Up the wrong junction

I’ve been experimenting with several handheld satnav systems recently. Let’s start with the all-in-one gadgets, typified by the almost ubiquitous TomTom range, which is available both as a series of standalone devices and as software you can run on mobile devices such as PDAs and smartphones. I get the impression TomTom is more interested in growing the all-in-one device side of its business and less concerned with the software-only versions, to the point where when I asked its PR company for a demo copy of the software I was told it couldn’t help as all of its activity was directed at the GO and ONE units. Perhaps it sensed I wouldn’t be as gushing about the products as some other reviewers have been.

Up the wrong junction

The thing is, I’ve used various flavours of TomTom since the early 1990s (when it was still known as Palmtop and produced software for Psion) and over those years I’ve developed a definite love-hate relationship with the company’s products. I rate TomTom extremely highly for functionality and usability, where it wipes most of its competitors off the map, so to speak – hand an all-in-one TomTom unit to a non-techie and they’ll have the hang of it in no time. On the other hand, as regards the software-only versions, I detest the company’s product-activation system, which is infuriatingly clumsy and intrusive. I realise piracy is a big issue for satnav software vendors, but surely there are better ways of countering it? Perhaps TomTom’s aforementioned concentration on the all-in-one market is just a strategic decision to escape the piracy problem.

Another turn-off for me is that TomTom’s current devices use map data supplied by Tele Atlas (as do around half of its competitors). I’m fortunate to be in a position to borrow and compare devices that use maps from both the two main providers, Tele Atlas and Navteq, and over six months’ testing them on UK journeys my experience has been that Navteq’s maps have far fewer errors than Tele Atlas’. More importantly, when a Navteq-based device does contain errors they tend to be because of recent road building or changes, whereas Tele Atlas data contains mapping errors for roads that were built decades ago. For example, on the 20-plus-year-old A27 south-coast trunk road, about half a mile from where I live, a Tele Atlas-based satnav will instruct you to turn off at a junction where there’s only an on-ramp. I’ve witnessed some confused and dangerous driving at this junction, as people try to find the non-existent exit, so I wouldn’t be surprised if major mapping errors like this are a danger to road safety. The company also seems very slow at responding to reports of mapping errors. I knew of a number of “wrong way streets” contained within its mapping data – again, some on major A roads – and reported these errors several times, and yet it took eight years between my original report and the map data being corrected.

At least TomTom appears to have woken up to this weakness, as it’s just announced a couple of new units – the Go 520 and Go 720 – which are updates to the Go 510 and Go 710 respectively and include a new facility called Map Share. These devices will allow you to correct mapping errors by prodding the touchscreen and sending corrections to TomTom. You’ll also be able to download map updates made by other people, selecting from corrections made by “some”, “many” or “trusted sources” only. These community-based map updates sound like a great idea and I can’t wait to give this system a thorough workout. But I can’t help thinking that Map Share is just a way of papering over the cracks caused by using poor-quality map data in the first place.

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