TomTom GPS app offers good maps, terrible interface

A while back, I posted about some of my ongoing issues with iPhone navigation powerhouse Navigon, which has been my primary nav app. After that post went live, Navigon immediately contacted me to see how they could improve their product, asking for specific details of the intersections where navigation failed and I was directed in circles. I was also contacted by TomTom, who asked me to give their product a try.

A few weeks later, I've got to say that I'm pretty much ready to go back to Navigon. TomTom is a good product with a weak interface that gets the job done -- but when it comes down to the details of how well it integrates into my driving, Navigon is the winner for me. I say this even though Navigon's software sometimes sends me driving in circles. Navigon also has its share of GUI limitations and other quirks.

The first time I used TomTom I was confused by the app chiming at me every block or two, often chiming several times in a row. At first I thought this was some kind of alert that the computer voice was about to speak -- a feature I've been dying for across all navigation applications -- and was trying to get my attention. But no, it was actually some obscure setting that was automatically turned on, alerting me at "Places of Worship and Schools."

Really, TomTom? I live in a city. We have churches and schools on nearly every corner, especially on major roads. I had to drill down into the non-obvious menu (took me forever to realize you had to tap on the route map to load that menu), into Settings -- which are placed illogically all the way at the bottom of the menu, forcing users to scroll down two screens, into Alerts, and from there to disable the Places of Worship and Schools alert.

There is no reason that the settings are not accessible directly through, say, an on-screen in-app settings button. The same goes for picking a route; it should be a one-tap no-brainer with an instantly recognizable icon, along with an option to reverse the previous route and head home, or to end the current route. TomTom offers a "recent routes" option (Main menu > Navigate To > Recent Destination) but I wish it were higher and more obvious in the interaction hierarchy.

The lack of recognizable button functionality was a big challenge. The MPH feedback in the lower left corner of the screen is actually a button that when tapped provides a volume slider, and it repeats the last statement from the app's voice to allow you to judge the voice prompt loudness. What I can only guess is a highway billboard icon (and I think that's a stretch) flips the interface to a status screen with a smaller map, a destination update, and the Options button.

Many menus were disjointed and confusing. Take the Route Options menu -- Find Alternative offers five options as a submenu, not something you'd want to have to figure out while behind the wheel of a car. And then the very next option is Route Demo. Demo? Maybe I'm misunderstanding this, but as the 2nd most important choice on the Route Options menu, is that really what a driver needs on-the-go? Oh, and if you select that by accident? You'll have to go back later and stop the demo. It's insane.

Yes, TomTom's method of entering an address was straightforward, and I have no complaints about the approach of entering city then street name then number, which seems industry standard. The implementation did offer some interface quirks and update lags as I entered data which could be improved upon.

I really wish TomTom would hire a usability engineer to clean up the app's GUI and design each menu and button to make more sense, especially in the context of the most common tasks for the company's customer base. The app offers many excellent features that aren't being well served by the current interface. This entire missing-the-point-of-the-driver-needing-to-use-this-app-while-driving pretty much typifies my TomTom experience.

Most of my time behind the wheel is city driving. I live and drive in Denver. I need to keep my eyes on the road, my hands on the wheel. So please don't just tell me to turn left in a half mile. Tell me what street I'm going to turn on. For example, telling me to "turn left in a half mile onto Broadway" gives me much better information and telling me to "turn left in five blocks onto Broadway" offers exactly the information I really need.

Another thing I need a navigation app to do is to be able to turn itself off. TomTom happily drained my battery as I stopped to shop or eat lunch. It's not as funny the third or fourth time you're already sitting at the restaurant and your handbag announces "In 150 feet, turn left on Stout." Once I've reached my destination I want two things: 1. I want the power-grabbing parts of the app to stop (as well as the voice over, thank you very much) and 2. I want the app to display the options to either go home or go to a new destination whenever I return to the app screen. TomTom did neither.

To be fair, continued GPS location services once you arrive at your destination are an industry standard. You need to switch off location, regardless of the app, because GPS systems are built to allow you to miss your destination even after you "arrive," so you can circle back if needed. You'd imagine, though, that a smart app would detect that you have arrived and have been there for ten minutes, and switch off. Still, no one at TUAW can remember Navigon continuing to offer voice instructions after arriving, when the phone unit was sitting still in a backpack or briefcase. (Navigon confirmed by e-mail, "Our app actually doesn't continue to provide spoken directions after you've reached your destination. The app does continue to track your position on the map though, so you can orient yourself.")

Speaking of wishlists, I would love if navigation apps recognized that while driving in a city, giving a few blocks warning would really help when looking for parking. If some app could tell me "You are now three blocks away from your destination. Start looking for parking," I'd marry it. Navigon does offer a "Clever Parking" feature according to company spokesperson Johan-Till Broer. This is a parking symbol that appears in the map view when you are close to your destination, but there is no voice option at this time, which is the killer feature I'd really like to see happen.

And one last thing, TomTom app. When I'm about a quarter mile away from my home and I have to turn right to get to my home, please don't tell me to turn left.

You can easily find TomTom in the App Store here. The US-only app price is $39.99, but there are versions for drivers who need to go to Canada and/or Mexico as well. There is one thing TomTom has that nobody else does: an in-app purchase option for the voice of Homer Simpson, only $5.99.