Pros: Lifetime map updates, compact suction mount, advance route planning, TripMaster
Cons: IQ routes not so smart, complex menus, difficult initial setup
I bought the TomTom XL 340 TM GPS because it was on sale and the maps on my old Mio C310 GPS were getting out of date.
Basically the "XL" means that it has a 4.3 inch screen (XXL is 5 inches), the M suffix means that it has lifetime map updates, and the T suffix means that it has a Traffic receiver. The 340 is a 2009 model, but it has had some software updates since the original release. It has most of the features of TomTom's current models, and even a few advantages that later models don't have.
I’ve had a chance to use it for a while now and compare to my old C310, so to summarize the major pros and cons of this model for me:
- Like all TomTom models, it updates to the latest map version on initial activation after purchase.
- The Lifetime Maps means that it gets free quarterly updates to the latest map version for as long as the device is supported and the map data remains available.
- I can make some custom updates to the built-in maps, and receive map updates from other users via TomTom Map Share service.
- Real-time traffic information is received via an FM radio RDS receiver built into the car power cord.
- The compact suction mount attaches easily to the back of the unit, folds up and pulls off easily for storage.
- Has text-to-speech for speaking street names (e.g., “Turn right on Main street”)
- Lane guidance shown for complex exits/interchanges.
- Quick to acquire the GPS signal (with a patch available as an update from TomTom)
- Free TripMaster add-on software from http://www.webazar.org/tomtom/tripmaster.php?lang=uk adds a nice trip computer screen and flexible track logging.
- The TomTom Home software needs some work. It makes the initial activation and update a nightmare (see details below).
- Poorly-organized menus make some functions difficult to access compared to other GPS models like my C310.
- Some missing features, such as track logging, altitude display, and control of the map orientation (but TripMaster helps with the first two).
- Limited built-in memory (2 Gbytes) leaves little free space, and there’s no memory card slot for expansion. This restricts the number of options that can be installed and may ultimately limit the lifespan of the model as the updated map grows too large for it.
- Some of the screens don’t have enough detail on the 4.3” LCD, might work better with the 5” XXL size.
- Extremely slow USB 1.1 interface takes more than an hour to download a new version of the maps.
- No physical volume or mute buttons (or any control buttons other than on/off)
- Not bright enough to be easily readable in full sunlight (not any worse than others, just still not good enough)
- Difficult to plug the car power cord into the recessed USB connector - it always takes me several seconds of fumbling.
- You must have the car power cable attached and plugged in to 12v power for the traffic receiver to work.
Overall I think it works just fine as a car navigation GPS. Other devices may do more (even my old Mio), but I don't need those extras in a GPS.
I really like the compact suction mount, even though it can’t extend the GPS away from the windshield the way that the larger Mio suction mount does. It's compact enough to actually carry on a trip, something I would never do with the much larger Mio mount.
I’m less thrilled with the IQ Routes navigation on the TomTom. It’s ok for someone accustomed to the quirks of GPS routing, but somehow I expected better, maybe unrealistically. The driving routes chosen are not always the best, and there are some peculiar defects like sending me a mile around the block to go 10 feet. I can usually understand why it happened, but it makes the “IQ” moniker seem a little overstated. I'm not saying it's worse than the old Mio - just not any better. The routes are supposed to adjust for historic traffic conditions and driver feedback incorporated into the map updates, but I haven’t seen much evidence of it in the cities I’ve visited. Trip time estimates are actually less accurate than the Mio, especially in the rush hour, so neither the IQ routes nor the traffic receiver seem to be helping much on that score. The walking routes are better chosen though, taking advantage of walking paths shown on the maps, and I like being able to select the route type when starting it.
The traffic receiver module is incorporated into the car power cord, which has to be plugged into the GPS and into the car’s 12v power to function. Makes sense, but it means that you can’t see the traffic when planning a route in advance before you get into the car. Fortunately the FM RDS traffic broadcast is available in my city, and I do see occasional notices of accidents or routine rush-hour slowdowns on the screen, so it works. It’s just not very helpful most of the time. Perhaps the IQ routes and the FM traffic receiver would be more helpful in some other cities that I haven’t visited yet with more TomTom users or a different street arrangement, but I can only go by my experience to date. The TomTom "Live Traffic" models receive more detailed traffic information over the cellular data network rather than using FM, which may be more helpful for navigation and travel time estimates.
Overall I think the TomTom has better advance route planning functions than the Mio C310. I can create multiple itineraries with multiple waypoints and stops, starting from anywhere and going to any destination. The itn file format TomTom uses for itineraries is supported by other software, so it’s possible for example to plan a route with Google Maps and then transfer it to the TomTom in the form of an itn file with free route conversion software. Apparently TomTom has locked down the GPS internals in more recent models in a way that makes this great feature unavailable, but to date it still works with the latest firmware update on this XL 340 model.
On the other hand it’s not as easy to adjust the route on-the-go as it is on the Mio. On the Mio I can scroll/pan/zoom the map away from the current GPS position at any time, tap a point on the map to pop up a menu, and set a via point or mark a POI with one simple selection. The TomTom won’t let me move the map away from the GPS position unless I go into the menu and select Browse Map. On the Mio I can also set as many via points as I want in my route on the go, and the route will be optimized to pass through them. The TomTom will only let me set a single via point, and it won’t optimize the route. Then it insists with dogged determination that I must pass through the via point before it will continue with the route. The function to skip a planned itinerary waypoint or via point that’s already passed by on the route is buried down in the menus, difficult to access on the go while driving, so this is especially annoying.
Some other minor observations on navigation and use in general:
- Overall it shows what I need to see on the screen and not much else. Good thing, because there aren’t a lot of display options.
- It’s a bit late telling me when I should drive straight for a long way to the next turn. The Mio does this right away after the previous turn, but for some reason the TomTom takes about a minute to speak up.
- I wish it would speak whether the destination is on the left or the right of the street. It’s shown on the display, so it knows.
- It doesn’t tell me when I’ve passed the turn and I’m off course. It silently recalculates, but you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking closely at the screen (which you wouldn’t be if you were trying to spot the turn).
- The procedure to add a via point on the fly using “Find Alternative” and “Travel Via” or by browsing the map is overly complex and hard to do while driving. I recommend instead to simply “Navigate to” the via point, then “Navigate to” the original destination using “Recent destination”.
- I miss being able to tap the Mio compass direction icon to quickly switch views between north-up/ direction-of-travel-up/airplane-overview. This TomTom model always shows direction-of-travel-up orientation.
- I wish it had hardware volume buttons like the Mio, because the TomTom sometimes blasts out a loud voice announcement before I can get to the volume menu to tone it down.
- I prefer the screen layout I use on the Mio that shows the turn directions at the top center of the screen along with the street name. That’s where I’m heading visually on the screen, so it just makes more sense than having the directions and the street name shown in different locations like the TomTom.
- I like the way speed block on the status bar of the TomTom turns red when exceeding speed limit.
- It does show your true position when walking off the road or marked path, although initially you have to move about 100 ft. away from the nearest road to snap the connection to the road (apparently earlier firmware versions did not allow this).
- It is possible to convert external POI files to OV2 format and copy them to the GPS, and to transfer POIs and Favorites marked on the GPS back to the computer. I was able to transfer the POIs I accumulated on the Mio to the TomTom.
- The speaker on the back makes a bit of a bulge in the shape, but at least it provides a convenient hub to clamp on the suction mount.
- I find the TomTom’s multi-level menu system awkward. Some commonly-used items are deeply buried and difficult to access while driving. There’s a Quick Menu option, but it’s completely useless because it’s limited to just a few items that aren’t the ones I want quick access to. At least you can tap the time block on the status bar to quickly access the volume control, or the route block to access the status page showing route status, satellite signal status, and battery status.
- Apparently it is possible to build a custom menu structure on this model to replace the default TomTom menu if you know what you’re doing, but there are limitations. I haven’t tried it.
Finally we come to the painful subject of the TomTom Home software.
The GPS is fully functional out of the box, but the first thing you need to do is install the TomTom Home PC software, connect the device, and do an update. You certainly will want to do this, because it’s how you get the up-to-date maps. Unfortunately there are a lot of problems with this procedure. Many early users of this model found that the update disabled their GPS because there wasn’t enough memory for the updated map. Once you have lost the map, the TomTom software won’t let you get it back because they are suspicious that you don’t have a license. I followed the procedure recommended in user forums to avoid this trap, but the Home software still managed to erase my map and disable the GPS. I think the problem may have been that it was caught in the middle of a very lengthy initial update of the GPS memory, but I didn’t realize it because I hadn’t told it to update the GPS and it showed no indication whatsoever of what it was doing. I eventually recovered my map and got it working again, but only after a frustrating few hours of error messages and circular directions (“you must update now” -> “no updates are available”). I also had to enter an activation code enclosed in the box for lifetime map updates, but the first 10 times I tried it I was told “not valid for this device”. The 11th time it worked, for no apparent reason. It all seems to be working fine now, but it was one of the most annoying and frustrating device setups I’ve ever had to do. TomTom’s customer service is at least reasonably responsive and helpful, but better software would have avoided a lot of these problems in the first place.
The TomTom Home software also installs its own TomTomHomeService as an Autostart service in Windows so that it is running all the time, which is bad behavior for any software - nobody needs more unnecessary always-running clutter installed in their copy of Windows.
Once everything is set up correctly, you can use the Home software to manage map updates, do backups, and select extras like optional voices. TomTom packages the North America maps (U.S., Canada and Mexico) as a single integrated map, so it takes a long time to update via the USB 1.1 interface. Unlike the Mio, I can't select and load just specific states to save memory. The 2 Gbyte built-in memory on the XL 340 is already pretty tight, so I worry that future map updates may simply become too big for it.
It is possible to add extensions to the TomTom GPS, including some available from TomTom and some from independent developers. The extensions available vary depending on the particular TomTom model and firmware version. Unfortunately with newer models TomTom seems to be increasingly restricting the ability of 3rd-party developers to interface to the GPS, locking down the menus and turning off access to the internal memory as a removable drive.
I recommend TripMaster, a great add-on that makes the XL 340 much more complete for me. It’s available free online, and it installed easily, adding itself to the TomTom main menu. It can run in parallel with the primary navigation function once started, allowing me to switch back and forth. It shows a trip computer screen with a big compass, speed, altitude, slope, time and distance traveled, average speed etc., and it has a highly-configurable track logging function. It supports recording of track logs in a variety of formats, including gpx, kml (for Google Earth), and itn to create an itinerary file. One neat trick that TripMaster can do is to record a trip directly to an itn file, which you can then access immediately in the TomTom nav menu as new route itinerary for future trips. You can also view the itinerary on the map when it's complete, but you can't see your track in real time the way you can on the Mio.
Most of the other add-on apps available don’t really make sense for this model (e.g., it’s not very useful as a music player with little available memory and no stereo headphone jack).
Overall the XL 340 gets me where I'm going, and I hope that I’ll be able to update the maps successfully for the next few years.
Update: I recently had the opportunity to compare the XL340 to a new Garmin Nuvi 50 GPS on a road trip of several days with both operating side by side. They were very similar in operation, with both updating at the same rate and speaking directions almost in unison, but the TomTom usually gave initial turn directions a little sooner. The Garmin had a less cluttered screen, but the menus seemed equally complicated and difficult to use on both. The TomTom usually chose better routes in the city. Neither was any good at estimating travel time when traffic was involved, although both had traffic receivers. On the highway the Garmin showed a more zoomed-out view looking beyond visible range, while the TomTom view corresponded more exactly to what we could see ahead. The TomTom generally had more POIs and more details of secondary roads off the highway. Overall I liked the bigger, brighter, and less cluttered screen of the Garmin, but the TomTom was a better navigator.