Looking for a Nav system?

Editor's Note: this piece is quite long in the tooth at this point. I'm leaving it here for historical purposes, but I've got some updated commentary in the follow-on article Looking for a Nav system (revisited: 2018).

A friend (Hi, Laura) asked yesterday what Nav system that I would suggest. I told her that I was still recommending the TomTom series. Let me explain why...

Carol and I do a fair amount of driving, and some of it in places that I've never been before. Some of that in places where there are unique road challenges, like foreign-language signs (France), left-side driving (UK), unbelievably narrow streets (Ireland), and generally more ways to get lost than you care to imagine (one way and single-track roads in the Scottish Highlands in May, where you run into snow). So, for Carol and I, choice of a good Nav system is a pretty important thing.

Today, each of us have TomTom units in our cars, and we're pretty happy with them.

In the past, I've used Garmin, and to a lesser extent Magellan (makers, I believe, of the Hertz "Neverlost" system. I own, and enjoy, and enormous amount of Garmin's well-designed outdoor gear, and at least 2 or 3 car-only units due to my LoadMyTracks Macintosh GPS software. However, despite that large investment in Garmin's hardware and maps (oh, yes... that can be a large investment), I have moved away from Garmin for Nav and into the TomTom camp.

For my money, here are the key issues that bring me to the TomTom:

  1. Much more likely to believe you. Many of the most frustrating problems I've had with Nav units stem from the unit not believing me. I'm the human, I'm the owner, I can see what traffic and road impediments there are... for crying out loud, just trust me a little. I don't care whether it's a traffic jam or road construction, the TomTom seems to be much less likely to have you U-turn to get on its prescribed path and much more likely to just go with the flow, rerouting you in the direction you seem to want to go. It doesn't yell, it doesn't scream, it doesn't whine, it just routes.
  2. MapShare updating technology I'm certain this feature hasn't yet reached it's potential yet, but it's already really helpful. If you've ever used a Nav system, you've encountered errors in the maps. Permanent road closures, one-way roads, address screw-ups, replacement of stoplights with confusing interchanges, the whole kit-and-kaboodle. Now, for most purveyors of Nav systems, you get to sit and wait until their next map set comes out, and then only after you pay your money do you find out that they don't really care that Route 28 now has more interchanges than stoplights on it. Not true for the TomTom with MapShare. By plugging in the device and letting it download information form the net, you can benefit from the observations of your peers (and they can benefit from yours), while the maps become more accurate. Yes, you are, in effect, telling the TomTom folks just where they should focus their energies at verifying new roads, etc... yes, you don't get paid for it; and yes, you will still end up paying money to get their new maps next year. But, until then, you're getting something nearly as good, especially in places that you drive often.
  3. Better pricing for map updates I'm not 100% certain that this is still the case, but the Garmin maps used to be about twice the price and were updated about half as often. Probably about even in the end in terms of pricing, but the ability to skip a year without financial penalty or to get your maps more often is a big advantage. You be the decider!
  4. Better management software The TomTom folks realize that the Macintosh is a real market. The Garmin folks are lucky to consider it a hobby. If this weren't the case, I wouldn't have had to write LoadMyTracks, and there wouldn't be so many happy users of it.
  5. IQRoutes Here's another chance for you to work for TomTom, but again it's worth it. Using more recent units (the 930 and 730), TomTom monitors road movement based on anonymous reporting of trip times along segments of roads in its network. This information, in turn, is fed back to the user's TomTom and is the basis for attempting to provide a more accurate view of travel times based on this real data and the time of day and day of the week. It actually works quite well, especially when used in tandem with the Traffic receivers.
  6. Advanced Lane Guidance I have to admit, when I saw this originally, I thought: "cheesy gimmick". However, having now experienced what it's like to not have it in Toronto last weekend, I'm completely sold. It's not hard to imaging coming upon a set of interchanges that are confusing and poorly labeled. Most Nav units will give you turn-at-a-time information. Some will look ahead a bit and warn you that there's a second turn coming quickly. However, if the road splits 3 or more ways, the little left and right arrows aren't going to be nearly as useful or comforting as you like. Over the past weekend, we were in Toronto for a wedding and nearly missed the ceremony because I couldn't discern which of the 3 poorly-marked lanes I was supposed to be in. Had the TomTom had a better understanding of the intersection, it would have told me, but it does not. Had Canada better road signs, we'd not have made the wrong turn getting back on to our original highway (making it an even closer shave).

There are some drawbacks to the TomTom in comparison to some of the other Nav units out there. Key amongst them (for me at least) is that there is no in- built tracking. You can drive all month, but there's no way to find out where you've been and load it into your Mac for use with Google Maps (which is exactly the kind of thing that LoadMyTracks does).

Also, new for the 930's, there is a much more annoying mounting system. In particular, the older 910 mounting system had a powered base (you plug the DC power adapter into the base, not the unit) and a crank that tightened the mount's grip on your windshield. The 930's don't have either of these features, leaving you to unplug 2 cords and remove the unit from it's base in order to stash it in the glovebox. Further, if you have to move the unit often, just buy another mount. The new mounts don't hold the windshield well, and I haven't determined a technique that guarantees a good hold within the first 3 or 4 tries.

All things considered, I've been very happy with the TomTom units. Quite a bit more so than I had previously been with the Garmin units. Admittedly, things have changed in Garmin land over the last few years, and I have purchased some of the newer, smaller units, but they're just not as user-friendly as the TomToms, and that's a huge deal when you're trying to get to a wedding far from home, with two new friends in the back seat counting on you.