Review – TomTom USA Navigator GPS

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The core of the TomTom Navigator GPS system is a Y-shaped segment of three cables with bits at the ends. One segment ends in a docking connector for your selected model of handheld (Center). One ends in a standard cigarette lighter power adapter (Left). The third ends in a 2 inch by 2 inch rounded white plastic square that houses the GPS antenna, reciever, and interface hardware (Right). The back of this square is covered in rubberized magnets, allowing you to stick it to a metalic surface–for instance, the roof of a car. Or the side, for that matter, if you’re brave enough. Enough cable is included to let you put the reciever on top of a decent-sized vehicle and thread the connectors back inside comfortably–about five feet. There’s a small suction cup on this segment of cable to help keep it out of the way.

Along with the GPS hardware and the software bundle, the TomTom package includes a host of mounting equipment. There’s a flexible arm with suction cup, a vent mount, and an adhesive dashboard mount, each of which attaches to a plastic universal cradle with locking arms. I actually liked the mounting hardware, especially the cradle portion, quite a bit. They’re all quite sturdy, and I’d have no worries committing my Axim to their care so long as they’re properly used. The cradle has two sliding ‘arms’ that tighten down on the sides of the handheld, gripping it into place between foam pads. To release the arms, you press a button on the side of the cradle. Very simple, nothing fancy, but effective. There’s also mounting equipment for the mounting equipment: an adhesive-backed metallic plate to hold the GPS reciever, and an adhesive-backed plastic disc to attach the suction cup to, just in case you don’t have suitable surfaces available.

One consideration is that the GPS will not work without power being supplied to it via the DC jack. This is definitely a vehicle-only system. If you want more portable navigation, you need to pair the TomTom GPS with a more compact handheld reciever. In my case, I used my little Garmin eTrex portable for a comparison.

TomTom’s specifications have a boilerplate claim of accuracy to 33 feet or less, 95% of the time, which I’m sure is correct. The actual performance varies depending on your location, weather conditions, atmospheric conditions, and a host of other variables. In my section of western New York, on a sunny day, with no particularly unusual geospheric or solar activity, getting a positional fix of 12 to 16 feet wasn’t uncommon.

Personally, I still find it incredible that such little tiny pieces of hardware can figure out where you are, what direction you’re facing, and even tell you exactly how fast you’re going just by reading the signals from a network of satellites. They can, though, and they do. Time To First Fix on the TomTom is about 40 seconds when first activated (i.e. ‘cold’) and about 6-8 seconds reaquiring after disruption (i.e. ‘warm’).

The receiver has a strong tendancy to lose signal when moved inside the vehicle, into a building, or a tunnel. This is, however, run of the mill for GPS devices. The signals that they read are so faint, and their need for precision so great, that even small disruptions tend to break the signal lock. Even certain kinds of windshield treatments can block the signals. Fortunately, the receiver reaquires very fast, making disruptions a nuisance rather than a problem. During my testing, the TomTom GPS consistently relocked several seconds faster than my eTrex. This may be due to a larger antenna, higher end components, or the practically unlimited power supply from the car–any way you slice it, it’s welcome. Treecover while driving through wooded areas should not be a serious problem, unless you’re driving through a rainforest.

One thing that needs to be discussed is connecting the GPS to a PocketPC, and the PocketPC software’s reaction. The PocketPC component of ActiveSync is, to put it simply, slightly dumber than a rock. It employs no discretion or intelligence when it monitors the PocketPC’s docking port, but rather tries to connect to anything that it touches. When you plug in the TomTom GPS, ActiveSync sees it and tries to connect to the GPS the way it would to a desktop PC. When the GPS does not respond in the way that it expects, ActiveSync–being stupid–keeps trying to communicate with it, virtually freezing the PocketPC. The only practical way to recover from it is to soft-reset the PocketPC. The only way to prevent this is to have another program assert control of the PocketPC’s serial port before connecting the GPS. Some map programs do this, some don’t. Unfortunately, the TomTom software does not, so you have to add a third-party program to open the serial port, then attach the GPS, then close the third party program and start TomTom. Very inconvenient, in my opinion.

The main reason that the TomTom package costs so much for an unremarkable, if fairly well built, GPS system (MSRP $180) is because of the software bundle. The box comes with five CDs containing complete maps for the entire United States, from Alaska to Florida, Hawaii to Maine. Every road, every address, every gas station and diner and store.

Think about that for a minute. While 100% accuracy is never guaranteed, this comes about as close as you can reasonably expect from modern, commercially available technology.

Unlike competitors, you must load maps by state, rather than having the option of loading by county. This is kind of inconvenient for those driving only within a specific area–you are forced to provide room for maps of Albany and Manhatten and Long Island even if you only need to drive to Rochester or Buffalo or Batavia. Likewise, if you’ll be driving across state lines, you’ll need to carry the entirity of both states, even if you’re only going 5 miles over the border. It’s an age old trade-off: what you gain in the user-friendlyness of not having to know county names, you lose in customizibility. Personally, I prefer the county approach, since if you don’t want to figure out what counties you need you can just load them all, creating the same effect as the load-by-state system, while if you only need a few then you have that option.

Loading up my home state of New York cost me 33 megabytes of storage. For all that the maps contain, this is excellent. If you are planning a cross-country trip, however, you had better plan on bringing either a laptop to swap out maps with, or a memory card of at least 512 MB capacity. Loading the entire North East US would take over 200 MB, and there is a reason that the entire U.S. takes 5 CDs.

The install program offers three options for installing maps. First is transfer by ActiveSync. Second is direct transfer to a memory card via attached card reader. Third is exporting the files to a folder on the hard drive, such as a synchronized documents folder. Unfortunately, TomTom on my Axim would not recognize the maps if I copied them to the memory card, nor if I just put them in my synchronized files directory. It insisted that the maps had to be transferred by ActiveSync before it would read them. If you just heard a noise, don’t worry–that was just the collective shudder of everyone who’s ever transferred large files via ActiveSync. Fortunately, though, it wasn’t as bad as all that. While a bit slow, the map transfer went off without any major hitches. And when I started up the program, it was definitely worth it.

The TomTom’s maps are, to put it in one word, extensive. When they call it a ‘personal navigation system’, they aren’t kidding. It not only tells you where you are, but where your destination is, where everything else around you is, and how to get there. Envision this: you’ve decided to take a drive to some scenic point. Besides showing your destinations exact location, the Navigator can also tell you what roads to take getting there, how far it is, how long it will take, where the gas stations and eateries are along the way, and any other points of interest worth seeing while you’re there. I’ve been told that there are some issues with the program’s choice of routes when giving directions–specifically, that it has a tendancy to direct one to highways–but I haven’t experienced this. Then again, from my house you have to drive for 30 minutes to even find a highway, so I can’t conclusively comment.

Besides simple linear route planning, it also offers more advanced and on-the-fly options. For instance, it can tell you what facilities are within X distance from you, tell you the precise distance to each one, and guide you to one of them step by step. The coverage is impressive: eateries, parking facilities, hotels, car repair businesses, fuel stations, landmarks, parks, airports, religious sites, companies, practically anything. Even things you wouldn’t think of needing to find in a hurry are listed–I can’t imagine being in some situation that would require me to find the nearest Masonic Temple, but if I were the TomTom system would do it.

Another excellent application of this for travelling is emergency use. If you’re in the middle of someplace you’ve never been, and someone becomes sick or injured, a few taps will put you on course for the nearest hospital. I see that as being a very valuable thing to have on any road trip. Likewise for vehicle repair.

Two nitpicks. One is that the TomTom software required “activation” before use, which meant letting it talk directly to the TomTom website. This I do not like–no software should insist on phoning home before I use it. It would also be a great inconvenience if you needed to install from a non-internet connected laptop while on the road.

The second is that while using it, TomTom misidentified two roads, merging road 1 into another and renaming road 2 with road 1′s name. The error was a minor one, and the road it moved was so rural as to only have one house on it’s entire length. Of course, in deference to Murphy’s Law, the one house that it displaced five miles over was the one house I was looking for at the time. Some errors muct be expected, given the size of the database and the number of roads it contains.

Overall I’m reasonably impressed with the TT Navigator. It seems like a very useful tool for those who drive extensively, even if its slightly impractical for more casual users.

Pros:

  • Solid, high-quality GPS design
  • Complete maps for all of USA

Cons:

  • Must transfer maps by ActiveSync
  • Software does not open COM port
  • Expensive
  • Navigator requires activation
  • Maps suffer slightly in rural areas

Bottom Line:

The TomTom Navigator pack is very impressive depite a few bugs and questionable design choices.

Purchase Information:

The package seels for $319.95 at the TomTom ste, http://www.tomtom.com/products/products.php?ID=208&Language=4.

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