What are “exact” and “approximate” locations on Android?

For a long time, granting an app permission to access your location meant only one thing: your exact location. Nowadays, Android gives you two options: “Precise” and “Approximately”. There is a huge difference between the two options.

Google followed in Apple’s footsteps with the introduction of “precise” and “approximate” location access in Android 12. Previously, you could limit an app to only use your location once or while using the app, but it still was Your exact location.

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Precise vs. approximate

The difference between “Precise” and “Approximate” is pretty self-explanatory. It is essentially the difference between giving someone your address and telling them the city you live in.

“Precise” location uses your phone’s sensors – mostly GPS – to determine your exact location. At best, it can find out exactly where you are to the meter. The “approximate” location uses WiFi and cellular data to locate you within 100 meters.

Technically, this has always been an option in Android, but it was a system-wide switch. That meant you had to sacrifice the functionality of apps that legitimately need your exact location in order to restrict all apps. Starting with Android 12, individual apps give you the choice.

Why is that important?

So what is so big about “Precise” and “Approximate” anyway? Stop and think about the apps that are using your location. Weather apps. Shopping apps. Social media apps. Navigation apps. How many of these need to know your exact location?

Sure, Google Maps needs to know your exact location so that you can get around, that makes sense. Does a weather app need to know your address to tell you the weather in your city? Not really. Does Instagram Do you need it to show you places nearby? Nope.

There are many situations in which a general location is as useful as an accurate address. That is the advantage of the “Approximately” location authorization. It allows you to say, “Yes, I live in this area, but that’s all you need to know.”

Will apps support this?

When it comes to new Android features, the question is always: Which apps will actually support them? Apps developed for Android 12 and above are required to support the feature, but of course, many apps were around long before Android 12.

Precise and Approximate are available for apps made for previous versions of Android, but there are some complications. To the example, I can set Instagram to “Approximate” location access, but when I try to use a location-based feature, it prompts me to enable “Precise”. I shouldn’t have to do this.

The same thing happens with a weather app that I use. It prompts me to turn on “Precise” location, but the app works fine when I select “Keep approximate location”. As with all new Android features, there will be a break-in period.

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