It may look like the same old TomTom XL from last year, but with a new version of TomTom's software and new models that offer lifetime traffic, lifetime map updates, or both, the TomTom XL 350 and XXL 550 series of navigators merits a second look.
The XL series' design hasn't changed at all since we reviewed the XL 340 S last year. Users interact with the unit via a 4.3-inch WQVGA wide-format touch screen (5 inches for the XXL models) or the power button on the top edge, the XL's only physical control. The bottom edge is home to a recessed Mini-USB port that serves as the connection for the included 12-volt car charger and connects to a computer for data updating maps and software. The XL chassis does not have an SD or microSD card slot, so users must make do with the device's 2GB of onboard storage (which is more than enough space for the XL's preloaded maps and regional upgrades).
The back panel is where the 2-inch loudspeaker is located. Audio quality is good, even at the loudest volume settings. The speaker doubles as the connection point for the TomTom EasyPort mount, a clever, low profile suction cup for mounting the XL on a vehicle's windshield. The TomTom's EasyPort mount is quite easy to place and remove from the windshield and offers a bit more flexibility of mounting angles than the Garmin. Simply flip out the suction cup, place the device on the windshield, and twist the locking ring a quarter-turn. When the XL isn't in use, the EasyPort mount folds flat to the unit's body, so it's always with the unit, unlike the separate cradles of Garmin and Magellan. This makes the TomTom XL ideal for users who'd often move their GPS device from vehicle to vehicle.
XL series units that feature traffic service, such as our tested 350 TM, ship with a power cable with an integrated FM traffic antenna and receiver, so you'll need to plug in if you'd like to steer clear of jams. Units that don't feature traffic service ship with a standard 12-volt car charger. Also in the box, users will find a USB connection cable and an adhesive disk for attaching the XL to a vehicle's dashboard if windshield mounting is not permissible.
While the exterior may not have changed much in this revision, the software is notably different after receiving a software update in September 2010.
The map screen is the main interface for the XL and features bright, easily readable roads and labels. Users are given the option of overlaying POI icons with color logos for larger chains. Below the map is the default location for the TomTom's status bar where users can display a wide array of information about the current location, the progress of the current trip, and estimated times and distances to the chosen destination. On models that feature traffic, flow data is represented by color coded overlays on major highways and, with routing under way, as an estimated delay time in a route progress bar along the right edge of the screen.
The lower status bar is divided into three sections, and tapping the left, center, or right section brings up volume controls, changes the map display mode (2D or 3D), and accesses the trip overview screen, respectively. Tapping anywhere in the main map area takes the user to the main menu.
Like the map screen, the main menu is split into two areas. The larger main area is home to the XL's two main functions: planning a route and browsing the map. These options should be fairly self-explanatory--tapping "Plan route" takes the user to a screen where an address, POI, or other destination can be chosen, but we found it odd that tapping "Browse map" didn't take the user back to the main map screen, rather it brings up a 2D map specific for graphically choosing destinations. Some users may find this useful, but we found it off-putting whenever we were genuinely trying to get back to the live navigation map.
At the bottom of the home screen is a smaller bar with five icons. The first two icons are for toggling sound and day/night mode. A center icon for help brings up a "Where am I?" screen with the unit's current location and options to call or drive to the nearest repair service, hospital, police station, and the like. The icon labeled Options calls up the TomTom's various settings and options and there are a ton of them. Users are able to tweak on a very granular level everything from the routing preferences to how often and for what options the software prompts the user to the layout and information displayed on the map screen status bar. Back on the menu screen, a final icon labeled Done exits the menu and returns to the live map. Some of these icons, such as Help and Done, seem oddly named and others, such as Sound and Day/Night unceremoniously dump the user back onto the map screen with the new setting when touched, rather than simply toggling on and off. Even with those nitpicks, this new menu structure is a huge improvement over TomTom's older system, which spread basic options out over multiple screens. With the new software, the options that users access most often are immediately available and intelligently organized.
Stepping outside, we gave the XL time to gain a satellite lock before testing. From our offices in downtown San Francisco, the TomTom took 2 minutes to figure its position. Your mileage may vary depending on how clear your skies are. Subsequent locks were nearly instantaneous, thanks to the receiver's location memory function.
We started our testing with a series of bench runs of route calculation speed. Routing a 12-mile trip that involved mostly highway driving took about 5 seconds. Routing the same trip on surface roads only took 2 seconds longer. Next, we checked a much longer route with multiple stops that used a mix of surface and highway travel; that took about 15 seconds. For kicks, we tested a route from New York to San Francisco; routing here took the better part of two minutes, but--to be fair--such a route covered far more ground than anyone could drive in one day.
Putting our favorite test routes to the test on the road, we found that for most trips the TomTom chose logical routes that were easy to follow or unnecessarily long. On previously tested TomTom units, we noticed that over time the nature of routine routes could vary, due to the iQ Routes system's time-based traffic predictions influence over the path chose. We expect that will also be the case with this generation of XL, more so on units that feature the FM traffic service.
With the trip under way, we were pleased to see (and in some cases hear) the smaller features that we like to see on our GPS devices, including text-to-speech and graphic lane guidance. Users are also able to plan trips with multiple destinations and, with the newest software update, easily jump between fastest and shortest route planning modes.
The 350 series of TomTom XL GPS navigators improves the menu and interface issues we had with the 340 series, while leaving the bits that we liked intact. We like that the main menu is more intelligently organized, making it easier to get started choosing a destination in just a few taps. However, there is still room for improvement, mainly with the oddly labeled and oddly behaving icons of the main menu's bottom bar. Still this is a case of the pros outweighing the cons, making this TomTom series the easiest to use yet.
Our experiences with the road performance of the XL 350 series matches that of the previous generation, which was quite good already.