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iPhone 6s Plus: can it work Like a Real GPS Unit?

There is GPS functionality in an iPhone, but I’ve had trouble with it in various ways:

  • I have not found a satisfactory app that makes the iPhone into a GPS unit, that is, something that replicates the best and useful functionality of a dedicated GPS device (my Garmin GPS was ruined by a leaky AA battery so I no longer have a dedicated GPS device). I want UTC coordinates, the ability to mark waypoints and head to them, sunset/sunrise and moonset/moonrise, etc. Not in a scattering of multiple apps ideally.
  • The apps I’ve tried with some GPS functionality pretty much suck for the basic functions above.
  • For GPS to work, iOS seems to insist that Airplane Mode be off (e.g. cell service must be enabled). But if cell service is enabled, then the battery drains rapidly looking for a signal it will never find! When I want to use GPS to navigate, the nearest cell tower is behind some mountain! But if cell service is disabled, then the iPhone refuses to use GPS.

Maybe there is a solution out there to these challenges.

Joshua S writes:

It is possible to use the iPhone GPS "without cellular" by setting a SIM Pin, rebooting the device and not entering the SIM Pin.

That enables the GPS, but with no cellular data.(And you don't have to use Airplane mode. The bad news is that you might need a 'reboot' to re-enable cellular so you can input your PIN again. Here's two articles to move you forward:

Understanding the IOS SIM PIN: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201529

As a heads-up: the 'Default AT&T SIM Pin is 1111' : https://www.att.com/esupport/article.jsp?sid=KB95665&cv=820

I don't know if that will keep it from killing the battery, but it was great when traveling overseas and trying to avoid data overage charges, and still geotag my photos with the onboard GPS.

MPG: Good to know. Some GPS apps seem to claim they can work in Airplane Mode. I bought Gaia GPS for its topo maps, and I’ll find out. It’s terribly confusing to be confronted with 100 or more GPS apps on the iTunes store; the App Store surely has room for a lot of improvement.

DB writes:

GPS & iOS — two possible solutions re: hardware & iOS… both involve a ‘dongle’ … I’ve used both and am reasonably happy with the results. Both can be used with an iPhone and in quasi-airplane mode, i.e. with Airplane mode but Bluetooth turned on.

Garmin GLO — most painless version is the Garmin GLO. Good battery life, can be charged by miniUSB. Bluetooth. No configuration needed. 12 hour battery life. User replaceable Lithium battery.

BadElf GPS products

I bought the ‘Pro’ (for much less than their list price… a little google searching will get a much more reasonable price than their list) but it mates quickly with iOS, can record for 36+ hours at 1Hz without bluetooth or 24+ hours with Bluetooth. MiniUSB chargeable. Sealed unit. Can do POI from the unit itself. Sunset/whatnot via iOS apps etc. Can display UTC, coordinates etc in whatever format you want on the display’s LCD panel. It does not display GFX though on the display, purely text. Reasonable iOS support app and export features. https://bad-elf.com/collections/bluetooth-gps

They also have a Lightning plugin version — with passthrough USB charging connection.
https://bad-elf.com/collections/plug-in-gps/products/be-gps-1008

Sunset/Sunrise Whatnot on iOSThe Photographer’s Ephemeris seems to work well for this: Author seems to be responsive to queries.

MPG: Eyesight in dim light precludes small GPS units any more (presbyopia with contact lenses at close range); this is why I went with the 6s Plus form factor—for larger type, etc. These products worth knowing, but I am loathe to carry another unit, even a small one, since my pack is stuffed to bursting usually, particularly in colder times of year (clothing).

I bought Gaia GPS last night for its topo maps for this weekend's trip to a remote lake. I think I can get there without any GPS (my preference), but my last attempt failed to find the lake, and it is an arduous hike, so I may take the “assist”.

My wilderness ethic is generally “no GPS” recording or reporting (explore and discover, not repeat what others have done). And I am strongly against posting GPS coordinates for images in wilderness areas and such.

Ron G writes:

iPhones able to run iOS 8.3 or later (i.e. iPhone 4S or newer) now keep their GPS functionality even in Airplane mode. See this detailed discussion of this and related topics for backpackers: https://www.adventurealan.com/iphone4gps.htm

And ONLY on the iPhone 4 should you recommend the clever tricks of PIN-locking or removing the SIM to avoid airplane mode. On the 4S and newer models the tricks increase battery usage a lot. For these newer phones simply turn on airplane mode while still using GPS.

That site also recommends the mapping app Galileo, and I agree. It uses vector maps, which are small enough to download states including the entire US for off-line use. They're free and based on OSM, and updated regularly. Galileo supports many other maps as well, cached as usual. For your other wants:
* GALILEO coordinates can be displayed in UTM (you wrote 'UTC' - intended?).
* GALILEO can mark waypoints and measure distance to them, but not automatically create a route to them. Waypoints can be entered by touchscreen or coordinates or transfer.
* this program offers no sunrise, moonrise or other ephemeris data, for which TPE (The Photographer's Ephemeris) is the definitive app.
https://galileo-app.com/manual.html

One topic the site doesn't discuss is GPS elevation data. It's the lowest-accuracy part of GPS and noisy - but use of an altimeter can improve this a lot. The iPhone 6 and newer have barometer hardware, which I think Galileo and some other GPS apps utilize, but it's hard to find confirmation of this seemingly arcane point.

I'm aware of Gaia GPS but haven't much used it.

Thanks for your useful site!

DIGLLOYD: Good info. Photographer’s Ephemeris would not work for me offline, so I consider it useless.

Gaia GPS mini review from the field: Gaia GPS is garbage for navigation; it orients neither the map nor the route arrow to north, which makes it extremely difficult to orient either the map or route (and it has no compass display!). An arrow next to the bearing does not orient either; it is a stupidly misleading static decoration. The only actionable thing Gaia GPS offers is a compass bearing, a number like 270°W. Get that number, then open Compass app and follow that bearing. Otherwise, Gaia GPS is pretty much a stupid map display; a paper map and a compass will serve far better. As for routing, Gaia GPS also will route right up vertical cliffs and over lakes, so it is totally brain dead as far as selecting a route.


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