TomTom Via 135 £150
11th Jul 2012 | 09:15
Is this the right time for voice-controlled sat navs?
Voice recognition is a technological dream that we all feel our devices should be capable of - even our sat navs. Are we ready for our in-car companions to listen to us while we're out and about?
Movies and novels have had us talking to computers since the 60s, while recent advances with Apple's Siri, Google Now, Samsung's S Voice and more have had us trying to trick our phones with our speech. But can a voice input help when you can't take your hands off the wheel to change your destination? TomTom certainly hopes so in its latest entrant to the sat nav market, the voice-controlled TomTom Via 135.
TomTom calls its voice recognition system Speak & Go, and this is the main selling point of the TomTom Via 135. Before we get on to the particulars of the voice recognition side of things, it's worth spending a little time looking at the rest of the package.
The TomTom Via 135 is a 5-inch car satellite navigation device that offers up maps for the UK and Ireland and makes use of TomTom's IQ Routes technology, which makes it scarily accurate at predicting when you'll arrive at your destination. It's also good at avoiding congested routes if there's a faster route available.
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The unit itself is pleasingly designed, boasting the same no-nonsense dark plastic casing that can be found on the likes of the TomTom Start 60 and the TomTom Go Live 825. The only difference over previous models is the small hole in the top right-hand side of the screen that is home to the microphone.
The mounting system used by TomTom is to be commended for its compact design and surprising flexibility in use. It actually works better here than the TomTom Start 60, thanks to the unit's smaller size - we didn't have an issue reaching the power button or the USB connector here.
The mounting suction cup adheres to the windscreen well, and despite the screen requiring a firm touch to navigate menus, we haven't had the TomTom Via 135 come loose during testing.
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The suction cup itself is connected to the main unit by a small ball-jointed arm that can fold out of the way if you want to slip the TomTom Via 135 in your pocket once you reach your destination - leaving temptation out of harms way for would-be thieves.
You'll still need to stow the USB charger and cable in your car's glove compartment, but these are standard items and are relatively easy to replace should your car get broken into. This cable is also used to connect the unit to your Mac or PC for map updates and for new firmware.
The Speak & Go voice recognition is the main selling point of the TomTom Via 135, which makes it quite odd that you have to push a fairly small button on the main screen before you can start issuing commands. We're not quite at the point where we're realising fantasies of simply addressing the computer yet, then.
This is a subtle point, but this detracts from the notion of voice recognition in the car - if you have to reach across and take your hands off the wheel, then it isn't too far removed from the normal way of using a sat nav.
TomTom claims that Speak & Go supports up to a thousand commands, although realistically there's only a handful that you'll use regularly - such as "navigate to (an address)", "go to the nearest petrol station" and "where am I?" The TomTom Via 135 also asks you to confirm your entries, so you'll get used to stating a firm "yes", "no" and "back" quite a bit as well.
While you can string together long sentences, smaller chunks work better and have less chance of causing confusion, or being interrupted by the general background noise of the car. If you're driving the family, then you'll need to get acquainted with telling everyone in the car to be quiet while you talk to the sat nav.
This isn't quite natural speech territory, but it's still quite impressive when it does manage to understand what you've just said. This feels like we're at the start of the journey into speech recognition from our sat navs, rather than being well on the way.
It does take some getting used to the stilted way in which you have to communicate with the TomTom Via 135 for you to reach your destination, and it often feels like it's much simpler to enter your destination in more traditional ways. Thankfully, you can still navigate using touchscreen inputs, so at least you have several options for getting from A to B.
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Somewhat bizarrely, you have to say the full address - house number, street and the city - you can't simply say the postcode, which is at odds with how you traditionally navigate in a car. Again, if all you know is the postcode of your destination, then you'll be setting this up by touch, not by the voice commands.
Apart from supporting voice recognition, the TomTom Via 135 can also be used as a hands-free kit for your phone. You'll need to set up a Bluetooth connection between your phone and the sat nav first, but once done the integration does make sense, because you'll be talking while driving.
The actual navigation offered by the TomTom Via 135 - priced at £149.99 (around $230) - is up to the usual standard that we've come to expect from TomTom. Journey times are accurate, routes tend to be logical, and the audio alerts and navigation are both excellent.
While the idea of using voice commands to navigate your way around the country is a neat one, the reality still has a surprisingly long way to go. At times the TomTom Via 135 works well, but it's amazing how quickly not being understood can frustrate.
The compact design of the TomTom Via 135 works well. It's easy to fold up and slip into your pocket, yet is solid in use and adheres to the windscreen well.
The route finding is accurate, and the predicted arrival times are up to TomTom's usual excellent standard. The audio navigation is clear and precise, with spoken street names and the ability to change voices if you're annoyed by the default offering.
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Having to press a (quite small) button to use the voice navigation means that you'll need to take at least one hand off the wheel and use your eyes in order to enjoy this hands-free navigation.
To make yourself understood you'll have to talk in a stilted manner, undermining the concept of voice recognition - it's often quicker to simply enter your destination by hand.
The maps cover just the UK and Ireland, which means that from a pure value perspective, this £149.99 (around $230) sat nav isn't the best option out there, or even the best option from TomTom - the TomTom Start 60 Europe doesn't cost much more, and covers Europe, too.
While TomTom should be applauded for trying to get voice recognition out there and in cars, the Via 135 doesn't feel like it's at a stage where it's ready for mass consumption just yet.
There are moments where it works perfectly, but there are plenty of times where the sensitive microphone picks up background noise or the sat nav just fails to understand you. It's all too easy to resort to touch input, making other more affordable options look like better buys.
Having used the TomTom Start 60, with its larger screen, we'd still rather spend our money there, especially given the European maps offered by that device.