Review: TomTom Navigator 5 USA + OnCourse SiRF Star III Bluetooth GPS receiver on T-Mobile MDA
I used to haul around an IPAQ 3830 with a SysOn Compact Flash GPS using iGuidance navigation software as my portable GPS system. After I upgraded to a T-Mobile MDA couple months ago, I have been shopping around for a good Bluetooth GPS device with easy to use navigation software. Last month, my brother in law went to Denver for a business trip and my sister tagged along. She bought a TomTom Go Vehicle Navigation System, went all over town and was very satisfied with it. I thought if my sister, who is not a techie at all, can use it, the user interface must be pretty good. So I went over to www.buygpsnow.com and looked for a TomTom GPS bundle. I bought my old SysOn and iGuidance bundle from them before. Their price is reasonable, so as their delivery and customer service. I picked TomTom Navigator 5 USA + OnCourse SiRF Star III Bluetooth GPS Receiver for Pocket PC for around US$ 200. The GPS receiver has the latest GPS technology. It also comes with a free Arkon vent mount. I signed up as a member and get a 5% discount as well.
My toy arrived couple days via FedEx after I ordered it. I immediately open the package and try to set everything up.
What's in the package:
- TomTom Navigator 5 software for USA and Canada
- Akon Vent Mount
- OnCourse SiRF Star III Bluetooth GPS Receiver (latest firmware version 3.1.1; supports WAAS/EGNOS)
- Car Charger with Y-Cable - Charging Bluetooth GPS and can simultaneously charge PDA (additional adapter needed)
- Leather Case for the GPS Receiver
- Rechargeable Battery (already installed in the GPS Receiver)
- International Travel Charger/AC (110V to 240V) Charger (Includes US and Europe plugs)
- Utilities CD (for testing of the GPS Receiver)
I charged the OnCourse GPS receiver for couple hours. Spec said a full charge will last for 15 hours. I have not used it that much to determine whether it will indeed last that long. Will find out later on during long driving trips. So far I have used the receiver occasionally for about 4 weeks now, I do not need to recharge it yet.
Next step was to insert a mini-SD card in the MDA. Since MDA has limited memory, I only have about 15MB available for data and program storage, so I bought a 1GB mini-SD to store maps as well as my mp3 files.
I installed TomTom Navigator 5 from the Application CD. I was a bit surprise to see 9 CDs instead of 1 or 2 DVDs. Nowadays, who would still ship bulk software on CD? Anyway, installation on my Windows XP Home laptop was quite smooth.
Next step was to install regional map from the Map CD set. I chose to install both California and Canada as I live in San Francisco and also plan to do a little travel in Vancouver shortly. This process took about 30 minutes. A bit slow, IMO, but at least reliable. Another possible alternative is to download the maps directly to the mini-SD using a multi-card reader. I have not tried that, but suspect the process would be faster. Map size is pretty standard, with California at about 120MB and Canada at about 100 MB.
Next step was to pair the fully charged GPS receiver with the MDA. The process was similar to how you would pair a BT headset. Turned on Bluetooth, selected new partnership, BT-GPS-32C9C0 showed up on the list. Selected that and pressed next. Entered 0000 as the Passkey and then pressed next. Checked the Serial Port service, pressed Save, then Finish. Went to the Com Ports tab, pressed new outgoing port, selected COM6 and Finish.
Launched the TomTom application on the MDA. The start up time was a bit long compared to other applications, about 40 seconds. But after it started up, the GPS device is already configured and ready to go. Not bad at all.
Comments on the User Interface
The big icons and fonts are welcoming sign of a good user interface, since the big size is necessary when navigating in the car. Menu groupings are quite logical and easy to navigate through. There is a Guided Tour that will take you through the basics of the major tasks.
The 3D display is nothing new, got that in the iGuidance software couple years back, but certainly a good thing to have, instead of looking at a plain 2D map. The lower right corner display of distance and time to destination, current and arrival time, are certainly too small for viewing while driving.
Different language voice prompts are certainly a very useful feature for users not quite fluent in English. I tried the Cantonese voice and found the instructions to be quite good. Switched back to English since somehow female voice is more pleasant to listen to. Purely my own preference only.
I did find some annoying UI items though. Sometimes I need to touch the screen one more time to get things going. An example is after selecting a recent destination to navigate to, need to touch the screen again to start routing. Otherwise, it will just stuck there forever. This is minor and user can get used to it very easily though.
However, when I was using Point of Interest, due to a portrait mode screen on the MDA, the list gets cut off at the right. So I could not even figure out what POI they were. The worst part is that the moment you select an item, even though at that point they will show you the complete name of the place, you are taken directly back to the map, assuming you are navigating to it already. So I had to do the look up again until I got the POI item I wanted. This needs to be corrected in order to be useful at all. Will file a bug on this with TomTom later in the week.
OnCourse BT GPS device
This is much more sensitive than my prior SysOn CF GPS device. I can even home in 6 satellites at the center of my house. Forget about doing the same with the SysOn. Of course, to be fair, my SysOn is couple years old already, so technology must have advanced quite a bit in this area.
The start up time is also very fast, just couple seconds after the TomTom app completes its initialization.
The unit is also solidly built and very small. I can basically put that at the center or corner of my dash, or even in my center console cup holder. No issue with homing into the satellites at all. The free vent mount works perfectly as well.
I planned a test route from my home in SF to my work place in Milpitas. Somehow it chose the route with toll charge via the Bay Bridge and down 880S, which is 52.6 miles total versus my usual route of going down 101S, which is 45.4 miles. When I selected avoid toll charge route, it gave me back my usual optimal route. I never understand how GPS software picks routes. My take on GPS is, if you are not familiar with the routes, you are more likely to appreciate it than when you are familiar with the route.
Since I usually listen to my mp3 files on my MDA while I am commuting to work, I tested both
Windows Media Player and TCPMP when using TomTom app concurrently. When using the navigation software,
Windows Media Player sometimes lost track of the storage card and I had to re-acquire it through the Library. No issue with TCPMP though. I do need to adjust TomTom volume to about 80% to be able to listen to voice prompts while playing those mp3 files, via a FM
During the two test trips, MDA frozen up once and I had to do a reset while driving. Otherwise, this is much more stable than my prior SysOn, iGuidance and IPAQ 3830, which froze up almost every time when I tried using
Windows Media Player concurrently. Just make sure you don't load up too many apps when you try to run both. Best to do a reset before the trip as a precautionary measure, since memory is always a limiting factor and most mobile apps don't release memory properly.
Voice prompts and instructions are adequate and accurate. I don't need to look at the screen much. Actual routing is generally accurate, except it led me to a non-existing road on my way back home. Will need to notify TomTom to update their map.
There is also an existing issue with the MDA, where audio is sometimes cut off intermittently. I had to press the power button twice to cycle back the audio. This issue happens on both
Windows Media Player and TCPMP, even when TomTom is not running. It certainly gets in the way while you are driving and navigating.
The only other minor complain I have is that there is no easy way to switch between the TomTom app and the media player to skip songs. This is an inter-working issue between applications. I still need to find the most efficient way to do that while driving.
Getting real time traffic, IMO, is a key function for routing software. TomTom Traffic does not provide official service in the US at the moment. But I heard from support that there is a free trial going on between now and end of the year in the US. I decided to sign up for it. To do that, I first had to sign up for an account on the TomTom web site. Then set up Service Account in Change Preference using my email address and password.
To use real time traffic, I had to plan a route first. Then I went to TomTom Traffic and Update Traffic Info to get the latest traffic info on that route. It allowed constant traffic info download and let me determine the time interval. I set it for manual update as I don't want my EDGE data to be used continuously during commute, since I cannot receive phone calls while using EDGE data.
The traffic info seems useful so far. I tried it on my commute route during rush hour. I usually don't go on 101S as it is always congested during commute hours. I looked up TomTom Traffic, and it said all clear. I doubted the info but I took that route anyway. Indeed, other than couple minor slowdown, I was able to get to work without much delay.
I will continue to test this to see whether it is worthwhile to subscribe to it when it is officially available in the US.
With the trial, I can also download real time weather info. Weather info is provided specifically for any destination you choose. Useful info, but certainly not something I would subscribe to, since I can get the same thing from the web in real time.
In summary, this is definitely a cost effective GPS solution/package, providing you are already familiar with Windows Mobile devices. The cheapest TomTom Go Navigation System costs around US$ 400. And this is definitely a smaller, more portable and cost effective package. Here are the pros and cons for your reference.
- Long battery life
- Quick satellite acquisition time (a.k.a start up time)
- Decent user interface, big icons
- Strong GPS signal
- Real time traffic info available and built into routing software (extra cost though)
- Certainly can take you from point A to point B without your traditional map
- Software in CD format (too many disks)
- Map loading via PDA is slow
- Slow application startup time
- Clumsy point of interest navigation UI
- Some routes might not be optimal or map might not be up to date