TomTom's entry-level Via line is looking a lot like last year's top of the line. The Via 1535 TM that arrived for testing featured a large screen, Bluetooth, and voice command to go with its lifetime of map and traffic updates.
The Via 1535 TM is built around a 5-inch color touch screen. The unit's thin-profile chassis has a metallic bezel with a brushed aluminum finish. The only physical control on the entire unit is a power button located on the back of the unit. The back of the Via is also where you'll find the unit's speaker, the Micro-USB port for charging and syncing, and a microSD card slot for expanding the unit's internal memory to accommodate more map data.
TomTom's EasyPort mount has been redesigned and now attaches to the unit with a ball joint. This new connection is more solid and less prone to wearing out or popping off than the old rotating ring mount. Because the EasyPort mount no longer swivels around a central point for dashboard and windshield mounts, TomTom has added an internal accelerometer that detects the unit's orientation and rotates the onscreen interface 180 degrees to accommodate.
Speaking of the interface, the new Via series features the updated WebKit-based OS that debuted last year with the upper-tier TomTom units. The Home screen features two large icons dominating the top two-thirds of the screen for "Navigate to..." and "View map." Of TomTom's two destination selection methods, the former is menu- and search-based, while the latter is visual and map-based. The lower third is home to a collection of smaller icons for Plan route, Services, Settings, Help, and Done. Plan route is where you can save future and complex multistop trip information. Services is where information about the traffic, safety camera, and map correction services can be found. Settings is home to the settings. The Help icon leads to options for navigating to emergency services, relaying your current position, and an electronic product manual. Finally, Done returns you to the live map.
Speaking of map screens, the TomTom Via has two of them. The live map is the main screen used during navigation that updates in real time with the position of the vehicle and displays turn-by-turn directions. Touching anywhere on the live map takes you to the main menu, so it's not very interactive. The second map is the browsing map, accessed from the main menu's "View map" icon. The browsing map is used for searching for destinations and points of interest and can be used to initialize a new trip or modify the current trip. This map can also be scrolled and zoomed by swiping and pinching, and features user-selectable POI icons.
At first we found the dual map setup a bit confusing. TomTom tells us that the live map is a low-distraction interface for use while the vehicle is in motion, whereas the browsing map is a more flexible, interactive screen that comes into play when the vehicle is stopped and drivers can devote their full attention to the unit. It makes some amount of sense and, after spending time with the unit on the road, we've gotten the hang of the maps and their respective functions and limitations. However, we couldn't help but think that other manufacturers somehow manage this juggling act with only one unified map screen.
Once upon a time, so-called advanced features like Bluetooth connectivity and voice command were the domain of top-of-the-line portable navigation devices. So it's interesting to see these features begin to trickle down to the entry-level Via series.
An internal microphone can be spotted by examining the Via 1535's metallic bezel for the pinhole opening. You can take control of the device with the touch of a button and a few spoken words. Tapping the voice control button, located on the left edge of the navigating map interface, brings up the voice command prompt, which displays a selection of available spoken commands and verbally asks the user to speak a command.
Available voice commands include muting the volume, navigating to an address or point of interest (POI), routing a detour, reporting map inaccuracies, and initiating phone calls. The system is programmed with enough alternate commands that it can understand that "Drive to an address" and "Navigate to an address" mean the same thing, taking away the pressure of memorizing a list of commands.
TomTom has also removed nearly all of the prompts for city, street, and number when entering an address. Instead you can just blurt out an address in its entirety--for example, "123 Main Street, Anytown, CA"--and let the system parse it itself. If the system doesn't understand exactly what you're saying, it may prompt you to choose from a list of close matches, but we never ran into a situation during testing where we had to repeat ourselves more than once. Of course, accuracy of voice recognition depends on the amount of background noise, so don't expect it to work perfectly if you like to ride around with your windows down. A minor annoyance is that the system requires you to speak the city and state every time. We'd like to see some sort of location awareness in a system that is built around navigation.
We mentioned earlier that the Via 1535 is equipped with Bluetooth connectivity, which it uses in conjunction with a paired phone to make hands-free calls. In addition to supporting the Hands-Free Profile (HFP), the 1535 also supports the Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP), so it can sync with a supported phone's address book to initiate calls from its touch-screen menu or via voice command. You can also initiate calls while browsing POIs for locations that have a phone number stored in TomTom's database, or manually dial a call with an onscreen numeric keypad.
Traffic and maps services
The TM at the end of the model name stands for Traffic and Maps, as in lifetime traffic data and map updates.
Traffic data comes over the RDS-TMC band through a traffic receiver built into the 12-volt power adapter. Interestingly, TomTom has made the jump to a Micro-USB connection for the Via series' combo traffic receiver and power adapter, so in a pinch you could power the PND with most smartphone chargers and vice versa. Traffic data arrives in the form of incident icons and flow overlays on the map screens, in the trip overview screen, and in the Traffic submenu under the Services menu.
Unlike TomTom's own HD Traffic service that comes as part of its Live Services suite, the basic traffic service that is delivered to the 1535 TM usually only includes flow data for highways and major surface roads. To fill in the blanks in this coverage the Via series can take advantage of TomTom's IQ Routes algorithms, which take historical, time-sensitive flow data into account when routing. This data is harvested anonymously from TomTom users who opt in for this feature.
Map updates are downloaded quarterly to a desktop via the MyTomTom software and synced with the unit via the included Micro-USB cable.
Between the year's four major map updates, you can download smaller map updates from TomTom's Map Share, which pushes user-generated minor corrections for smaller tweaks to street names, traffic direction, closed streets, turn restrictions, speed limits, or missing or new POIs. You can also make and submit your own map corrections for upload to TomTom's servers and to other users upon approval.
Routing and navigation
On the road, the TomTom performed well. We noticed that traffic data actually seemed to have an effect on the routes chosen by the Via 1535's routing algorithms. For example, routing a trip to our favorite burger joint in the next town in the afternoon had us exiting the interstate much later in the trip than the same route planned at lunchtime the next day, when we were prompted to exit the highway early and make the last leg of the trip on surface roads.
Turn-by-turn instructions were clear and voice prompts were given enough in advance that we were able to make the turns without rushing. Particularly useful was the advanced lane guidance feature that graphically marked the lanes of major highways that were valid for our chosen route, which kept us from unnecessarily moving over two or three lanes when one would do.
Satellite reception was also good with accurate positioning, even among downtown San Francisco's tall buildings.
At this point, we've tried out a few devices with TomTom's new interface. We're over the learning curve for the most part, but we still find ourselves fumbling with the dual maps. That's not to say that the interface is bad, because it's not, and it represents a huge improvement over TomTom's older interface. It is still a bit more complex than we're comfortable fiddling with at highway speeds, but if you stick with the basic and voice command functions while in motion and leave the more advanced features alone until parked, we think you'll probably like it.
Overall, the TomTom Via 1535 TM proved to be an exceedingly competent GPS navigator, and with the added value of lifetime maps and traffic updates, we think that it will continue to be useful long after purchase. Also, Bluetooth hands-free calling and voice command enhance driver safety, making it easier to keep hands and eyes on the road.