, the idea of just interactively downloading data as you travel becomes more appealing.  In theory this also means you're always accessing the very latest and most up-to-date map data, but we're not entirely sure that the map data publishers have a continual realtime series of mapping updates, so this may or may not be a relevant extra plus feature.

In any event, downloading map data as you need it embodies some assumptions and potential problems.  It presupposes you have a 3G data plan from a phone company, that you're not downloading too much data as to incur appreciable extra data charges, and that you're always in areas with good fast 3G data coverage.

This becomes even more relevant if you are traveling internationally, where you can expect to pay exorbitant rates for 3G data service (sometimes even $10 - $15 per MB).

For these reasons, we generally prefer products (such as CoPilot Live) which use a local map database already preloaded into the tablets storage, but of course that then requires a tablet device with plenty of built in storage capacity.

In addition to GPS, a digital compass and accelerometers can be used by the device for 'dead reckoning' in areas of poor GPS signal, although not many of the GPS programs support dead reckoning.  If you can find one that does, we'd strongly recommend you get it however, because driving around the central downtown areas can often be problematic with poor GPS signals and the mapping program sometimes jumping from one block to the next and back again, being unable to decide exactly which block you're on.

Accelerometers and gyroscopes can be used for various other functions too, especially to do with interactive gaming, where you can use the entire tablet as a game controller - for example, as a steering wheel.  The accelerometers and possibly gyroscope can sense you turning the device in your hand, and translate that to the effect as if you'd been turning a steering wheel.

Part of the capabilities given by an accelerometer is the ability to sense which way the screen is positioned and to automatically adjust its orientation to match how it is positioned.  This is convenient most of the time, but sometimes you'll want to override what the tablet thinks is best for you (we particularly find this when reading in bed, or sometimes on a not quite flat surface which can trick the accelerometer into flipping the screen), so it is important the unit can be set to either automatically or manually switch from portrait mode (ie long side vertical) to landscape mode (ie long side horizontal) and back.

Part of a multi part Buyers Guide to iPad/tablet devices.  Please visit the other parts of this series - links at the top right.

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Originally published 30 Sep 2010, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
iPad and Tablet Buying Guide 1 - Basic Issues
2 - Screen Issues
3 - Operating System & Applications
4 - Battery Life and Extensions
5 - Audio & video - recording, storing and replaying
6 - GPS and other LBS type sensors
7 - Data Connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G
8 - Online and offline memory/storage, CPU
9 - Everything else
Bonus :  Excel Spreadsheet

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