The Blair Hippo Project (blairhippo) wrote,
The Blair Hippo Project

Perhaps a wookie would be a better guide?

I've been getting acquainted with my new Droid smartphone's GPS feature.

Short version: Meh.

Long version: Several years ago when I got me a little taste of Internet cash, I picked up a TomTom 910 GPS. It's a lovely little gadget and my baseline comparison for any other GPS I use, like the Droid. When I picked up the Droid I was hoping I'd be able to retire the TomTom and maybe give it to a friend. That's not going to happen -- at least, not yet.

The Droid/Google Maps GPS is quite functional, and if you're coming to it from not having any GPS whatsoever, you'll probably like it. And as a veteran TomTom user, there are indeed some sexy features. The up-to-date maps, for instance; I haven't updated the map on the TomTom since I bought the thing, as doing so will cost me about $60. (At least that's down from $100 from a few years ago.) As it's powered by Google Maps, I can count on Droid's GPS to have the most recent info available. Or the traffic patterns -- I think TomTom can tell me where the traffic is jammed if I'm willing to pay a monthly subscription fee, but I'm not, so it doesn't. Droid provides this information for free. Or the Google Street View photo when I've reached my destination; TomTom has nothing like this little perk.

But on the balance, I found the Droid GPS clumsy and frustrating, lacking a number of features I've come to expect and baffling me in other ways. Such as:

  1. Alternate routes. I had to drive my girlfriend Cheyenne back to her place, and I didn't want to take the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, as I knew it would be all gummed-up. The route the Droid offered me took me through it. I pressed the "Alternate Routes" button and it offered me one -- one -- alternative. Which also went through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

    TomTom lets me specify roads I want to avoid, or just keep whacking the "Find Alternate Route" button until it gives me something I like. This is not a minor feature; it's one I've occasionally found very important. For this feature alone I'll be using the TomTom when I'm really serious about navigating via GPS.

    Of course, the fact that the Droid wanted me to go through the Squirrel Hill Tunnel at all is particularly galling because....

  2. Doesn't use its own information. When I was vainly trying to convince my Droid that its Plan A was a hand-rolled bundle of purest Fail, I noted that it did indeed identify I-376 leading into the Squirrel Hill Tunnel as a five-mile-long parking lot. And yet it insisted I go make myself a part of the problem.

    What the hell? What's the point of having this information available if the pathfinding algorithm isn't going to use it? Am I supposed to personally inspect the route for traffic jams and try to work around them -- work around them manually, because the damn thing won't let me tell it "No, don't go there"?

  3. Color scheme control. TomTom lets me dictate the color palate it uses. Droid doesn't.

    This may seem trivial. It isn't. Bright colors that work well during the day become a hazard at night, casting a reflection onto the windshield that's both a distraction and a blind spot. With the TomTom, I can get around this by telling the unit to use a darker nighttime palate. Now, the TomTom is supposed to do this automatically for me, but the sensor it uses to determine which color scheme to use annoyed the hell out of me, so I disabled the automatic feature and handle it manually.

    That may sound like a knock on the TomTom, but at least the feature exists for me to manually twiddle. The Droid gives me literally nothing like this, automatic or otherwise. Huge win for the TomTom.

  4. Clumsy and small "recently visited" queue. TomTom gives me a list of places I've asked it to guide me to in the past few months, and I use it. A lot. By contrast, the Droid's list is much shorter and harder to work with.

    True, if I start typing in an address I've typed before, the Droid will auto-complete it for me, so it's better than nothing. But it's still not as good as simply selecting an item off a list.

  5. Bookmarking. The TomTom lets me save a list of "Favorites" that I visit often. It's functionally very similar to the "recently visited" queue, the main difference being that none of the addresses will vanish if I haven't visited them recently. The Droid has no similar feature.

My complaints with the Droid's GPS boil down to two words: "Crap software." Luckily for the Droid, this is completely fixable -- and I hope like hell somebody fixes it. I'll give them money. Real money. That I earned and everything.

I understand that TomTom offers an iPhone version of its software for $100. Given that I actually own a TomTom, that's more than I'd be willing to pay. So, what would I pay? For an app that just turns the Droid into a TomTom with current maps ... say, $20. For something that more actively leveraged the information available from Google, something that makes use of the traffic reports and smoothly integrates the Google street-level view, I'd go higher, maybe up to $50.

I understand the stocks of both Garmin and TomTom went way down due to Droid's GPS feature. But the lousy software that actually makes it behave like a GPS has left the door wide open for either company to, paradoxically, compete with the gadget by embracing it. Let's see if either of them are up to it.
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