Gadling Gear: A review of the TomTom XL330S

TomTom just released their new XL330S model, and this lucky blogger was able to get his hands on one for a test drive.

I’ll preface this article with the following disclaimer: I’ve never been fond of automotive GPS units. I think that while useful to many drivers, they can also have the adverse effect of preventing the driver from learning routes, a city’s layout and beautiful niches of the city that go unnoticed unless you’re really focused on the outside.

But I agreed to do this review, partially because I wanted to disprove this theory to myself and partially because these new TomToms are just so damn cool.

Despite my unit being programmed in Estonian when it came from the TomTom PR factory, it was fairly simple to boot up and configure. It asked me to set up my preferences, including style of map, voices and other tidbits, then immediately dumped me into a map showing my location under an arrow. All I had to do to power the unit was plug it into the cigarette lighter with the supplied cable. Similarly, hooking the unit up to my computer used the same mini USB jack and didn’t need any drivers.

Being a chronic avoider of instruction manuals, I figured I would first just wing the programming of my office into the system – and I was right, navigating was easy. Tap the map with your finger, tap “navigate to”, select your city, then punch in your the street and number. It’s a completely linear interface that cuts down on superfluous buttons and options and is incredibly easy to use.
You can get traffic data with the XL330S as well, although it’s a service that you have to subscribe to online.

Naturally, I decided to download some customized voices to give me directions. After a quick look at the pay-per downloads on the TomTom website, I googled “TomTom voice downloads” and found a database of free content, including Sean Connery, Patrick Steward (from Star Trek, The Next Generation, John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) and Dr. Evil. Installing the voices was as easy as plugging in the unit to my laptop then dragging sound files over to the voice directory.

This would later haunt me on a train between Providence and Boston, where I booted up the GPS to check our location and was greeted with Captain Picard from the Enterprise shouting “YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR DESTINATION, INITIATE DOCKING PROCEDURE.” Awkward. I should also point out that if you want a celebrity voice, you’re not going to be able to get them to pronounce the street names (text-to-speech), so it may not be worth your time.

House hunting with my girlfriend in Boston this weekend, I put the XL330s (the “s” stands for text-to speech capability) to it’s first real test. The first thing I did with my new demonstration TomTom was drop it four feet onto an asphalt surface. Durability? Check. Still running.

At the time, I was late for my train, we were in Cambridge and we needed to get to the South Station quickly. I tapped “navigate to” + “points of interest” in the railway section, and scrolled down for “South Station”. Not there. Luckily we had a map that showed the intersections of the streets, so I plugged in “Atlantic” and “Summer” streets and the TomTom calculated our journey there.

As I would soon find out, however, much of Boston’s highway system is underground where satellite signals can’t reach. So while the TomTom could lead us towards the Big Dig, we were blind while underground. Furthermore, it takes a few moments to acquire a signal once you’re above ground, so if you exit quickly and need to make a quick turn, you don’t get directions for 20 or 30 seconds.

This isn’t a problem with TomTom though; until they create satellite signals that can penetrate through 40 feet of soil and cement, all GPS units will lose signal underground.

For what it’s worth, navigation in my home town of Ann Arbor has been fluid and easy, although I spend a surprising amount of brainpower on the device. I’ve never been a great multi tasker, so when the GPS is babbling, a friend is in the car and NPR is on the radio, two of the three are going to get tuned out.

Overall? I think it’s a nifty, well-designed little device. I like its battery life, slim design and ability to call streets out to me on the road. I also like how simple both the hardware and software are – easy enough for your grandmother to use but with enough options to make a metallurgical engineer think. Would I buy one? If I was in the market for a GPS, sure thing. But I’m going to stick to my analog maps for now.

Check out TomTom’s product website for full specifications and purchasing options.