Sunday, March 18, 2012

Garmin StreetPilot c550 vs. TomTom GO 910

Streetpilot_c550T.D. Smyers submitted the following comparison of the Garmin StreetPilot c550 and TomTom GO 910 as a comment, but it’s just too good for that, and deserves its own post. So, with gratitude and with T.D.’s permission, here is a head-to-head face off between these two models…

"This review is provided as a public service.  It represents my own opinion and experience, so take it for what it’s worth to you.

Like many of you, I looked all over for some detailed comparisons of available GPS units before I bought one.  What I found on the web didn’t answer many of my questions, so I decided to share my own GPS adventure with those of you still in the market.  What follows is a comparison between the TomTom GO 910 and the Garmin c550.  There are other units out there, as well, but this review may help make you a more educated GPS consumer – whatever you buy.  Please, take advantage of my time without losing a lot of your own!

Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF):
After several days of side-by-side testing, I’m taking my TomTom GO
910 back to Best Buy this morning, and keeping my Garmin c550.  The 910 has enormous potential, but can’t yet deliver in the US; maybe in a few months or so it will.  The Garmin is less flashy, but gets the job done.Tomtom_go_910_2

I was very excited about the TomTom GO 910 after doing some preliminary research and finding that it had enormous capability, customization and functional advantages over the competing Brand’s equivalent models.  My initial excitement was reinforced when I opened the box.  The 910 had the feel of quality equipment – it was solid and sleek; it had several “extras”, including an audio cable and a home computer dock; and the connecting hardware fit together firmly and securely with a sharp “click”.  I continued to be impressed with the many Text To Speech (TTS) options available (I chose a very nice British female to guide me around Northern Virginia); the wide, attractive display and the MANY ways available to customize my display and navigation.

A disappointment:
My first disappointment came when I tried to set my home location and discovered that my street wasn’t included on the maps.  I didn’t think too much about it, since I live in a fairly new development (the street was cut about two years ago), and set my home location at the nearest recognized intersection (about a quarter of a mile away).

Another disappointment:
My Mom became interested in what my GPS could do, since she has just arrived here in Northern Virginia and could use the help getting around.  She didn’t need all the “Gucci” stuff the 910 had, so I looked for her another TomTom that would give her a basic GPS capability and enable me to home in on her position through the TomTom PLUS account’s “TomTom Buddies” option.  Since I would probably use TomTom PLUS on my 910 for traffic and weather, I would set up the Buddy thing also.   We chose the TomTom GO 300 for Mom.

My second disappointment came when I tried to set up traffic services.  I looked at the website to order an FM TMC receiver for my 910 only to discover that they aren’t yet available.  No sweat, I thought, I’ll just set up my TomTom PLUS account and get the traffic via bluetooth connection to the wireless data services on my cell phone.  Not so fast!  My carrier (and many of yours, I suspect) Verizon’s data services are not compatible with TomTom equipment.  Both TomTom and Verizon described this problem as one rooted in Verizon’s data network encryption, but neither company has provided me with information as to when – or if – this problem will be fixed.  I have a family plan with Verizon that makes most of my air time free, so I chose to wait for a traffic solution…and give up on the “TomTom Buddy” fun for now.

In fact, Mom’s 300 didn’t have traffic, bluetooth, or TTS capability; and, since she was spoiled by watching me with the 910, we sought another option.  As I searched through other GPS units (I initially didn’t think Mom needed as much capability as the 910 offered), I investigated the Garmin c550; it was impressive enough for me to visit the local Circuit City and check it out. 

The c550 is comparable to my 910.  It has hands-free calling capability through a bluetooth link; it comes with an integrated traffic capability (the receiver is built into the power adapter – great idea); it has a rechargeable battery and it is TTS capable.  I liked it, so we bought two; one for Mom, and one for me to either keep (could this thing really replace my “Gucci” 910?) or return within the 14-day period of their return policy.

Side-by-side Comparison:
Over the last several days, I’ve tried both units side-by-side, and offer the following comparison.  After each area subtitle, I have included which product has the advantage.  Please bear in mind that this is based on my unique circumstances (location, cell phone, wireless provider, driving needs, etc.); your own needs may favor a different product.

GPS functionality – Garmin sets the standard.
The TomTom takes a good bit more time to acquire satellites and, in my experience, is slightly more prone to lose signal.  The Garmin picks right up and nails your position, then maintains contact.

Handling – Garmin is lighter and mounts more securely.
The TomTom is a heavier unit, and its window mount has a tendency to droop after a while, so I mounted it so that the unit was sitting on my dash, but connected to the window as well.  The Garmin is lighter, and stays put on the simpler ball-and-socket mount.  While both units come with a protective pouch, the Garmin’s has a hole in the back so it can be mounted without removing the cover (simply unzipping the front exposes the face, then you can slide the cover back on the mount in order to plug in the charger and/or audio cable.).

Power – Garmin lasts longer on batteries.
Both units have car chargers.  The TomTom’s plugs into the mount, vice the unit itself.  The TomTom also comes with a home dock that includes a 110V power adapter, while the Garmin recharges through your computer’s USB connection (no dock, just a USB port).  While both have batteries, the Garmin lasts about twice as long as the TomTom (8 hourse, vice 4 hours).   This might be due to the power requirements of the internal hard drive.

Ease of use – Garmin is silly easy.
I didn’t even open the instruction manual until the second day I owned the device; and then it was just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything!  The Garmin has fewer menus to go through to access capability, and the interface is much more intuitive than the TomTom.  Neither one is hard to navigate, there are just many more options with the TomTom.  Once you’ve mastered navigation of the menus, the TomTom – like anything else – would certainly become almost as easy; but the Garmin comes this way out of the box.

Maps – Garmin, hands down.
I have read the term “accuracy” a lot when describing these maps.  Both seem to be “accurate” in different ways; for example, the Garmin more reliably displays bodies of water as a navigation aid, while the TomTom more reliably depicts merging lanes and access roads.  Both maps seem to be right on the money with the actual GPS location of these features.  The real difference is currency and comprehensiveness.  The Garmin maps are MUCH more current (including recent construction) and comprehensive (including small town streets).  For example, the TeleAtlas maps in the TomTom didn’t include my house; they also didn’t include an address – in an established neighborhood – that I was trying to get to for a friend’s birthday party.  By comparison, the Garmin NAVTEQ maps included both my origin and destination, and the c550 navigated right to the correct driveway.  The best I could have done with the TomTom alone would be to get in the same neighborhood as my buddy’s party, then call him or follow my nose to the grill.

Traffic capability – Garmin has it available out of the box.
The TomTom can access traffic info via FM TMC…after you buy the optional receiver…when the receiver becomes available…and unplugging your audio cable from the mounting bracket jack to make room for the receiver; or through your cell phone’s data connection…unless you have Verizon, which isn’t compatible.  By contrast, the Garmin c550 includes a GTM-20 traffic receiver (integrated into the power adapter – very nice); a solution that enables you to get traffic updates (which are silently input into your device) while listening to your tunes.
I used the traffic solution on the Garmin, and it works as advertised, just be sure to checkout the coverage areas on the Garmin website; your area may not be serviced by TMC yet.  As an alternate option, the c550 can retrieve traffic info via your XM radio link.

Bluetooth Interface – Garmin gets the basics right.
Although it isn’t capable of using my Motorola V3c’s Verizon connection to access wireless data (of course, since I use Verizon, neither is the TomTom), the Garmin operates exceptionally well as a hands-free calling device (like a car kit or earpiece).  It synchronizes with my phonebook each time it’s connected (vice simply initially importing the entries like the TomTom) and allows me to use my phone’s voice dial capability (which the TomTom does not).

Audio – TomTom by a nose.
The TomTom has an incredible 20GB of space to store MP3s on, so it wins the storage battle without a fight.  The Garmin storage solution is a little less than 1GB available onboard, plus whatever you can get on an SD card.  I have a 1 GB SD card, so I store about 2GB worth of MP3s.  The TomTom’s speaker is also a good quality speaker.  The Garmin has two speakers, but the sound isn’t noticeably better than the TomTom; in fact, I think the TomTom sounds a bit better.  This isn’t important if you’re playing the files through your car’s system; which is supported by both products via an audio cable (the TomTom comes with one, the Garmin doesn’t).   Also, when a driving alert comes up, both units pause the music playback; but the TomTom fades it out and back in after the alert, vice the abrupt pause-and-continue the Garmin uses.  Where the Garmin gains some ground in this area is in its interface.  Songs are played while their info is attractively displayed – including a graphic of the CD cover if the file includes one.  This is in contrast to the TomTom’s surprisingly Spartan presentation during music playback.  The control and playback option buttons on the Garmin are also more intuitive. Although the TomTom comes with some surprisingly clunky “TomTom Home” software that can load MP3 files, it – like the Garmin – can be synchronized using standard software like Windows Media Player.  Both units basically interface with your PC as a mass storage device – like a thumb drive.

Points of Interest (POIs) – Garmin seems to know the U.S.
Display of POIs is slick on the TomTom (you can even customize the alert the TomTom uses when you’re approaching one – like “let’s eat” for restaurants), but the database is woefully inadequate.  By comparison, I have yet to visit a commercial, government or social location that is not in the Garmin database.  It is also much easier to telephone a POI using the Garmin; both in terms of the feature’s availability and it’s interface with my phone.

Text To Speech (TTS) – Garmin is easy to understand.
The TomTom includes more voice options, but I found the Garmin voices easier to understand.  I don’t think this is the speaker, which is marginally superior on the TomTom; but rather the simulation itself.  On the TomTom, simple universal words like “road” are sometimes difficult to understand.

Display – Garmin, for simplicity and anti-glare.
Although the TomTom’s screen is wider, more customizable and aesthetically appealing, it is also harder to read, especially in glare.  Both devices allow brightness adjustment, but the simpler color scheme and superior anti-glare construction of the Garmin makes it easier to read.  The TomTom includes modifiable color schemes, so you might be able to find one that works better with your vision, but it is hard to beat the superior anti-glare of the Garman screen.

Custom features – TomTom, hands down.
With the TomTom, you can customize almost everything.  Of course, the enormous amount of options is also why it’s a bit cumbersome to get anything done with the 910; and why the Garmin gets the “ease of use” nod.   The TomTom feature list is definitely where auto GPS configuration is going in the future…check out the link at the bottom of this review for a list of cool features.

Itinerary planning – TomTom has it, Garmin doesn’t.
One very nice feature of the TomTom is it’s ability to plan, and save, an itinerary.  When you fire it up and load the itinerary, it guides you to the next unvisited point.  Garmin doesn’t yet support this useful tool, although – like the TomTom – it does allow you to save points as “favorites” for easy access as you drive your route.

Because of the traffic receiver’s (non)availability and data incompatibility with Verizon, the TomTom GO 910 is not quite ready for prime-time here in the US.  In my case, the trumpeting of its amazing capabilities was muffled by the reality that they just aren’t available to everyone who buys one.   In contrast, the Garmin is a solid, reliable and accurate GPS unit (which pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?) that offers an amazing array of capabilities, all of which are available right out of the box.  The TomTom is much sexier, but I’m looking for a navigational aid, not a girlfriend.

I’ll happily use my Garmin c550 for the time being and watch for TomTom to come of age.

For your own comparison:

For more information, check out the GPS Tracklog review and resource pages for these units:

Technorati tags: GPS

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. Good article. However, I could not find the date when the article was written. Since the article says “The 910 has enormous potential, but can’t yet deliver in the US; maybe in a few months or so it will” knowing the date would be extremely useful.

  2. Rick,
    It’s July 3, 2006. The date is at the bottom of the post, right before the comments start. I probably got it posted within a day or two of the comment coming in.

  3. mike mountain says:

    I have been using a Delorme Street atlas (2005) with a usb receiver on my laptops (i actually have it loaded on 2 laptops and bought an extra receiver on ebay), and received a c550 for Christmas.
    Being a photographer who drives to a lot of places, I do miss the DeLorme’s ability to plan a days’ worth of locations. But I do not miss the 2D only display, or the cumbersome way of having to imput locations. Add to that my laptop sitting on my passenger seat not being conducive to safe driving, outdated locations, confusing instructions, and poor satellite acquisition, I like the c550 better.
    I have yet to be impressed with the traffic feature (I am outside of Philadelphia), but will probably sign up for an extension of this service to evaluate it for a longer period of time. I also need to upgrade to a bluetooth phone, I’m actually looking foward to that.
    So far, so good, I hope this thing is dependable-I will leave my laptop w/DeLorme in the trunk as backup for the time being, and hope that things I read about reliability are not too serious.

  4. Thanks for sharing that. I’ve never been a big fan of the DeLorme interface, and find Garmin’s menus always intuitive.
    I’m not sure how much you’ll like the Bluetooth / cell phone thing. I sound horrible via the internal microphone on my nuvi. Guess I need to get a wired external mic.

  5. Robert Newton says:

    I am a Truckdriver who recently purchased a c550 just before xmas,a friend of mine has the c340 and likes his as well, but because of my Bluetooth phone and the compatibility of the c550 works great except for the speaker system, well actually works great in my car but kind of hard to here in my rig. I to used to use my laptop with my GPS installed and it has a trucker version for weights,low bridges,scales which is great except for the fact it illuminates my cab at night and is actually unsafe to use, but a very useful tool in my business. My c550 ofcourse doesn’t have those options yet and according to a Garmin Rep, They say they are working on a new program for the Truckdrivers.My c550 does have a truck routing for major highways which I do find ok, but what I normally do is cross reference with my Laptop program then run it on my c550 and follow the route which in turn will get me there safely without any obstructions. Thank You for your input on the TomTom though,because that is the one unit they sell mostly in Truckstops & at a higher rate because of the convenience and availability. I wish my c550 had the traffic lite and school zones program for it, I don’t believe the US offers it yet or I just can’t seem to find it anywhere; Robert

  6. Robert,
    Thanks for commenting. I think you’re right about Garmin heading working towards trucking solutions. Check out this link on Garmin getting into fleet management.
    That may be a higher scale solution than what you are looking for, but they are bound to be acquiring data sources that could ultimately help you. I expect there are some fleet management companies that already have the data you mentioned, but whether it’s affordable for an independent truck driver is another question entirely.

  7. D. Sperber says:

    I bought a C550 three weeks ago and called for an RMA today. This was my first GPS unit and I’m severely disappointed with its user interface deficiencies. Mostly, I’m disappointed in its skills as a navigator.
    No TOD clock on the MAP, or anywhere else for that matter aside from the main menu when it powers on (the one that prompts you to do something and go to another screen, where the clock then disappears). You ALWAYS want a clock on a display that provides trip/time details. Ridiculous.
    No compass on the MAP. You don’t know what direction you’re driving unless the next turn instruction is short enough in text length to allow the current driving direction to be shown in words, and then only if it is changeable as your driving direction changes. Otherwise, the only way to get the compass is to go into “trip details” which provides lots of worthless information and which you shouldn’t be looking at while you’re driving. Ridiculous.
    No “where am I now, and what direction am I going?”. You have a map showing the next turn instruction, but no way to ask the simple question: what road am I on and where am I pointed? Ridiculous.
    No display of “how long, in time, to my destination?”. There is an ETA to your destination, which is remarkably accurate actually. But there is no way to really use that information since there’s no clock shown on the MAP (where the ETA is displayed in the lower left corner) and no conversion of ETA to number-of-hours-left-to-drive. Is that ETA 5 minutes or 5 hours from now? Who knows? Ridiculous.
    No automatic adjustment of time-zone setting. You have to do that manually. It knows where you are precisely, but doesn’t seem to know what time zone that relates to… other than by your manually choosing one from a list. Ridiculous.
    Cannot seem to determine your direction at all when stationary… e.g. when exiting the parking lot of a restaurant and setting a new destination before you really get moving and are on the road. It seems to have no real idea which direction you’re headed, and often tells you to make a left or right (now that you’re on a street) when that’s either an impossible turn or clearly the opposite from what you should be doing to get to your next turn on the route. Apparently you have to be moving (and fairly rapidly) for it to triangulate accurately (since it obviously does not have a built-in compass or gyro).
    It also can’t seem to judge distances reasonably. You can be 50 feet from a corner and the display will show “200 feet to next turn”.
    Very often will simply pick a silly or patently ridiculous route that is neither fastest, nor shortest, and definitely not “best” or “smartest”. Seems to want to take you to a main drag street if you choose “fastest” even if that takes you miles out of your way, when a direct shortcut is obviously the way any local would go for both fastest and shortest!
    Very often has incorrect freeway exit names (numbers seem correct) in the instructions. This is very bad. Compounding this is a strong tendency to exit freeways prematurely or totally inappropriately to get onto some local street for some reason. I of course disregard the silly instruction and it recalculates reasonably, but I thought IT was in charge of coming up with good navigation advice… not me.
    It is particularly weak (either in the maps or in picking a route) when there are express lanes on a freeway, or an express or toll road available. For some reason it seems to be obvlivious to those superior routings and asks you to take city street exits (even when “fastest” is in effect) for no obvious reason, or bear right to a named exit or ramp when the direction should have been bear left. I mean this unit is DANGEROUS!
    Recovery from wrong turns (or intential disregard for ridiculous instructions) is often even worse than the ridiculous instruction you disregarded! Get off a freeway to go to a restaurant as a “waystop” (multiple of which which cannot be inserted) and you will then endure the most ridiculous series of recalculation attempts to get you headed in the opposite direction, to get back on route. It seems to lose track of the freeway as the prime directive and begins to send you on a wild journey through side streets, to maybe join up with the freeway miles away from where you are! Terrible.
    If I didn’t know where I was going without the C550, this C550 would probably get me lost, or get me there late or through a silly route. If a restaurant is 1 block off of a freeway exit, and that exit is 15 miles from O’Hare Airport, and there should be no other instructions other than “get on the freeway, go 15 miles, exit 51F, right one block, and you’re there” then that route should always be given no matter whether you want fastest or shortest. It is the ONLY route… but it was not given by the C550. It had me get off (or wanted me to get off) at the Harlem exit (1 mile south of O’Hare and 14 miles north of the restaurant).. because I was in “shortest” mode. Ridiculous.
    It’s either the fault of the maps, or the navigation software… but this C550 is going back. Very disappointing.
    I don’t know what’s better, but this C550 (as highly rated by reviewers as it was) was an unexpected disappointment as a navigation tool. I don’t play MP3’s on it, and I don’t need it for a phone. I want it to be my GUIDE… and at that I rate it VERY VERY POOR!

  8. Great comments D. Many relate to the relative immaturity of this technology, and I think you’ll find similar problems with other units. A few features you mention (the lack of some time of day or remaining time enroute) are available on the custom display of some older units. See this post for more on that…

  9. Fantastic review! Your side-by-side comparison really opened my eyes! Thanks!

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