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GPS Vs. Paper Maps


A few days ago we talked about an article comparing how fast someone could navigate between two points; one person with a GPS and another person with an atlas. (Nuvi vs Atlas) Today, I saw another article comparing paper maps with GPS maps. The article suggests that paper maps are more accurate than GPS maps.

One reason paper maps remain in high demand is their capability to provide a higher level of accuracy than GPS devices. “When you grab quick directions from the Web, they give the illusion of coming from real time, but often they are not,” [Marc] Jennings [Marc Jennings, president of paper mapmaker Langenscheidt Publishing Group] said in a statement. “We work with government agencies that are actually building roads and providing licenses for new buildings or changes in buildings and streets.”

I’ve never been one to rave about the quality of GPS maps, in fact one of our most popular articles is about outdated GPS maps and the long process between road changes and updates in a GPS device. However the argument that paper maps are more accurate than a GPS doesn’t seem to be a very good argument.

I did a little experiment today. Granted the sample size was very small, but it was interesting nonetheless. I went out to my car and found all of the paper maps and atlases I had. The most recent one was dated five years ago. Most were dated about eight years ago. One was (gulp) dated twelve years ago! How accurate could those maps be? Sure enough I quickly identified several roads on those maps where the name had changed, new roads built, and in some cases old roads demolished. I checked the cars of several acquaintances… none of them had paper maps newer than three years old.

A paper map will never update itself. You need to buy a new map when they are published. Granted, you also need to update the maps in a GPS receiver, and those maps are not cheap, but they can be updated.

Marc Jenning’s argument that online maps and GPS maps “give the illusion of coming from real time” doesn’t make the paper map I purchased five years ago any more accurate. It will never get more accurate.

Marc also mentions working with government agencies who are building the roads to get new information. The digital map providers such as NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas do the same thing so I’m not sure how this makes paper maps better.

Paper maps do have their place in auto navigation. The battery in your GPS can die or the GPS itself could malfunction. It is always handy to have a navigation strategy that includes a backup to GPS whenever possible.

Also, there are companies who are introducing technologies that could make map updates a thing of the past. A company called Dash Navigation is starting to build GPS devices which offer two way connectivity. This enables the GPS device to receive updatesa automatically. With such a technology in place the user could always have the most up-to-date maps available automatically loaded into their GPS.

So paper maps have their place, and they likely always will. That is a good thing since unless you spill coffee on the map it probably won’t malfunction. But I think online maps and GPS maps have the upper hand when it comes to providing updates and long-term accuracy.

4 Responses

  1. I just purchased a GPS based on Navteq maps and found about 8% of the roads aren’t even in the map database. However, a 3 year old map(spiral bound) that I have been using daily lists these… why? I am a courier and have noted major flaws in mapping and routing to both the GPS manufacturers and map providers. I use my GPS 12 to 15 hours a day and have come to the conclusion after 3 months that most GPS devices can get you to within 1/2 mile of your location 90% – 95%…but it’s up to me to locate the exact address. It seems as if a street has 20 known address on it and the street is 1 mile long the algorithms can’t take into account parcel data. So, you may have 19 houses on 10% of the road and someone else owning a large tract which screws up everything. Metropolitan navigation is simple but try navigating 10 – 12 hours a day on county roads and back roads and trailer parks and in truth the GPS is more of a hinderance then anything.

    victor - December 12th, 2007
  2. I don’t want to defend paper maps or start a silly paper maps vs. electronic maps argument; however I think it’s an important question what is more accurate, electronic or paper maps? I think the above article misses one important point: sure, paper maps once bought never update themselves. BUT the publisher will often publish a newer, updated version that you can buy, for just a few dollars. Regarding electronic maps, there are also updates but they are not so frequent as the paper map updates in my experience (however I must say that I have used only a few GPS devices so far). In my personal experience, good paper maps are far, far better than any electronic map I have ever used. By better I mean: the paper map had more roads, more details, and hogher resolution. It would be wonderful if the electronic maps in GPS handhelds had the same quality as the best paper maps, but definitely they don’t. Also the GPD makers have little incentive to update their maps; they will update from device generation to devicee gen, but not within generations. The paper map makers constantly update. I think paper maps are the clear winner regarding detail, accuracy and resoultion – although I would prefer it if electronic maps were at least on par.

    gojira - April 28th, 2008
  3. paper maps are getting fewer and fewer as the years go by. i rather prefer paper maps myself, because in the year 2060, GPS will crash and paper maps will be in high demand (if paper maps will not be around anymore). those who have a good supply of maps, if it that gets tossed, would highly regret it and as a paper map collector myself, if someone wants my maps, then i’m going to say “too bad! you should have though about inventing a GPS before it crashed.” and it will crash in this economy.

    Gary - July 1st, 2009
  4. For now, I will stick with paper maps. For the money GPS are not accurate and the updates will cost you.
    GPS technology is still new and is constantly changing. Companies are looking for profit first and will charge consumers though the nose for the latest gadget.
    If the GPS loses power or crashes you will have to refer to the good old paper map. I feel for the money this should not happen. So far, GPS just does not offer the detail, accuracy and resolution as the paper map does.

    D - September 3rd, 2011

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