- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The trip came up quite suddenly, and there was a timeline involved: I had to get somewhere near Lancaster, Pa., and do so rather quickly. Fortunately, this was on a weekend, so I wouldn’t have to deal with workday traffic.

I knew the general vicinity of where I was going, but I wanted to get there with minimal delays. So, I turned to my iPhone and a GPS-based navigation program from Tom Tom, the European firm that’s among the leaders in the GPS market. I’ve long enjoyed the firm’s stand-alone GPS devices; the iPhone application should be of a piece with the other products.

There was no disappointment: For a $59 program (for U.S. maps; an extra $10 will get you Canada, too), the Tom Tom iPhone software does a very good job, and I’m happy to recommend it.

The first plus is Tom Tom’s basic GPS/mapping display on the iPhone’s screen. The graphics are not only realistic, but they’re easy to understand and to follow. “Distracted driving” can be a reality for many these days, but it’s possible to quickly glance at the Tom Tom GPS display and see what you need to see before returning your eyes to the road.

The turn-by-turn narration (available in your choice of languages and, in the case of English, accents) is superb. It’s clear without being too obtrusive; you get a heads-up about a half-mile before an action should take place, then a “Turn right, now,” if that’s what you’re supposed to do at the given intersection. The GPS screen also shows street names so you can double-check where you’re headed.

The proof of any GPS system is the level of “freshness” of the data. I can’t say this with “metaphysical certitude,” as John McLaughlin, moderator of “The McLaughlin Group,” might require, but it seems the Tom Tom app updates its geographical data quite regularly: I haven’t missed a “new” street yet, and that’s nice given that my (new) home address can’t be found with some systems.

I also like the price of the application: It seems more than reasonable, given that a separate Tom Tom GPS can start at about $100 and work its way up. You’d want to get a car mount for the iPhone and find some way to charge it while driving, especially over long distances. My solution, acquired long before the Tom Tom application, is tied into my car’s aftermarket Pioneer stereo system. It charges the phone, plays the audio through the speaker system and keeps everything together.

The only “negative” is that to hear the audio through the stereo speakers, the Pioneer stereo has to play the iTunes audio stored on the phone; it won’t work to have the HD Radio on and expect the travel directions. Then again, this is a condition common to other iPhone-based navigation apps, so I can’t complain too much.

The latest version of the Tom Tom application will let you add a real-time traffic feature for an extra $20. I haven’t tried that feature yet, but it seems a reasonable price to pay, even if some of the “comments” at the Apple iTunes “App Store” are less complimentary about this — the commenters think the feature should be free.

There are less-expensive GPS solutions than the Tom Tom iPhone app, but I remain impressed that this no-nonsense, practical software is a very good value. What’s more, globe-trotters can acquire similar applications for Greece, Eastern Europe, Brazil, the Middle East, Europe and Mauritius, among other places. I like the idea of being able to load up a bunch of maps, hop into my rental car and get somewhere with a good degree of confidence in my digital travel assistant.

More information about the iPhone application can be found at www.tomtom.com/products/. If you have the Apple phone, you’ll want to check into this software.

Email mkellner@washingtontimes.com.