The TomTom Go 300 in Australia26-May-2006
I purchased a TomTom Go 300 (AU) in-car GPS satellite navigation unit.
“Why?” I hear you type.
To save my marriage. Ok, not really. How about “to avoid those tense conversations about communication that inevitably follow my attempts at map reading?”
Although I’d never say it publicly, my spouse is a lousy map reader. She’s always getting left and right confused and is easily disoriented. I suspect a couple of incidents involving slight dings, missing side mirrors with wires dangling, threats to divorce her parents, our children and me have all been to do with frustration from being lost or impolitely timed advice about where she should have turned.
I’m not too proud to say I’m a terrible navigator. I’m topologically challenged. I have had a long history of being too optimistic about my “secret” back streets shortcuts which has frustrated many of my passengers. Me included.
Unwarranted pride in one’s ability to find and navigate the fastest route, and someone telling you where to go is a dangerous combination. Dangerous to your passengers, dangerous to other road users and dangerous to your long term relationship with other car occupants.
If you have the money, and you value harmony in your relationships then you’d better get some satellite navigation in your life. Nothing promotes calmness on a family car trip to an unfamiliar destination like a disinterested, robotic, map reader.
Enough frivolity and foreshadowing. On with the review!
How to read this review
I’m not able to compare the TomTom 300 Go with many of its contemporary competitors. I have had some limited exposure to satellite navigation systems in the US. The one I have used is Hertz Neverlost, as a result of US business trips. I have seen a recent Garmin of TomTom 300 Go-like proportions in use, but I haven’t used one myself.
Beyond my experience with a more-than-likely superseded Neverlost navigation system I don’t have much to compare with. When I compare things, it’s probably not a fair comparison.
If there is a function, feature, or aspect of the TomTom you’d like me to talk about then please mention in the comments and I will add more information to the post.
Preparing the TomTom 300 Go
The retail box for the TomTom 300 Go AU (Australian Maps version) contains the navigation unit, a soft zip-up case, a USB cable, a 256MB SD Flash card with Australian Map data on it, a CD with drivers and SD Flash backup software, a car charger, and a mounting arm that attaches to your windscreen with a mechanically-augmented suction cup. A notable omission is a charger you can plug into a regular 240V powerpoint. A wall charger may not seem completely necessary given the TomTom will spend its life in your vehicle, but there’s a good reason to have a wall charger early in your TomTom’s life.
The PC application that upgrades the TomTom’s firmware will not work unless the TomTom’s battery is fully charged. This is quite frustrating if you’re anything like me when you first get the TomTom. My first instinct was to get online and see if it has the latest firmware and maps. The maps were fine, but the firmware was out of date. I wanted to upgrade as soon as possible and make sure I was working with a unit that had the latest bugs. Sadly, driving around for a while with the TomTom car charger plugged in convinced me it was going to cost me half a tank of fuel to get the TomTom charged up so I purchased a wall charger for $60.
I think I was too hasty. The TomTom charges quite quickly on the car charger, and the battery life is allegedly 4 hours. I haven’t used the wall charger since getting the TomTom to firmware flash-enabling battery levels. Maybe next time there’s a map or firmware update I’ll feel vindicated.
The first thing you do with your new TomTom 300 Go is to stick it to the windscreen of the car.
The suction cup is pretty good, but you need to re-apply it occasionally or your TomTom will spend some time on the floor of your car, or in your lap. The suction cup on the arm is better than it sounds. Rather than having to schplock the arm on the window and hope it sticks you press it to the window then move a lever to generate very satisfactory-feeling suction.
The mounting arm either contains an antenna or being near the car window is a good spot for picking up GPS satellites. Either way, the mounted unit finds satellites faster and more reliably when mounted on the arm than sitting on the passenger’s seat.
The TomTom is designed to snap into the mounting arm and release for secure storage when you leave the car. The mounting mechanism is very tricky to use in the dark, and just plain ordinarily tricky to get right when you have adequate light. It is possible for the TomTom to appear locked into its mount when it isn’t and fall off its mount while you’re driving. I think the mounting catch could have been much better designed. A dead-giveaway that the TomTom 300 isn’t mounted correctly is if the screen goes grey and refuses to pick up any satellites. If this happens, you’re likely to have the TomTom fall in your lap shortly.
Operating the TomTom 300 Go
First thing to do is to touch the TomTom’s screen. You’re now at a page of icons, and the first one is “Navigate to…”
Press that and you’re prompted for Town, Street and then Number — entering information on the touch screen with an alphabetic keyboard (I changed the keyboard to qwerty in the preferences). The keyboard buttons are pretty good for me, but I have made typos. Confusingly there is a backspace and a “back button. Pressing the back button takes you back to the menu rather than erasing a character. It’s a trap for novices and I haven’t been fooled again since about the 10th time I pressed it.
When you first start playing with the TomTom it pops up a few full-screen dialogs to help you out if you’re a novice. One of the first hints was along the lines of “entering the city(/suburb) name in the street address will take you to the center of that city”
Once you have entered your destination address, the unit will prompt you for the type of route to calculate. The options include, fastest, shortest and walking routes.
I general, the shortest route will just try to minimise distance so it is not too useful or practical. The fastest route seems to prefer main roads to back streets and also main roads with fewer traffic lights to main roads with more. I have not yet used the walking route calculation, so I can’t comment.
Once you have chosen the route type, the route is calculated and you might be presented with a yes/no dialog about whether you want to use toll roads or not.
The calculation of a route within Sydney takes about a second. The calculation of a route from Sydney to Melbourne takes less than 10 seconds.
When the route is calculated you press the “done” button and you are presented with a cartoony perspective view of your vehicle (rendered as a blue triangle) sitting on a road.
The bottom left corner shows how far until the next manoeuvre and an arrow showing what that manoeuvre will be. The middle bottom shows distance and estimated time to destination (accurate in light traffic). The right shows estimated time of arrival and GPS “signal strength.”
The perspective view is a marked improvement on the Hertz Neverlost I was used to. The Neverlost has a top-down, traditional map view, which from memory shows as much map behind the car as in front. Neverlost requires manual intervention to zoom the map in so you can read the street names as you approach them. Then you need to manually zoom out to regain your ability to see where the next turn is.
The “3D” perspective view shows streets that are close in front clearly along with their names and allows merging and tangling roads and future turns to be displayed earlier than in a plan view. The perspective view can also be configured to show “points of interest.” I have ours configured to show little icons over the locations of petrol stations and zoos.
Pressing the top-right of the screen will zoom the camera back – increasing the field of view of the “camera” and the top left zooms in. Pressing the bottom left summons the volume control, and the bottom right lets you look at a plan view map, GPS satellite stats and battery charge levels. Pressing the centre of the display takes you to the icon menu.
As you drive, TomTom gives voice instructions. I found the default voice pretty unpleasant, and the Australian male voice provided was a bit grating too. Eventually I settled on one of the UK female voices because she was pleasant sounding and there was good value in listening to someone who seems to be an American trying to put on a British accent. “On the rotary. Go straight. Second exit.” Once we figured out what a rotary was, life was sweet.
The audio cues seem to take a couple of standard forms:
- “Right turn ahead” — anything “ahead” means more than 800m away
- “Right turn in 800m” — at 800m from something you will get a cue to prepare
- “Turn right at the next street” — when that instruction makes sense
- “…and stay in the left lane” — is added when you need to know
- “Keep left” — means stay in the left lane, but don’t take any exits
- “Bear left” — kind of a merging instruction, we’re still not 100% clear on what a “bear” is, but it’s not confusing. Usually it’s a slight turn.
- “Take the highway” — get off your piddly side street and get onto a real road, suckah!
The audio cues are nicely timed and repeated at the right moments. The perspective view draws big green arrows on the road so you can visually confirm the road you’re supposed to end up on.
If you ignore the TomTom’s instructions or make a mistake may, rarely, ask you to do a U turn. After a few more seconds of ignoring that advice it will recalculate the route — usually in a manner that doesn’t require U turns.
The Hertz Neverlost was obsessed with getting you back onto the route it had sweated blood to calculate for you. I think its voice cues were along the lines of “proceed to the highlighted route!” [ed. corrected June 2008 thanks to Alan's extensive field research] Re-calculating the route required manual intervention, probably because it is older technology that would take a long time to perform the recalculation and prove very annoying if it did it on the fly.
Traveling Salesman Problem
One potential use of satellite navigation is itinerary optimization. Although the TomTom300 allows for multiple way points to be planned, it will not determine the optimal order to visit those way points. If you’re looking for a GPS that solves this, the TomTom 300 isn’t going to solve those NP-hard problems for you.
The TomTom 300 Go can use your Bluetooth-enabled phone to download traffic and weather reports. Sadly these reports are not available to TomTom users in Australia yet, so bluetooth is strictly for impressing your gadget-loving friends at this time.
My spouse has been using the TomTom 300 Go for nearly a month now. She uses it when she’s uncertain of the location of her destination. So far her reaction has ranged from “It’s fantastic!” to “It fell off the windscreen while I was driving.”
I’ve used it a few times on routes I thought I was pretty familiar with and it has found me a much faster way to go.
I have used it to navigate between:
- Bennelong and Crows Nest
- Bennelong and Thirroul
- Bennelong and Chatswood
- Bennelong and Manly
- Bennelong and Granville
- Bennelong and Newcastle
We have also used it to plan trips to Melbourne. In general, it rocks.
The most frequent problem I have found with the TomTom 300 Go is to do with maps. Occasionally, the house number you are traveling to is not in the GPS’ map database so you have to travel to a cross-street or another house number.
One problem I have seen repeated on the same stretch of road is that the fastest algorithm may make suboptimal decisions with certain specific road layouts. The specific example is in Sydney when traveling south down Burns Bay Road when your route is taking you to the exit that gets you onto Victoria Road heading west in the direction of Parramatta. The TomTom 300 tries to get you to take the exit that is usually used to get to Hunters Hill making you pass through a traffic light and down to the Victoria Road exit, rather than waiting to get you onto the exit closer to the turn onto Victoria road. The problem might be that the GPS sees the whole side-road as an exit, and gets you onto it as soon as possible regardless of the lower speed limit and traffic light.
The screen on the TomTom is bright and has good contrast, but you can still lose the ability to see anything useful in sunlight. The upside is that the audio cues are good, and all you usually need, but the visual cues are also very useful and I rue losing them. I’ve moved the TomTom around, but being mounted inside the windscreen makes it impossible to keep it away from direct sunlight.
The TomTom 300 Go with Australian maps is simple to use, and excellent even for someone who thought he knew where he was going. I’m not the only one who likes it. Last week my wife said “I don’t know how we survived without it.”
Update 2006-05-30: Postscript
If you buy a TomTom now, apparently you will get the 2005 Sensis maps and not the 2006 with (for example) the M7.
“Receive a free TomTom Map Update with each TomTom GO300, GO500, ONE or RIDER unit purchased between May 1 and July 31 2006*”
“*Map update only refers to update from v12 Sensis maps [BS: 2005] to v13 [BS: presumably 2006] Sensis maps via download only.”
The PDF form for applying for the free upgrade is here.
Good news for people purshasing a TomTom now, but I purchased mine at the end of April :(
Paraphrasing: The standard price for the Australian Map Download is A$339.00 (€199,-), as an eligible participant in the TomTom Map Update program you are entitled to purchase the Australian Map Update for A$139.00 (€83,-) when it is available.
*** Update: 8-June-2006: I have had a bad experience with one TomTom destination and the 2005 maps. I tried to navigate to William Street Five Dock and it insisted on taking me to William Street Leichhardt. I had confidently removed the UBD from the car thinking that the TomTom was infallible – I recommend against that. Eventually I phoned a friend to ask them for streets near my destination and plugged some of them in and worked my way in from there.
Also fixed some text.***