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How does GPS work on my phone?


Before Space Force, there was NAVSTAR.

One of the best features of any great smartphone is the way it can determine where you are while you’re there. This has some downsides — horrible location-based ads or tracking your movements come to mind — but being able to see where you are, where you need to be, and exactly how to get there is awesome. Your smartphone has replaced your TomTom. Thank goodness.

All this magic happens the same way on every phone from every company making them, regardless of the operating system. Several components work together to pinpoint you (often with amazing accuracy), and the software can intelligently pick the best way to make it happen. If you need very precise location information for something like navigation, GPS is usually called up to do the job. What follows is a short explainer of just how GPS works on your smartphone.

What is GPS?


GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It’s a technology developed by the U.S. Navy and currently owned (yes, owned) by the U.S. government and overseen by its Air Force. It’s free for everyone to use and primarily a North American utility even though GPS is commonly a regional name for the same sort of system in other locales.

GPS is a radio navigation system. It uses radio waves between satellites and a receiver inside your phone to provide location and time information to any software that needs to use it. You don’t have to send any actual data back into space for GPS to work; you only need to be able to receive data from four or more of the 28 satellites in orbit that are dedicated for geolocation use.

GPS is precise, but it’s slow and uses a lot of power on both ends.

Each satellite has its own internal atomic clock and sends a time-coded signal on a specific frequency. Your receiver chip determines which satellites are visible and unobstructed (that’s important, and you’ll read why in a bit) then starts gathering data from the satellites with the strongest signals. GPS data is slow, and this is by design — satellites run on rechargeable batteries, and sending a fast signal hundreds of thousands of miles would require more power — so it’ll take up to a minute to get your geolocation.

Your phone’s GPS receiver uses the data from these signals to triangulate where you are and what time it is. Notice the word triangulation and the mention above that four satellites are required for GPS to work. The fourth signal is used to determine altitude so you can get your geolocation data on a map with only three signals.

GPS receivers use a lot of power and require an unobstructed view of multiple satellites to work. Obstructions can include tall buildings, and that means the places where most of us live can (and does) have trouble getting the data it needs all of the time. That’s where AGPS comes into the picture.

What is AGPS?


For starters, you probably use AGPS — Assisted Global Positioning System — when you want your location from your phone. As mentioned, GPS radios use a lot of power, and unless they stay in constant use, it can take up to a minute each and every time you get new data. Since you usually want your location while on the move, that can be a burden.

The “A” in AGPS stands for assisted; your cell connection helps GPS find you.

AGPS adds cellular location data to assist geolocation. Your phone carrier knows where you are since your phone “pings” cell towers. How precise this is will depend on the strength of the signal between your phone and the tower, but it’s usually good enough to be used for location data.

Software on your phone feeds this raw cellular location data to the GPS receiver, which will periodically switch between GPS data and cellular location to get a very close approximation (within 50 meters or so) in real-time. In other words, GPS can use data collected by your phone from the cell site it is connected to in order to work faster and more accurately.

AGPS does send data out of your phone, but its data that was already being sent when it checks for cell towers in range. You’re not charged for this, but you will need an active data plan to use AGPS.

Which is better?


That’s an easy question: Neither, because you’ll want to use both.

AGPS is required for best performance, using battery life and speed as metrics. We want our phone to know where we are in real-time, not to use a lot of battery power to do it and to be able to refresh whenever the software needs it without waiting too long for a good GPS lock. AGPS location isn’t as precise as a true GPS location will be, but it’s a good start, and the micro-adjustments that can be made with true GPS data when it refreshes makes up for most discrepancies.

As mentioned, AGPS needs a cellular connection. That means there are cases where GPS is preferred. Any time you have no data connection, you’ll be unable to use cellular-assisted GPS. The same goes when you don’t have a good enough connection to any cell towers in range of your phone. Most apps that require location also require a data connection, but some, like Geocaching apps, live on your phone’s storage and will work while you’re off the beaten path looking for hidden treasure.

If you have a need to share your location, you’ll want to enable everything you can. Just remember, you can turn it all back off when you no longer need it.

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Tronsmart makes some great smartphone accessories and audio devices. The company has gained more and more users as a budget alternative to the big brands over the last few years. Tronsmart’s latest offering is the Q10 wireless headphones.While we have yet to fully review these new active noise-canceling headphones, Tronsmart wants to share with our readers that the Q10 is currently deeply discounted for its big launch. (but stay tuned for more on that review in the next few weeks) Retail partner AliExpress has the Q10 headphones a whopping 53% off if you act quickly.This $52.99 cutback is good for the next two days. From January 25 thru the 27th, you can snag these over-ear headphones for more than half the price. This is a pretty great deal for headphones that pack a pretty decent spec sheet.The Tronsmart Q10 will get you Bluetooth 5.0, touch controls, active noise-cancellation, and an estimated 100 hours of playtime. The headset also has Google Voice support and USB-C charging to round out the bullet points.So, what are you waiting for? Get over to AliExpress using this link: http://bit.ly/TSQ10JANae to enjoy this limited time offer from Tronsmart.

US Mobile Buyer’s Guide (January 2021)

Most consumers are familiar with the big-name wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T, but not nearly as many are as well-versed when it comes Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) like Consumer Cellular or FreedomPop.These MNVO brand operators license the towers and coverage from the tier-one providers and offer their own phones, rate plans, and customer service.Let’s take a look at one in particular: US MobileAboutUS Mobile is a small MVNO that utilizes T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network and Verizon’s 4G LTE network and is known for letting customers add talk, text and data on the fly, at any time.The carrier is not shy about its usage of T-Mobile, but it does appear to hide its Verizon component a bit. We’re not sure why.What are US Mobile rate plans like?US Mobile touts is affordable packages for subscribers who need wireless coverage but want some flexibility in the talk, text and time used each month.Customers can pick and choose plans, customizing as they see fit, or choose from a selection of “Unlimited” options. Don’t want or need data? That’s fine.The Unlimited Plans are as follows:$15/mo – Unlimited talk, text, and 2.5GB data$30/mo – Unlimited talk, text, and 10GB dataThe custom plans come with hotspot capabilities and 250MB of 4G LTE international roaming.A recent change to the plans sees US Mobile offering a $40 option which includes unlimited talk, text, and data. To be clear, it’s 50GB of high speed data with heavier users potentially seeing reduced speeds after hitting the threshold. Data speeds are considered “Fast” which means up to 5Mbps for video streaming.For $5 more per month subscribers can get 10GB of mobile hotspot capabilities. For $10 more per month customers can increase data speeds to “Ludicrous” up to 250Mbps, plus the hotspot feature.Family PlansUS Mobile customers can create multi-line accounts, each of which is basically the $40 plan. Things get cheaper per line as you add them to the mix.US Mobile phone selectionUS Mobile has a small selection of phones to choose from, many of which are a few years old. Moreover, they appear to be fairly expensive, too. We definitely recommend using your existing T-Mobile or Verizon phone if possible.Where can I buy an unlocked phone?Bring your own deviceUS Mobile tends to work better for people who already have a phone that they’d like to use. Whether it’s a T-Mobile or Verizon handset, or something else, you’ll probably have luck using it with US Mobile. According to the carrier, 99% of devices will work with its service.What else should I know about US Mobile?US Mobile operates entirely online and does not have any physical retail locations in the US.For every friend you refer to US Mobile, the carrier will give you both up to $10. They save up to $10 on their first plan and you get up to $10 off your next bill.You can easily add talk, text, and/or data Top Ups to your current plan to always stay connected. They roll over to next month when you use AutoPay, automatic bill payment.A US Mobile starter SIM kit can be purchased for $3.99, letting subscribers keep their existing phone number.

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