What’s so great about TomTom?

Picture of a TomTom sat-nav showing truck specifications, next to its box.Last week I bought a new sat-nav, a TomTom Pro 5150 Truck Live, which is a specialist one for truck drivers which has information about vehicle size limits and truck speed limits (normal sat-navs do not, as they are made for car drivers and cars are not affected by any of these issues). I have been using a Garmin Nüvi 200 for about a year, which was the cheapest “decent” unit I could get at the time, and I had been getting frustrated with some of its shortcomings, including occasional misleading directions and mispronunciations of place names. I had heard that TomTom was the name in sat-navs and there was a good reason for this: that they were just better. This unit cost £30 more than the entry-level Garmin truck sat-nav (£300 rather than £270, although from an online supplier through Amazon rather than Halford’s), although the Garmin appears to have been reduced to clear because the cheapest Garmin is now £375.

I have, however, been rapidly disappointed by the quality of this device. I’ve tried it out almost every day since last Sunday, and used it in a car, a van and in 7.5T trucks (I still have not driven anything bigger than that) in both urban and rural areas. I first used it while visiting my friend in Dorset last Sunday, then on delivery runs in the Reading area, Kent, Essex and London (but not central London) this week. The problems revealed themselves very quickly. The first thing I noticed was the lack of sign detail and that what there was was inaccurate (the Garmin shows you real-life signs when approaching interchanges on dual carriageways or motorways). When going down to Dorset, I took the route via Guildford and the A31, rather than the less direct, more boring but (barring any traffic difficulties) faster M25 and M3. When approaching the junction with the M25 at Wisley, the sat-nav told me to exit the A3 for the “M25 towards Effingham”. The M25 does not go to Effingham in either direction; a side road off the slip road that goes back onto the A3 goes there. When passing over the junction (and it thought I’d turned off onto the roundabout, when I was on the flyover), it told me to take the “third exit, M25 towards Effingham”, which is definitely wrong; Effingham is the second exit from that roundabout when coming from London. It should have said Chertsey or Heathrow. All too frequently, it gives me the wrong destination, often a less important destination rather than the main destination on the sign at that point: for example, on the A31 going from Dorchester to Ringwood (past Bournemouth), it told me to take the “A31 towards St Leonards”, a small village, rather than Ringwood which, although tiny, is signed on main roads for miles around.

Last week, when going round the M25 to get from Staines to Bishop’s Stortford, the unit told me at one point to take the “M25 towards Harlow”; Harlow was not on the signs but Stansted was, because of the airport. When approaching motorway junctions where there is a long spur with the same number (such as from the M23 to Gatwick or the M27 to the M3 at Southampton), it told me to take the “M23 towards Gatwick” or the “M27 towards London”, when in fact the signs said (A23) or M3 respectively (the brackets mean it leads to the A23) — the M27 at that point goes to Portsmouth. It should have just said “towards the A23” and “M3 towards London”.

The purpose of a truck sat-nav is to warn you about special circumstances for truckers, such as weight and width limits and different speed limits. It fails on both these points: in Enfield this past Friday, it directed me along a back road with a 5-tonne weight limit when it knew I was in a 7.5-tonne truck. This unit appears not to know that the speed limit for vans and small trucks (up to 7.5T) is 10mph slower than for cars on all roads except motorways, yet this one, despite me telling it I’m in a 7.5-tonner, invariably gives me the car speed limit (yes, I know this, but what’s the point of having that feature if it’s always wrong?). When driving along a motorway with a temporary speed limit (like the M25 between Godstone and Sevenoaks where they are widening it and upgrading the information system to be similar to that of west Surrey), it posts the normal motorway speed limit (70mph), dropping to 50mph just before the speed cameras — despite these being average speed cameras, so if you’ve been doing 70, you’ve blown it already. Again, I should know the speed limit (although there are times when there aren’t repeater signs and so it’s good to have a reminder), but what’s the point of it if it’s wrong?

Finally, there is the matter of the user interface. I’m used to mobile devices that are fairly responsive, such as that when you press something on the screen, something happens, and when it can’t happen immediately, it tells you. My Garmin is like that, and my phone is (mostly, unless there are bugs or a crash). This unit is a different matter: it takes about two seconds to respond to a keypress. This makes programming it, changing the settings, whatever, a long and frustrating process because you never know what it’s doing (and when it does respond, it’s with a hair-trigger sensitivity, unlike my Garmin which you have to press with some determination to get it to do anything). Worse, there are always safety warnings when programming it — one is always there, telling you to obey road signs, speed limits etc., and the other if your destination is on a dead end (which it usually is if it’s on an industrial estate), both of which take seconds to clear because of the slow UI. There is no legitimate explanation for this; it’s either poor programming or a slow processor, or both.

There are a couple of other silly design faults — for example, the mini-USB connector is in the dock, not the unit (which is where it is on my Garmin), which means you can’t attach it to your computer without the dock attached (which makes it rather more awkward as it’s likely to be attached to the angled windscreen mount). And the update utility won’t even tell you what updates are available unless your unit is connected, and then tells you it will take hours to install them when it’s really ten minutes.

It’s better than the Garmin in one important respect — its pronunciation of place names is better, with not nearly as many stress errors (such as AldERshot) or trying to pronounce postcodes as if they were words, but that really doesn’t make up for all the deficiencies. Do not be deceived by the positive reviews on Amazon — they seem to put the positive ones at the top, and make you look harder for the negative ones. I will very likely be sending this unit back.

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