Smartphones and their nifty apps have permeated nearly every aspect of society. You can use them to do everything from buying groceries to monitoring your baby's naps. So it was just a matter of time before GPS companies made their golf-course yardage-measuring software compatible with smartphones. Sonocaddie and GolfLogix have available downloads ( see new choices below ), and other companies will soon offer versions.
"The iPhone's popularity sure caught everybody off guard, and it's causing everyone to scramble," says SkyGolf CEO Richard Edmonson.
Unlike traditional stand-alone GPS devices, which cost $150 to $400 and have been on the market since 1999, a smartphone GPS app is cheaper (free to $40) and more convenient if you own an iPhone, Droid, BlackBerry, etc. But Golf Digest testing revealed there is a trade-off in performance, which is why many companies have continued to improve their stand-alone devices.
For instance, the precision of any golf GPS device depends on its hardware (the antenna and receiver that can quickly read signals from satellites) and the quality of the maps loaded onto the device. The hardware in a smartphone isn't as powerful as that in the top hand-held GPS units, so apps aren't as precise in yardage measurements. Sonocaddie, for example, uploads the same maps to its stand-alone devices as it does to its apps, and the stand-alones are routinely more accurate.
Sometimes the maps are questionable. GPS companies that make hand-held devices generally use high-quality, proprietary satellite imagery to ensure their maps are as accurate as possible. SkyGolf takes this a step further: It has a team of mappers who chart all course yardages by foot. But many of the maps used in smartphone apps are created by public satellite images found on the Internet, and those photos aren't always up to date. For example, the new Yankee Stadium, site of World Series games last fall, isn't even under construction in the satellite photo Google Maps posted in April. Imagine how long it takes to reflect changes at a local muny on the outskirts of Omaha.
PHONE APPS ARE FORCING GPS HAND-HELDS TO OFFER MORE CREATIVE FEATURES.
Although battery life in a hand-held device can last for more than three rounds before needing a recharge, no smartphone tested by Golf Digest lasted for an entire round. The phone often goes into "sleep mode" between shotsforcing you to turn it back on and wait a few seconds before it's ready againand some phone manufacturers even suggest shutting off all other cell-phone functions to conserve power. Another annoyance is that smartphone screens are hard to read in direct sunlight.
Even with these shortcomings, apps are forcing GPS devices to offer more creative features or they'll become the VCRs in a Blu-ray age.
"An app is like the camera on your iPhone," says Edmonson. "It's great for spontaneous situations, but would you use it to take photos of a special event? The iPhones are plenty powerful for 99 percent of their uses, but they're not designed to offer the precision that golf requires.