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No GPS in the iPad Mini Wi-Fi: People are right to criticise

Characteristically evil move by Cupertino

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Comment Wi-Fi-only iPads have never featured GPS, but the lack of satellite-navigation tech in the new Mini fondleslab's non-cellular version has provoked a mild backlash: and rightly so, though not many people understand why.

The new gizmos do have a "digital compass", a magnetometer which is aware of the direction the slab is being pointed but not it's location. The device guesses where it is by sniffing for nearby WiFi base stations and checking their position against Apple's database of unique device IDs.

It's not at all accurate - the database has only a sketchy notion where the base stations are, and the slab has very little idea where it is in relation to them. If there aren't any Wi-Fi boxes about, it won't work at all. But because Wi-Fi signals are short-ranging, the uncertainties aren't too large and it'll do for working out the route from the Starbucks to the beret shop.

If like most people you only ever use "free" online mapping services such as Google Maps or Apple Maps, there's not much point in a Wi-Fi-only iPad having GPS. It would know where it was thanks to the generosity of the US Defense Department* even if it didn't have a Wi-Fi signal, but it couldn't pinpoint itself on an online mapping service because it couldn't get online.

It would of course be a simple matter - and require only a few gigs of storage - to put a nation's worth of maps on the device, as proper satnavs and navigation apps do, but neither Google nor Apple like you being able to operate without a data connection constantly telling them where you are. Advertisers and other people are very interested in this kind of information and will pay big money for it: this is how you pay for "free" online maps.

Apple does reluctantly fit GPS in its devices which have cellular data connections, as cell-tower signals are long ranging and thus are likely not to offer any position information of any use - and people would notice if they could get an online map but not locate themselves on it.

Rival slablets such as the Nexus 7 and the Galaxy Tab 2 feature the nowadays trivially-cheap-to-install GPS chipset by default, even in Wi-Fi only models, meaning that you always have the option to get on-device maps and avoid being tracked everywhere you go (and incidentally to avoid using up bandwidth allowances unnecessarily; and to navigate effectively in places where there is no data signal of any kind or only a poor one).

Not very many people will care enough to do that - but Apple, characteristically, has made sure that it isn't even an option where the company sees a chance to do so. This isn't just mildly evil: it also shows that the firm has an insultingly poor opinion of its customers' tech savvy. ®

Bootnotes

*Who pay for and run the GPS satellite constellation, mainly for their own purposes. Experience has shown that it may be necessary at this stage to point out that the GPS signal is one-way only from satellite to receiver: the Pentagon can't track you using the satellites, though tracker bugs - which send their information to their masters using other means - often locate themselves using GPS.

On the matter of power consumption, GPS is something of a battery hog - but not an exceptional one in these days of large video displays, 4G data connections etc.

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