iPhone GPS Options: TomTom vs. Navigon

Intro

My wife and I recently undertook a 7500 km (4660 mi) road trip from the heart of the continent in Winnipeg, MB to Baltimore, MD on the east coast.  This trip consisted of traveling through open prairie, the densely forested and remote Shield areas in Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the ever zig-zagging country roads of Southern Ontario, through the winding, hilly roads of rural New York and Pennsylvania, and into the twists and turns of the endless interstate highways located in Maryland.  And that was just one way!

Through this drive, we put two GPS navigation apps for the iPhone that we have been using for hops about the city and such to the test.  On an iPhone 3GS running iOS 4.0, we tested TomTom version 1.4.1 and Navigon 1.6.0.  By the end of our trip, we had decided which of the two apps was the better, and which one we’ll rely on from here out on our trips.

On GPS…

The first thing I’ll say is that it was incredibly handy and stress-reducing for us to have a GPS navigation application with us on our trip.  The ability for us to just punch in where we’re trying to get to, and using it’s guidance instead of having one person studying a paper map while the other drives and tries to look at the map too and then the passenger getting frustrated that the driver isn’t looking at the road and the driver getting frustrated because they don’t know where they’re supposed to be driving and then having a huge argument/frustrated eruption.  GPS navigation can soothe potential road-trip stresses.

 

User Interface

TomTom and Navigon have fairly different user interfaces.  While the method for inputting address is more or less exactly the same, Navigon is noticeably quicker in bringing up search results to province/states, cities, streets, and POIs.  I wish TomTom would allow you to search for Province/State like Navigon does, instead of forcing you to scroll through a list.  

 

Navigon’s UI is a little cleaner, however TomTom wins big for allowing you to bring up the menu by tapping anywhere on the screen instead of having to hit a little button in the corner.  In the Navigon app, it has a spearate menu to use while navigating as opposed to TomTom where the menu is always the same.  I personally prefer the using the same menu again and again, since I only need to learn one in that situation.  Otherwise, how you interact with each app is fairly similar.

 

The structure of the menus in the two apps is quite different.  Navigon uses a dark background through it’s menus and uses a combination of text and icons positioned in different buttons on the screen.  Some buttons only have text, some only have icons.  The icon choices are fairly clear so there isn’t any ambiguity when no text is present.  In stark contrast, TomTom uses a white background during the day and a dark background at night and is structured in a list of options, each one with a large icon and text.  After using each extensively, I found TomTom’s layout and colors to be far more functional.  It seems barebones, but there’s no fuss or learning curve to figuring out how to do what you want, and I found the altering color scheme in the menus based on time of day, combined with the larger font size, to result in a far more readable menu.

 

Overall, I prefer Navigon’s UI for being able to search through any list and for it’s speedier response time.  

Winner: Navigon

Points of Interest

As far as we could tell, the POI database between the two are fairly identical as far as contents go.  Navigon can take a few less taps to get to where you want to be, given it’s dedicated buttons for closest gas stations, parking, and restauraunts.  I found being able to hit POI -> Gas far more convenient then in TomTom where I needed to hit Navigate To -> POI ->  Near Me -> Gas Station.  If you are re-routing yourself to a POI while navigating to another location, however, it takes about as many taps for either app to get to the same place.

Winner: Draw

 

Navigation

This is ultimately the most important aspect of a GPS app, and I’ll break it into 3 categories: Route Planning, Route Navigation, and Re-routing.

 

Route Planning

Navigon loses points right off the bat for not being able to use the last known location as a starting point when navigating to a new location.  If you don’t enter the advanced route planning menu, you will have to wait to get a GPS signal to plan your route.  This is a pretty big inconvenience; Navigon would be smart to add that feature in pronto.

 

Upon selecting a destination in Navigon, it dumps you to a window with three buttons: Map, Info, and More.  It shows Info by default, and gives you the location name and address and phone number (if available), and then in a small window gives you the current weather at that location as well as the closest commercial parking lot, gas station, and restaurant to your selected destination.  The map view shows your location on a map, and allows you to zoom in or out on the map, or switch the map to full-screen.  The More tab allows you to e-mail the destination to somebody, edit the route profiles, or save the location as a favorite.

 

After starting navigation, Navigon will either select the quickest route for short trips, or present you with their MyRoutes screen, which will offer you three separate routes you can pick from.  I have never found this option very useful, however, as the first option is always the quickest, and the other two are always longer and slower.  Hmm. 

 

In the advanced planning mode of Navigon, you can set your start point, and add several waypoints along the way, allowing for multiple stops on your trip.  This is quite handy if you’re in an area you don’t know, and you know that you need to hit up a Target and a gas station on your way out of town.  This is quite a useful feature that TomTom does not have.

 

In TomTom, after selecting Navigate To, you are given a list of options such as Home, Favorites, Address, etc.  It is feature-comparable to Navigon.  You select where you want to go and you are brought to a screen that shows the name of the location, the address, a phone number if it is available, and a map that shows the location.  You cannot zoom in or out on this map, which is a minus for TomTom.  If you are in an unfamiliar location, it can be handy to see what area of the city the POI is in.  After accepting the location, you then choose what kind of route you’d like (Fastest, Eco, etc.) TomTom uses it’s IQRoutes technology to find the quickest way to your location.  You can set a default route type in the preferences.

 

If the quickest route it finds uses toll roads, then it asks if you would like to avoid them.  This is a nice feature that Navigon does not have.  In it’s settings you can choose to Allow, Avoid, or Forbid toll roads, but TomTom’s case-by-case approach is far more useful 99% of the time.  I would like to see the wording changed in TomTom’s toll road question, which amounts to “Would you like to avoid toll roads?”  A couple of times I hit “No” because I saw toll roads and my mind said “No, I don’t want toll roads.”  I’m not sure “Yes, I don’t want to go on toll roads” is how most people think….

 

TomTom’s advanced planning allows you to set where you depart from, where you’re going to, and the time of day that you’d like to go.  No multiple waypoints here.

 

I think Navigon wins in many aspects here; it provides you with far more information regarding your destination.  As a weather geek, I like being able to see the weather where I’m headed.  Being able to see things close to your destination is handy as well.  And the ability to have routes with multiple waypoints is a great, great feature.

 

Route Navigation

 

I’ll just come right out and say it.  TomTom wins.  Navigon is somewhat adept in picking routes, but IQRoutes by TomTom blows it out of the water.  There have been times when I felt that TomTom was taking me out of my way to get somewhere, and it turned out to be far quicker than anything I would have thought of.  TomTom routinely got me places quicker than Navigon did.  TomTom does the primary function of a GPS app far better than Navigon does: it finds quicker, better routes.

 

Re-routing

Both applications are fairly quick at re-routing if you miss a turn or have to be detoured.  Navigon may have been a bit quicker, however I found TomTom to find a better way back on track.  Adding a POI along the way is better in Navigon than in TomTom.  When you hit POI along route in Navigon, it first comes up with a list of POIs along your route (standard things like gas, food, hotels), their distance, and what side of the road they are on.  You can then search further if you’d like to find other thing, or to find something a little further off the road.  Navigon can insert this destination as a waypoint, so once you arrive there, it will route to your final destination. 

 

Adding a POI along route in TomTom is destructive; it changes your final destination from whatever you had to the location of the POI.  Navigon has an edge in this.  Navigon is also good at telling you what side of the road a POI is, whereas TomTom does not do this.

 

Display

 

Navigon has a fairly good looking map that shows POIs and zooms in and out depending on your speed.  I think that Navigon’s display is more aesthetically appealing than the straight lines and relative boring display of TomTom, however I have time and time again found that TomTom provides clearer visual clues as to where to turn through the use of plotting dots along your route every 100m, as well as using large, clearly visible arrows wherever some sort of driver instruction is needed, be it turning onto a new road or managing splitting roads on a highway.  Navigon’s lack of arrows can sometimes result in missing an instruction simply because you’re not paying attention to it.

 

All in all, while Navigon might look nicer, I feel TomTom has a better display.  If they add in antialiasing support for devices running iOS 4, it will look great.

 

Winner: TomTom

Conclusion

I’ll cut to the chase: in the end, I don’t use Navigon any more.  It has some pretty bells and whistles, but when it comes down to it, TomTom performs the core function of a GPS better.  While sometimes I wish it had things like multi-waypoint routes, a less jaggy image, and some of the niceities such as telling me the weather of where I’m going, it gets me there the quickest with the most clear directions.

 

The developers at TomTom are going to have to put some work into the app to catch it up in some ways to it’s competition, but as long as they keep their solid core navigation experience, they’ll keep themselves as kings of iPhone GPS Navigation.


Overall Winner: TomTom

Feel free to leave any questions in the comments and I’ll try to provide an answer/opinion for you.

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