PNDs to face the fate of cassette players?

Sales of traditional GPS units from companies like TomTom, Garmin and Magellan (a unit of MiTAC International) have fallen sharply recently. During the first quarter, TomTom said it shipped 29 percent fewer GPS units compared with the period in 2008. Garmin said unit sales fell 13 percent in the first quarter compared with the previous year.

The stock prices of both companies have also plunged, with shares down more than 80 percent from their late 2007 peaks.

Meanwhile, shipments of smartphones in North America are expected to grow by 25 percent this year, with more than 80 percent of them equipped with GPS.

Many users still prefered the overall experience of dedicated GPS devices, which tap the Global Positioning System of satellites to determine locations and plot directions. GPS devices tend to render maps faster, because that data is typically stored on the unit rather than being refreshed through a mobile Web browser.

Smartphones, on the other hand, are susceptible to interruptions from incoming phone calls, and using the mapping features for a long time can chew through battery power. In addition, some smartphone GPS services require users to pay a monthly fee.

The list of the smartphone’s shortcomings is dwindling, however, as some of the latest navigation applications offer voice navigation and take advantage of the phone’s always-connected state to offer real-time traffic updates, directions to contacts in the phone’s address book and more.

Moreover, at $100 to $300 apiece after carrier subsidies, smartphones are competitively priced with GPS units, which average about $177, according to the research firm NPD Group.

Some tech-savvy smartphone owners find that the GPS capabilities of their phones are good enough for ordinary use.

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