Having just spent 14 hours driving back and forth from a holiday in Cornwall, I can say with road-weary confidence that yes, Google Maps finally does have the edge over TomTom Go.
TomTom has been my driving companion for years, first with dedicated satnavs and subsequently with the apps for iOS and Android. At twenty-odd quid a year, it’s pricey, but TomTom’s traffic avoidance system is monumentally good and the ability to download offline maps was a lifesaver in 4G dead spots. Such as the end of my drive.
However, TomTom did something stupid recently: it gave me an excuse to try something cheaper. A bug in an update to the TomTom Go app meant audio instructions were abruptly cut off halfway through, only finishing the sentence when it was time to issue the next instruction. So you would be approaching a junction, and all you would hear is: “Take the second turning on…” before swearing loudly, averting your gaze from the road to check the screen, and then picking your teeth out of the airbag when you ploughed into the back of a Renault Scenic. Not ideal.
So for the seven-hour slog to Cornwall, I decided to give Google Maps another crack. I’ve used Google a few times before, but two things put me off: the traffic data wasn’t a patch on TomTom’s and the offline maps feature was unreliable: sometimes it downloaded, sometimes it didn’t. Meaning you often spent ten minutes on the drive, waving your phone around like you were at a Robbie Williams concert, hoping to attract a passing data signal.
Both have improved immeasurably.
Indoors, before we set off, I merely had to type the name of the holiday village we were staying at, not the precise postcode that TomTom demands. It then offered to download an offline map of the entire route and put a shortcut to the Driving section of Google Maps on my home screen. Sweet.
Three different routes were presented on the map, with little labels showing how much longer each of the alternatives would take. We could smash it down the motorway, or drive half an hour longer and take in the coast road. Given that Cornwall was already a tangle of red traffic lines at 7am in the morning, we decided to opt for the former, but it was nice to have the option.
Google’s lane guidance has much improved since I last used it, directing you into precisely the right lane at multi-exit junctions and matching audio instructions to the road signs. And while all roads lead to carnage on a sunny Saturday at the start of half-term, Google did a decent job of keeping us moving, suggesting several route adjustments on the way down to avoid the very worst of the tailbacks.
Where did I leave the car?
So far, so TomTom in terms of feature set. But on a day out to the Eden Project we started to discover features that pull ahead of the paid-for app. For example, when you reach your destination, Google now offers to remember where you’ve parked, placing a pin on the map at your precise location. Given that Eden has about 18 acres of car parking space, that saves you having to walk around pressing your car alarm remote, hoping to spot your motor in a sea of similarly coloured Volvos. And if you’re trying to find where you parked in a strange town, Google can, of course, providing walking directions back to the vehicle.
Talking of being stuck in strange places – the option to quickly search for restaurants, petrol stations or pubs for your current location is great, too.
The Google voice assistant also works a treat. Yell “OK Google” at your smartphone and you can tell it to skip to the next track in Spotify, plot a route home or call someone without having to prod the screen.
Finally, Google Maps also now has a feature that lets you share your location with selected contacts. So if you’re both en route to a particular destination, you can see where the other one is as you go.
It’s blisteringly clever stuff, and even though I now see TomTom has dropped its price to only £14.99 a year, I won’t be going back.