TomTom Navigator hits (some) Android devices, we go hands-on

TomTom just released its Android navigation app on Google Play to the robot-toting hordes, some three years after its iOS version debuted. Unfortunately, quite a number of newer smartphones, like the Galaxy S III, aren't yet compatible, due to a current resolution limitation of 800 or 854 x 480 (WVGA or FWVGA). That didn't deter us from wanting to take it for a spin anyway, so we took our old Galaxy S out of mothballs -- and there's no place better to sample a GPS maker's wares than rural France, which has endless tiny tracks criss-crossing the countryside. To see how we made out, head past the break for the rest of the story.
One of the selling points of TomTom (or competitors like Navigon) is the offline aspect of its maps, which always keep you on track whether you have a data connection or not. However, the price to pay for that luxury is exactly 3.1GB (the size of the European maps we downloaded) -- valuable space on your smartphone that you'll never be able to use for anything else. Of course, we were perfectly willing to make that tradeoff to see how the new app performed, but getting all the software on our device pointed out our first niggle we had with TomTom: no resumable downloader. About halfway through, our ADSL modem took a coffee break for 5 minutes or so, and then... poof, nothing. The download stopped, and wouldn't restart, forcing us to punt and start from scratch.

After several hours we finally had everything installed, at which point things started to go a lot better. It takes a bit of practice to get the hang of all the functions, which aren't always well placed in the UI -- though to be fair, Navigon isn't exactly Google-esque, either. However, if you've used Google's own navigation offering to get from A to B in a car, its deficiencies quickly become glaring: limited offline guidance, no speed readout (or alert when you exceed posted limits) and difficult route planning, to name a few. Our short tests showed that TomTom's Android navigator handles those problems with aplomb while it guided us around without even a SIM card in the phone. It was easy to choose the shortest, fastest or most economical routes, skip toll roads and change course in mid-drive if we encountered a setback. Also, despite the mediocre (at best) GPS of the Galaxy S, TomTom stayed on track, giving us accurate speed readouts and audible/visible warnings if we busted the limit.

If you want traffic or speed camera info, it's not included with the main software -- those are two separate in-app purchases, with traffic priced at $5.99 per month ($38 per year) and radar warnings at $1.99 or $24 per year. You'd need to do a lot of driving to justify that, which brings us to one of the big issues with TomTom: we aren't used to paying that kind of money for an Android app. For just the USA maps, the price starts at $38, with the US and Canada running $50 and North America, $60. We'd wager that a lot of folks would take the relatively clunky nav functions of Google Maps rather than part with that kind of change, particularly since it gives a lot more info once you arrive. We'd also question TomTom's decision to release the app prior to having it working on most Android devices -- the company has promised to remedy that problem by the end of the year, but it might have been wise to wait until all the popular new models were supported.
But after all that, we did like the app, and would compare it favorably to Navigon's Android offering. If you do a lot of driving to strange places, TomTom's navigator will likely get you there safer and quicker than Mountain View's free option without breaking a sweat, even if there's not a cell tower in site.
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