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This gadget life: Tomtom traffic avoidance

I recently made a thousand mile road trip over three days for a three hour meeting. Sounds like a crazy idea, but instead of flying we I decided a road trip might be fun. Might.

On such a long drive many things can go wrong, apart from the car itself. One can get lost, have an argument over getting lost, get stuck in traffic and become stressed about time. The last thing we wanted was to drive all that way and miss the meeting.

So we set out on our journey in a shiny 2011 Nissan Sentra from an unnamed hire company with my Tomtom 340XL TM. This was my first experience of using a GPS in skyscraper-filled Manhattan, and it took the Tomtom about two minutes to lock onto satellites. In case you’re not familiar with GPS devices, that’s a long time. The Tomtom normally locks on within seconds.

The lock came and went as we traversed roads lined with impossibly tall buildings, and after leaving them in our wake all was well. That’s when the T bit of the 340XL TM name came into its own.

The T stands for Traffic and means that this 340 shipped with Tomtom’s traffic receiver. This is an antenna that the 340 uses to listen for traffic updates broadcast over the airwaves and the device then redirects you to avoid delays. It worked amazingly well.

We were leaving New York City at a notoriously bad time of day for traffic but the Tomtom did a superb job of avoiding the jams. We actually didn’t sit in any snarl ups at all, as the Tomtom rerouted us time and again promising to save us ten minutes here and fifteen there.

So, hours of driving later we arrived at our destination. Stress-free, argument-free and frankly downright impressed.

Neil Berman

Apr 29, 2011 Posted by | Mobile, Reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This gadget life: Buying a GPS

TomTom and Garmin took a hit a while ago when Google released free turn-by-turn navigation on Android phones. The GPS market is still alive and well however as I found out recently.

I don’t use Android on my daily phone so I have a choice of subscribing to AT&T’s GPS navigation service on my BlackBerry, using a dedicated GPS unit or having an argument in the car. Since the arguments rarely end well for me and the AT&T service costs more than a low end GPS after a few months, I decided to look at a dedicated unit.

tomtom-xl-340s-gpsThere are really two major players in this market: TomTom and Garmin. Nipping at their heels Magellan, Mio and Motorola have a certain level of presence on the lower store shelves but they’ve never managed to get a strong foothold in the market.

So I chose to concentrate my search on TomTom and Garmin, on the basis that the market can’t be totally misguided. Guess what I found? This is one of the craziest sectors in consumer electronics.

In terms of street prices, the vast majority of GPS products are compressed between $100-250, but within that range there are probably a total of around 20 devices to choose from just from TomTom and Garmin alone. That’s epically confusing.

So what are the main differentiating factors between units? Free vs paid map and traffic updates, clever route guidance and output qualities (screen size, speaker volume). There are a few others like Bluetooth phone integration and FM transmission of routing instructions through a car radio, but by and large these features seem to be hit and miss in their execution. What I mean is, there are too many reports of Bluetooth GPS to phone hookups not quite working and FM transmissions being unreliable when the car is moving at speed to base purchasing confidence on these features. The first three however are known quantities and are the bread & butter of the industry.

Free vs paid map and traffic updates

When you buy an old style road map, AKA ‘a book’, you’re buying a static map that is perhaps a year or so old. If you drive to new places a lot, you might buy a new map book every year to be aware of new roads. You can do the same thing with a GPS; maps get updated a few times a year and you can normally buy a new map download for your device. Sounds simple, but the reality is an expensive proposition. Map updates can easily cost over $50, so you may well prefer to just buy a new device instead as both TomTom and Garmin GPS units typically come with a guarantee that you will have access to the latest map when you buy the device. Subsequent map updates are a pay option.

Both TomTom and Garmin sell GPS units that give lifetime map updates for free, which are a good deal if you plan to use the device for a number of years. The road network isn’t materially changing every day but it does change significantly over a period of years. Two way roads become one way, highway exits get opened/closed and, less frequently, new roads get built.

garmin-nuvi-760TomTom comes out on top here since it has plenty more affordable devices available with lifetime free map updates than Garmin. Plus TomTom has a community feature called MapShare, where owners can submit map updates which then cascade to other participants which is a great way to keep the device up to date. MapShare only works if the device’s current map is less than a year old, so it’s not a long term replacement for buying a new map.

Many TomTom and Garmin GPS units can also receive traffic information over FM and re-route you to avoid snarl-ups. Again both companies offer units that provide this service free for the life of the device. With traffic updates, both TomTom and Garmin have plenty of affordable devices that offer the service for free. The one differentiating factor is that many Garmin units have an FM receiver built into the unit whereas most TomTom get reception through an external antenna that is part of the car charger cable. Garmin FTW on traffic.

Clever routing

I’ll say upfront that this seems to be roughly a tie. TomTom has a clever system on most of its GPS units called ‘IQ Routes’ that calculates routes based on historical traffic patterns for the area and time of day that you are traveling. Garmin meanwhile has ‘trafficTrends’, which does a similar job, although few of its units have this feature.  Most of the research I’ve read indicates that on some occasions one system is better and on others, the competing system prevails.

Output qualities

Both TomTom and Garmin offer GPS units with regular 3.5″ and widescreen 4.3″ screens. TomTom also has some affordable 5″ devices. It seems that the Garmin devices are generally brighter than comparable TomTom units, although TomTom owners don’t seem to actively complain that they are unable to view the screen of their GPS.

It’s a different matter when it comes to speaker volume, where TomTom owners seem to praise the loudness of their devices which is important if you like to listen to the car radio at a decent volume. By comparison there is plenty of feedback out there from Garmin owners complaining that they have to keep an eye on their GPS in case its instructions are drowned out by the radio. Some of the TomTom units also have adaptive volume settings that output louder instructions on the highway.

Any recommendations?

Like I mentioned earlier, I mainly considered the three factors above. I was definitely interested in Bluetooth and FM transmitter features, the hands-free phone capability is appealing and makes all the more sense when coupled with anXL340TM FM transmitter for hearing callers over the car radio. I’ve had experience with in-car FM transmitters in the past and can certainly attest that reception can be hit and miss, so I decided to pass on the feature.

I decided that I wanted a widescreen GPS to make it easier to read all the info that gets crammed into the screen, and 4.3″ was big enough for my needs. It seemed to be a tie on routing but I liked the crowdsourcing idea of MapShare for getting up to date info from the community.  The price difference between devices with lifetime maps and traffic updates vs the same model without those features was close enough to make the lifetime updates seem like a good idea. Finally I wanted to be able to hear instructions clearly over whatever was piping through the car radio.

All of that guided me to the TomTom XL340S-TM. The XL bit means it has a 4.3″ widescreen, the S means it has some nice extras like spoken street names and lane guidance for funky highway exits and the TM means it has free lifetime traffic and map updates.  There are some pretty good deals available online for this unit.

I then proceeded to download the Eric Cartman voice, so the TomTom now curses at me even when I’m going the right way.  I feel that’s a regression from my passenger navigator who only cursed occasionally, but she tells me  it’s progress.

Neil Berman

Dec 25, 2010 Posted by | Hardware, Mobile, Reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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