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Passive vs. Active GPS Tracking: What’s the Difference, and Which One is Right for You?

When it comes to distinguishing passive GPS tracking from active GPS tracking, one isn’t inherently better than the other—it’s only a matter of which is a better fit for your business’s needs. The main difference between passive and active trackers boils down to one factor: time. Specifically, the amount of time that passes between location updates. So, let’s dive into these two types of GPS tracking, their benefits, and common uses for each.

What is Active GPS Tracking?

According to Big Data Analytics for Cloud, IoT and Cognitive Computing by Min Chen and Kai Hwang, active GPS tracking devices don’t merely record data; they also send it to the viewing mechanism—typically, a software application that displays the tracking unit’s location—at a high frequency. Generally speaking, a “high” frequency means data transmission occurs at least once per hour.

As Chen and Hwang explain, “Automatic incremental updating provides a continuous source of tracking throughout a recording period.” This means the person viewing the tracker’s location information can see the device’s position in close-to real time. Some devices update several times per minute, which means the user sees locations in even closer to real time.

For a GPS device to be capable of active tracking, it must have constant access to some type of network that allows for data transmission—like a cellular data network or a wireless internet connection. In some cases, devices store data when they are outside of network range and then transmit it once they are able to connect again.

Who Should Use Active GPS Tracking?

Active GPS tracking is the best option for individuals or businesses wishing to have a real-time view of their mobile assets or vehicles. For example, if you’re managing a fleet of delivery trucks and you’d like to provide customers with arrival estimates, active tracking allows you to view driver locations and let those customers know how far away their deliveries are. Or perhaps you own a construction business that frequently moves equipment between job sites. An active GPS tracking system can show you exactly where every item is at any given moment, so you can quickly retrieve the equipment you need.

One thing to keep in mind is that the more bells and whistles a GPS tracker offers—including fast and frequent updates—the more expensive it will likely be. Furthermore, most real-time tracking devices require some type of software subscription to view location information, customize tracker details and alerts, and access past location reports. And finally, active GPS tracking uses more battery power, so if the tracking device is not connected to a power source, you’ll need to charge the device on a regular basis.

What is Passive GPS Tracking?

With passive GPS tracking, the tracking device “is just a receiver, not a transmitter.” Passive GPS trackers are primarily used to log data that the user can download and view later. So, the person receiving the location data is not viewing it in real time. Instead, they are seeing a historical record of the device’s location and movement. This record may cover several hours or days. There are many benefits to this type of tracking, one of which is the relatively long battery life you can achieve with a device that does not regularly transmit data.

Who Should Use Passive GPS Tracking?

According to Chen and Hwang, “When real-time data is not required, passive GPS tracking devices tend to be favored...for their compact convenience and affordability.” A true passive GPS solution is most useful for business owners and managers who are mainly interested in monitoring past activity. For example, perhaps you only need to confirm that your crew members visited the locations or jobs they were assigned to. In this case, a passive solution may be the best fit.

What is Hybrid GPS Tracking?

Many passive solutions have evolved to incorporate some active tracking capabilities. While these solutions are often still referred to as “passive,” they do transmit data—albeit at a low frequency. Some trackers may even function passively most of the time but automatically switch to active tracking when certain triggers occur—for example, when the tracker exits a designated boundary. This can be especially useful in theft recovery scenarios. Similarly, a device may track actively when it is connected to a reliable network and passively when it is unable to update at the regular frequency.

All of this helps conserve battery life, which makes hybrid tracking another good option for businesses that are unable to charge or change out their tracking devices frequently and consistently.

Who Should Use Hybrid GPS Tracking?

Hybrid GPS tracking is ideal for business owners and managers who want to make sure valuable assets stay in their designated locations on a long term basis. For example, if you’re storing expensive tools and equipment in a secure area, you may want the additional peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll receive an alert if an item moves outside of that location. Or perhaps your construction company has large equipment or trailers that stay on job sites for long periods of time. A hybrid GPS tracking solution can help you retrieve any items that go missing—something that is of particular concern to those who work in high-risk areas.

How do I decide which type of GPS tracking is best for my business?

Sometimes it helps to have a visual comparison of features and benefits, so here’s a simple chart to help you weigh your options. Keep in mind that availability of features may vary depending on which platform or solution you use.


Feature or Benefit

Active GPS

Passive GPS

Hybrid GPS

Provides real-time view of tracker location





Uses software to display location data





Stores historical location record





Sends trigger-based alerts





Requires direct power source or frequent battery charging





Changes transmission frequency based on user settings or network availability








Whether you’re leaning toward an active GPS tracking solution or a passive one, an experienced GPS tracking expert can help ensure you make the right decision for your specific needs. Visit the Spytec GPS contact page to get in touch with one of our knowledgeable representatives today.

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