TomTom (for iPhone) review

Pros

  • Accurate adaptive routing
  • Informative display
  • Clear, punchy voice prompts

Cons

  • Clumsy POI search
  • Dated map graphics
  • Choppy animation

TomTom's iPhone app continues to offer highly accurate navigation and the most informative display on the market. The company's HD traffic plug-in and celebrity voice packs also remain big draws, although both cost extra as in-app purchases. The problem is, the competition has caught up and surpassed TomTom's app in many ways – and the likes of quality free solutions, such as Google Maps (freshly reintroduced to the iPhone), make TomTom's £27 asking price especially difficult to stomach.

User interface

I tested TomTom on an Apple iPhone 5 running iOS 6.0.2. The app boots quickly to a main menu that lets you navigate to a destination, modify your route options (if one is already in progress), browse the map, plan multi-segment routes, or change settings. Tap the Navigate To button, and you'll see options for navigating to your home, favourites, recent destinations, specific street addresses, and so on. You can also navigate directly to contact addresses, geotagged photo locations, coordinates, or points on a map as well.

For the most part, keying in street addresses was a smooth process in my tests. Just as with the company's standalone navigation devices, you input the city first, followed by the street name, and then the street number.

Searching for points of interest (POI) is also standard fare. However, TomTom's POI database isn't the greatest, and the category breakdown continues to make little sense. Food stores, hardware stores, electronics stores, and more are all lumped together in one overcrowded category labelled "shop," while there are dozens of top-level categories for things like veterinarians, water sports, tennis courts, and tourist information offices, which is misguided to say the least. Another issue: TomTom has removed its Google local search feature, so it’s not possible to get around the internal POI database anymore as you could in earlier versions of the app.

Performance

Once on the road, TomTom's app is easy to use but not particularly attractive, with bland graphics and choppy animation that's more reminiscent of a three-year-old standalone GPS. That said, TomTom still leads the pack when it comes to displaying route information. You get all manner of data across the bottom of the screen, all of which updates in real-time.

The main display shows the current street, the next turn off, how far away it is, your current speed, the speed limit of the current road, and the estimated time remaining, distance remaining, and estimated arrival time. You also get 3D lane assistance views, which help with complex motorway or inner city street layouts, although TomTom's iPhone 5 optimisations missed this screen, as it's blurry and appears with black bars to either side.

One annoyance is that clearing a route still takes three taps on three separate screens, which is at least two too many. Rival Garmin, in contrast, offers a clear "End Trip" button at the bottom right at all times. That makes it easy to end navigation if you're looking for a parking spot near your destination, or decide mid-route that you no longer need guidance. The latter is a common occurrence if you're coming back from a new place and need navigation just to get to a major motorway, at which point you know the rest of the way home.

In a series of route tests, TomTom performed exactly as expected, which is to say very well. The company's IQ Routes feature adapts estimated arrival times and matches them to real-world data collected from drivers. Combined with daily Map Share updates, which you can download right from the phone, TomTom's app is arguably more "plugged in" to current road conditions than the competition.

Voice prompts were clear, crisp, and loud. They were also well timed, and the app pronounced street names correctly in almost all cases. TomTom includes several dozen voices in roughly two dozen languages; most don't say street names, but a few do. You can also purchase celebrity voices for the app via an in-app purchase, with options for the likes of Homer or Mr Burns from the Simpsons, or Darth Vader or Yoda from Star Wars.

The HD traffic plug-in deserves a special mention. It places a bar on the right side of the screen that represents traffic conditions for your route along the way. It's very impressive, and the traffic readouts update very frequently, and always accurately reported what was ahead – even on secondary routes, which was a nice surprise.

In one particular case, it insisted I exit a normally empty motorway earlier than usual. As I thought, "nah, let me ignore it and see what happens," right past the exit, I saw brake lights as everyone ahead came to a stop. I exited just in time. The only downside is that HD traffic is an in-app purchase so you’ll be paying extra for the service.

Verdict

All told, TomTom remains a solid GPS app, but it's getting on in age, certainly in terms of its appearance and clumsy POI searches. Also, the choppy animation is far from ideal, and the removal of Google local search is a real downer. Celebrity voices and the HD traffic plug-in are smart features, but you have to pay extra for these on top of the basic £27 asking price. The trouble is, aside from slightly less efficient routing (for driving, at least) and a less informative display, you'll likely be just fine with Google Maps on the iPhone, and that doesn’t cost a penny.