Ask any HR manager, or Lothario, and they'll tell you that first impressions count. On that count the TomTom's second-gen XL gets through to the second round or second base, depending on which analogy you're following, purely on the basis of its delightful minimalist packaging. CDs and dead-tree manuals are done away with as the manual, in PDF format, and the Home software — more of which later — are stored in the XL's flash memory.
Although we've used the words "slimmer" and "sexier" to describe the new generation TomTom One and its widescreen relation, the XL, way too often, we still can't think of a more apt way of describing them. The new XL — which for some reason unknown reason has lost its One appellation — measures just 118mm tall, 83mm wide and 25mm deep.
Previous TomTom units would detach themselves, with a crash, a bang and a wallop, at the merest thought of a pothole or speed hump — both of which outnumber people in the great state of New South Wales. The new compact, detachable windshield mount features a suction cup with a nifty and effective ring-type locking device; our car's dashboard breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Adorning the derrière of the redesigned XL is a large silvery speaker grille, underneath which is a larger, louder speaker underneath. The speaker bevel also doubles as a ring around which the aforementioned windshield mount rotates. Detach the TomTom from your windscreen and the whole package folds up into a very compact package, allowing for easy stowage in even the tiniest car's glovebox. Our one criticism of the new design is the recessed mini-USB socket which, even at our most lucid and coordinated, stifled many of our attempts to connect the in-car charger.
Housed within the more modern visual aesthetic is a 4.3-inch touchscreen with 480x272 resolution, which is on par for a portable GPS device with a widescreen. The graphics and interface have escaped from TomTom's jazzing up team and have been left alone. That's no bad thing mind you because TomTom's interface is wondrously simple to use.
Clicking on the map brings up the main menu screen, from where you set a destination or change your settings. Clicking the box on the left, which contains the next turn instructions, allows you to hear a repeat of the previous verbal instruction or change the XL's volume. While pushing the info box on the right will call up a route summary.
Text-to-speech comes as standard on the XL, as well as the cheaper, smaller-screened One. This allows the device to read out street names as part of its verbal instructions, transforming "turn right in 500 metres" into "turn right in 500 metres onto Pitt Street". It stumbles only occasionally on Australian-centric names and pronunciation. And thankfully the XL successfully avoids the old "reading the road number instead of the road name" trap, where say, "54" is substituted for Enmore Road and "X4" for Parramatta Road. Given that it reduces our inclination to glance at the screen while driving, it is surprising that Samantha, the only included voice capable of text-to-speech, isn't selected by default.
Map Share is the other stand-out feature on the XL's spec sheet — and one that's yet to be copied by its competitors. This allows users to make map corrections on their device, such as blocking or unblocking streets, renaming roads, changing turn restrictions and traffic flow, amongst others. These corrections can then also be shared with other TomTom users via the TomTom Home software package, which works on either PC or Mac.
Corrections will only be shared after being passed by TomTom's crack team of verifiers — turn around time is claimed to be one or two weeks. Unfortunately neither the GPS nor the Home software allows you to keep track of how your shared changes are progressing through TomTom's verification process. The Home software is, like XL itself, simple to use, and allows you to download additional content — some free, some not — like overseas maps and celebrity voices, if that's your type of thing. Content comes from either TomTom, third parties or the user community. Being the entry-level widescreen model, the XL misses out on features like Bluetooth hands-free, MP3 playback and FM transmission.
Just like the device's interface, the XL's routing algorithms seem to have escaped tweaking from the programming team. So TomTom's addiction to main roads seems as prevalent as ever; venture onto a side street and the XL will attempt to guide you back onto a main street until the proverbial cows have come home.
While inefficient during peak hour and on choked inner city roads, some may prefer this solution because if you're going to a new part of town it's easier on the ol' grey matter to stay on main roads which are better signposted. As ever, performance is variable when surrounded by tall buildings in the CBD, as satellite signals are obscured or bounced off buildings.
Fixed red-light and speed camera locations come preloaded on the XL, however, a few of them are misplaced on freeway slip roads or tunnel entrances — at least in New South Wales. Also standard is the 2008 version of Telstra's Whereis maps. A word of warning: TomTom's "latest map guarantee" is only valid for 30 days after the purchase of your XL — something to keep in mind if you're purchasing an XL towards the middle of 2009.
The combination of TomTom's easy-to-use interface with a slimmer, more appealing form factor, and mixed in with Map Share and text-to-speech makes the XL a compelling personal navigator. It's a GPS we wouldn't hesitate to recommend, especially to those for whom ease of use is paramount. There's only one fly in the ointment: the smaller screened, but otherwise identical, One is AU$100 cheaper.