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August 6, 2008

Road trippers review GPS units

Posted: 08:28 AM ET

It's Day Ten of our California-to-Georgia road trip in our biofueled International Harvester Scout.
We've paused in Fort Worth, Texas, providing me with an opportunity to review a couple of loaner GPS navigation units that we've been testing out.


The Garmin, left, and the Tom Tom GPS units have pleasantries and annoyances.

We have a Garmin nüvi 880 and a TomTom Go 730. While these two aren't necessarily in the same price range, they both have their strong and weak points.

Let's take a look at a few of them.

Certainly the more expensive of the pair, the Garmin nüvi 880 comes equipped with a feature set to match its price. One of the nicer features, in theory, is the draggable map view that can be easily accessed by tapping on the map while in driving mode.

It allows you to view your current position from a "top down" perspective, and you can drag the map around to locate a new or alternate destination by tapping.

Unfortunately, this view quickly proved useless for most purposes, largely because of a lack of detail in the map and its difficulty in appropriately labeling what was shown (it refused to label Las Vegas at any zoom level, labeling all the suburbs instead).

We often found ourselves using the iPhone's Google Maps application to cross-reference; clearly not something you expect to need to do with a high-end GPS at your disposal.

Otherwise, the Garmin interface is fairly well executed, if a bit slow to respond. It's easy to set your destination and add via points, and there are menu options allowing you to re-order the points either manually or optimally, based on the route.

Automatic day/night color mode selection is handy, and the high resolution display can show a good bit of information alongside the map, although we wished we could add more.

Another driving mode screen shows various data about your trip, such as distance traveled and average speeds (moving and overall).

It also shows your current speed in a large circle, which was handy for us at night because the Scout's dash lights are broken. This feature would also be nice for use while bicycling, if you're brave enough to mount such a nice piece of gear on your bike.

Speaking of mounts, the mounting bracket and suction cup for this device are very well designed, and it hasn't lost its hold on the windshield yet, even through some very bumpy terrain.

We did experience a few misdirections and bad routing choices, one of which caused us to miss the check-in window for our campsite in Roswell, New Mexico, but overall the Garmin has seen more use on the trip.

The TomTom Go 730probably has the more user-friendly interface, but its screen is lower resolution than the Garmin, and the maps don't look quite as nice in navigation mode. It does a better job of displaying point of interest (POI) information on the map as you move along, however, which can be handy. Also we liked the ability to see the entire route displayed on a map, but there didn't seem to be a way to zoom in or out in that view.

Our speed and the current speed limit were always displayed on the main screen along with the map, and this information was also customizable, allowing you to choose what info to display. We never noticed any sluggishness with the interface from tap to tap, and the method of searching for your destination by typing was more intuitive than the Garmin's, requiring fewer taps.

The mounting hardware for the TomTom leaves something to be desired, as the suction cup has fallen off a few times and the power cable plugs into the bottom of the unit, which can interfere with the dashboard if you don't place it high enough. Occasionally we had difficulty reading the next turn information on the display, as it is somewhat small and unobtrusive. The speaker, however, was loud enough to overcome this problem most of the time, even with our windows down.

Ultimately, both of the units have pleasantries and annoyances.

Certainly our usage hasn't covered all of the features of either unit, especially those related to managing and updating them with your computer. Hopefully, however, our experiences can help guide you to a better understanding of what you might be getting into.

See you on the road!

- Brian

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Filed under: environment • Road trip

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Nic "Scoutman" Hawker   August 6th, 2008 9:35 am ET

Please don't run any fasteners into the padded dash, they are hard to recover and even harder to find.
Glad to hear you guys are rollin' right along. You spurred some great discussion yesterday.
Keep up the good work and happy Scoutin'

dejah   August 6th, 2008 11:48 am ET

We bought the Nuvi 260 and it's a very reasonably priced version of the 880 without many of the fancy bells and whistles... as it turned out, we didn't need the fancy bells and whistles...

The smaller one has the "drag map" capability, plus speed, accumulated time, time to destination, and many (if not most) of the features of the pricier one. For once, 2.5 times the price doesn't get you 2.5 times the performance.

save money, buy the cheaper one and get the update downloads to get new maps into your machine...

Chris   August 6th, 2008 12:56 pm ET

I have a Garmin Nuvi 200W and one feature on that that I was pleasantly surprised by was that it seems to know the sun set time each night and switches automatically from a bright daytime screen to a darker (but still very viewable) night time screen so it doesn't mess with your night vision while driving.

Ed   August 6th, 2008 1:06 pm ET

Many of the "issues" and annoyances you had with that Garmin unit are customizable and you could get rid of them, or fix a number of the issues you mentioned. You should get out the manual and review the options and settings, and then fiddle with all of them. There are some real gems the company that made that Garmin put inside, once you learn the basics of the unit and it's options. I am very surprised, using it the way you are, you are only using about 5% of it's abilities.

Enjoy your trip and have fun.

DARRYL   August 6th, 2008 1:40 pm ET



Lee Cascio   August 6th, 2008 1:44 pm ET

There are some key features that were not reviewed that I was disappointed to not have in my recent Garmin purchase (I had them in an age old Magellan GPS). Specifically these are "Route Exclude" and being able to maximize or minimize highways, tolls, etc...

Route Exclude is very valuable when you know a specific road in the route plan is experiencing construction or a traffic jam. You can exclude this route and the route plan will be re-rendered without that route. Garmin has a very weak "Detour" function that will take you off your current road, however it will usually put you back on it at some arbitrary point in the new route plan. So if you are using to get out of traffic jam, it may very well put you back into the jam some number of miles later and you have to wait until you are back on the jammed road to hit "Detour" again (too early and it will "Detour" the road you are currently on).

Being able to maximize highways or minimize tolls etc... helps in a significant way in a metropolitan area. I live in the Maryland suburbs around Washington DC. If I want to go to a destination in Virginia, the GPS will almost always create a route plan that involves going through the city insted of using the beltway. I'm sure the city route is shorter distance-wise but it is significantly longer time-wise. There is no way to control this behavior so the GPS is almost worthless when I'm travelling to such a destination until I get to the point in my journey where the GPS thinks the beltway is shorter.

Michael   August 6th, 2008 1:54 pm ET

You can get an overview on the Garmin as well. Tap the green bar at the top of the screen, and then at the bottom tap show map. It'll show you the overview map for the entire trip. (at least it does with the 650, I'm assuming that they didn't take that out of the higher model)

James R   August 6th, 2008 2:06 pm ET

Good review on the GPS units...
About 2 years ago we went through 5 TomTom GPS, because they would fall off the windshield every 10-15...didn't matter what we did, if it was hot or cold, etc...
We started looking into it, and it's a known flaw that has plagued TomTom GPS units for 2-3 years now. The last TomTom we took back to CircuitCity, well there were three other TomTom's on their back shelf, that other customers had returned for the same reason.
TomTom keeps saying they will fix the problem or have fixed it with new mounts...but they haven't. BTW, TomTom technical support is the worst in the industry. Last time we tried, we had to email them...they called us 5 days later 🙁
We have since bought a Garmin Nuvi 360, and Nuvi 680...and love them.
One other thing, we have read the maps Garmin has installed are more accurate in the United States, while the TomTom's are more accurate in Europe.

Keep up the good work Cody...

Gambolputty   August 6th, 2008 2:27 pm ET

I own a Garmin Nuvi 360. Garmin does make a portable friction dashboard mount that acts a LOT better than trying to a GPS on a windshield. You can link up a GPS with Google Maps to enter routes and waypoints. To avoid bad routes on a Garmin, pick the the types of roads you want it to choose on the Avoidances screen. Apply all updates for new maps, Bluetooth, and the operating system. Hope this helps. Perhaps visit a producer of algae based biofuel next? Enjoy your biodiesel trip!

H2Ogal   August 6th, 2008 3:24 pm ET

We recently took a road trip with our new Garmin Nuvi (don't know the model- sorry). It tried to make us do a "Thelma and Louise" in the badlands. "Turn left. Turn left." There was no road in sight on our left, only a steep cliff. Too many wrong turns and non-existant roads for us to really be able to count on it. Too bad. It is a cool toy.

spacewriter   August 6th, 2008 3:49 pm ET

We have the 360. Never bothered to attach it to the dash or window; it's like advertising to thieves. Just attach it to its stand and put it in a cup holder or something.

Very easy to use.

Mike   August 6th, 2008 4:46 pm ET

I have a Garmin C340 and a Tom Tom One, both decent devices, the Garmin is overall more accurate in my area. 99.9 percent in the 1.5 years we have owned it. The Tom tom I would give a 96 percent accuracy rating.

Mount after a while 3 or 4 months, the Garmin mount falls off the windshield all the time, the Tom Tom hasn't budged.

Sir Craig   August 6th, 2008 7:59 pm ET

My wife recently bought me a TomTom GO920(T) and it is very interesting. There've been some ups and downs (trying to update the point of interest [POI] items managed to lock up the device and I had to reset it back to factory settings) and the maps that come from the site are out-dated by a few years, but you are able to customize the menu so that any error on the map can be noted and saved for later editing, which is then uploaded onto the site.

The 920(T) also has the voice recognition, so you can tap the screen and just tell it where you want to go (street address only, unfortunately – I'd like to see the feature work with the POI), and the choice of voices is very cool (you can even purchase John Cleese's voice – I'm curious about that one).

I haven't had it very long, so I haven't encountered any major bugs, but I have to agree that the windshield mounting thing is a bit of a pain. Otherwise, it's a fun device.

Steve   August 6th, 2008 8:03 pm ET

I have an older Garmin C330 and put velcro strips on the bottom of the unit and on my dashboard. If you don't mind the the appearance of the velcro strips, it seems to work out very well for mounting the unit. Please keep in mind that mounting these units on your wind shield or dash are not allowed in some states.

Ted   August 7th, 2008 6:12 am ET

Did you bring along any paper maps as a back-up? You still can't get the "big picture" on a small screen like you can with a good map.

Rich Owings   August 7th, 2008 7:28 am ET

Why no discussion of the voice recognition features?

leezechka   August 8th, 2008 1:28 pm ET

that google map thing isn't only on iphones, I get it on my Palm Centro as well.

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