The death knell for the standalone satnav, or just another neat application for the smartphone? GPS software for mobile phones has been a big talking point this year, with satnav hardware makers keen to ensure that if mobile apps are the next big thing in navigation, mobile versions of their own products are leading the way.
Apple's iPhone, with its high market share, has been the obvious first target for the likes of Navigon and Co Pilot. Navigon's MobileNavigator British Isles is available to iPhone users for £37.99 while ALK's Co-Pilot Live United Kingdom costs £25.99.
But the brand many people have been waiting for is TomTom. Arguably the UK leader in dedicated satnavs, TomTom launched its iPhone application in August, charging £59.99 for UK & Ireland maps and £79.99 for Western Europe.
Whether you're new to TomTom, or to satellite navigation in general, TomTom for iPhone is a breeze to use. Tested on an iPhone 3GS placed on the dashboard, the app loads within five seconds and setting up the first route is simple using the intuitive menu.
Everything is controlled via the touchscreen interface, which includes buttons large enough to ensure all but the biggest fingers will have no problem selecting the various options.
In our tests, GPS signals were established quickly (always less than ten seconds). However, the iPhone's GPS reception was a definite weak point - more on this later.
Integration with iPhone contacts works well, you can navigate to a contact in four clicks, provided their address is entered into your iPhone correctly. Anyone planning to make use of this feature regularly will have to pay extra attention to the format in which people's addresses are entered into the contacts book.
TomTom for iPhone has many of the features you would expect to find on a dedicated satnav device. As well as turn-by-turn navigation, 2D and 3D maps and points of interest (POIs), it offers a wealth of settings, including numerous voices and accents for your computer navigator and various map colours.
While it doesn't include some features that are present on premium standalone satnavs - such as lane change guidance when approaching complication junctions - TomTom does offer one key advantage over much of the competition: IQ Routes.
IQ Routes is based on historical speed measurements calculated from the actual experiences of millions of TomTom drivers. TomTom says it works out the fastest route for whatever time of day you intend to travel, and in "up to 35 percent of all cases" can result in a faster route, saving travel time as well as money and fuel.
Advanced Planning another nice feature. Select your departure point and destination, the time you want to leave, then select the type of journey - anything from 'Fastest' and 'Shortest' to 'Walking' and 'Bicycle'. TomTom for iPhone will do the rest.
You even get (potentially annoying) warnings such as "Research has shown that the strongest route is not usually as safe as the 'Fastest' route, as well as taking longer and being less fuel-efficient".
The Navigate To Point On Map feature is also worth a look, if only to play with the magnifying glass that can be moved across the map with your finger.
While speed camera alerts worked well, and the software displayed current speed and the speed limit pretty accurately, it's the basics of navigation that make or break satnavs for most people. In that respect TomTom for iPhone is often lacking - at least at the moment.
We used it on a trip from south east London to Cambridgeshire and an unfamiliar route into London, among other journeys. It lost the road a few times and placed us parallel to where we were going.
Routing is fairly fast, but it doesn't like it if you don't take its advice and do a u-turn, even if you're charging along a busy and potentially dangerous A-road. However, re-routing was slow on occasions, while the arrow on the map pinpointing our apparent location was often some way behind our true position.
This game of catch-up was a nuisance that made the app feel a bit clunky at times, and gave us insufficient time to smoothly slow down and turn corners at others.
However, TomTom claims the GPS woes will soon be fixed - but only for those prepared to buy an additional piece of hardware.
The company plans to release an in-car kit over the next few weeks that will, among other things, improve the GPS signal. Promoted via the main menu, the TomTom Car Kit consists of an iPhone/iPod touch mount, dock and charger, and will cost £113.85 inc VAT, according to a leak on the website of one online retailer.
Other features offered by the hardware include hands-free calling and the ability to play music over your car stereo.
A charger of some sort - whether TomTom's or another in-car iPhone charging gadget - is essential. TomTom for the iPhone puts a fairly intensive strain on the handset, and so the battery drains quickly. This is to be expected - you wouldn't expect to use a standalone navigation device to last for a long journey without plugging it into your car's cigarette lighter, and TomTom for the iPhone is no different.
TomTom U.K. & Ireland: Specs
- iPhone, iPhone 3GS, iPhone OS 3.0
- iPhone, iPhone 3GS, iPhone OS 3.0
A mobile phone is no match for a high-end dedicated satnav, but TomTom will make iPhone owners think twice before forking out for a standalone GPS device. On its own it's priced at a similar level to an entry-level satnav. However, if you also buy the upcoming in-car kit, you'll be expected to fork out considerably more. If you're considering paying that much, it would be wise to make sure TomTom has been able to tackle the iPhone's GPS issues.