TomTom Go 910 with remote control. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Russell Purcell
TomTom portable navigation systems
As an automotive journalist I often find myself driving automobiles that come equipped with built-in GPS (global positioning system) navigation systems right from the factory. At first I saw these systems as novelty items reserved for the consumer with deep enough pockets to buy (or lease) a luxury car or SUV, but recently I have noticed a trend towards offering these in many mid-priced automobiles as well. The new systems are user friendly, offer an incredible range of features and quickly prove their worth when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory. In short, they are no longer just a novel electronic add-on, but an effective tool for salespeople, contractors and anyone else who finds they are spending a lot of time behind the wheel.
The latest trend in navigation is the introduction of portable units that users can move from car-to-car, bike-to-bike, or even use on foot. TomTom NV is one of the giants in this sector, and introduced the first integrated navigation device, the TomTom GO, in May 2004. The company now offers a wide range of models including six units dedicated for automotive use, one for motorcycles, as well as software and GPS modules for a wide selection of PDAs and mobile phones. I recently spent a couple weeks comparing three of the company’s most popular automotive models – One XL-S, GO 720 and GO 910.
TomTom navigation devices are ready to go right out of the box. They come pre-loaded with maps of both Canada and the United States, as well as a seemingly endless library of points-of-interest. Once charged (or powered up) users can customize the unit in a number of ways via the bright, touch-screen LCD screen. Maps can be displayed in either 2D or 3D form, in a variety of colours and oriented to either direction of travel or with a northern bias. Once the user enters an address or destination the device will plan a route based on your selected parameters – e.g. shortest distance, avoiding highways – and the display will relay an estimate of trip duration, distance and directional arrows as well as a constantly updating map. At the end of the day users can manage, update and back-up their TomTom using TomTom HOME, the company’s free software program for PCs.
TomTom users can correct map errors they discover and upload them using this software, ensuring that the onboard maps are always current and as precise as possible.
TomTom One XLS; photo courtesy TomTom. Click image to enlarge
The One XL-S is the latest version of the economical One-XL, but this new variant adds text-to-speech capabilities. Street names and route directions are announced by one of the TomTom’s onboard voice options which allows the driver to focus on the task at hand, driving, instead of the screen. The other two models I evaluated took this feature to the next level by allowing you to record your own voice to deliver commands.
This unit featured the standard fare of inputs used for route planning such as selection by city, address, recent destination or proximity; but you could also get specific by indicating points on the map or latitude and longitude positioning numbers. Once your route is planned you can watch a demo that follows the route via maps, and it is so well thought out that the screen indicates speeds (accurate to actual posted speeds, or speed of traveling once you get under way), time and distance of trip. The OEM unit in the Mercedes-Benz test vehicle I was driving during my time with the TomTom trio was put to shame by features such as this, not to mention the TomToms were much easier to operate.
TomTom Go 720 screen. Click image to enlarge
The GO 720 features a slim-line charging cradle that can either be plugged into the wall or draw its charge from a computer via a USB cable. It features dimensions similar to that of the ONE XL-S and utilizes the same 4.3-inch screen. However, it is wrapped in a protective soft rubber coating that should protect the unit body in the event of a short fall.
I was not impressed with the windshield bracket used for this model, as it proved to be very finicky, and its adjustability was hampered by a stiff mechanism.
The addition of TomTom Jukebox allows you to store MP3 files and keep them organized by play lists, artist or album names or even song titles. The files themselves are transmitted via FM signals to your car’s audio system. You can also use the Jukebox function to store or read document files, digital photos or to connect to your iPod.
The 720 allows users to view the route as text, images, or on constantly updated map. Much like the One XL-S you can select from a list of voices – male or female, in a variety of languages – but with this unit you can even use your own voice or purchase celebrity voices for a bit more flair. Mr. T would be my choice.
The GO 720 also offers a feature that could save you some headaches and maybe even your driver’s license. You can set the 720 to emit audible tones to warn you when you exceed set speed limits (great for those unexpected school zones).
TomTom Go 910, profile with mount. Click image to enlarge
The TomTom 910 is the Rolls-Royce of portable navigation devices, and almost as heavy. It features a durable ABS body packed with a long menu of cool tricks and features, but for some reason it sports a smaller four-inch screen. Much like the 770, a compact charging cradle makes it easy to keep the 910 ready for duty via a standard wall plug or USB cable.
The Go 910 includes TomTom Jukebox with iPod control, and has the capability to store up to 20 gigabytes of data. Part of this capacity is gobbled up by complete maps of the USA, Canada and Europe, but there is still room for hundreds of songs and photos.
If you sign up for the TomTom Plus subscription service for real-time traffic and weather alerts it will help you plan your route for both time efficiency and safety. This service requires the use of a cell phone with wireless data connection capabilities, but this also allows you to download maps and useful updates on the run.
The Go 910 is the one to choose if you like to travel with friends. It includes TomTom Buddies, a clever tracking system that allows you to monitor the progress of your friends (if similarly equipped) down the road. You can follow their route on the map and even send them text messages.
I found the 910 to be cumbersome and awkward to use. Its odd shape and heavy weight made it tough to mount and the windshield bracket seemed to be overmatched. The suction to the glass was more than sufficient, but the connection between the head unit and the bracket was susceptible to speed bumps and potholes. A permanent mounting solution would be the best option for this versatile device, as it would no doubt be a favourite with full-time RVers or long haul truckers who would be attracted to its many entertainment and communication upgrades.
Many TomTom devices offer Bluetooth 2.0 capabilities which permits hands-free cell phone usage for multiple phones, making them perfect for people that share vehicles or just the TomTom unit. If this is a feature you find attractive, consult the company’s website to make sure that your phone is compatible.
All three of my test units came equipped with a menu of options to assist you should you need help. At the touch of a button you can determine your specific location, as well as get quick directions to the closest help whether walking, driving or phoning for assistance. A library of road safety, auto maintenance and first aid guides are also on hand in case you need to make do until help arrives.
I was very surprised by the fact that I found the ONE XL-S to be my favourite of the three units tested, but for my needs it offered all the functions I required, had the most stable mounting system and proved to have the best battery life. It also seemed to acquire its signal much quicker than the two higher-end models, which I assume is probably due to it having to perform fewer checks at start up due to its reduced number of features. The Go 720’s rubber-coated case seemed like a feature that should be standard on all models, so I hope trickle down the line in the future. As for contestant number three, the GO 910, it seemed to be more like an appliance to me, and would be best suited for heavy users that spend extended periods on the road.
At the end of my time with this trio of TomToms I have to admit I was impressed. I found them easy to set-up and intuitive to use. Even more impressive was the fact that they all proved to offer more features AND outperform the very expensive OEM factory unit fitted to the 2008 Mercedes-Benz that served as the test vehicle for this study. When compared head-to-head, the TomToms reacted quicker to both my inputs and my failure to follow directions, plotting route revisions very quickly on the fly. This was proof enough that portable GPS navigation units are more than a gimmick and actually, quite a bargain.