Tablets vs. Smartphones: Which One is Better for GIS Technology?

Filed in GIS Learning by on August 14, 2011
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Believe it or not tablets first appeared on the technology scene over ten years ago. Still, despite their rich history, tablets have really only been making waves in the past few years. Both smartphones and tablets really only exploded onto the world scene in full force in 2010, and they seem to be in a prolonged race for dominance. Especially when it comes to GIS technology, tablets and smartphones currently seem to be neck and neck, both hurtling forward at top speed equally possessed with coming out on top.

Although we personally believe that smartphones, for a number of different reasons, have an edge over tablets for GIS technology, we don’t for a second think that tablets are going away, at least not any time soon. As a novel, new devices with a large amount of business applications, tablets are here to stay, at least for the present.

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 (Photos Courtesy of Flickr Users: Michael Kwan (Freelancer) and KhE 龙)

Tablets and smartphones alike are great for use with GIS technology. Especially, when it comes to using GIS apps and simply collecting data, both types of devices can work wonders. Still, when it really comes down to it, the smartphone is a much more versatile device than the tablet. Smartphones can do practically anything and fit practically anywhere. Even though not everyone has a smartphone quite yet, that may well change in the near future. Even most red-blooded tablet fanatics can’t actually go anywhere without their smartphones.

(Photo Courtesy of Flickr User: The Kitten’s Toe)

Smartphone sales have been predicted to continue to rise worldwide at a rate of about 50 percent every year. Even though smartphone sales still only account for about one fourth of all mobile phone sales worldwide, their numbers and popularity are increasing at a rate that is almost staggering.

On the downside, GIS data collection via smartphone is hindered by a few factors. The most prominent of these is the many different operating systems used by smartphones. Between iOS, Android, RIM, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and PalmOS, GIS software developers are having trouble supporting every version of every smartphone operating system. The lack of variety in desktop operating systems is one factor that has led to such a huge software boon in the desktop computing world.

Because GIS software developers can’t possibly support all the smartphone operating systems out there, they usually opt to support only the one or ones that are most likely to come out on top. Currently, they have chosen to offer the greatest amount of support to the Windows Mobile operating system. Unfortunately, Windows Mobile is only used by about ten percent of smartphone users.

On the other hand, the GPS functionality of smartphones is extremely convenient. As long as your smartphone is with you, you never again have to get lost. This GPS capability is great for GIS data collection, especially for citizen reporting functions that don’t require such a high degree of accuracy. For increased accuracy, smartphone users can simply hook up their phone to a more accurate GPS device using Bluetooth.

GIS technology, of course, works best when your smartphone or tablet has access to a fast mobile broadband connection. Slower mobile broadband speeds can create errors in the GIS data collection services and can even cause your GPS function to misfire. To best take advantage of GIS technology, make sure your smartphone has a speedy mobile broadband connection.

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  1. Thanks for raising the issue. My personal view is that “GIS Data” is a fuzzy concept. This is because GIS is based on the intersection between different technologies and applications.

    Actually there are very few mobile applications that really use GIS technologies/techniques and work with strictly GIS data. The most famous of these are (just off the top of my head) ESRI ArcPad, Trimble TerraSync and others. They run on old fashioned PDAs, and will inevitably migrate onto tablets. They *cannot* run on a smartphone.

    In general, however, GIS data collected from mobile devices, consist in GPS waypoints (or tracks) tagged with attributes and multimedia content. For this data any mobile device is good as long as it has a GPS , other means of acquiring information (camera, keyboard) and a wireless method of realtime data transmission.

    George Mu’ammar

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