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Why Use An External Bluetooth GPS Receiver With An Android Phone?

Google’s specification for an “official” Android unit, that allow it to use Google’s logo and have access to the Android Market, includes a requirement for a built-in GPS receiver. That’s why the new line of Archos Android tablets need their own app marketplace – they don’t come with GPS receivers. So if Android phones come with GPS, why bother with an external Bluetooth GPS receiver, especially when it will cost you extra? Here are a few good reasons:

1. External Bluetooth GPS sidesteps the Motorola “GPS In Airplane Mode” problem.

Posted about this yesterday; basically, some Motorola Android phones have a bug where GPS won’t work if you turn Airplane Mode on. Bluetooth GPS doesn’t have any problems – works perfectly in Airplane Mode.

2. External Bluetooth GPS offers a second position data source, letting you run multiple GPS apps simultaneously.

I’ve noticed that if you have one app getting position data from the GPS, and then start up another app that also looks for GPS data, they don’t always play well together – the second app can take over the GPS data stream completely. If one app supports Bluetooth GPS natively, then you can track position with that, and also run a second app that uses the unit’s internal GPS.

3. External Bluetooth GPS can give you slightly more accurate positions.

I have yet to find a single Android unit that has a GPS chipset that supports WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation Service). WAAS is a satellite signal that broadcasts real-time correction data for several sources of GPS position error, including satellite time/position errors and signal transmission errors in the ionosphere. Not terribly important while the sun is quiet, as it is now, but as the sun moves into a more active phase over the next few years, WAAS can improve the position accuracy by a few meters. Most external Bluetooth GPS receivers come with WAAS turned on as the default.

External GPS units can also come with larger antennas, and have room for bigger (and better) GPS chipsets, allowing for more accurate position determination. And because they’re not tied to your phone, you can place them in a location where they might get better satellite reception, e.g. the top of your backpack, the dashboard of your car, even under your hat. I hope to have a post in the near future comparing the accuracy of my Droid X’s built-in GPS unit, an external Bluetooth GPS receiver, and a high-quality handheld dedicated GPS unit (Garmin 60Cx).

4. Using an external Bluetooth GPS position instead of the built-in GPS can extend the battery life of your Android unit.

In a previous post, I looked at the battery drain from GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi, and cellular. The built-in GPS had the biggest power requirements by far; in comparison, turning Bluetooth on had virtually no effect on battery life. I just ran some additional comparison tests on battery life for the Droid X using internal GPS with Bluetooth off  vs. external Bluetooth GPS. The unit was in Airplane mode in both cases, to eliminate cellular/WiFi power drain. I used the TrekBuddy map app, which lets you choose between the internal GPS and an external Bluetooth GPS as the GPS position source. Approximate battery life is given in hours, based on the time to drop from 100% battery to 60% battery. For one set of tests, the display was turned off; for the second, the display was left on continuously at 50% brightness.

Display off Display on (50% brightness)
Bluetooth GPS 20.2 hrs 9.1 hrs
Internal GPS 11.0 hrs 5.7 hrs

Results are pretty dramatic – switching from the internal GPS to an external Bluetooth GPS cuts almost doubles battery life when the display is off. Even with the display on, the battery life with the external Bluetooth GPS is actually comparable to some stand-alone GPS units. For example, battery life for the Magellan Triton or deLorme PN-40 units with two AA batteries is often a bit less than 10 hours under normal use. If you remember to turn off the display when you don’t need it, you could easily get 15+ hours of continuous use by switching over to an external Bluetooth GPS.

5. An external Bluetooth GPS is cheaper than a spare battery.

External Bluetooth GPS units aren’t free, but they don’t have to be terribly expensive. Basic models like my Holux M-1000 (which works great with my Droid X), or the Globalsat BT-359 run less than $45, which is the cost of a standard OEM spare battery for my Droid X. My Holux will run for 16 hours on a charge, which is just about the same time you can run the Android phone before it needs recharging as well.

Some Android GPS apps like TrekBuddy already come with built-in native Bluetooth GPS support, which doesn’t require any additional apps or settings. Other apps, like Topo Maps, don’t have native Bluetooth support,  but there are “helper” service apps, free and paid,  that will let those apps use positions from an external Bluetooth GPS as well. I’ll be reviewing some of those in upcoming posts.

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13 Responses to “Why Use An External Bluetooth GPS Receiver With An Android Phone?”

  1. 1 Albert

    Found your website very useful but I still have a problem using an external bluetooth receiver with my Motorola Droid (original Droid). When I put my phone in “airplane mode” when I’m out of the country or in an area with no cell reception, it also turns off my bluetooth. Therefore I can’t even connect to my Globalsat BT-359. Is there a way to leave the bluetooth on in “airplane mode”?

  2. 2 leszekp

    Yes, that is a problem. There is a workaround available for some Android phones, but it’s a nuisance to use, and I don’t know if it will work on your Droid (does work on my Droid X):

  3. 3 Trevor432990

    I agree with you about the advantages of using an external GPS receiver myself on my Advent Vega tablet but recent Android software changes (by Google I presume) mean that Navigator no longer works with my receiver. I can use it for Google Maps to pinpoint my location but when I launch Navigator from within Maps or by using the Car Home app it just keeps displaying a pop-up saying ‘GPS is Disabled’ and referring me to Location & Security settings where a new ‘My Location’ setting labeled ‘Use GPS Satellites’ has appeared but is greyed out so I can’t change it !!

    Have you come across this yourself yet and have you any advice on what I can do to get around it because the BT GPS Provider app I use is still working fine and passing satellite data to my Advent Vega but it’s just this blessed pop-up stopping Navigator from working grrrrrrr 🙁

  4. 4 leszekp

    Only have a Droid X with GPS, so this issue doesn’t pop up for me. But I was aware of it; in subsequent posts, I do say that you shouldn’t turn off the GPS on your phone, as some apps (like Google and Bing Maps) won’t work with it disabled, even if you have a Bluetooth GPS receiver hooked up. That’s one of the main reasons I won’t buy a tablet that doesn’t have a built-in GPS receiver.

    The only thing I might suggest is, if the tablet is rootable, installing an alternate ROM if it’s available – the new ROM might not have these issues. Otherwise, you’re pretty much stuck with the limitations, unless/until Google modifies the app or OS again.

  5. 5 Trevor432990

    Thanks for your reply I do have an old ROM I can go back to which I know works but would rather make sure the new one gets fixed if possible and I wasn’t sure if Google are trying to lock this down now so there was no possibility in future. Will wait and see if it sorts itself out in a few months then revert if not.

  6. 6 Trevor432990

    There is a solution to the ‘GPS is Disabled’ message for external GPS Receivers and I have logged it in the Modaco thread located here

    Hope it works for you too 😉

  7. 7 Tapani

    I installed to my ZTE Blade and it works fine with Holux 1000. I tried to istall it to my Creative ZiiO tablet but as it does not have a built in phone I was not able to do it. Is there any way to do the installation?

  8. 8 leszekp

    You can try to find someone with the .apk file, and sideload it. But some tablets that don’t come with GPS installed have the setting for “mock locations” disabled, which makes it impossible to use many of these Bluetooth GPS applications.

  9. 9 Chris C

    I am using an external gps for my Navigation on my X10 mini android. Even when the external GPS is connected when i run Navigation software it asks tells me GPS IS DISABLED, SHOW LOCATION SETTINGS? and only option is to turn on the internal GPS.

    2 questions: can i run Navigation without turning this on when prompted and when I travel abroad can I run this software with my external GPS without incurring expensive roaming data charges?

  10. 10 leszekp

    Some apps, like Google Maps and Navigation, require that GPS be enabled, but should use the Bluetooth GPS signal if it’s on, and not turn on the internal GPS.

    For the second question: if the app automatically downloads data over the network, there’s the possibility that you will incur roaming charges. On most Android phones, though, you can turn off the cell network (“airplane mode”), and still use the GPS. Some apps, like OruxMaps, let you cache map data so that it’s available even when you’re not hooked up to a data network. Other apps, like CoPilot, download all the navigation data ahead of time.

  11. 11 dean

    Sweet info! Thx for sharing!

  12. 12 Harold L Hadaller

    My new 4.1 10″ android tablet does not have a built-in GPS. No Bluetooth either and will not support Bluetooth dongle. A USB mouse does function OK. Can I buy a GPS dongle with software that will work in my tablet? Thank you.

  13. 13 leszekp

    No direct experience with that, but I doubt it. Have not heard of any Android apps that will intercept USB-connected GPS receiver signals and re-route them to apps. I suspect that even if you had Bluetooth connectivity, the system software might have disabled all GPS functionality because you don’t have a GPS, so that it wouldn’t work anyway.

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