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On-Board VS Cloud Maps for Apps

Nov
17
2009

With the recent surge in smartphone based navigation systems many people have been asking about the hidden differences between having maps stored on the device, versus the maps coming from “the cloud”. Each method has advantages and disadvantages and a few qualities you think would be a large disadvantage don’t happen as often as you would expect.

File Size

The most obvious difference is that of file size. The TeleNav app on the iPhone takes up 2.4 MB of space and the MotionX GPS Drive application takes up about 9.6 MB of space. These two “off board” apps are a drop in the bucket compared to the typical 16 or 32 GB iPhone. This allows for fast download times for installation and backups and gets you up and running very quickly. They also fit under the 10 MB limit where the App Store will force you to download the app over wifi or from iTunes rather than over the cellular connection.

Applications which store the maps within the memory of the device tend to swell up into behemoth sized applications. The TomTom App is 1.1 GB while the Magellan RoadMate App weighs in at 1.4 GB. So you can’t download these apps over the cellular network, they increase the amount of time your phone will often take to sync or make backups, and cut into the amount of memory available for other rich media like movies, music, and photos.

Refresh Rate

This might not be an inherent flaw in apps which get their data over the network, but all of the apps I’ve used that store their maps in the cloud have slower refresh/update rates when showing your position on the map. In reality, this has very little if any impact on getting you to your destination, but it does have some aesthetic appeal. On the other hand most all of the apps I’ve used that store the maps locally have much faster refresh rates, less jerky movement, and the information on the screen just flows better.

(Re)Routing Speed

We all miss turns occasionally, even with navigation systems. Devices with maps “in the cloud” need to recognize you have left the route, send your current position and destination, then wait for the server to process a new route and send it back to the device. So there are network operations here that can slow things down. In practice this happens pretty fast, but rerouting speed can be important.

When you have all of the maps locally on your GPS you don’t need to wait for the network cycle… the device does the calculations on its own. While this still takes a few seconds, applications with maps stored locally can generate the new route faster.

Network Availability

I don’t think I’m going to blow anyone’s mind when I say that all cellular providers have a few dead spots. You try to place a call and get the dreaded “No service” message. An app with maps stored locally doesn’t need to worry about this unfortunate location. Everything it needs to create and follow a route is stored directly on the phone without needing to “go fetch” data.

Apps with maps in the cloud don’t have this luxury– they need the network to generate routes, lookup addresses, and download maps to the device. But honestly, I don’t see this as big of a deal as many people make it out to be. If you don’t start your route in an area with coverage, chances are you don’t have to go very far to get coverage. And when the phone does get coverage it will download maps and data far ahead on your route so that it can almost seamlessly operate through dropped connections without the driver knowing they are not in a coverage area. The TeleNav app is particularly good at this and I’ve driven for a dozen or so miles outside of any network coverage without the app missing a beat. Now if I had missed a turn and the device needed to recalculate a route outside of the network coverage– now you will have an issue. But the TeleNav app in particular is very, very good about dealing with loss of network and doesn’t often let you down.

Data Usage

Most smartphones come with beefy data packages, if not unlimited. Applications that store maps locally don’t need to use any network data for typical uses, although it might for things like traffic. But if you are using an application that downloads all of its data over the air, watch out for data usage. In my experience, applications that are downloading maps can chew through about 1 MB per hour or usage.

International Travel

Heading out of the country? With the exorbitant data costs typically charged when traveling internationally, forget about the cloud-based apps. Apps with on-board maps don’t need to download maps and are much more friendly for your data bill.

Map Updates, Cost

Many GPS companies are now offering maps on a quarterly basis. You can view our page on GPS Map Update Costs to get an idea of how much updated maps will cost over time. This applies to devices that store a static copy of the maps locally, and while most of the navigation apps haven’t yet offered subscription pricing for updates, it is like to happen with similar costs to the dedicated GPS devices.

The apps which download data over the network don’t come with fixed prices for map updates. The map update costs are built into the service fee for the application. So while there isn’t a separate charge for map updates, you are essentially paying for them within the application service charge. But it will perhaps feel like you are getting free map updates, and you don’t have to go through the hassle of reinstalling the app with a new map or purchasing a map update– it all happens automatically.

The Final Fix

So which way should you go? Honestly, the differences are not huge. I feel more secure having maps installed directly on the device and enjoy being able to use those apps without any data usage…. especially during international travel. Sync and backup times can be an issue as well. Maps stored in the cloud make for a lighter application, and while they are subject to issues without network connectivity the well designed apps like TeleNav can handle it with few bumps in the road.

5 Responses


  1. “I don’t think I’m going to blow anyone’s mind when I say that all cellular providers have a few dead spots. You try to place a call and get the dreaded “No service” message. An app with maps stored locally doesn’t need to worry about this unfortunate location. Everything it needs to create and follow a route is stored directly on the phone without needing to “go fetch” data.”

    That’s true, but with most phones really needing “assisted” GPS, which involves talking to a cell tower, once you are out of the service area you might as well toss the device out of the window. When the phones start using quality GPS chips and antennas (not something the phone company is likely to promote) maps on the device will have the advantage.

    Pat - November 17th, 2009
    • I have yet to see that happen in my experience. While cell towers are used to assist with the initial signal acquisition, the GPS chip itself will do a good job of holding that signal. I have never experienced the GPS chip not being able find its position as a result of going outside of a coverage area.

      Tim - November 17th, 2009
      • Try a Nokia 5800. There are many remarks about it in the Nokia forums and gpspassion forums. At best you hook up with 2-3 sats and that takes forever. I didn’t buy it for that, but would like to be able to use it in pedestrian mode while traveling.

        Pat - November 17th, 2009
      • I should mention that I completely turn off aGPS as I do not have a data plan. That requires an initial lock with the internal GPS to the sats.

        Pat - November 17th, 2009
  2. Tim, the refresh thing definitely isn’t caused by cloud maps – Google Maps Navigation on the Droid is extremely smooth.

    Ryan - November 20th, 2009



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