TomTom for Android review
TomTom for Android has been eagerly anticipated since the launch of TomTom for iPhone all the way back in 2009. At that time we could understand that Android might not have been a viable option for TomTom, but we're glad to see it arrive finally, if just to end the speculation.
But TomTom is not alone in the navigation world by a long shot. Not only are companies like Wisepilot and Co-Pilot offering third-party rival solutions, but Google itself also has the ubiquitous Google Maps, which is a feature of Android, and free, with turn-by-turn guidance.
This makes the TomTom sell a little more difficult. Picking out a dedicated personal navigation device (PND) is pretty easy, but when you're being asked to spend your money on an app in place of something that can be had for free, we're not so sure.
So what do you get for your money, and will TomTom guide you swiftly to your destination?
The application: Install and restrictions
TomTom has asserted that it's a software company first and foremost; it isn't about the PND devices, it's really about the mapping and TomTom has been dynamic enough to move its mapping service into various quarters, from smartphones to fixed in-car devices.
READ: How TomTom maps are made
So it might be something of a surprise that TomTom for Android launches rather softly, with a limitation relating to display resolutions that rules out some of the most popular, and top-tier, Android smartphones out there at launch. As such, we tested TomTom for Android on the LG Optimus 2X.
But we also found that Google Play wasn't quite up-to-date with its device limitations and found we could install it on the Sony Xperia T too. On opening the app, you can see what the problem is: the components that make up the user interface don't scale properly, so some Android users will definitely have to wait before they can use the app, if can't just be tacked on to unsupported devices.
The core app from Google Play comes in different versions for different territories: we tested the Europe edition. Following installation, you'll be prompted to download the actual maps.
A big differentiator from Google Maps is that TomTom stores all the data on the device. It's a hefty download, in excess of 3GB of data for Europe. This data needs to be downloaded for the app to work: there's no option other than to sit and let it happen.
Unfortunately we had a number of failed downloads, so our advice is to do this overnight, with Wi-Fi, when your phone isn't doing anything else. It would be nice to see some sort of download manager, so it could progressively download in the background, with pause and resume, but that's not the case.
We also found that the data wanted to be downloaded to internal memory, with no option to select where it was saved. Naturally, there was only so many times we could download the map data, so there might be a way around this, but there's nothing up front. We also tried sideloading the data, but again, this didn't work and the app couldn't see it.
Once downloaded you are done with data, as your complete map is there, so no data, no roaming charges, no need for a connection. However, if you want Live services, like live searching rather than database searching, you'll need a data connection.
If you want HD Traffic or speed cameras, you'll have to buy these services in-app. The nice thing is that you can buy a single month subscription to HD Traffic and at just £3.99, it's an easy option if you're setting off to drive down to Cornwall for your holidays. Bear in mind that this does need data, so you'll need that in your contract, as well as being mindful of roaming charges.
The TomTom for Android interface very much reflects what you'd expect from TomTom PNDs. The maps and menus will be familiar to anyone who has used a TomTom device before and finding your way around is pretty simple.
The main information boxes sit to the right of the display, giving you speed limit and actual speed; time to destination, arrival time, and distance remaining; you get instructions showing the distance to your next turn, including junction details. There is also a shortcut that will let you turn off voice instructions, switch to night mode, move from 2D to 3D and change the volume.
The map might appear to be rather basic: a beige landscape dissected with a red path through a maze of grey roads. Yes, it's basic, but it's also rather effective as the colour scheme makes it easy to pick out the route with a glance, rather than having to stare at a more complex map.
When out driving you'll have pertinent POIs displayed on the screen, such as petrol stations, as well as major road names, but TomTom doesn't try and overwhelm you with information you don't necessarily need. It's all there, in the background, but when racing along the A3, you don't always need the detail of every side road as you pass it.
So it's clear, clutter free and easy to use. We especially like the angle presented by TomTom. Just like the PNDs, it's easy to relate the road to the ground, so navigating junctions is easy.
Where are you going?
The app is a little slow to get started, although this might differ from device to device. The advantage that a current Android phone has over PNDs is that the touch interface is better, so entering information like postcodes is a much more pleasant experience.
The touch experience is so good that at times we found the results returned missed what we'd entered: slowly type in a postcode and the list narrows as you add letters. Belt it in quickly and you might find you're not looking at the refined list. It's a minor point, but if things aren't working, try slowing down just a smidgeon.
When it comes to navigating, however, there are some areas where we expect things to be a little more dynamic. Take Heathrow, for example. You can type in Heathrow and you'll find the place, but you're then presented with road names, which are little or no use. Enter the POI system, however, and Heathrow will be presented broken down into terminals, which is probably what you really want.
The same applies when searching through addresses. TomTom likes to use a hierarchical search system. It supports full postcodes, which return the best results, but if you just start typing in the road name, it will return towns. What it wants is town, street, building number, to drill down the list in that order.
So to save digging around, TomTom for Android could be better integrated, pulling data from all sources. It does let you access your contacts, which is great, so navigating to a person's address is easy. It is fast too, recognising the address and returning the location for you to approve, along with a link to the person's phone number, in case you want to give them a call.
The same system applies to POIs. Find a restaurant or whatever and you get the same information, so you could call to make a reservation. There is a lot in the POI system, but again, there's room for improvement up front, giving more information about the returned results.
Take Nando's, the peri-peri chicken eatery, as an example. Search for Nando's and you get a list of restaurants and the distance, but no location until you click through a step. That means going back and forth until you hit the one you want. Again, a little more upfront information would make it easier for the user, although there's an option to search near your destination (or elsewhere) to help narrow things down.
You also get an advanced planning option. This will let you plug in the time of day and date of your journey and TomTom will return the best option based on your specifics. It does this using IQ Routes.
IQ Routes is something we really like. It's part of the basic app, so everyone has access to it, and we notice that TomTom is just better at predicting arrival times than some other systems. It's IQ Routes that will suggest you leave the motorway a junction before, or take a back route rather than a main road and it has helped us find new routes on frequent drives.
So there are a few edges that could be smoothed to improve the user experience in the app, but results appear quickly, without the need for any data to search. That's important, because if you are in a remote spot, TomTom still has you covered: all it needs is GPS, giving it an advantage over Google Maps.
There are various route options, like shortest, fastest and eco, but you can also opt for pedestrian or cycle routing.
On the road the driving experience is very good. As we've said, the user interface is clear, so the map is easy to interpret and the instructions come across in both a timely and clear manner. The voice guidance does a good job with street names and the language is (mostly) much more natural than some other systems.
TomTom has included lane guidance in the app. This will show you, for example, that the big junction on the M25 has three lanes that you can take to move onto the next road on your route. It's a useful feature and when on strange roads can help clarify things if you miss the signs.
The only criticism, perhaps, is that on those big junctions, the lane guidance doesn't always move away fast enough to reveal the next turn you have to make – tricky when you then have to hop over two lanes from left to right to be in the right place for the next roundabout.
Miss your turning and you hit the other important things about navigation: rerouting. There was a time when rerouting took an age, but TomTom is slick and fast. Miss a turning and TomTom will quickly be showing you the next road to return to your planned route.
Sometimes this isn't quite fast enough: you pass the junction before the route is revealed to you, problematic in urban areas with a lot of roads, but generally speaking not an issue on major roads.
The other element to driving is the estimated times and things like traffic. HD Traffic really is a jewel in the TomTom crown. It's a paid for addition, but if you're buying this navigation app, not getting HD Traffic for times when you'll be doing a lot of driving (like Christmas to get round the family) is a mistake.
Like the PND integration of HD Traffic, you get an additional box on your display to show upcoming problems. You can also see the delays on your route so you can take action and together, IQ Routes and HD Traffic do a good job of keeping you on the fastest route and away from the most obvious delays.
The important thing about TomTom for Android is that it replicates the TomTom driving experience from its personal navigation devices. Of course you'll need a mount, like the TomTom Hands Free Car Kit for Smartphone to ensure that once you arrive at your destination you still have some power in your phone, but otherwise, this is compelling alternative to TomTom's more expensive devices.
At £49.99, if you happen to have a compatible device, it's good value for money, but we note that the details on Google Play say this is an introductory price.
But as an app, it's not without its problems. The restrictions on device compatibility are a real shortcoming, as it won't work on any of the top devices out there. Until there is an update to accommodate a wider range of screen resolutions, TomTom for Android is going to remain relatively unloved.
That will give TomTom time to consider some of the other areas: search could be more dynamic and the download process needs to be better managed to avoid immediate disappointment, for example.
So in summary, TomTom for Android offers a great navigation experience for drivers, ideal for those spending plenty of time on the roads, but lack of compatibility is currently a serious handicap.