In one of our posts, we talked about the importance of determining if your strengths lie in being the pilot or the navigator. But regardless of which role you take on, having a reliable GPS unit will help you out.
We tried using just our phones for a while — using both Google Maps and Waze. Both apps are quite useful in different ways and can do a good job of getting you where you need to be with plenty of additional, real-time information factored in. (Ari actually prefers Google Maps for its integration with all his other Google products, but Waze has traffic information alerts that are extremely helpful when navigating metropolitan areas. Jessi would probably be just as happy always using a good paper map!)
The problem with using your phone as a GPS unit is that then it’s more difficult when you need to use it for other things. We, for example, sometimes use it to stream music or podcasts to our van’s stereo, or use it for Google searches about an area or an attraction. (Note — if done while driving, the passenger, which is usually Jessi, does this rather than the driver.)
We’ve both been trying to get better about not doing anything that distracts us while driving, but especially when driving the Roadtrek. Ari found that having Google Maps or Waze open on his phone — even when using a holder on the dash — was more distracting than when he has used GPS units. So we purchased the TomTom Via 1515M. The goal was to solve the distracted driving issue but still have a useful tool that would help us navigate easily.
There are a ton of options from two of the major manufacturers — TomTom and Garmin. We didn’t need a lot of bells and whistles on ours (some even have the ability to upload photos, which we haven’t quite figured out the point of yet). And because we have Waze and Google Maps available to do last-minute checks on traffic conditions, we didn’t really need one that includes live traffic updates. (The 1515M does allow you to purchase that as an add-on, as well as a red-light camera database.)
At the same time, we wanted a decent-sized screen, but nothing too large since we’d be mounting it to the dash of our van and didn’t want it to be obnoxious. The TomTom 1515M seemed to fit the bill and after using it for most of 2017, it seems we were right.
The 1515M has a 5-inch screen, which seems to hit the sweet spot of large enough to see but not so big it’s a hindrance. TomTom also offers a 4.5-inch and 6-inch model. Programming the unit follows what has become a pretty standard pattern: enter the state, then the city, then the street, then the number.
Once that information is gathered, you can tell it to plot out the fastest route, the shortest route or an “eco route,” which supposedly takes into account known traffic patterns to find you a path that could save you fuel. One thing we like about this is the ease by which you can check out alternate routes. We will usually plot out the eco route, but can then do a quick comparison by telling the unit to plot the fastest route or shortest route — then we compare total miles and total time to see what fits our plans better. It also has a function that let’s you choose avoiding freeways. If you have time, that’s a great option to use because it will send you everywhere but interstate highways, which we like to avoid whenever we can.
Another feature Ari often talks about is the lane guidance screens. When an exit is approaching on a freeway, the TomTom screen changes to show you what the lane layout is like so you have an overview of whether you should be in the right lane or can use any of the right two or three lanes. That has proven very helpful in high-traffic situations or at night when visibility is poorer.
The TomTom comes with a power cord that plugs into any 12V socket, but the unit’s 12-volt adaper is removable, so you could power the device up with a USB plug if you prefer. It also has a suction cup attached that can be used to mount the unit to a window or the included plastic disk that you can stick to your dash.
While it’s best to keep the unit plugged in all the time while using it, this one is rechargeable and the battery can keep things going if you make short stops and want to leave it turned on but not drawing power from your vehicle’s battery.
Visibility in bright sunlight is fine and it has a night mode that changes to a darker color scheme at sunset, preventing it from blinding you while driving at night. (Be warned: if you flip to a menu, the night mode is canceled and you will get a blindingly bright set of menu screens to flip through.)
Finally, it’s important to note the ability to keep this GPS unit up to date. The best GPS unit in the world can quickly become outdated and less useful as roads and freeway connections change. TomTom sells the 1515M with lifetime map updates. Once a quarter or so you need to plug the unit into a computer connected to the internet and download the updates. TomTom kindly sends you notices by email when a new map download is available.
Hit or Miss?
No GPS unit or map is perfect, and we’ve had it try to send us down roads that didn’t exist, although in fairness so has Google Maps. Most of the time it will get you where you need to be along a preferred route, although we’ve had a couple instances where it has routed us out and around to a destination instead of taking what seemed to be a more obvious path. Still, overall, for the functionality, ease of use and price, we’d call this one a hit.