Pros: superior GUI, desktop, and hardware; easy to use, compact
Cons: costly, limited 'lifetime', poor simulator & detours, confusing options, no live traffic
This review contrasts a competing Tomtom, Garmin and Google Maps, all used as real time automotive GPS on a 4000 mi interstate trip. For an executive summary, read only the bolded items.
In December 2012, my 5+ year old, reliable Tomtom One died, and this pushed my need for a new unit. I've reviewed and used a Tomtom One since 2007, and the criteria I need for a GPS remain as in that review. However, I add real time traffic to basic needs, while voice control is a useful option. The main need is getting from A to B quickly, which also means avoiding traffic which increases my arrival time.
I put over 10,000 high way miles on my GPS every year: interstate, and local roads from as north as high Ontario, Canada, to end of Florida, Key West. I've taken GPSs off road to state parks, farms, dirt roads mostly were maps were blank. I've driven strange dark roads to bypass traffic or road blocks in states I've never been to before. In addition, add hundred of added miles annually driving locally.
GPS units have all but replaced paper maps, but users should not rely on them completely, assume they'll do all trip guidance for you, as none are 100% accurate. If a user doesn't blindly take GPS recommendations and confirm directions by checking road signs and actual road conditions, nearly all GPS navigators work and are necessary driving tools and beat paper maps any day. Even if older maps are installed, it can be worked with, so long as device isn't bug ridden and wholly reliable. If you know where you are and zoom out to see where the maps again begin and head in that general heading, once you get there the GPS will inevitably plot a route out of your situation, based on nearest roads.
Garmin vs TomTom vs Google
The 40LM was chosen because I thought it had the minimum mix of features required to go from A to B, why pay for what you don't use? I took 40LM and Google Maps to over 4000 mi of travel in a 10 days. I also compared them with my experience with Tomtom One, which I used on these itineraries for over 5 years. I also compared the current functionality of competing Tomtoms while at a store.
Reviews of current Tomtoms auto GPS units are consistently lower versus Garmin, regardless of model, and over the past 3 years, across many review sites. Many of the comments are critical: navigation errors, map errors, and hardware failures. Garmin is not immune, and there are refurbished units for sale from both camps, but Garmin is the far lesser of the two evils. Since I needed a reliable device foremost, Garmin was a made a top choice over Tomtom.
Many Garmins are made in Taiwan instead of China, and as a rule, Taiwan products are often of better quality than China.
I examined a Tomtom Start 55, Via 1535 and the 40LM at a retail store by setting trips to 1000mi locations. The Start 55 GUI looks very similar to my One except the Start 55 was slower to respond, and was more jerky; the One was a far better machine except for the smaller screen. The Via 1535 was faster machine and used updated graphics but the overall design was rooted in the old GUI design from the One.
Garmin's user interface was better; it took less keystrokes to navigate a destination, bypass or detour a route, or find POI. This was because Tomtom still uses a separate menu system to execute most commands, making it harder to learn, too. Garmin uses the animated map as a menu: point to the car and touch it, and it opens items related to a moving car; point to a blank spot on the map and it presumes you want info on a POI in that location or to navigate to it; Tomtom's you exit the screen and scroll though layers of menus to find the command you want to do. Navigating a theoretical 1000mi trip, Start 55 took 3+ minutes to plot a route, Via 1535 needed a satellite it couldn't reach indoors to do so, while the Garmin finished in under 1 minute.
Build quality of Garmin was overall better in that Garmin pays more attention to ergonomic design and small details, hardware to software: devices are thinner, compact and handy friendly, raised grip pattern on the housing, they were easier to grip and pocket in a shirt. When mounted, Garmins were less intrusive in dashboards and mounted easily and firmly. Tomtom mounts held well too, but the suction cup must be clean, if it doesn't have a suction lever lock standard on most Garmins. Garmin's power on automatically when the car accessory port is powered up, and default power off when the power port is shut off. Garmin automatically sets date/time to the current timezone, switches to night or day mode based on the standard sunrise and sunset times of each region. Tomtom's typically must be manually powered on and set to night or day mode. Start 55 USB power port exits from the bottom of the unit, USB cable tips tends to get bent, destroyed or fall off accidentally, and despite learning of this issue from early models and doing Garmin's USB port of exiting from the back of the unit in other models, Tomtom again builds models with USB ports at the bottom. I've destroyed several USB cables because of the bottom exit design in my Tomtom. Garmin could lock on GPS signals inside my home that neither my smartphone with Google maps or Tomtom could. Its screen was easier to see in sunlight than my Tomtom.
Tomtom's early desktop sync software, Home, was adequate and offered many unusual or useless functions but at least it was bug free. The current desktop software for Start and Via is can be downloaded by non-owners and its buggy as of this writing.
Garmin has a spartan but wholly functional and bug free desktop client whose only job is to update maps and firmware; Tomtom's was also an advertising vehicle for its other products. Garmin warned and I confirm, it took over 4 hours to update maps and firmware on the 40LM, but it went without problems.
Confusing models, pricing and options
Both Garmin and Tomtom offer a bevvy of models, with confusing or inadequately advertised functionality. However, Tomtom's navigators offer more uniform options on all their models. Garmin's cheaper models cripple its detour capability, POI categories and maps, this is a major flaw in the 40LM, but you won't know how badly its crippled until you buy one, reading the box carefully is not enough and reviews are not thorough. For example, the Garmin 40 has up to 25 versions, 5 versions for the 40LM! There are options without maps, LM suffix means 'lifetime' otherwise not, but it can be 48 states, 49 states, each variant of states plus Canada, each variant of states plus Mexico etc. but no US, Canada and Mexico!!, but without a specific model numbers just a box label for the included option. After reading through so many options I later find there is no traffic support. Each added option cost more, and when searching for a 40LM you can get widely varying prices as these options are not mentioned, but buried in their spec sheet. Further the price of variants of the 40LM cost far more than higher end models in the Garmin line, models with more functionality. Even cheap Tomtom units have maps of the USA, Canada and Mexico, and have all features of POI and detours that Garmin considers 'advanced'.
Custom Features in Basic Navigators
Tomtom is far more adept in providing customized trip routes made manually, but it take more keystroke to program. This is invaluable when avoiding roads under construction, accidents or bypassing entire cities or routes, such as Washington DC's notorious traffic situation; Tomtom will recalculate a trip route with manually entered exceptions; there is no equivalent feature on the 40LM.
Tomtom's allow user updated map data, called Map-share, this allows users to update maps on their own to correct for their database errors. POI categories are not as strict as Garmin and are easier to customize. For example Garmin requires a major category such as "Shopping" to label a POI, whereas in Tomtom's a category can be anything, so Walmart can be a Walmart category, and needn't be forced to shopping. The 40LM has no customizable POI categories nor has user editable maps.
Beware. Lifetime is strictly defined by Garmin, but simplified it means life of the product line, not the one you own, memory capability of the model line, and map format provided by the map maker. If Garmin ceases to produce the model, or the new maps are larger than your device's capability or the map maker decides on a new format incompatible with your hardware, your 'lifetime' is over. This lifetime contract is not transferable. Several hacks and change in policy have been made by Garmin over the past 2 years, so track the current situation before buying a used Garmin, anticipate not being able to avail of lifetime since the policy is also tied to model types, until proven otherwise.
The Garmin can emulate traveling a planned route, but in real time. This makes it nearly useless. On Tomtoms, it runs at 5x normal speed allow users to get an overview of the entire trip. For example, if you plan a trip that takes 30 minutes to complete, the Garmin will require 30 minutes, while Tomtom takes 6. Luckily, simulation is not a very useful function since one can read the trip route text once generated, but I use the simulator to check out the graphics and navigation aids offered for turns. Although I did not buy the Start 55 or Via 1535, the simulation mode allowed me to overview all the new graphics in Tomtoms to compare against the Garmin, which I had actually driven. Also, given the quality control complaints for both brands, I ran simulation mode in real time to exercise the GPS by running round trips from NY to CA, OH to TX, ME to FL, to 'burn in' the units and expose defects. This had the unit running 24 hrs x 7 days continuously. 40LM is very sensitive to GPS signals, if it finds a signal, it aborts the simulation and attempts to lock on, ending the simulation, to keep it going keep it far away from windows and on a table keep the screen UP, to keep the antenna facing down on your table. The unit worked without problems.
Update to the latest map available, the 40LM plotted more efficient routes to my destinations than my old Tomtom One, routes I had known before hand as optimal and had forced by Tomtom to take. However, it took other routes later I didn't know about and each saved many minutes of travel time. One typical route I used for years via Tomtom was over 30 minutes shorter using Garmins route. When I simulated these routes on a newer Tomtom Start 55, it plotted similar routes as Garmin, so I presume my old One had outdated maps. The old map and data were not efficient, but any GPS kept me from getting lost in foreign surroundings. These efficiencies made me opt for GPS with 'lifetime' maps, as efficiency required good map data and hopefully live traffic to plot appropriate detours.
Many other reviews applaud the accuracy of Garmin maps and routing, but my tests show any updated Garmin, Tomtom or Google map, are pretty much on par, they can make mistakes. In Washington DC in my trip, Garmin's latest map did not have the restricted lane changes in the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, so it guided me to wrong lane, despite these lanes being completed over 2 years ago, something Google maps knew about, and was no better than my 5 year old Tomtom.
The 40LM has an automatic detour function, but it has no user settable features, this is another fatal weakness.
I tested the detour function over 10x every 1000mi, simulating or using real detours. For simulated detours, I was familiar with an optimal bypass and checked what Garmin would do. For real detours, I just trusted what it told me. When a traffic jam appears, a user must hit the detour button before turning off an exit, to allow it to plot a bypass. 40LM will set a detour to as far a distance it thinks appropriate. I was surprised it set detours on Interstate jams >5 mi away which I knew was a minimum choice after running such routes for years, even if the next exit was far closer. However, in city jams, it would run the detour only to the nearest exist, which was often inadequate. To bypass this route, one had to ignore its request to head to that exit, in which case the Garmin plotted to the next closest exit; this required the driver to use the 2D mode to follow a path that did not turn off towards the upcoming exit; a strategy that did not always work and was frustrating.
The 40LM cannot be forced to avoid certain roads or cities permanently, such as during construction or notoriety for traffic jams. On most any Tomtom, user selectable detours, avoiding roads and cities can easily be programmed, this is a powerful feature. Quantico, VA I95 is notorious for traffic jams on Sunday afternoon, and for years I would bypass I95 via Route 1 or 301; it was impossible to preset the 40LM to bypass Quantico, or even Washington DC, unless I was already there!
Travel time accuracy
Garmin's are noted for spot on accurate estimating arrival times, assuming no trouble down the road. Garmin was flawless in predicting my actual arrival time to within 1 minute in multiple stops through 4000mi of travel. However, it assumes no traffic, unless one is fed live traffic reports. Its not a good time to give anyone expecting you, since realistic slow downs do occur, but its good for the driver. For example, the drive time with Garmin doesn't consider the possibly of stops for gas, food or bathroom breaks, which typically adds a full hour or more to a 1000mi trip. Tomtom, either by intent or accident, always had this margin built into its trip estimates, and made for more realistic arrival time on long trips.
Google Maps has a free built in navigator that can be driven, walked or cycled. It was as accurate in routing and predicting arrival time, gave voice output for turns and streets, and was free. Unlike Garmin or Tomtom, you could get a satellite photo of your area and had built in real time traffic reports. It did not have any POI nor could it calculate detours. It required a continuous data connection, but through 4000mi it never missed a beat, despite having dropped signals on parts of the route; I presume it knows how big a buffer to keep for its real-time maps. Google maps is a free adjunct or replacement for lifetime standard traffic reports in either Garmin or Tomtom and is fast and responsive on my smartphone. However, the graphics are not optimized for driving and tend to be too small, in already cramped small LCDs used in smartphones. However, if you become dependent on GPS navigators, having one on your phone makes an excellent backup for your primary unit. Note, it can consume large amounts of data, and if you are on a quota, it becomes relatively expensive; during the 4000mi trip I downloaded ~400MB of map data.
If you need a basic auto GPS to take you from A to B, need only 48 state US maps, use detours and custom routes minimally, the 40LM is a superior choice. For Garmin's line, be very sure it has right maps or options you need. Due to deficiencies I reviewed, I returned the 40LM and upgraded to the 2455LMT, which I will review later. The 2455LMT overcame all the problems of the 40LM. I paid $70 for the 40LM and $140 for the 2455LMT.
The unit deserves 5 stars because it does what its supposed to do well, but deduct 1 star because of unclear labelling what the variants did, and what options were available.
Since the 'lifetime' option is not transferable, buying a used Garmin can be a problem for updating firmware or maps. 40LM is obsolete as of this writing, but the 2013 version, 42LM, is similar since it uses the same basic software. Garmin uses different model numbers for variants of this same model, compared to the confusing 'variants' used in 2012.
Tomtom vs Garmin? A key issue is Tomtom units have more advanced options in its cheaper models compared to Garmin. I would consider any Tomtom if price is an issue but know there is a slightly higher risk of more defects as of this writing.