TomTom App, iPhone Road Test
Probably one of the most highly anticipated GPS releases of the year, we now know the answer to two of the hottest questions surrounding the TomTom iPhone app. 1) When? Now. 2) How much? $99. Now that those two questions are answered, is it any good? After a late night download fiasco (I guess technically it was AM) and some heavy duty driving through this morning here is what we’ve discovered.
While the user interface of a GPS rarely matters much beyond “is it easy to use?”, when you start working on the iPhone platform it somehow becomes a bigger deal. TomTom got it right with the user interface. They followed many iPhone conventions rather than building custom controls like many other apps do. The app “feels” like an iPhone app yet at the same time the interface and icons will be very familiar to TomTom users.
The TomTom app is huge– weighing in at 1.25 GB. While this isn’t uncommon for a typical navigation system it is larger than many iPhone users are used to. So be prepared for longer download and installation times when you purchase the app. And for the most part this is a good thing. All of the maps are “on-board” rather than being delivered “over the air”. This means when you are out in the boonies or otherwise don’t have a network connection you should have no fear– the maps are already on your device.
Typically not something to consider, but the app starts up very fast. A few of the other navigation apps out there like Navigon Mobile Navigator are horribly slow to launch. The TomTom app isn’t as fast as most other apps, but is much faster than most of the other navigation apps and starts within about 7 seconds total.
Picking a Destination
When building a route, you can enter addresses, save favorites, pick POIs, or tap somewhere on the map– all of the standard fare. You can also select an address from your contacts to navigate to. Unfortunately, this function was hit or miss for me. While I’m a pretty “geo-aware” kind of person and take care to properly format addresses in my Contacts list, the application had a hard time understanding several of them. It seemed to have trouble with any city or street name with multiple words or abbreviations. I can imagine that people who enter addresses a little more sloppily might have even more trouble than I did.
The POI database contains about six million entries, and most every location I looked up was found. This still begs the question though… why no internet based lookup of POIs through something like Google Local? Sure I can pull up the maps app, search for a location, save it to my contacts, then open up the iPhone app, select the contact, and build the route… but that is just more steps than I should have to take.
The POI search works just as well as, and has the same limitations as a typical TomTom PND. You can do cool things like search for POIs near your current location, near your destination, or along your route. And just like the TomTom PND devices you can’t break down restaurants by category. (Back to the Maps app you go for searches like that.)
Route planning functions available on most TomTom hardware also makes it to the iPhone. You can pick from fastest, shortest, avoid highways, walking routes, bicycle routes, and limited speed routes. Preferences are also available for toll roads, ferry crossings, HOV lanes, and unpaved roads. Other preferences include day/night modes and the ability to switch between a 3D and 2D map.
Also included is a super-fantastic feature called IQ Routes. Rather than relying in road classifications, or a portion of speed limits to derive ETAs and pick routes, this TomTom technology uses averages of the average time other drivers took driving on that same stretch of road, on the same day of week, and same 15 minute time increment of the day. And how well does it work?
TomTom IQ Routes is simply the best new GPS technology of the past 12 months. If you are looking for a reason to spend a few more bucks (as of today) on the TomTom app over the Navigon app– this is it. The routes picked are about as good as you can get and the ETAs are laser-accurate.
TomTom says the TomTom Car Kit is still “coming soon”. Pricing and availability are still unknown. However if the kit does what it is supposed to it will probably be worth it to purchase. Having a better speaker, better microphone for hands-free calls, having power going to the iPhone, and perhaps best of all having augmentation of the GPS signal performance will all help. Those are all weak areas of the iPhone in general that can only be overcome with that type of a hardware design.
While out navigating the app feels just like a 3.5″ TomTom PND. The map features are easy to read and understand. The next turn arrow stands out prominently. While an issue with the AT&T Navigator (TeleNav) app, the map refresh rate is fast and smooth– though not quite as good as a PND. Navigation, and the entire app itself, work in both portrait and landscape views. You simply rotate the phone and the display changes accordingly. The screen adjust quickly– quicker than the Navigon app.
While the TomTom app looks as it should, it didn’t sound as it should. In fact I had no voice prompts whatsoever. Now in talking around with dozens of other folks who have purchased the app, nobody else experienced this issue. My phone wasn’t in vibrate mode, I checked the hardware volume button and it was all the way up, I tapped the bottom bar of the app and moved the slider around, I made sure I wasn’t on mute– yet nothing. No voice prompts at all. I made sure a voice was selected, and the voice samples played just fine. But so far I haven’t been able to get the app to speak to me one voice prompt. I have rebooted the phone a few times and that hasn’t helped. I have not yet tried to reinstall the app. (Takes too long. :))
Even for those who do get voice prompts, you will hear the voice speak out instructions like “in 500 feet, turn right” but you don’t get Text To Speech. I was a bit surprised this feature was nowhere to be found.
Something we missed from the Navigon app was having speed limit information for virtually every road. The TomTom (via the Tele Atlas underlying map) has very limited speed limit data compared to the competitive Navteq data. About the only time we saw speed limit data was for major highways.
Phone Calls, Music
You can startup a playlist or audiobook from the iTunes app, then open up the TomTom app and navigate away. The music will pause when navigation instructions come in. (Or in my case when they should come in.) When a call comes in you can ignore the call and continue navigation or take the call and wind up in the ‘Phone’ application. While in the phone app you can hit the home button and then startup the TomTom app– the call and navigation will resume. Not quite as slick as the interaction between a phone and a PND via Bluetooth, but probably as good as you can make it within the Apple APIs and restrictions.
You can also use the phone numbers associated with POIs to place calls. I wish there was a quick access “call destination” button you could access from the navigation map that would call the POI or a contact– perhaps we might get something like that later.
The optional Car Kit will also feature an “audio out” patch so you could pipe audio (but not phone call audio) through your car’s stereo system.
Map Updates, Missing Features
While the app works wonderfully for basic navigation and is simple to operate, I’ve left feeling a but underwhelmed with the TomTom app. Don’t get me wrong– it works great and will be a tough contender in the iPhone navigation race, but quite a bit feels missing from other TomTom products. No traffic services? No local fuel price lookups? No integrated Google Local search? Come on… we’re talking a smartphone here which is just ripe for these technologies. We’ve got the data connection, let’s use it! What about MapShare? Text-to-speech? Active Lane Guidance?
And speaking of these things, I think many potential customers might still hold back not knowing the price and availability date of the Car Kit. Customers are also wondering about things like map updates… How much and how often? I expect we will get answers to those questions soon and I also expect many of these “missing” features will appear as add-ons soon too. But for now despite the app being available for sale there are still almost as many questions as there were before it was released.
This is not a bad map by any stretch of the imagination. It performed equally well to the Navigon app, plus you get the addition of the spectacular IQ Routes technology. That alone might make the app worth the extra cost over the Navigon app. Perhaps this is a good thing. TomTom doesn’t come to mind first when thinking about the “most stable” and “bug free” GPS devices. They have historically pushed innovation and often drive industry trends. But sometimes at the sacrifice of stability.
While I came across an issue with voice prompts (that nobody else is reporting and has since started working) and navigating to a contact was hit or miss, the app experienced no crashes, was fast, and everything mostly performed as designed. Perhaps this signals a change in philosophy at TomTom and while it is nice to be first with innovation, there is something also to be said for getting it right the first time. For what TomTom produced they nailed it– but it also left me wanting more.