- Consumer Electronics & Personal Gadgets
A Sat Nav With Humour and Attitude
How My Journey With TomTom Could Help You With Your Travels
Have you ever wondered whether a sat nav should be your travelling companion, and if so which one would be right for you; if so then perhaps my journey with our TomTom may help? We sometime refer to her affectionately as Tomasia (pet name) as we have her setup on the default English British female voice.
She has been fun to be with over the years and have guided us safely through cities, over hills and down country lanes for many thousands of miles without too many false turnings and dead ends. Over the years she's done a better job at navigating than I could ever do and with greater ease.
Below is my journey with her, where we're at and where we're heading; and on the way providing you with information which may help you to make an informed decision of where you may wish to go on your journey to getting your first or replacement sat nav.
All photos in this article were taken by me for illustration purposes being either of places I've visited or equipment I own.
Garmin and TomTom Satnavs
From personal experience as described in detail in this review article, and from my extensive research into GPS navigation systems, I’ve found TomTom and Garmin Satnavs to be two of the best GPS systems currently on the market.
Tailor Your Garmin GPS to Your Requirements
Garmin on Amazon
As with TomTom all Garmin Models have lots of great features and are slim line for convenient carrying in your pocket when not in use; and most models give options for a basic package or one of the lifetime packages for regular Traffic and Maps updates.
Review & Recommendations
What to look for in a good Sat Nav system
Wide Screen, Voice and other considerations
- Most important is whether your model includes free lifetime map updates; if so then it will quickly save you a small fortune.
- Voice is important, although I think most devices use voice instructions as standard. It should go without saying that having detailed navigation instructions given clearly by voice is a lot easier on the navigator and driver who would otherwise have to study and interpret the map information rather than just give them a casual glance for confirmation.
- Good Navigation options can make life so much easier, the facilities I like on the TomTom is the option to just enter a post code and TomTom takes you right there, accurate to within metres (yards). The other navigation option we frequently use on the TomTom is the 'Recent Destination' which means that at the press of just a few buttons TomTom will take you straight back to somewhere you recently visited; very useful when on holiday, and on the homeward journey just selection the HOME option takes you straight to your home without any reprograming.
- Other services and accessories, including features, peripherals and software will vary from Make and Model. As many of the main features such as maps, voice and communication are generally standard in most good GPS sat nav devices it's the services, accessories and other features on the individual Makes and Models that are likely to be the determining factor in your final choice.
Whether you buy TomTom or you buy Garmin as two of the best Sat Navs on the Market is in the end your personal choice. However, you may find my journey with TomTom described in detail below helpful in deciding so that you can make an informed decision.
In the beginning there was the Atlas
And in the Atlas were Roads, Cities and Towns
Before Tomasia I was the navigator whenever we went on holiday to France or took a day trip in Wales or the West Country. To navigate successfully I need good atlases of Britain and France, I needed to stay alert at all time while travelling concentrating on where we were and where we were going plotting the best route, or at least trying to plot the best route. When in France we try to avoid the toll roads when we know that running parallel to them are free roads; the difficulty being that all road signs keep trying to direct you to the toll roads and finding access to the free roads can be tricky. The great thing about the free roads in France that run parallel to the toll roads is that the journey is more varied, going through towns and villages where you can stop of for a rest bite and enjoy the local architecture and culture rather than motorway and service stations all the way; and it doesn't add too much time to the journey in that between the towns and villages it's major roads just as good as the motorway.
The only electronic gadget we had before TomTom was a simple Traffic Master device; which we had as a free promotional gift when I bought my first mobile phone many years earlier. A simple device (pictured above) that lights up with green or red lights indicating whether the motorway ahead was clear or not e.g. if the E light lit red that indicated that there were problems for East bound traffic, and if you were travelling West on the motorway then there was nothing to worry about, but if you were travelling East such as on the M4 from Bristol to London you get advance warning of problems ahead and might want to consider coming off at the next junction and taking the A roads instead. By today's standards it's primitive but at the time it proved surprisingly accurate and allowed us to navigate alternate non motorway routes on more than one occasion. But of course since TomTom (Tomasia) we haven't used it and its just collecting dust.
Along came Tomasia
An Introduction by a friend
My journey with Tomasia begins over six years ago shortly after a friend introduced us to the concept of Sat navs, he did it by taking me on a tour of the local roads to a destination just a few miles away demonstrating all the redeeming features of a sat nav and how easy it was to program a destination and use. He also demonstrated the issues with sat navs, such as not being aware of road works and not always understanding one way systems.
I was impressed with his practical demonstration of sat -navs; at the time he was using a cradle specifically for his large screen mobile phone to use it as a sat- nav. So the hunt was on for a device to meet our requirements and after a lot of research I opted for the TomTom Go 910 specifically because it had a whopping large 20 Gb hard drive large enough to store all your MP3 music as well as all the maps and other information; and an MP3 player built in. I would have preferred a device that played WAV rather than MP3 files, but unfortunately that isn't an option these days. Coming from the days of CD music when high fidelity was the order of the day and stood for quality music I find MP3 sound flat; not surprising considering MP3 files (unlike WAV) are not true music files but data files that chop the high and low frequencies.
In the last six years we have used Tomasia extensively across the lengths of France and up and down the roads of Britain, and rarely has she let us down badly, although there have been a few occasions; so the lesson learnt is always have a good old trusty Atlas to hand in the car because even the best of sat navs can occasionally fail you. The main problem is usually one of poor reception or no satellite signal due to unusual atmospheric conditions; it doesn't happen often but when it does happen you want to quickly revert back to good old fashioned navigation using the atlas and following the road signs until your sat nav springs back into life. Although it can be amusing where the signal is weak and the poor old sat nav gets confused as to where she is, often telling you to turn left or right on the motorway when there is no turning.
And there are times when she appears to have attitude, particularly when we ignore Tomasia for a while as we take a detour to get petrol or do a bit of shopping; then when we resume the route plotted by her she seems to have a habit of repeating her instructions three times. Another time we ignored her for ages when we took a different route (off the main planned route) to do a bit of sightseeing of a local French village; when, after our break, we resumed our planned journey she wouldn't speak to us for ages leaving me to watch her maps and relay the information to my wife who was driving until, near the journey's end Tomasia piped up and then wouldn't shut up, constantly chattering instructions as if there was no tomorrow.
However, her main redeeming factors; the biggest asset to me as navigator in having her, are that:-
- I can just sit back and relax and let her do all the navigating and givie all the instructions to the driver.
- The hours saved in going straight to our destination by either the quickest or shortest route and when arriving in a strange city not spending the next half hour going round in circles looking for the final road tucked away in one of the many sides roads you have to navigate once you're close to your destination.
- And avoiding toll roads in France is a doddle, I just tell Tomasia that I want to avoid the toll roads and she seeks out all those free main roads (some of them free motorways) that run parallel to the paid motorways and takes us straight to our destination by the quickest route avoiding toll roads so it costs us nothing other than petrol and a little extra travelling time, pleasantly spent admiring the beautiful French countryside and villages which can't be done from the monotonous straight toll roads.
- Also, on long journeys as navigator with nothing much to do because Tomasia is doing it all for you if we have a five hour drive ahead of us it can get rather monotonous and seem like forever. Although our five hour journeys will end up being seven hours because we all (especially me) like regular coffee breaks where we can stretch our legs. Strangely for me long journeys seem much quicker provided I can get regular feedback on progress; if I can see the miles and the time to ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival), all information displayed by TomTom on the navigation screen, then the perception of time passing is much faster.
4-Way Splitter Adaptor Car Cigarette Lighter Plug
Includes 2 USB Sockets
With an increase in gadgets used in cars conventional car cigarette plugs are still common and with the addition of two USB charger sockets an even greater number of gadgets can be used; such as iPods, smart phones, MP3 players and GPS systems.
We recently bought one of these to replace our old one and they are just great, with more and more in-car gadgets going over to USB the addition of USB sockets to these splitter adapter plugs is proving useful. Even if you do not have any USB devices to work in the car at the moment buying a splitter with this option is future proofing it uses.
Music all the way with Tomasia
From on-board speakers to in car speaker system and power supply
Our satnav at the time was the TomTom Go 910, affectionately named by us as Tomasia is one of the few dedicated sat navs with a large hard drive and MP3 player, more recent models of TomTom and other sat nav systems don’t seem to provide music options. Initially when I checked the reason given was primarily because some European Union (EU) member states were slow in ratifying European Legislation to permit the use of short range FM Transmitters, which also affected the iPod and other similar devices. Although most EU states have now adopted the European Legislation the main reason stated seems to be one of licencing issues in some member states.
In any event our system had an inbuilt MP Player and a large 20 Gb hard drive to store as much music as you wanted and computer software interface software to not only manage your music on the TomTom but also to get all the latest maps and other updates from the web to transfer to your device.
As we have an old model it doesn’t have all the wireless options like an inbuilt FM Transmitter or Bluetooth which are standard these days, all connections to the in-car speaker system had to be wired.
The TomTom will play the music through its own speakers, which is fine for voice but a bit flat for music so ideally you want to transfer the music to your car speaker system for better sound. When we first had our TomTom we had a cassette player in our car so the solution was an adaptor for cassette players, which was a dummy cassette with a lead that plugged into the TomTom so that when you pressed play on your car cassette radio you got the music from the TomTom playing nicely through your cars system.
However, when we got a newer car it had a CD player instead. Yes we could take CDs with us instead and not use the MP3 player on the TomTom, CDs using WAV standard music files is better quality than MP3 data files, except for the convenience of having a vast library of music on one system that you can browse and set to play either in sequence or randomly. In order to get music from the TomTom to the car system we needed an FM Transmitter. The next problem was one of power in that the TomTom is powered from the cars cigarette lighter and so is the FM Transmitter; and as there is only one cigarette lighter in the cars the solution was a power extension lead with two or more outlets (as pictured above).
All GPS sat nav systems like any other device used in the car is powered from the cars cigarette lighter, and even with the convergence of technologies these days with people having so many handheld devices it’s getting more to want to power and use more than one device in the car at the same time. The ideal solution is to invest in a car cigarette lighter socket extension giving you two or three power outlets for devices.
The FM Transmitter we have is great, it works better with some car radios than others and its only short range so it needs to be located quite close to the car radio to work, but they’re not expensive and if you can get it to work it’s a charm. The FM Transmitter plugs into the TomTom and transmits the music in FM so all you have to do is find a free FM frequency on your car radio and set the FM transmitter to that frequency so that your car radio picks up the signal just like any other radio signal.
The great thing about having the music on the TomTom rather than playing independently from another device or the cars CD player or Radio is that TomTom has control and when she wants to give navigational instructions she temporarily mutes the music, and also if you’re playing TomTom’s through your car’s speaker system TomTom uses her own speaker for giving road directions which is as it should be for best clarity and least distraction to the driver who can then if they wish glance at the map (which is in the same place as the voice came from) for final confirmation of instruction.
Using TomTom on your Computer
GPS Sat-Nav software programs
One great thing I like about TomTom is the ease at which you can plug it into your computer to make updates and backups and get the latest free updates from the official TomTom website; I assume other systems work in a similar manner.
If you don’t have the lifetime free maps update on you model then from time to time it’s worthwhile to buy the latest and most up-to-date maps for the countries where you frequently travel, or to buy other facilities on offer to upload to your TomTom e.g. an updated list of safety cameras that automatically integrates into the maps on your TomTom.
With our old TomTom I don’t bother buying anything from the TomTom website except the latest maps of France every few years, as it’s a destination we frequently visit and, unlike Britain, France are currently undergoing a massive road building programme; especially in the south where we most often travel. So each time we visit France there’s always loads of new major roads that we’re not familiar with.
However, I do regularly go to the official TomTom website with the TomTom plugged into my computer to get some of the latest free updates for hotels, petrol stations, sights of interest, restaurants and so on, all of which integrates into the maps so I can see their symbols pop up on the TomTom’s screen when navigating and direct my wife off the planned route to get to one of these facilities as and when required.
Whether you buy TomTom or you buy Garmin as two of the best Sat Navs on the Market is in the end your personal choice. However, you may find my journey with TomTom described in detail below helpful in deciding so that you can make an informed decision.
Life after Tomasia
Will There be Another Like Her
About a year ago Tomasia went through a phase of not turning on for the first half hour of a journey (not even a spark of life) not what you expect from a good sat nav, so I guess she is showing her age. So we were thinking of retiring her and buying a new buddy. As we got to know and trust Tomasia so well, and as over the years she had served us well our Initial thoughts was to replace like with like and get the latest TomTom model with a good size hard drive and an MP3 Player; but on doing our preliminary research we discovered TomTom didn’t support the MP3 Player facility anymore, a great disappointment.
So on further investigation I broadened my research and narrowed it down to the Garmin series of Sat Navs and TomTom being my two favourites. Although all said and done generally there’s not a great deal of difference between one system and another in that they all use GPS maps to navigate you from A to B; the main differences being the utility software, and other facilities and options that will very between models and across model ranges; and its these secondary differences that led me to favour the top range models for TomTom and Garmin sat navs.
Ironically, since doing all my research over a year ago Tomasia has behaved herself admirably so she has won a temporary reprieve from retirement; until such times as she does become too scatty to be a reliable companion in our travels. Or, dying on us, as happened a year after writing this section; as detailed in our final journey with Tomasia below.
Farewell to Tomasia
Our journey to France this year was a plagued with electronic failures from start to finish, one of which was the demise of Tomasia; but all’s well that ends well, as revealed below.
Traveling from home to the ferry port in Dover we know well and with the radio in the car there was little need to plug our sat-nav in other than to set the FM transmitter and listen to some music stored on the TomTom hard drive. This I did just an hour into our journey, just as we were approaching the motorway services at Reading, only to discover that our car cigarette lighter adapter socket splitter plug didn’t work because of a faulty plug. Therefore we pulled into the Reading Services to see if we could find a replacement, but to no avail. So we moved onto the next (and last Services) on our journey, on the M25 just before we were due to leave it to make the final stretch for Dover.
At the Services on the M25 we did manage to buy a new car cigarette lighter plug and adaptor, and a good one too; two conventional lighter sockets and two USB sockets. However, all this was in vain as when I plugged in the TomTom (Tomasia) it was lifeless; albeit it was working fine just three hours earlier when I tested it just before the journeys start. We arrived at Dover in the early hours of the morning, with an hour to spare before we needed to board the ferry; it was at this point that our son’s iPod died? Then just before boarding the ferry we topped up on petrol only to find the petrol flap wouldn’t shut e.g. the petrol flap locking pin was stuck; so as an emergency repair I wedged a piece of cardboard in the flap to jam it shut.
On the ferry, only a 90 minute crossing I tried the TomTom time and time again, but no life; so as we would be arriving in Calais at 4:00 in the morning and wanted to make our way down south, avoiding toll roads, in the dark I resorted to studying the France Road Atlas we brought with us (as a precautionary back up). Our final destination this year was La Rochelle which can be done in a day from Calais but we like to split the journey over two days so we don’t rush, and can enjoy the journey. Without TomTom our target for the first leg of the journey was Orleans, France; with TomTom we would have got much further and would have found a hotel for the night just an hour or two from La Rochelle where we could have spent the day before booking into our holiday cottage.
The first half of the journey isn’t too bad, it’s all main roads and having made the journey annually for years we now have enough savvy to avoid the toll roads. It’s the last stage of the journey (on the second day) that without a sat-nav is more difficult because there are fewer trunk roads and more driving on B roads between towns and villages. Therefore our game plan was to stop off at any major towns on our way down to Orleans on the first day to see if we could pick up a cheap replacement for our dead TomTom. We did this but didn’t find any hypermarkets that sold sat-navs so our last hope was to reach Orleans before the shops close (which in France is 8 pm.); and then find an inexpensive hotel for the night (which in France is quite easy to do).
Tailor Your TomTom to Your Requirements
TomTom Models on Amazon
All TomTom Models these day features lots of great technology including their IQ Routes Technology which is designed to save time by finding the shortest trips by calculating the fastest route based on the time of day. All their models now are slim line making them more convenient to carry in your pocket when not in use; and most models give the option of a basic package or going for one of the lifetime packages for regular Traffic and Maps updates.
Definitely a TomTom model for geeks, it has all the usual great features of TomTom including the 5 inch widescreen and slim line build, but also includes Bluetooth and Voice Recognigtion.
Long Live TomTom
Anyway, we arrived in Orleans, France in plenty of time and headed for a hypermarket; where fortunately they sold sat-navs. Looking at the range of sat-navs on display in the shop, exclusively TomToms and Garmins, we decided we would just buy a cheap one specifically because the default settings would be in French, which we can’t read, so I would be relying exclusively on the icons to navigate around the menus to operate and programme it. One of the cheapest models, which looked quite good and which had good specs was a 5 inch widescreen TomTom. So we caught the attention of a shop assistant to enquiry further about it; his English wasn’t too good, and we can’t speak French, so communication was limited; but after years of going to France for holidays we’re use to this and get by quite well. Anyway, after explaining our predicament and telling the shop assistant what we were looking for he advised us to buy a different model to what we were looking at, a little more expensive, and a smaller screen (just 4.3 inches). The big advantage in the model he was recommending is that for the price it comes with a lifetime of free map updates, which from past experience with our old TomTom would very quickly become a big saving. Therefore, we took his advice and bought the TomTom Start 20; albeit that the model he was pointing out was only a basic model with a small storage space.
Out next problem was getting it operation for the following morning. So once we’d found a suitable hotel and settled in our son switched on his laptop and logged into the TomTom website using the free Wi-Fi provided as part of the hotel service, and from there was able to plug in our new TomTom to his laptop and set it up in English via the TomTom website; phew.
So for the next day, and for the rest of the week we enjoyed the pleasures of being guided around France with our new TomTom; and although only a cheap model discovering how the technology had advanced since our first purchase all those years ago. Some of the great new features is the speedometer and some rather nifty navigation options in the menu such as finding alternative routes when you stumble across a road block e.g. you just let TomTom know that the road ahead is blocked and it will find a suitable alternative way around the block to take you on your journey.
Having now used our new TomTom for some months we are delighted with it. The screen might be smaller than we would have chosen if we’d taken our time to choose a new model, but it’s big enough; it does its job. Being a cheap model the storage capacity may be small, but it’s large enough to hold all the maps for Europe and associated date; and if you want to expand the storage space there’s a slot in the back of the TomTom to take an expansion card. The big bonus is the lifetime free map updates, so we are well pleased; albeit it doesn’t have the facility to hold our music like our old TomTom did, but then neither does any of the other sat-navs these days, so this is just a slight inconvenience which we can compensate for by also plugging our son’s iPod into the cigarette lighter adapter and splitter for the music.
One final note of optimism; our son’s iPod successfully rebooted once the batteries had fully drained (which took a week) and ironically was when were back in England and making our way home from our French holiday.