The Difference Between the Car GPS & a Handheld GPS

By Milton Kazmeyer

Handheld GPS units offer different features than car units.
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GPS navigators come in many different styles. Automotive navigators are popular with commuters and others who spend a lot of time behind the wheel, providing turn-by-turn driving directions. Handheld GPS units are suited to people who love the outdoors, giving them the tools to avoid getting lost in the wilderness. Though both types of GPS units provide navigational data, there are some distinct differences between the two styles.

Included Maps

The chief difference between an automotive GPS and one designed for other purposes is the included maps. All GPS units use satellite data to plot their location on the globe, but they then compare that position to an internal map database to display relevant information to the user. Automotive GPS units come stocked with road maps, while handheld GPS devices may include topographical maps, which would be of more use to hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. While there may be some overlap between the maps of car and handheld GPS units, each is best suited for its own type of navigation.


Two other differences between automotive GPS and handheld units are the screen size and design. Car GPS units tend to use a square screen with similar dimensions to a television, typically wider than they are tall. Handheld units are closer in form factor to a cellular phone, with a taller, narrower screen. Handheld GPS units are also usually smaller than car GPS devices; this helps reduce the weight and allows you to store the device in your pocket. Handheld GPS units tend to be more rugged than automotive units to help the unit stand up against the conditions they might encounter with extended outdoor use.

Car GPS Extras

Another area where the two types of GPS devices differ is in the additional features. Car GPS units, for instance, may include an FM receiver for downloading uploaded traffic data and giving local gas prices. A cellular modem can allow you the most up-to-date information and the ability to search the Web for addresses on the fly. Modern automotive GPS units sometimes include voice controls to prevent driver distraction.

Handheld GPS Extras

Since handheld GPS units often find the most use away from established routes, these devices often include the ability to set markers and map details on the fly. This allows users to plot a route between two points without street addresses and establish a path between two points that follows the contours of the land. Also, a backpacker might use the system to set a marker for his campsite, ensuring that no matter where he might roam on a day trip, he can always find his way back to shelter and supplies.