Sunday, July 13, 2008

GPS Devices: Navigon 2100, TomTom XL 330

TomTom recently sent me an XL 330 to review. (Full disclosure: TomTom used to be a client when I was at Hill & Knowlton. I have no commercial relationship with them any more although I'd love for them to become clients.) I have been using this along side the Navigon 2100 that I purchased (for $100; a post-Thanksgiving special at Staples). I also have CoPilot software on my old Motorola Q (although it doesn't work on my new Verizon 6800; waiting for new version).

Here are some early impressions:
  • The 4.3" screen is fabulous. For these old eyes, it makes a huge difference over the smaller GPS devices. You can actually read things on screen that on the smaller devices I have to squint or guess at.
  • The TomTom routing algorithms are very good. This contrasts with the Navigon algorithm which, even after their firmware upgrade, is very poor. I can't really rely on the Navigon unless I'm desperate; the TomTom is good.
  • Navigon's claim to fame is its visual display of road signs at major intersections. It's a nice feature but doesn't alone compensate for all of the other shortcomings of the device.
  • TomTom has desktop software that makes device maintenance a pleasure. While the process of adding points of interest is a bit inefficient (after loading a POI set, you should return back to the download page), it works cleanly. By contrast, the Navigon has no ability to add POIs, its existing set is not great and the third party workarounds just serve to point out just how bad the situation is.
  • TomTom has a great feature where when you plug in a USB cable, it asks you if you want to synch to a computer or merely use the USB for power. By contrast, the Navigon, unless you're using their special cable, assumes you want to synch to the computer and renders the device inoperable. Why do vendors force you to buy their specialized cables? I'm used to that in the cell phone world where even there, it's happening less and less. On devices like this, there's no excuse for it. Thank you, TomTom.
  • The TomTom UI is fairly intuitive. There are some things I had to poke around for a while to find but ultimately I was able to do everything I wanted to (and only then did I read the documentation to see if I had missed anything; I hadn't). The Navigon is slightly worse in this regard; many options require an additional touch or two to reach which given that you might be doing this while driving -- I know; you're not supposed to -- is an issue.
  • The windshield mount with the Navigon is this overly large contraption that works well but is too bulky for travel. The TomTom has a very nice ring-type device which I fear might grow loose over time but initially is a very compact solution.
  • To keep the purchase price down, it seems no one at this low end category includes a carrying case for the device. You'll have to spend another $10-20 to get something.
  • I'm disappointed in the battery life of all of these devices, routinely in the 2-4 hour range if you're not plugging in a car charger. I'll often spend more time than this in the car in the course of a day and thus, you have to figure out when you're going to charge the device unless you carry the car charger. I don't mind doing it in client meetings -- I'm the advanced technologies guy -- but for some people, this might be disruptive.
  • TomTom has a nice community-based feature to provide interim updates to maps. Exploiting the power of the community is increasingly going to be a competitive differentiator for these companies and TomTom does it well, Navigon not at all.
  • The good news about the Navigon: when I bought it, I got a free lifetime traffic subscsription. The bad news: I don't find much utility in these services. What I want out of a service (and on the radio, for that matter) is a binary judgment: it's better to stay on your route and plan for extra time, or you really should take this alternative; it's that bad. Right now I haven't seen a traffic service that offers that kind of simplicity.
  • The TomTom acquires the satellite signal MUCH faster than the Navigon. From a cold start, it takes the Navigon around a minute to determine location.
  • The TomTom is a little slow to do route recalculations. I have a few shortcuts I routinely take and after turning off on my own, the TomTom took sufficiently long to recalculate on that I would have missed my next turn.

For the reason of the lousy routing algorithm and the POI handling, I recommend strongly against the Navigon. TomTom isn't overly flashy. There's no "signature" feature. It just does everything the way you'd want it to.