”’Pricing: UK maps £59.99; Western Europe £79.99 (either from Apple iTunes/App Store); Car Kit: £99.99 (from TomTom)”’
Since the release of the third iPhone OS generation, a slew of full-bodied sat-nav apps have been announced for Apple’s all-conquering smartphone. The first to hit the TrustedReviews testbed was Navigon’s MobileNavigator, and there’s an iPhone version of ALK CoPilot 8. But the biggest headlines have naturally been garnered by the biggest name in personal navigation devices. TomTom announced its own iPhone offering months ago and now we finally have our hands on the complete package.
TomTom has already distinguished its iPhone implementation by providing car kit hardware as well as software. You can buy the two parts independently, and even use one without the other. The hardware consists of a screen mount with built-in SiRF Star 3 GPS. This can be used with any iPhone, even the original one, so long as it has OS 3.0 or later. The software is only officially compatible with the iPhone 3G or 3GS, but we have seen it running on the original iPhone as well, although not had a chance to try this ourselves.
Aside from including a GPS receiver, which allegedly provides better performance than the one built into the iPhone, the car kit adds a number of additional and improved capabilities. A mini-USB connection hooks up to a car charger, and there’s also a minijack for piping the audio output through your car stereo. So you can listen to music from the iPhone as the app navigates.
However, the music is paused during voice commands, which is a little annoying – particularly as our beta hardware didn’t appear to be outputting its voice commands via the 3.5mm jack, instead just inserting periods of silence. If you don’t use this connection, there’s a speaker on the mount which provides greater volume than the iPhone’s own one. There’s a built-in microphone as well for hands-free calling.
The mount itself uses TomTom’s EasyPort system, as seen with the ONE and XL standalone sat-navs. The iPhone can be swivelled to any position from portrait to landscape, and slanted both vertically and horizontally for the most comfortable orientation. It’s certainly a very sturdy package, providing a more stable and secure platform than most generic mounts, although you can pick up the latter for less than £30. We also found that with a cable plugged into the 3.5mm jack, the mount had a tendency to drop to an angle when the host vehicle hit a major bump. A firmer ratchet on the hinge would be an improvement.
However, the car kit is not a necessity to use the software. Although TomTom has redesigned the menu system to better suit the iPhone, the range of features is very similar to an entry-level standalone sat-nav from the company. The basic destination options include the usual range of address or Point of Interest (POI), with the ability to save favourites and a home location, plus a handy list of recent destinations. You can enter a full UK postcode, too.
The POI database is divided into over 50 categories, and you can look near your current location, within a city, near home, along a route, and close to an already programmed destination. Whilst you can’t search the entire range of POIs, you can search freely within each of the five aforementioned vicinities. So as long as you have a vague idea where the POI you’re looking for is located, you should be able to find it without hunting through the category system. Results popped up quite quickly on our iPhone 3GS.
One feature you won’t get with a standalone sat-nav is a direct link to your smartphone contacts. Our previous experience with this feature in other software has not been particularly compelling. However, TomTom’s take appears to work reasonably well. Whereas Navigon’s MobileNavigator throws up many spurious results, few of which are the one you’re after, the TomTom software gets things right a lot of the time, unless your contact’s address is malformed. Phone integration also extends to calling the number listed for a POI – very useful for ensuring an attraction is actually open before you set off.
There’s a route planner for setting up multiple waypoints, and the Find Alternative option lets you look for a different route. You can either let the software do this itself, avoid a blocked road for a given distance, add a last minute waypoint or choose to avoid an entire road within your currently calculated route.
Route calculation uses TomTom’s IQ Routes system. Instead of just offering the fastest option based on road speed limits, or the shortest distance, the true average road speed based on historical traffic information is used. So you will potentially be suggested a different route depending on time of day or day of week, taking you away from regular traffic jams where possible. It’s not an infallible system, and no match for live traffic updates (which aren’t available), but still more intelligent than previous systems.
The navigation screen itself is a dead ringer for any recent TomTom sat-nav, with a clear if not enormously aesthetic map view, and an information bar along the bottom. This provides the same data whether the phone is in portrait or landscape mode, but is bigger with the latter orientation. The usual comprehensive range of details are available, including current speed versus the limit, time and distance to destination, with the distance to the next turning in the middle. The next turning is illustrated, but not the one after that as with some sat-navs. Speed camera warnings pop up whether you’re breaking the limit or not, so you can make sure you remain legal.
During our testing using an iPhone 3GS, we found the TomTom software provided smooth screen updates, with clear voice commands via the car kit’s built-in speaker. Overall, performance and functionality were just as good as an entry-level standalone device.
The car kit and software combination turns your iPhone into a very capable sat-nav, similar in performance and capabilities to TomTom’s One and XL IQ Routes Edition models. However, the total package isn’t much cheaper, either. In contrast, the software on its own is much more competitive. Navigon’s MobileNavigator is marginally cheaper, but the TomTom software has a few extra features, which are worth the difference. So although the car kit and software is a comprehensive package, a generic mount and car charger with the software on its own would make better economic sense if you’re only planning on occasional use.
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