NOTE: The write-up below does not include pictures (just has information/comparison). If you'd like to see pictures of the models tested, you can find many pictures (user interface, and the physical models themselves) on the Garmin Nuvi 255W review page, and the TomTom XL 330S review page. I strongly recemmend referring to those pages to give you a better understanding as to the differences between the models.
A common question for those looking to buy a GPS is "which brand"? Buying a GPS is a unique experience, because they're not all the same - in fact they're often quite different. There are plenty of things to be concerned about. For example:
There are many more examples, and we'll touch upon many in this comparison. Note that each GPS excels in different areas - no, you can't buy one that simply "wins" it all. We'll make a recommendation at the end based on what's important to you in a GPS.
For this review, we purchased both a Garmin and a TomTom GPS of the same value. Many things are common throughout the price-range - a low end Garmin will contain much of the functionality of a high end Garmin and same goes for the TomTom. However, note that when you jump into different price-ranges, there will be changes - for example, a high end Garmin or TomTom may have voice recognition. A low end Garmin or TomTom may lack text-to-speech.
In any case, each brand has enough similarities acrosss the brand's price range that this comparison should hopefully give you a good start when you look to buy a GPS.
LET'S BEGIN! - PRELIMINARY STUFFThe GPS's purchased for this review were the:
The Garmin nuvi 255W is a mid-priced widescreen model. It's got just under 2GB of storage memory (just over 1.2GB of which is used).
The TomTom XL 330S is a mid-priced widescreen model as well. It's got 1GB of storage memory (about 940-960mb of which is used).
The original plan for the review/comparison was to list 2 low-end GPS's. However, because Garmin cheaped out on their common low-end model (the 205) by giving it only Canada and the northern part of the US (or just the US for US-models), we stepped up to the 255W.
Heading to this price range, there were very few factors that were considered to be a "necessity" for the
1) Full US/Canada maps
2) Widescreen (easy to get in the mid price-range)
Text to speech is really quite important. Yes, it's possible to do without. Thing is, it's safer. The reason is that particularly in an unknown area, you really need to keep your eyes on the road full-time. You don't always have time to glance at the GPS every few seconds to see when your turn-off is coming up. This may not be as big a deal for slow-moving inner-city driving, but if you travel the interstates that go through some of the busiest US cities at high speeds through heavy traffic, it only takes one mistake...
That said, if you've always got a passenger around to watch the GPS and guide you, feel free to cheap out a bit and get a model without text-to-speech. Your passenger can certainly provide you with any verbal help you need.
In any case, both the following GPS's met the criteria, and were in the same price range - about $250CAD.
Time to see who comes out on top - Garmin or TomTom...
Both the Garmin and TomTom mount in a considerably different fashion. Which is "better" is subject to opinion.
The TomTom has the mount included in the unit - suction cup and all. It does compact rather nicely which makes it better on the whole if you plan to move or store the entire assembly all the time. There's no risk in "losing" the mount because it's always there. The down-side is that reaching in behind the unit to actually attach or detach the unit to the windshield is cumbersome - there's not a lot of room to work. Those with skinny long fingers will probably manage, but those with shorter stubbier fingers will find it tough to get their hand in the tight space and turn the dial (a dial is turned to create suction in the suction cup). Because of the awkward position (not only do you have to hold it the right way, but you also have to turn the dial while holding it there), it can make it difficult to get a good seal, and sometimes a few attempts have to be made. Once it's on, it's secure - no flaws there, but most can probably expect to spend between 15-30 seconds to mount the unit.
The Garmin on the other hand is more "modular" in this sense. The mounting hardware is attached separately to the windshield and is extremely easy to install - you're looking at about 5 seconds to attach it. There's plenty of room to work, and you simply push it against the windshield and push a level up to create suction. Once the mount is on, you simply clip the GPS in the cradle on the mount. It's very easy. Where it falls behind is for those who always want to take both the GPS and mount with them (off the windshield) and also need it to be compact - the Garmin's GPS unit is compact enough, but the mount isn't something you're going to be able to keep in your pocket.
VERDICT: The Garmin really does allow for faster/easier installation. While the mount doesn't compact, it's rare that people need a mount that fits in their pocket anyway.
Both have a similar size screen.
The TomTom's screen is easier to press. Light touch works.
The Garmin's screen is harder to press. This isn't a big deal unless you want to pan a map (which requires you to press and "drag" your finger). Garmin falls behind here.
VERDICT: If you never pan the map (many don't) the Garmin's reasonable. The TomTom's touch screen
is definitely much more sensitive to touch though.
Both have include the GPS, the mount, a plastic dash-mount circle, and the cigarette lighter adapter.
The TomTom includes a mini-USB cable.
The Garmin doesn't.
VERDICT: GG Garmin. You saved 67 cents by cheaping out on a mini-USB cable.
The Garmin has 2GB of memory, plus an SD expansion card slot. Only 2/3 of the included memory is used, leaving quite a bit free.
The TomTom has 1GB of memory and 95% is used leaving only 5% free. It has no expansion options.
VERDICT: If there was one area to cheap out on for TomTom (who has amazing features and huge ease in adding things on), this wasn't it. Memory is the last thing they should have picked.
When the Garmin starts up for the first time, you're up and running in under a minute after answering a couple questions. There's no detailed guidance (aside from the help menu), but the Garmin is very intuitive to use, so most people won't need help anyway.
When the TomTom starts up for the first time, it takes a few minutes to get going. You set up a few preferences, and have the option to see a few tutorials about how to use it. It takes longer to get going the first time because of all the questions/features, but you learn a lot more about the GPS and how to use it. Admittedly, the depth of information is probably necessary since the GPS isn't as intuitive to use.
VERDICT: It's really a matter of preference. We loved how the Garmin got me up and running in no time. On the other hand, we also loved the way the TomTom basically gave us a rundown on all the major features of the device.
Overall Ease of Use:
The Garmin's extremely intuitive and easy to follow, both from the main screen as well as within the menu system. Everything's clear, easy to see, and easy to navigate. It takes seconds to find what you're looking for.
The TomTom on the other hand lacks the intuitiveness. This might sound contradictory but it's actually very easy to use - it just takes a little learning to do so.
VERDICT: A non-techie will figure out the Gamin long before they figure out the TomTom.
Customization and Features:
The Garmin has a lot of basic customization options, and quite a few features.
The TomTom has way more. Some examples are that it can adjust the volume based on your speed (generally when you're moving fast there's more roadnoise), can warn you if you're driving faster than the speed limit (or a certain speed), can suggest driving breaks, can warn you when near a church/school, can set an "arrival time", can plan based on walking routes, plan for bicycle routes, plan for limited speeds (in addition the the fastest or shortest routes offered by both the TomTom and Garmin), can pick and choose which points of interest to show on the map (Garmin shows none), and plenty more.
VERDICT: There's no contest here. For regular usage they're both great GPS's with enough info for 99% of people, but when it comes to certain specifics one might desire, TomTom fills an awful lot of niche's.
Amount of information provided on the map while driving:
The Garmin does have the most important stuff (for most people) available on the map display, and it's easy to read.
The TomTom has more info given though, and it can be customized even further. In addition to the info seen in the picture, Points of Interest show up on the map. All the information may make it a little tougher for a driver to pick out what they want at a quick glance, but a co-pilot will probably love it.
VERDICT: Many may prefer the minimalistic way the Garmin gives information on the map. Garmin actually does a great job of emphasizing the "important stuff" by doing it in this fashion. Fact is though, for info-junkies (as well as anyone with a co-pilot), the TomTom does show you a lot more.
The Garmin has well-defined categories and sub-categories. When doing a quick search (for "Burger King" for example) it also lists the addresses of each result on the results page in addition to the distance and direction.
The TomTom has more points of interest in total, at least in the areas we tested. You don't get the addresses on the result page (just the distance/direction) which means if there's a specific "Burger King" you're looking for it may take a little longer to find the particular one you're looking for. On the plus side, you can add your own points of interest very easily, more are available in total, and of course they do show on the map.
VERDICT: Each excel strongly in a couple areas, and fall behind severely in the other.
WINNER: Tie (dependant on what your preference is)
The Garmin uses NAVTEQ map technology. As far as positioning goes (and this was in Canada), it was perfectly accurate in all testing.
The TomTom uses Tele Atlas technology. As far as positioning goes (and this was in Canada), there were many times that the accuracy was behind. Sometimes it would show a bit ahead or behind of the actual position. In another case, there's a section of the major Trans-Canada highway where it thought we were either on a parallel road or in the middle of a field. This was reproducable. Whether this is a failing of the Tele Atlas map data, or a failing of the TomTom's precision is unknown at this time. Note that TomTom does have a "GPSfix" optional update available which may or may not help the situation although it needs to be re-downloaded on a regular basis to remain accurate (and there's no guarantee it will fix the issues).
VERDICT: A clear win for the Garmin.
Routing and re-routing:
In testing, both GPS's often picked different paths to get to a destination within a city. Neither were "wrong" and both were perfectly reasonable - in fact, you'd be difficult in getting 2 people to agree on the same route to that destination. Both GPS's were also quick to re-route if a turnoff was missed.
The Garmin made the city route just fine. When it came to a rural destination (a town) it made very poor choices though - it chose a gravel road rather than the highway that 99% of people would (and do) take. In fact, it was dead-set on this path - after approaching and then intentionally missing the Garmin's desired turnoff it then requested a U-turn to get back to that gravel road, rather than taking a much simpler/quicker gravel road. We chose to ignore the GPS and start heading down a smarter path. At that point, it recalculated and insisted we not only get to it's desired gravel road, but that we also take a private MUD road to get there, rather than the various other gravel roads which would be more obvious, quicker, and easier paths.
The TomTom made the city route fine (technically the fastest route), although it had an issue near one destination where it thought a road existed where it did not. After naturally missing that non-existant turnoff it quickly recalculated and got us back on track. When it came to a rural destination (the same town where the Garmin failed), it made the best choices - first it attempted the highway that 99% of people would take. We intentionally missed it to simulate the path we took with the Garmin. The TomTom kept making the best choices, and didn't fail us once.
VERDICT: Both were fine in the city, barring a minor mishap on the TomTom. In the rural area, the Garmin utterly failed, whereas the TomTom may as well have been a resident who lives in the area giving directions.
Map corrections on the GPS:
The Garmin does have a "Detour" button which is easily accessible.
The TomTom has much much more. You can correct points of interest, correct roads, and plenty more. Just about anything that's wrong that has to do with your navigation can be corrected.
VERDICT: While the Garmin will suffice for simple hiccups (like a detour), anyone who wants to set up a permanent correction can only do so easily on the TomTom.
This section focuses on the aspects of hooking the device up to your computer. You can update both devices over the internet, whether it's the built-in software, or map updates. You can also add features/functionality to the GPS's, whether it's points of interest, custom voices, or vehicle icons.
Out-of-box ability to connect to your computer:
Both devices need a mini-USB cable to connect to the computer. This was touched upon in the first section.
TomTom's GPS includes a mini-USB cable in the package. That means you have everything needed to hook it up to your computer.
Garmin's GPS does not have a cable included at a cost savings to them of under a dollar. Some may be fortunate and have a mini-USB cable lying around (whether from another GPS or from some digital camers and other devices). Others will have to buy one. You can get them for under a buck from MonoPrice online (plus shipping), or head into a local store, usually paying an arm and a leg.
VERDICT: A bad choice on Garmin's part to save a few pennies on a product that you probably paid well over $200 for.
Despite not having a USB cable included, the Garmin does have the free memory to hold more maps, more voices, etc. It's also got an SD memory card slot so you can add even more capacity.
The TomTom on the other hand is already loaded up to the brim. You might be able to squeeze in 2 additional text-to-speech voices before filling up the device. There's no expansion available, so if you'd like to add 3 voices... you're out of luck. Fortunately, most things (POI's, shared maps, etc) are smaller and won't be a problem, but it's still disturbing to see that free space is an area that was neglected.
VERDICT: Not the place for TomTom to be skimping, particularly since they've made so much effort to make all the customization/additions available so excellent.
Garmin's got a few separate pieces of software that must be installed to allow you to get stuff from the Garmin website, whether it's GPS updates, map updates, or extras. It's really scattered and feels like it was all bolted on after the fact. You basically search around the Garmin website for what you want, and then generally install some software to let you get whatever you happened to find. To add insult to injury, there isn't really a lot of obtainable stuff from the Garmin site anyway.
TomTom on the other hand has a marvellous software package. It's 1 program. Simply install it, and you can do everything from there. The moment you start it up for the first time, it lets you know if there are any updates available and lets you download them straight to the device. Anything you can do to the GPS you can find from within the software package. It's very intuitive, extremely easy to use, there's plenty available, and all-in-all it really shines.
VERDICT: Scattered and Sparse - that pretty much sums up Garmin's website/software/GPS integration. It's a shame that the Garmin GPS is so incredibly easy to use, yet the website/software end feels so slapped together. TomTom on the other hand has really got it figured out. Everything from finding maps, to sharing maps with others, to adding points of interest, to adding voices is just plain well-thought-out.
Each company allows you to get 1 free map update (within a certain time after purchase) when you buy the GPS and hook it up to your computer. They each also provide 4 map updates per year, although it costs (just the first one's free).
Garmin gives you 60 days from turning on your GPS to get the freebie update. As far as paid updates go, you can get free lifetime map downloads for $120. It's basically a one-time cost to get the 4 updates per year forever. Alternately, you can spring for a single update for $70 and either download it or have a DVD mailed to you with the map on it. Obviously if you plan to update more than once, the lifetime option is your best choice.
TomTom on the other hand gives you 60 days from the time you connect your GPS to the computer to get the freebie update. As far as paid updates go, a single map download is $80. Alternately, you can subscribe to quarterly updates for $40/year ($10/map every 3 months). There is a caveat though - if your map is out of date, you'll have to buy a single map before getting the subscription, although the single map charge may end up being less than $80 depending on how long ago you last updated.
VERDICT: Garmin's got cheaper single-updates ($10 less than TomTom). For long-term users, Garmin has free lifetime updates for $120. While technically the TomTom comes out ahead for those who want the latest map all the time AND plan to use the GPS for less than 3 years, the Garmin comes ahead in every other scenerio.
This was brushed upon earlier, but it's a huge enough feature to warrant it's own piece.
The TomTom allows you to share custom maps, points of interest, corrrections, etc with
others, all for free. You can of course receive updates/corrections made by others as well. You can also limit/extend
the options in this area - you can corrections reported by some, reported by many, verified by TomTom, and more. This
is a huge bonus, for reasons such as the following:
The Garmin on the other hand doesn't have anything like this. You're dependant on the maps provided by them and the corrections they make. You can certainly add points of interest through the POI installer, but it still pales in comparison.
VERDICT: TomTom has something implemented that works incredibly well that Garmin doesn't have.
The TomTom wins where people revolve their trips around the GPS. Between having constant user-submitted updates to the large degree of easy customization and information availble, it's definitely the choice I'd suggest for a courier, delivery driver, or those who are always on the road - those who become accustomed to taking a quick glance at the map and getting the information they need. Heck, those navigating by bicycle or on foot will love it too.
Which should you choose?
Figure out what's important to you. Read through the pages of the comparison and look around to see what others have to say. When viewed side by side in map view for the first time, most prefer the Garmin simply for the well laid-out display and ease of use if that helps any. When it comes to extra features/customization that the Garmin doesn't provide, or the ability to throw in your own corrections quickly, the TomTom comes out miles ahead.
If you've never used a GPS before and you're still not sure, go with the Garmin. It does what the average person expects and does it really well. If in the future you find you want more out of your GPS and don't mind sacrificing a little bit of user-interface to get it, sell your Garmin and pick up a TomTom.
Disclaimer: All information on this page is to be taken as opinion and not as fact. I disclaim all liability for anything that happens to anybody as a result of this existence of this page, any other pages on this site, or any other companies, people, places, or pages, that have been mentioned, referred to or linked to. Use this information at your own risk.