The Dutch outfit's top-tier GPS navigation system can play music, transmit mobile calls, and more. But is it superior to carmakers' options?
There's a booming market for auto add-ons—from oversize flame decals to 24-in. chrome rims. Thankfully, some are even quite useful.
Take navigation systems from TomTom (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/28/06, "TomTom on the Go-Go"), which feature Global Positioning System (GPS) technology but do a lot more than point drivers in the right direction.
In fact, the top-of-the-line GO 910 is so staggeringly capable that some users will even find its $799 price tag well justified. On top of the standard navigation fare—which includes guidance in any of 36 languages for maps in Canada, Europe, and the U.S.—the 910 has an impressive roster of features. It can connect to Bluetooth-compatible phones, piping in hands-free calls or even reading incoming text messages out loud. The unit can take control of a connected iPod, serving up its contents. It does weather and traffic. It plugs into your cigarette lighter. It's remote-controlled. Does this sound like Home Shopping Network yet?
Hard Drive Advantage
The GO 910 does all that through a device that boasts a 4-in. touch screen, a powerful 400-Mhz CPU and a generous 64 MB of memory. It also runs on a long-lasting four-hour lithium-ion battery and features a built-in hi-fi speaker and Bluetooth for wireless connection to other electronics. What's more, it's compact. The egg-shaped unit is 4.2 by 3.1 by 2.5 in. That's just about the size of a baseball. And it weighs only 12 oz., so TomTom plausibly bills the device as portable between the car and your home.
But, the unit's secret weapon is a 20GB hard drive. That addition transforms the 910 from a mere direction-giver into a portable multimedia server, dishing up photos and music uploaded from a home computer.
Despite the expansive feature set, TomTom's basic navigation functions are aboveboard. Adding a destination or finding a nearby point of interest is a snap. Unlike some other units, the 910's touch screen is satisfyingly responsive. Thanks to the heavy-duty hardware, the GPS receiver connects quickly to its parent satellites and even long-distance routes are compiled in seconds.
Elegant Computer Interface
I tested the 910 during prolonged use on a 1,000-mile road trip and it proved adept at its primary navigational calling. At the default settings, the unit doesn't nag aloud endlessly about every coming twist or freeway merge, nor does it leave you hanging when you really do need to exit or turn. It also spots if you make a mistake or misunderstand a command.
In terms of its multimedia capabilities, the 910 is a mixed bag. Connecting to a home computer (Mac or PC) to sync the hard drive with music and photos couldn't be easier or more elegant. TomTom's desktop software isn't an afterthought and, like Apple's (AAPL) iTunes, is a pleasure to use.
Thanks to an idiot-proof interface, getting at your tunes and snapshots once you've mounted the unit in your car is easy. The jukebox software works well, and I didn't notice any lag waiting for the hard disk to spin up. I'm still not sold on photo browsing in the car, but images look great on the bright built-in display.
Music-wise, the speaker does an impressive job for something the size of a clenched fist. I tried using the 910's built-in audio in the cabins of both a whisper-quiet Audi A8 and a noisier, rowdy Mazda 6 sedan. The system managed to produce an impressive amount of volume without distorting MP3 tracks, overcoming road noise in both cars, but the setup still can't compete with even a budget built-in stereo.
If your car has an audio-in jack, there's no issue because sound can be piped through the built-in speaker system. But if, like many, your car lacks such a connector, you might find the unit a disappointment. While the speaker is fine for announcing upcoming turns, it fails as a replacement for the internal radio, rendering much of the 910's vaunted capability—from digital music to phone-call routing—moot.
My other concern is the price. It is true that even at nearly $800, the 910 still costs only about half as much as most of the inexpensive built-in solutions. (When navigation systems are lumped into an options package, look to pay upward of three times the price of the 910.) And, it does offer considerably more functionality, particularly with the built-in hard disk.
Built-In May Be Better
But, obviously, the biggest trump card held by built-ins is that they're integrated with your car. The navigation system in an Aston Martin, for instance, will automatically scale on-screen map distances when you punch the gas. Even less extravagant fare like the Toyota Prius or Ford Explorer manages to make the most of having a system built in, with everything from stereo setup to fuel-economy information and even suspension settings.
If the choice is between the do-it-all 910 and a more expensive built-in system in a car with no in-line jack, I'd choose the built-in system. Without a line in, a lot of the 910's virtues pale. If, on the other hand, you have an audio-in jack and you don't mind a few dangling wires, the 910 is worth consideration. In fact, the car companies just might want to learn a thing or two from TomTom.