TomTom Start 55 TM review

In a time when smartphone navigation is not only top-notch, but free, TomTom's affordable Start 55 TM makes a compelling case for buying a standalone GPS—on paper. But in the real world, its performance isn't up to spec.

The TomTom Start 55 TM ($159.95 direct) is a low-end standalone GPS device with a mission. It exists to convince you that it’s still worth buying, in an age of free smartphone GPS apps, and an oversaturated market where most people who want a standalone device already have one. To this end the Start 55 M makes a fairly compelling case, with an oversize 5-inch display, 3D lane guidance, and free lifetime map updates. It also sports an array of features that were commonplace on $300 devices just a few years ago. It’s a decent buy for anyone with a flip phone without GPS, but its so-so accuracy gives us pause. Plus, better options are available if you’re willing to spend a little more.

Design and Screen
The TomTom Start 55 TM measures 5.2 by 3.5 by 0.9 inches (HWD) and weighs 8.9 ounces. The company’s trademark EasyPort Mount stays attached to the device, and folds up with it in case you want to take the Start 55 TM out of the car. It adds about two ounces of weight compared with a device that separates the two, but it’s still pretty convenient, and you can also pop the mount off if you want to.

The 5-inch display features 480-by-272-pixel resolution—low-end, but expected on a device at this price—and a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. It’s a plastic resistive screen, with relatively poor contrast, though, and it washes out a bit in direct sunlight.

TomTom preloads maps for the United States and Canada. A crowdsourced Map Share feature crowd sources changes on roads, such as new speed limits or construction sites, and lets you update the device on a daily basis using the included USB cable. That’s probably too much work for most people, but the option is there. You also get official lifetime map updates four times per year, plus lifetime real-time traffic reports.

Routing Performance
Once on the road, the main 3D map interface is typical of TomTom devices, which is to say informative and well-organized. There’s plenty of relevant trip data along the bottom of the screen, with oversized numerals and a new, pop-up speed limit sign that’s easier to read than before. If you’ve got an older TomTom device, this one offers slightly better graphics and more readable trip information along the bottom.

Unfortunately, actual performance wasn’t up to snuff, even for a budget device. The main issue: GPS lock. After setting a destination and pulling out of a parking garage in Manhattan, it took the Start 55 TM six full minutes to figure out where it was; up until then, it just said “waiting for a valid GPS signal.” It did better once the car was parked out in the street, but it was never fast. Map animations are also sluggish, on the order of just over one frame per second, which gives away the Start 55 TM’s older, low-cost processor.

Routing was accurate as usual, but even here, I found it easy to trip up the Start 55 TM. To cite one example, it wanted me to drive two blocks around in Manhattan gridlock to enter the lower level of the Queensboro bridge, even though I was right in front of the entrance ramp to the upper level, and even though both levels would take me to the same place in Queens just as easily.

Other Features and Conclusions
Some features are unexpected and welcome on a budget device. One interesting addition is 24/7 Roadside Assistance, which is a nice thing to have if your car doesn’t already come with it (it’s the Basic plan on TomTom’s site). The Start 55 TM also popped up red light camera alerts while I drove up Third Avenue in Manhattan.

Real-time traffic reporting is the basic kind, which means it has to be a major accident or congestion on a major highway for it to tell you about it. I spent over half an hour in Manhattan gridlock with not so much as a peep from the 55 TM; all it did was adjust my ETA later and later, until a 12 minute trip became 40 minutes. TomTom’s higher-end devices and GPS app offer optional access to HD traffic, which updates every two minutes and is considerably more accurate, but not this one.

Searching for addresses and POIs is easy to figure out, but not quite as useful as it could be. For one, the type-ahead feature was slow in my tests; it took several seconds after each letter finger press for the device to figure out potential completions for the street address. POI category organization remains a problem for TomTom; the overly broad “Shopping” section contains just about every errand destination you’d run on a regular basis, making it difficult to find nearby stores without running manual searches.

In the end, no matter how many times pundits declare standalone GPS devices “dead,” plenty of people still prefer having a separate unit on the windshield dedicated to this single purpose. That said, I’d rather steer you toward something just a bit more expensive that works better—especially considering there are plenty of deals to be had with higher-end units around the Web. A good option would be TomTom’s own VIA 1605TM, which delivers smoother performance and more accurate location finding, as well as a larger 6-inch display. Otherwise, looking for a bargain on a last-generation GPS might be your best bet, as you can get a better deal on a higher-end model from a few years ago, such as the Magellan RoadMate 5045-LM—a 4 star $250 GPS from late 2010 that is selling for around $100 at the time of this writing.

Specifications
3D Lane Assistance Yes
Display Type Resistive Touch
Screen Resolution 480 x 272 pixels
Dimensions 5.2 x 3.5 x 0.9 inches
Weight 8.9 oz
Multi Segment Routing No
Terrain Modeling No
Speed Limit Display Yes
Free Lifetime Maps Yes
Bluetooth Hands-Free Calling No
Free Lifetime Traffic Yes
Power to Device Yes
Power to Mount No
Display Size 5 inches

Verdict
In a time when smartphone navigation is not only top-notch, but free, TomTom's affordable Start 55 TM makes a compelling case for buying a standalone GPS—on paper. But in the real world, its performance isn't up to spec.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc