October 19, 2009

TomTom iPhone App Full Review


The TomTom App for the iPhone icon was one of the early Apps for the iPhone from a major GPS manufacturer and easily emulates their standalone models in functionality and quality. Navigating with the iPhone has been an unmet promise since the iPhone launched with its teaser GPS capability, which until its update this summer would not allow turn by turn direction Apps on the device.

TomTom's iPhone App is a straight forward navigator, not really utilizing the extensive connectivity to perform back flips in the navigation world, but instead elects to put its energy into making a high quality experience for users in a simple interface. This sometimes limiting simplicity offers entry level capabilities in a trustworthy wrapper that I think is surprisingly good. What I cannot capture properly in words is the simple convenience of having a capable navigation device in your pocket wherever you go. There is no wondering if you left your GPS in the other car, no wondering if you left it at home while on a business trip (happened to me recently and it was a miserable experience - tried to navigate with built in Google maps while someone else drove; never again), and no wondering if you will get to your destination; your GPS is already in your pocket.

Features and Navigation with the TomTom iPhone AppTTiPhoneMainMenu.jpg
As I said, the TomTom App is simple in its feature set and while it offers a very strong overall performance on my iPhone 3G, a feature for feature comparison shows that the TomTom App comes up short. No speaking of street names, no traffic reporting capabilities, no lane guidance, and while it does have TomTom's IQ Routes, they elected to pull out any MapShare capabilities. What comes instead is a very slim, and very simple interface that will look very familiar to anyone who has used a TomTom in the past. While TomTom provided me a code for the Application, I downloaded the TomTom App right from iTunes just like everyone else. The large 1+ GB application took a while to download to the computer and to the iPhone. Luckily it's something that you won't be doing often.

TomTom includes its base level A --> B advanced trip planning which is a great time savings when you are pre-planning a trip. Sit in your kitchen and see how long that trip from the airport to that business meeting will take. You can absolutely save favorites, and your "Home" making navigation to regular locations a quick tap of the screen. Maps can be in either 2D (North up and direction of travel), or 3D, while the colors can be in night or daytime. The switch between the two is not automatic. Of course, you can elect to search for POI's near you, in a city, near home, along your already plotted route, and near a destination. All very good to have in your pocket, and very helpful when you are trying to bend that navigation capability to fit your need in the moment. I use POI near a destination and along a route all the time when on the road, especially for food and gas. Hungry? Yes. Do you want to eat before we stop or when we get to the hotel? The choice is yours, and the TomTom App can help in either instance.

Navigation in the "Landscape" Mode

Navigation in Portrait Mode

Navigation in Portrait vs. Landscape Modes with the iPhone - Navigation on the iPhone in the TomTom App takes advantage of the iPhone's ability to self rotate screens - it's a great feature. There are a lot of people who ask why makers don't offer a portrait mode unit as the standard - giving you a better view of what's ahead. Sound argument, but it lumps you into a smallish keypad when typing in a destination. If you look above, you'll see the two versions for yourself. The limiting factor is not so much the map, but the size of the text at the bottom. For the Landscape, the text is plenty large, but with the added street name label (optional) you cut your view ahead dramatically. For the portrait view, the text starts getting small, and takes a bit more than the split second to realize what the numbers mean when you start out. After a few weeks, I was able to quickly and easily glance and know that I was going to arrive at a certain time of day.

TTiPhonePOIList.jpg Nav Screen Customizations - there are several settings that you can change to make the screen appear as you wish. The Day and Night colors can be changed, as in change the color schemes that show up when you manually switch over from day to night colors. Like all GPS units I have ever seen, the unit can go from 2D North up, to 2D direction of travel or out on the main menu, you can elect to have a 3D view of the road. In the Map Settings, there are a couple of important ones to consider, and that revolves around the street name displays on the map. I like seeing what my current street is and then show Points of Interest (POI's) on the map. You can go into a menu to choose which POI's you want to show on the map - trust me you don't want them all. I like ATM's, gas stations and sometimes restaurants. Once you turn these icons on, they rise to the top of the list so it is easy to see what you have turned on. There are a total of 54 different types of POI icons that you can turn on, so you should be pretty satisfied. When you do, small generic icons show up on the map as you travel, offering a quick way to see if you can stop in while in route. The icons are not branded as in some GPS units.

Route Planning - There are several settings here that allow you to control how the TomTom App will route you. Interestingly you can TTIphoneRoutePlan.jpegshut off IQ routes - I leave them on thinking that if TomTom figured out a faster route for me I'll take it. You can set a default route preference, which I left as "Fastest" - but you can elect to have it: shortest, avoid highways, walking routes, bicycle routes, limited speed, or have it "always ask me". Nicely, you can also elect to set the TomTom App to either avoid, don't avoid or always ask about routing you over Toll Roads, Ferry Crossings, HOV lanes, and unpaved roads. All very helpful. I set these once, and then left it.

Mounting and Charging - I mounted the iPhone to the windshield with an Arkon phone mount that worked well for me. The mount only allows for the portrait view, but the TomTom App allows for landscape view also. I also have an iGo car charger for my iPhone, and used it extensively. While I want the iPhone to run for hours navigating me, and then be ready for a day of web browsing, I realized that wasn't going to happen. Much like any other GPS, the battery will last a couple of hours of navigating before the battery is spent. The issue is that with the iPhone you probably want to get out and use the iPhone when you arrive after a trip. So, just like a regular GPS, you should run with the iPhone charging while driving if you want to keep a decent charge for the rest of your day. You can decide if frequent charging is for you and if that kills the battery life overall. Endless debate potential there, and I am not going to weigh in. It worked well for me navigating a few times a week for trips lasting less than 1 hour.

A Caution on mounting - I have a rubber case on my iPhone that adds to the width and height, so mounts designed to tightly clip onto the bare iPhone won't work without taking off the case. The Arkon (Mount SM215 at Arkon) mount actually ratchets in from the side, accommodating phones of various widths. A quick release button works to pop open the foam-lined grips. I liked this type of mount. Be careful buying a mount that clips directly onto a bare phone if you use any kind of case.

Integration with the iPhone - One big benefit of the iPhone as a backbone system is the simple integration with your phone. Again, the benefit is subtle, but it is powerful. The TomTom App is able to navigate to addresses in your contact list and call Points of Interest. TomTom has not integrated the application with the iPhone's incoming call capability - no idea if this is possible, but you pop out of the application to answer the phone, and there is no navigation while talking. Big upside if you aren't so much of a talker, big downside if you talk the whole car ride. When using the TomTom App, the iPhone is locked to stay on and backlit - a plus when navigating; you really don't want the unit going to sleep while you are driving down the road. This worked well most of the time, but on occasion, it did go to sleep on me. It usually happened when I hadn't shut the phone down in several days. A quick re-boot solved the issue.

Review Summary
The TomTom iPhone App is a solid first step platform onto which TomTom can build a world-class navigation product. The application offers a lot of capabilities that are damn convenient to have right in your iPhone. The trusted TomTom performance and ease of use is in there, as is the familiar layout. It is a simple navigation product that is a great addition to anyone with an iPhone who wants navigation. I have been skeptical for a long time about navigation on mobile phones, but navigation on the sharp iPhone screen is good enough to make me realize that navigating on a phone is comfortable and feasible. I do want to see further enhancements for the product, including Text to Speech, lane guidance and live traffic feeds, but I anticipate that this is right around the corner, and can successfully be build on top of the existing platform.

Available at iTunes - TomTom US and Canada icon (itunes link)

More info at TomTom's Website

Read More in: GPS Reviews | Mobile Phone GPS | TomTom GPS Reviews

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Posted by Scott Martin at October 19, 2009 6:35 AM

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