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TomTom's Lifetime Maps are useless if it takes a lifetime to update

commentary Getting lifetime map updates with a TomTom GPS sounds great until you actually try to get a new map. Then you might feel lost.


I propose a new test for GPS reviews. Can you actually update your device easily with new maps? When it comes to TomTom, that's a test it has failed for me with three different units, making me want to navigate elsewhere for my GPS needs. Worse, the company seems not to care about known problems.

For all of you TomTom owners feeling lost out there, come along. I'll share some of my pain, and you can nod in agreement. Maybe, just maybe, TomTom might even fix things.

The disposable GPS?
Back in 2010, I tried to update my then two-year-old TomTom 920. It was the second TomTom I'd owned, a high-end model. It worked perfectly fine, but the maps were out-of-date. I was ready to purchase new maps, but as it turned out, there was no way to get them into the device.

I tried everything, sporadically, over the course of several months. The TomTom wouldn't connect with my Mac. It wouldn't connect with my Windows 7 computer. It wouldn't connect with a Windows XP computer I tried. It wouldn't connect if I reinstalled any type of software or followed any type of procedure that TomTom suggested.

The worse thing was turning to TomTom for help. Its help pages still thought there were no versions of Windows out past Vista. The support ticket I opened sent me around and around, chasing solutions that never worked but consumed tons of time to try. Meanwhile, the support forums were full of people having similar problems.

In the end, TomTom finally decided that maybe there was a fault with my 920. Since it was out of warranty, I bought a new unit at the end of 2010, a TomTom XL 340TM. Buying a new unit was easier than trying to get the old -- but perfectly functional -- unit still going.

Update woes continue on new devices
The new unit worked fine and had some nice features my older unit didn't have. It was joined by a second unit for our other car, a TomTom 1535 Top Gear edition at the end of 2011. It also had some great features. All was well with both units until I decided in May that I should heed the reminders that both where giving me, to update my maps.

Well, why not? Both units came with lifetime maps. But updating turned into a nightmare that I mentioned briefly in a previous column. I had trouble getting either unit seen by my Mac or PC laptops. As it turned out, the TomTom XL required use of TomTom Home software; the TomTom 1535 used a web-based updated. I also needed to have a separate TomTom account for each one.

Sigh. Eventually, I did get the TomTom 1535 connected, and it told me it was all up-to-date. TomTom support reassured me it was. But the pester messages from the device itself to update my maps continued, so I tried again when I had time in September. My lifetime map update code for the unit was suddenly showing as invalid. Back to support, which reassured me all was fine.

This week, things clearly were not fine. The unit still gave pester messages and now was simply acting strangely. So, I hunkered down to finally resolve things. I plugged in the 1535, got connected and was again given no option to update my maps other than to buy them. My lifetime update status wasn't registering despite TomTom now having told me twice that it was associated with my account.

TomTom Support needs support
I went to support, which cheerfully told me this:

Please note that the USA, Canada & Mexico - Lifetime Map Update Service (LMUS) active on this account is incompatible with your GO LIVE 1535 device.

Sigh, again. My lifetime map update service that came with my 1535, that TomTom has twice before told me is active, isn't compatible with my 1535?

But my long experience with TomTom Support has taught me that this is how things go. You speak into one end of the support form, and the responses that come back often seem like no one has done any research into your problem before responding. They also often don't come back sounding like people on the other end have a full command of English.

Consider this other part of the response I got:

Please attach the Proof of Purchase (invoice copy) of GO LIVE 1535 device in .pdf, .bmp, or .jpeg file, showing the date of the purchase, the model and the dollar amount to this incident by following the steps provided in the link following. We should have explained that .pdf, .bmp or .jpeg files are file format of the scanned or picture copy of a document.

First, I'd referenced an earlier string of correspondence about this device, with TomTom Support clearly trying to help me with it. So why is TomTom demanding proof of purchase again?

But go back and read that request again. The dollar amount "to this incident?" Or "following the steps provided in the link following?" Or that bizarre last sentence?

It's bad enough that I and others have to even seek help on something that should be a simple task of plugging in our GPS units to update them with fresh maps. But when we do, at least it would be nice if the support team showed some degree of actual support on its end and didn't confuse things with confusing responses.

I responded with the required proof-of-purchase, and I await an answer. Apparently, things are confused on TomTom's back-end because I have two different accounts, and something might not be linked right. Of course, if TomTom allowed people with multiple devices to have a single account to manage all of those, this might have been avoided.

By the time my map is updated, it'll be out-of-date
In the meantime, I decided I'd try updating my TomTom 340. That turned into a day-long process that required two separate computers to complete.

The TomTom Home software recognized that my map was old and that I was entitled to a free update. Hurray! Next, it tried downloading the map, which took ages -- and it's not that large of a file, 1.5 GB in all. Things got worse when it tried to update my device. For several hours, all I saw was this:

Eventually, I gave up trying to update through my Mac. I unplugged, fired up my Windows 8 laptop and started the process again. After three hours, the maps themselves still hadn't downloaded. It wasn't an issue with my internet connection. Everything else was streaming through the interwebs just fine. TomTom just appeared to be pushing the maps out very slowly.

Since my Mac had the maps already downloaded, I started the process afresh there before going to sleep. At this point, I just assumed the installation process must take forever. I could see plenty of complaints in TomTom's official forums about this.

This forum discussion in particular encapsulates all the frustration I was feeling and at least reassured me that it was TomTom's problem, not mine. It was started in September 2011. It begins with this post:

I have a TomTom XL and have map updates. I routinely do the map updates.  Typically they take one to three days.  I run Mac OS x 10.6.7, but no longer use this for the TomTom as Home does not work with this OS.  I use Windows 7 64 Bit for updating my TomTom now.  However, when I perform the update, it never gets through before an error occurs during the install.

That was the same thing I was going through now, over a year later. The forum discussion is full of TomTom customers having similar problems. Some offer help, with all manner of convoluted things to try. The last post in the thread from September of this year ends this way:

I would like to know exactly why TOM Tom Support staff are not answering these questions and having them moderate these forums with some answers. Is this like an issue that Tom Tom is not dealing with in every category?

I wouldn't care if TomTom wasn't answering if that meant it was busy trying to figure out a fix. But my experience over the years with technical problems with the company leads me to conclude that it's not interested in fixes. At this point, I feel like TomTom figures people will just toss their devices and start over, out of frustration.

When I got up this morning, the install process was still going. After 10 hours, it still hadn't completed.

Back to Windows. I plugged in there, started the map download process and was pleased that finally, the new maps came down quickly. Then the install process fired up and surprise, that actually completed. In the end, all I needed to do to update my map was a day of time and two laptops.

There's gotta be a better way, and smartphones may be it
It shouldn't be like this. When my first TomTom had issues, I figured it was just a strange, one-off thing. I wasn't happy that I effectively had to trash a perfectly good unit, but I moved on. To have troubles with three units in total? That's unacceptable. I or anyone shouldn't have to try different operating system and cross our fingers and toes in hopes that we can update our maps.

Of course, the answer is that there is a better way -- our phones. When my TomTom 1535 acted up this week, I also had the 340 in the car. I switched to that, but it took forever to recalculate a route back onto the freeway I needed to reach. So, I fired up my Galaxy Nexus, spoke "Navigate to home" to it and within a few seconds, the Google Maps-powered GPS was getting me where I needed to go while the TomTom still fuddled about.

I could have done the same with Apple Maps, too. Both major smartphone platforms, iOS and Android, have native GPS capabilities. There's no need for painful map downloads with them. The maps are always up-to-date.

Still, I have found dedicated GPS units to be useful. I've loved the traffic updates and the instant re-routing suggestions that my TomTom has provided. I have coverage that's solid in places where my phone might not get a signal.

Meanwhile, disappointment at Garmin...
Well, there's always Garmin! As it happens, I have a Garmin unit, a Nuvi 2455 that I purchased in the middle of this year for a trip to Costa Rica, since the TomTom didn't have coverage for that area. It worked out cheaper than renting one, so I figured it made sense.

I dusted off the Nuvi today. I'd been planning to sell it on Amazon, since I preferred TomTom interface. But with my TomTom woes, I thought I'd hang on to it. It came with lifetime maps, so I went to update those.

On the Mac, the Garmin software auto-filled a product code for me, then declared the code to be invalid, instructing me to get one from my account on the Garmin web site, where no product code was listed. 

On Windows, more luck. My new maps downloaded quickly, and the install process started. Then I got this:

Support ticket filed. It only took three attempts, as Garmin kept telling me to log-in to file it even though I was already logged in. The first two tries logged me out, after I pushed submit.

Maybe Garmin is as bad as TomTom, and I should be slamming them both with my headline. I can't say, because I'm new to Garmin. I do know from long experience that TomTom has much to improve. Both companies should look to make update processes bulletproof, because the smartphones will begin moving from "good enough" to "better than" in terms of dedicated GPS devices.