Friday, September 18, 2015

When Good GPS Units Go Bad

For seven or eight years now I've been using a TomTom GPS (stupid name but since the company is actually in Amsterdam they might not be aware that the name could be offensive). I researched online and found that there was a strong trend of people thinking it had superior mapping and routing abilities. It has performed extremely well, until a week ago. For anyone not familiar with these things, the maps and directions and "smartness" of a GPS have nothing to do with the satellites up there in the sky. Those just send out a signal. Everything else comes from the software that the GPS unit manufacturer installs, and the quality varies a lot. When I'd had it only a short time I was driving back from Upstate New York, from a place I've gone to many times over several decades and know exactly what the best backroads (no Interstates available) route is to return. So I hit the "take me home" button and the Bossy Lady got the route absolutely perfect.

On my 17,000 mile road trip when I got to photograph 107 drive-in theaters in 2012, I found that the Points of Interest database was so good that about 2/3 of the theaters I wanted to reach were listed, so I didn't even have to key in an address to be led to the next venue. Exactly two of these were dead wrong. One by about half a mile, another by a couple of miles. I had to get out the MacBook and look up the theater's street number to fix the problem. It also freaked out completely once when I used it driving into NYC, hoping that its real time traffic feature would be useful. The opposite happened. Real time traffic awareness, driving into town, blew its circuits. I turned it off.

Last Friday, driving to the SUNY New Paltz campus, dementia set in (perhaps there's a 10X factor for GPS years). It took a while to figure out what was going on, but it was misinterpreting the signals and placing the car icon about a hundred yards west of our actual location. The maps were fine, but smoke was practically coming out of Bossy Lady's ears from recalculating the route continuously. She had the route, and the maps, but since we were placed out in the cornfield west of the road, she kept thinking I'd gone out there on purpose and needed to find the next turn to get me back on course.

Over the weekend, I went to the B&H website to look for GPS units and found that they had Garmens (which I've seen a lot of negative comments about) but not TomTom. So I went to the company's website. Annoyingly, it seems that the built-in real time traffic feature has been replaced by one that relies on a link to your smartphone. Problem is, I'm not a teenage girl writing 200 texts a day, so I don't have an unlimited data plan for my iPhone. Our plan has a small amount of data (200 megs a month) so we can check the weather or use the compass once in a while, and I get charged for two or three spam messages at 25 cents apiece each month. It would cost at least $30 a month more to have big or unlimited data, so to use the "improved" traffic feature I would hand AT&T three times as much every year as the damn GPS unit cost. These priorities definitely do not compute.

If only their website and ordering system were as good as the product. The saga continues. Since I wasn't going to use the smartphone-dependant traffic stuff, which is a big feature of the higher line units, I found a unit that cost quite a bit less partly because it only had lifetime maps updates, not lifetime traffic which I would not be able to access. So I ordered it. The dialogs told me it would be shipped FedEx and they could not ship to PO box addresses. Fine. I get UPS and FedEx deliveries all the time at our street address. But for the USPS we use a post box. First, I get a shipping notice with the date of "null." Not promising. It includes a UPS shipping tracking link, which delivers an error message. So I know something isn't going well here.

I'm not heading off to Wyoming, or something,  I just need to replace the tired unit, so I wait a bit. Till Friday. Still can't find any feedback mechanism's at their web site, but join their forum, and quite quickly get a response from someone telling me the USA phone number for customer service. Why isn't that at the damn website? I began the customer service thing for several minutes with someone whose accent indicated he was in Mumbai, but then the line dropped. I'm getting just a little annoyed. I go online and see if BestBuy still exists, where I bought the old unit because, unlike photo stuff, I felt the need to talk to someone in person about getting something in this new tech, at the time, stuff. They want about $30 more for the same unit, so we'll go with this a while. I try again. Partway through our talk, the line is dropped again. But she calls me back. (Is Donald Trump in charge of this malfunctioning system?) Because she is a good service rep and knows that they've fucked up and have to fix it. Why couldn't I find the connection to her and her associates at the website? She's very good, but I had no way to find her before I joined a frickin discussion forum and asked how to deal with this.

So, there is a service where FedEx hands shit off to the USPS. This sucks. Because if you use a post office box as your mailing address, as we do, and the retailer won't accept PO box addresses, and sends your package to your street address, but then it gets tracked over to the PO, sometimes they will send it back out of some sort of spite over the rules.

Having finally made contact, which wasn't easy, with TomTom's customer service, they tell me they are dealing with the rejected-by-PO issue by sending my product in a way that will go directly to my street address, bypassing the post office. Everyone lost money on this deal. The damn thing is only $110 plus tax. Not understanding US post office rules as part of their procedure cost them more than the worth of the damn product I'm buying. My rep had to call Amsterdam, to get permission/closure/fixit/dammit on this. It's at least as funny as it is sad.

UPDATE: I went to the post office this morning, and found a package notice in my PO Box. The package wasn't returned after all. My guess is that someone on the staff rejects packages without a box number because they can, while someone else goes and rescues them. Can't see any other reason for the service rep at TomTom to have seen a tracking notice that the package was returned. I've emailed them that the unit is here. Now lets see if we wind up with two and have to deal with returning one of them...


Taken For Granted said...

Last weekend while on a trip to Minneapolis our Garmin GPS died. The maps just disappeared. We've only had the unit for a decade or more. Walked into Best Buy and bought a new unit with a larger screen. It doesn't have instant traffic updates, but it does show the speed limit where you are, a handy feature. It also shows how fast you are driving which turns red if you are above the posted speed. Our unit cost about $20 more than yours. People with smart phones already have GPS apps, so these units are disappearing fast.

WeeDram said...

Carl - I've had two Garmins. One died, but I killed it; otherwise it was fine. The current Garmin is a 7" version that has both lifetime maps and traffic. It is NOT dependent on a smartphone app, though I do have the app on an iPhone. (I don't find the app that useful, at least not yet. But that's a different subject.)

The Garmin I have is model 2797LMT. It's not the newest, current device, but is still available new. It is accurate and traffic data is good when available. (Traffic data is dependent on it being available from a 3rd party provider; Garmin can display what isn't available.)

There are a couple of features lacking from my old 4.5" Garmin, but they are not crucial. The voice command feature works reasonably well, but is not perfect. Updating is pretty straight forward, at least using a a Mac. I have found their tech and sales support to be very good.

The ONLY feature lacking that I would really like is the ability to integrate a backup camera. They have a similar model (2798, I think) that comes with the camera. When the software in the 2797 doesn't support the backup camera (since Bluetooth and images from a microSD card are supported) is beyond me.

Carl Weese said...

See update: weirdness continues. Also downloading and updating the unit to the latest software is taking *hours*—they should tell you to do it overnight.

Richard Alan Fox said...

1. Best Buy will match prices.
2. I drove to Quebec City from New York in a 2007 Honda with built in GPS unit also an older TomTom. Beyond Montreal the Honda showed the blank unknown, the TomTom map worked.