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Back in the Saddle with the TomTom Go 720 GPS

It has been about a year and a half since my last review of a car navigation GPS, a consumer electronics field of which I'm inordinately fond, because the little buggers are so darn useful when driving in unfamiliar environs. See our "Find Yourself with GPS" series for the full set of reviews of different devices.

Although I'm sure progress has been made by Garmin and Magellan, I've been wanting to check out devices from TomTom. TomTom's GPSes are generally regarded as being as good as or better than those from the better-known Garmin and Magellan. But perhaps more important, TomTom has long provided Macintosh software for downloading new maps, voices, and other customizations to the device.

Until now in these reviews, I've barely mentioned the idea that you'd want to connect one of these devices to your Mac because, quite frankly, I don't see much point in it beyond basic geekery. (And yes, I'm aware that it's possible to come up with examples of such use, like sharing of trip routes or route planning on the computer, but I've never felt any desire for such things.) The attraction of the class of devices I've been reviewing is that they provide a simple-to-use and complete package, with all the maps you generally need stored internally, and with nearly everything the device can do accessible from its own touch-screen interface. The "nearly" comes into play should you wish to download updated maps, something that may be worth doing every 12 to 18 months, depending on how quickly the roads change in the areas where you drive. Since map updates are often not free, useful only to a subset of users, and necessary only infrequently, the fact that you couldn't connect the devices I have previously reviewed to the Mac (as opposed to Windows) didn't seem like a major problem.

But readers disagreed, and took me to task for not making a bigger deal of the lack of Mac compatibility. So in choosing the $399.95 TomTom Go 720 to review, I am capitulating to reader wishes, and I can now say, from hard-won experience, that the capability to connect a standalone car navigation GPS to the Mac is indeed as annoying and distracting as I thought it would be. But before I get into that...

Drums in the Distance -- Physically, the TomTom Go 720 is nice and simple, without extraneous buttons to get in the way during normal usage. In fact, it has only a single power button, although it takes some getting used to, since powering up the unit requires holding the button down for 4 to 6 seconds, whereas powering it down happens immediately. As a result, I would sometimes find myself thinking I hadn't pressed the button properly to turn it on, then let up and press down again, only to discover that it was in fact powering up and my second press had turned it off. I presume the delay in turning on is aimed at preventing the unit from being turned on accidentally when in a pocket or suitcase.

That's potentially important because the 720 has a lithium-ion battery, so you can use it outside the car while walking or biking. Although TomTom claims a 5 hour battery life, it lasted barely half that in my testing. Around town you might be able to get by on the battery, but for trips, you'll certainly need to keep it plugged into your car's power outlet via the included USB car charger. It also charges from its dock when connected to your Mac via USB, so you may be able to get away with treating it more like a cell phone if you don't want to plug it in when in the car.

Normally, keeping a GPS plugged in while in the car isn't a big deal, but the stubby suction cup mount that ships with the 720 has a sufficiently small range of motion that I was forced to mount it fairly high on the windshield, right under the rear view mirror, thus draping the power cable through my field of vision. With previous units, I've been able to mount the GPS much lower, so that it's right above the dashboard. This is likely to affect only cars with slanted windshields, and if it bothers you, TomTom sells several alternative mounting options that provide for greater flexibility.

The TomTom Go 720 has a 4.3-inch widescreen (16:9) color LCD that shows 480 by 272 pixels. The display is clear and attractive, and you can choose from a wide variety of color schemes or even customize one to your liking. Although we don't have another model with which to compare, both Tonya and I noticed independently that bright sunlight tended to wash out the screen, and the stubby window mount caused it to be closer to us, making it harder for Tonya to watch the display from the passenger seat than if it had been mounted lower and further away.

A variety of accessories extend the 720's capabilities significantly, although I didn't receive any of these to test. A Bluetooth-based remote control ($59.95) lets you control the device without reaching out to use the touch-screen. An iPod Connect & Audio Cable ($29.95) enables you to control your iPod through the 720's touchscreen, and to play the audio through its internal speaker, automatically pausing the music for spoken directions. The RDS-TMC Traffic Receiver ($129.95) receives information about traffic incidents via FM (in cities with the appropriate service) and integrates them into its routing calculations. These last two accessories use the same jack on the 720, so they can't be used simultaneously. After the first 12 months, getting traffic information requires a $59.95-per-year subscription.

Speaking of Bluetooth and FM, the 720 uses Bluetooth to enable hands-free calling via a Bluetooth-capable cell phone (it wouldn't talk to the Mac via Bluetooth), and an integrated FM transmitter lets you route sounds through your car stereo. Since the 720 has its own player for MP3 music and audiobooks, that may be welcome.

Bang the Rocks Together, Guys -- In basic usage, the TomTom Go 720 proved quick, accurate, and as useful as any of the previous devices I've used. Its main interface is based around a navigation screen with up to six buttons, one of which is an arrow to cycle forward through additional screens. The single arrow approach is entirely functional, but back and forward arrows might have made for faster navigation.

The only problem with this approach is that there are so many screens that it can take some time to find key functions, such as Clear Route (necessary if you change your mind about where you're going and don't need new directions). TomTom is clearly aware that this is a concern, and in fact, buried deep in the preferences (on the eighth and final preference screen) is an option for showing fewer options, shades of Microsoft Word's Short Menus interface of yesteryear. There's even a QuickMenu option that puts a permanent icon on the screen that lets you access the TomTom Jukebox, report a traffic enforcement camera, mark the location of a map error, add the position to your favorites, call a phone number, and a number of other features.

Entering addresses and finding points of interest is extremely easy, with the 720 guessing at what you're typing as you go. You can even switch between an ABCDE keyboard and a QWERTY keyboard, the latter of which I found much easier to use.

Once you start navigating, the 720 acts like all other GPSes, warning you about upcoming turns several times before the actual turn, and, if you've chosen a computer voice, speaking the street names as well. One particularly nice feature was that it tells you, when navigating complicated intersections, to keep left or keep right, which is often necessary for getting onto the right road.

I found the voices somewhat frustrating, since one of TomTom's major selling points is that you can download and switch among different voices (some, such as John Cleese's, cost a few dollars). You can even record your own voice and submit it to TomTom's Web site for others to use. But these are all sampled voices, and as such cannot read street names to you, as can the synthesized computer voices. There's nothing wrong with the computer voices, but it's a crying shame that you can't have John Cleese reading you most of the directions, with a computer voice co-anchor chiming in with street names. Interestingly, if you record your own voice, you can mix it with a computer voice for reading street names.

There was one other problem with the sampled voices. Because they don't speak street names, I found it was easier, if I was having a conversation and not paying attention to the map, to miss an instruction. The 720 of course took my error in stride and rerouted me instantly, but had I been using a computer voice that alerted me to the street name, or if it had something like the tones that Magellan GPSes play when you're supposed to turn, I might not have missed those turns. On the plus side, the 720 recalculated new routes nearly instantly, and without obscuring the main map, as did the Magellan RoadMate 6000T.

The map display is three-dimensional (you can switch to 2-D as well) and extremely easy to interpret, and you can set not only the color schemes, as I mentioned earlier, but also the level of detail, which points of interest are shown, and more. Similarly, the data displays that tell you how far to the next turn, how far you have left to go in the trip, how long you have left, the estimated arrival time, and your speed, are customizable. Two minor nits with the display. First, the time remaining is shown as "0:28 hrs" rather than "28 min" until the minutes are single digits. And second, although the distance remaining is shown in decimal miles (like ".5 miles"), short distances to the next turn are given in yards, and all the built-in voices give their directions in yards as well. Perhaps it's a British sensibility or something that's easier for American football fans, but I found myself translating 800 yards into .5 miles each time I heard it, rather than just envisioning the distance in my head, something that didn't trouble me with either decimal miles or, for shorter distances, feet.

In real-world usage on several trips to unfamiliar areas, the 720 navigated admirably, routing us accurately and without confusion. Only once did we take a local shortcut that it disagreed with initially, though it later admitted (via reduced distance and time estimates) that our route was better. We were also able to use its point-of-interest database to find restaurants and gas stations as necessary while on trips, and although its knowledge of the many fine Ithaca-area points of interest wasn't impressive, it's easy to add you own points of interest. Oddly, it lacks the trip computer feature of Garmin GPSes that tracks your total distance, travel time, and average speed. It's not essential, but on long trips to visit relatives, the question of how long it took and what route we took always comes up.

Spontaneous Combustion -- Most of my initial usage came before I ever tried to connect the TomTom Go 720 to my Mac. Aside from a few quibbles here and there - I once tried playing an audiobook, and from then on, the 720 insisted on starting an audiobook every time I turned it on - it was a largely positive experience. Then I decided to see what the TomTom Home software would do for me.

The installation process was horrid. The CD's Finder window displayed all sorts of inscrutably named files, and when I found and double-clicked Install TomTom Home, I was presented with this delightful dialog. Who knew being asked if you live in the United States or Canada was a Yes/No question?

Immediately after launch, TomTom Home informed me that an update to TomTom Home itself was available, but when I clicked the underlined text (it seemed to be mixing application and browser metaphors), TomTom Home opened a window that displayed the TomTom Web site's user registration page. I dutifully registered, and was shown yet another pseudo-Web page from which I could theoretically download the update. Each time I tried, TomTom Home went into a tight loop and had to be force quit. Luckily, I was able to visit the TomTom Web site in a normal browser and download the update with no trouble.

Once launched, TomTom Home immediately displayed various map and GPS updates that I supposedly needed, so I let it download and install them. Once it was done, it told me to disconnect my device from the computer without giving any hint that this might be an action to perform carefully. This seemed wrong, and indeed, when I removed the 720 from its dock, Mac OS X promptly chided me for removing a device without ejecting it first. Oops! Such an improper eject has never actually caused a problem for me before, but in this case, the 720 refused to start up normally. I could put it back in the dock and use it via TomTom Home, but it would no longer work otherwise. This was indisputably my fault - I should have known better even if the software didn't make it clear and the fact isn't mentioned in the PDF-based manual accessed via the Web. But if I can make this mistake, someone less familiar with Mac OS X would likely make it as well.

Some searches turned up discussions from other users who had experienced this problem too, but the steps for reviving the unit didn't work for me (in essence, they suggested deleting the main application from the device, then reinstalling it, with each step punctuated with a 15-second pressing of the reset button with a paperclip). Finally, I called TomTom, and after the first guy lost me while researching the problem, I spoke to a woman who was sufficiently knowledgeable to walk me through the steps of copying the maps off the 720, reformatting its 2 GB flash drive using Disk Utility, reinstalling the software via TomTom Home, and copying the maps back on. (She actually had me run a TomTom ClearFlash utility first, which she said solved all sorts of wacky problems, but it didn't help me.)

Although I recovered basic functionality with this reformat-and-reinstall approach (and the problem that caused an audiobook to play every time I turned on the unit went away), it took me a while to find where to reload (one at a time) the computer voices and startup/shutdown screens via TomTom Home. TomTom Home also made it possible to download new voices, new car icons, new points of interest (including a list of all Apple Stores), and more. Most items were free, having been submitted by other TomTom users, but a few, such as the locations of traffic enforcement cameras in Europe and Australia, cost a few dollars.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Although it is a Macintosh application, TomTom Home attempts to mimic the on-screen interface of the TomTom GPSes, with the same multiple screens of six navigation buttons, one of which is an arrow that takes you to the next screen. It's easy to use, but clumsy - it's basically a Web interface, with the main useful menu item being Device > Disconnect, which properly ejects the unit so you can disconnect it. Many of its functions involve connecting to the Web to download data, something that failed at least 10 percent of the time (the support technician said that TomTom had just released new maps, so their servers were overloaded). Sometimes it gives up on actually displaying information itself and instead loads a page in your default Web browser, but what usually happened is that my Web browser would come to the front and load the page, and when I returned to TomTom Home, there would be a weird dialog telling me that it was going to load the page in my Web browser. The application itself crashed four times, although it didn't seem to cause any problems when it did.

To give you a better feel for the TomTom Home application, I've created a 5-minute screencast about it.

Final Beats -- I'm having trouble summarizing my thoughts about the TomTom Go 720. On the one hand, it performed admirably when used out of the box, and although I had a few quibbles with its interface, it was generally easy and enjoyable to use, particularly after I had spent some time going through all of the screens and setting a wide variety of preferences. And most important, it navigated with aplomb, guiding me to previously unknown destinations with no stress.

Where my stress level rose significantly was in connecting the 720 to my Mac and using TomTom Home. Although it was a frustrating experience, I freely admit that it was my mistake in disconnecting without dismounting that caused most of the trouble. Still, the application is clumsy and fussy, and not the sort of thing I would use regularly.

Where the TomTom Go 720 stands out from the crowd (and this is likely true of other models from TomTom as well) is in its customizability. No other GPS I've used provides anywhere near the same breadth of options (remember those eight screens of preferences?). But the marquee customization feature of TomTom's GPSes is the capability to download new voices, and for that, along with map updates, regular GPS satellite location tweaks, and more, you need to run TomTom Home and treat your GPS like a computer peripheral.

And that's where we come to the crux of the matter. The TomTom Go 720 offers a higher level of customization than any other GPS I've used so far, but for that, you must be willing to put up with lousy Mac software. If you just want your GPS to get you where you're going, you will either want to ignore TomTom Home most of the time, or stick with a simpler unit.


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