Thursday, 20 February 2014

Review: TomTom Go 5000 satnav

I'm not somebody who usually writes enthusiastically glowing reviews online of every toaster or toothbrush he buys, but the two newest devices in my life have completely changed that. The first was my first plunge into an 'adult' wristwatch - previously I'll admit I'd always just been a fan of Casio digital watches, so there was definitely a precedent for me buying this watch: the Casio Edifice EFR-529D-1A2 (I was so happy with it I wrote my first review on the site!).

The device which has really stolen my heart, however, has been my TomTom Go 5000 satnav (EDIT: since updated to the TomTom Go 5100). My previous satnav had been a Garmin, was definitely 'old tech' (I had it for an uneventful two years), it had no live traffic function and I was moderately satisfied with it in that it mostly found the places where I needed to go.

So why the expensive upgrade - which I'll be the first to admit I could not really afford? Because upon moving from Johannesburg to Cape Town I discovered two things immediately: 1: Cape Town traffic along some routes is easily on a par with Johannesburg's worst, if not even worse; and 2: I simply wouldn't be able to find my way through the maze of new roads quickly enough to prevent me from becoming very very late for my brand new job. A pretty common experience then.

Luckily I'd already been toying around with the idea of buying an HD-traffic enabled TomTom satnav for a few months, and when the all-new TomTom range of satnavs landed I'd been gazing longingly at the satnav shelves.

I do NOT want this to come across as an advert for TomTom, which I will wholeheartedly promise it isn't: this wasn't some test unit, and my decision to purchase it with my own money at the full retail price from my nearest Dion Wired (interestingly selling for a still eye-watering R4 000 - R400 cheaper than the recommended price on TomTom's site weirdly enough).

Ok, enough words ... show me a picture! Here's Exhibit A:

Peak morning traffic in Cape Town? What peak morning traffic?
The top reasons I bought this satnav specifically:
  1. The 5000 model doesn't have to be paired with a smartphone (like the Go 500 has to be), meaning that it draws down live traffic information immediately after you turn it on from its dedicated built-in cellular modem.
  2. Having read up on this a bit, it definitely appears that TomTom's HD traffic is better than Garmin's LiveTraffic, with the primary difference being that in addition to the various top-down data sources both use (traffic reports, vehicle tracking), TomTom units transmit information back to some processing centre live where it is captured and then sent out again to the whole network.
  3. I'd had a TomTom before that I had fond memories of, and quite apart from the HD traffic I felt confident that the rest of the package being brand-new would be reliable - and all the glowing reviews online echo that.
And what has it been like in practise?

In a nut-shell, I'm very happy. This satnav has become my constant companion and guide in Cape Town's traffic, and I'm still really enjoying delegating the responsibility of trying to keep trying a different shortcut based on a memorised route (which I'd do all the time in Johannesburg) to my new little 'box of tricks' which responds proactively rather than reactively.

Things that you'll be wondering about:

  1. TomTom HD Traffic really works as advertised, after two weeks' thorough test drive of it. No, it doesn't avoid every single traffic jam - in fact it deliberately guides you into some queueing traffic if it calculates that the minutes you're going to lose sitting in it is going to still be shorter than a lengthy detour - but the enjoyment you constantly get from driving the opposite way to looooong queues of traffic and darting through back routes when sections of the main roads are particularly slow never gets old.
  2. In practice, HD Traffic's biggest shortcomings result from a lack of data points - not enough units on the ground in Cape Town. As an interesting function, the satnav not only indicates the exact positions of slow traffic or traffic accidents or construction work and estimates the number of minutes you'll still spend sitting in it; it also indicates the number of cars' satnavs which have confirmed this report. In most cases you'll find the number of confirmations only around two or three, and I think the most I've ever seen is five.
  3. The 5000's new capacitive touch screen really works a treat, compared to my previous old-gen satnav's resistive touch screen. As the difference has already been described in other reviews, it feels a lot like a modern tablet PC (complete with multi-touch pinch-to-zoom functionality) compared to the 'prod and hope' functionality of yore.
  4. The 5000's user interface takes some getting used to - I'd already been warned by the other reviews that TomTom had streamlined it a lot, but once you get used to it it's a snap. Instead of the usual 'Select City', 'Select Number', 'Select Street' triple combo, on the TomTom's new interface you just start typing in a single search box, and after only four letters it tries to guess where you mean and keeps refining the list (ending with drop-down lists of addresses on the left and POIs on the right to select from).
  5. Another neat feature is the ability to report a speed camera's location with a single click from the main screen while you drive past it - to a pity little 'Thank you for reporting!' message as your report is transmitted - and the next two times you drive past the same spot you're asked to confirm whether the camera is still there (no longer a need to connect your satnav to your computer to update the cameras).
  6. All the rest of the basics just work beautifully: it has a solid feel, the magnetic click-in charging bracket works well, the computer voice handles some difficult pronunciations surprisingly well (and just takes a hopeful stab at many others), and the processor is fast enough to allow you to scroll around the map with a finger without any real lag (compared to my Garmin's drag-and-hope-for-a-refresh interface). I also REALLY like the wonderfully playful 'Let's Go' invitation you click on each time you drive anywhere.
Just because I have to be unbiased, however, the things I don't like about this satnav are:
  1. If anybody at TomTom HQ has bothered to geo-fence any dangerous suburbs and exclude these from route planning, I haven't noticed any real evidence of this yet. Although the satnav does start to favour certain routes and alternate between these depending on the local traffic conditions, on those occasions where it tries out something completely new it seems to have no qualms driving me back through some decidedly dodgy areas (where the old 'look ahead and think happy thoughts' tactic is all you're left to). That's South Africa for you ... we need 'fastest route', 'shortest route', and 'even my mom will feel safe' for our route calculation options.
  2. The 5000 is so self-confident in its abilities that its new user interface simply has no 'detour' button. You read that right: there is NO way to manually force the satnav to find a different route. It will give you an alert if traffic conditions change and it identifies a faster route (or you can set it to recalculate the route automatically like I prefer), but once it settles on a route that's it - if you drive off it it will most likely re-calculate to bring you back onto the same route. Is it right? Not knowing all the traffic conditions and what it's basing its decision for the on-the-fly route corrections, you just don't know. So there you sometimes sit in a traffic jam the TomTom either isn't displaying yet (or displays only when you're at the end of it - presumably you were the sacrificial lamb who alerted everybody else coming after you), or the TomTom displays it and just happily informs you that you've got a 06:00 minute traffic delay and yet doesn't try to take you off the route. Turn up the radio and enjoy again!
So there you have it, my most detailed device review yet. It's hard to find a REAL review of satnavs - most are just re-jigged press releases - so it's time somebody did something about it. I have no doubt that the TomTom Go 5000 IS saving me at least half an hour in traffic every single day, and for me that was worth the R2000 difference between a non-HD traffic and HD-traffic enabled GPS. That was the deal-breaker for me: there's no reason to spend R2000 and be unhappy if you can spend R4 000 and be happy.

For international readers, click here to visit TomTom's global site and discover their range of sat navs:

This is a hard-won lesson I have learned again and again, whether it was buying another favourite gadget I use almost all the time, my Olympus DM-650 dictaphone (I can't tell you how crystal-clear this is compared to my older cheaper recorder's scratchy recordings) ... or a string of hopelessly expensive but amazingly rewarding electronic gadgets.

Because that's the main rule with electronics, isn't it? The more money you try to save, the unhappier you will be. It really is directly proportional.

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