TomTom XL 340 S

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
di 4:40 PM

The TomTom XL 340 S builds on TomTom's successful XL series of wide-screen portable navigation devices. The XL 340 S' features, such as advanced lane guidance, daily fuel prices, IQ Routes, and TomTom Map Share, work together to constantly update its map data and route-mapping algorithm. Therefore, in theory, the device should get better with time.

Also, as an "S" designated model, the 340 S features text-to-speech that reads aloud street and point-of-interest names for quicker recognition.

A 4.3-inch WQVGA wide-format touch screen occupies the front of the XL 340 S, while a large, loud 2-inch speaker dominates its back. The only physical control to be found is the power button on the unit's top edge. The Mini-USB port on its bottom edge serves as the connection for the included 12-volt car charger for data connections.

Unlike its primary competitor, the Garmin Nuvi, the XL 340 S does not have an SD or microSD card slot, so you're stuck with the device's 2GB of onboard storage (most of which is occupied by map and voice data).

TomTom's clever EasyPort mount integrates the XL's cradle into the back of the unit. To attach the unit to your windshield, simply flip out the suction cup, place the device on the windshield, and twist the locking ring a quarter-turn. The twist-lock suction cup doesn't feel as secure as the Garmin's lever-actuated suction cup, and the XL's increased size made us feel even more nervous about the mounting than the TomTom One did. With a bit of practice, the TomTom's EasyPort mount becomes quite easy to place and remove from the windshield and offers a bit more flexibility of mounting angles than the Garmin.

The integrated cradle adds considerable bulk to the XL's already large size, more than doubling its thickness. People who want to pocket their GPS when they leave the car will be turned off by the additional mass, but those who carry a bag or purse probably won't notice. An additional bonus to the EasyPort mount is that there is no cradle left behind for would-be thieves to mistake for something of value, thus increasing vehicle security.

Also included with the XL 340 S are a 12-volt car charger, a USB connection cable, and an adhesive disk for attaching the XL to your vehicle's dashboard if windshield mounting is not permissible.

The TomTom XL 340 features Advanced Lane Guidance, a new feature to the XL line that shows detailed illustrations of complex freeway interchanges, complete with lane information. Arrows overlaid on the illustration notify drivers of what lanes will keep them on the chosen route.

Text-to-speech functionality lets the XL 340 S announce street and point-of-interest names aloud. Users who don't need spoken names can step down to the XL 340 (sans "S") and save a few bucks. The unit comes bundled with 14 English, French, and Spanish voices. More voices can be downloaded from the Web, including celebrity voices. (Our personal favorites are Mr. T and John Cleese!)

Using the free TomTom Map Share service lets users make corrections to street names, directions, road speeds, POIs, and so on and upload those changes to be approved and shared with other TomTom Map Share users. If you don't trust the hive mind, you can choose to opt out of this service or only receive official TomTom updates.

IQ Routes is a feature that uses anonymous historical speed and time data gleaned from actual driving and other TomTom Map Share/IQ Routes users to calculate the fastest route from point A to B. So for example, if the unit discerns that a certain road is typically congested, it will attempt to avoid it while routing. If it learns that another road is typically congested on weeknights between 5 and 7 p.m., it will attempt to avoid that road on weeknights, but not on weekends. If it can't find a faster way, the device can at least give an accurate time to destination based on real data.

Gaining access to map updates and other downloadable content is accomplished through the TomTom Home software that is embedded in the XL's onboard memory. Simply connect the XL to your computer via USB and the software prompts you for a quick installation, no CDs required. Once installed, the TomTom Home software lets users download updates, back up data, plan routes, and even play with a virtual representation of their XL 340 S.

IQ Routes is not the same as real-time traffic data, as it only calculates using historical data, so if there is a unique incident, the XL won't be privy to that information. To add that functionality, an RDS-TMS receiver can be purchased. Additionally, downloadable fuel prices and traffic camera information can be had via subscription.

We found that the TomTom XL 340 S was quick to boot and satellite acquisition was quick, averaging just less than a minute for cold starts with a clear sky.

The onscreen keypad can be configured in A-Z, QWERTY, or AZERTY layouts. That last one is new to us. Key size is generous, making it easy to quickly input characters. Destination entry is superspeedy thanks to the XL 340 S' intuitive autocomplete feature.

Points of interest can be searched by name or browsed by broad category (restaurant, gas station, lodging), but cannot be grouped by subcategory (for example, Mexican or Japanese restaurants). While destinations chosen from a stationary vehicle were routed in a matter of seconds, we found that (as in the One 140 S) routing from a moving vehicle takes considerably more time, especially if you aren't already heading in the right direction. So, do the safe thing and come to a stop before punching in that address.

In sum
The TomTom XL 340 S sits at the top of the XL line and just below the premium GO line of TomTom portable navigation devices. The XL 340 S pulls down some of the most useful features of the GO lineup, such as Advanced Lane Guidance, text-to-speech functionality, and daily updates of local fuel prices--while staying well below the $300 price point. People looking for more advanced features (hands-free calling, traffic data, voice command, and so on) should look further up the TomTom totem pole.

Those who aren't fans of TomTom's interface should look to the Garmin Nuvi 1350, which has a similar set of features for about the same price, or the Sony NV-U84, which adds more multimedia features and a slightly larger screen.

Pros and cons of a touch-screen Mac tablet

Saturday, January 24, 2009
di 10:54 AM

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster thinks that Apple might release a tablet next year.

"Between indications from our component contacts in Asia, recent patents relating to multitouch sensitivity for more complex computing devices, comments from Tim Cook on the April 22 conference call, and Apple's acquisition of P.A. Semi along with other recent chip-related hires, it is increasingly clear that Apple is investing more in its mobile-computing franchise," Munster wrote to clients.

Munster believes that the tablet will feature a touch-screen display measuring between 7 inches and 10 inches. The tablet would have software resembling the iPhone's operating system.

Apple has remained tight-lipped, as usual, about work on such a product. But if the company offers a tablet, would its touch screen be a hindrance? It's too early to tell, naturally, but here are my initial thoughts.

Some pros

Assuming that the tablet would function very similarly to the iPhone, I think that there are a few upsides to owning such a device.

The tablet's touch screen would provide an intuitive experience. I'd be able to swipe my finger across the screen to flip through pictures. The pinch feature would allow me to zoom in and out whenever I need to get a better view. And moving around the screen would take just a few movements of my finger. It would easily best a mouse.

Apple would probably ditch the keyboard and mouse, at least for the device's primary functionality. It would have a relatively small footprint. If you wanted to tote the tablet around or simply save some room on your desk, that'd theoretically be no problem.

The tablet's touch screen would also likely reduce the time it takes to perform basic tasks like opening a new program. With a mouse, you need to take control of the pointer, drag it to an icon, and then click on that icon to open an application. A touch screen, by contrast, requires you only to move your finger to the icon and tap it to open the program.

Some cons

While a touch screen offers some obvious benefits, it isn't necessarily ideal.

Since fingers typically get oily, smudging would be a major concern with an Apple tablet. As with the iPhone, keeping the device's screen smudge-free would be practically impossible. On the iPhone, it's not such a big problem, since the display is relatively small, and you typically won't spend extended amounts of time working on it. But having to constantly rub down a display of 7 to 10 inches with a soft cloth to get work done would get annoying quickly.

The lack of a keyboard, in addition, would seemingly make a tablet practically impossible to use at a desk, and it wouldn't be as easy to hold as an iPhone.

Time will tell how Apple would address those issues--perhaps an external keyboard for the desktop, such as the one that came with the Apple Newton, would do the trick.

Product designers have been grappling with this touch-screen dilemma for years. They've found that arms feel sore and cramped--hence the term "gorilla arm"--after prolonged use of a touch-screen device that users hold up to perform basic movements.

If Apple installs the iPhone OS on the tablet, we can safely assume that the device will sport a virtual keyboard. Although I could deal with typing difficulties on the iPhone, since it doesn't require much typing to begin with, having that kind of inconsistency would be unacceptable on a tablet. It would turn the device into an expensive iPod Touch.

The bottom line

Determining the viability of a Mac tablet isn't so easy; time will tell whether one is even released. There would undoubtedly be some benefits to having a touch screen. But there would also be some pitfalls that would need to be dealt with before it became a must-have product.

So I'll leave it to you. Would a touch screen work on a new computer from Apple? Let's hear your thoughts in the comments.

Facebook, Think settle trademark dispute

Sunday, January 11, 2009
di 8:40 AM

Facebook and Think Computer have settled a dispute over whether the former actually owns the term "facebook."

Under the settlement announced late Friday, Think has agreed to abandon its efforts to get the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel the trademark issued to Facebook in 2006.

The story behind the dispute between Think and Facebook is a long, convoluted one. But according to the joint statement, Think founder Aaron Greenspan attended Harvard with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg earlier this decade. In 2003, Think released HouseSystem, a Web-based student portal that included a section called "The Universal Face Book" or "The Face Book." At launch, the statement said, HouseSystem didn't include member profiles because of security concerns. Think added profiles after Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004, the statement said.

"Aaron and I studied together at Harvard and I've always admired his entrepreneurial spirit and love of building things," Zuckerberg said in the statement. "I appreciate his hard work and innovation that led to building houseSYSTEM, including the Universal Face Book feature. At school, I was even a member of houseSYSTEM. We are pleased that we've been able to amicably resolve our differences."

Greenspan likewise offered courtesies in the statement. "I am glad that my contributions have been recognized by Facebook. Mark has built a tremendous company at Facebook, and I wish them continued success in the future," he said.

Greenspan, who wrote a self-published book called "Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era," had contended that the terms "facebook" and "face book" were generic terms that couldn't be trademarked. He wasn't seeking the trademarks himself but wanted them invalidated because of problems advertising his book with Google AdWords. Greenspan has also claimed ownership for the idea behind Facebook.

The amount of the settlement was not released. But last summer, one-time Harvard rival ConnectU settled a dispute with Facebook over whether Zuckerberg stole ConnectU's code and business plans for a social network. That lawsuit, which was particularly messy, apparently was settled for $65 million in cash and Facebook stock.

Facebook originally was started as a social-networking site solely for Harvard students. It is now one of the most popular social-networking sites in the world.

News of the latest settlement comes on the heels of the announcement that a Facebook tell-all book will hit store shelves in July.

In related news about Facebook's corporate side, The Wall Street Journal cites unnamed sources who say Russian investment group Digital Sky Technologies wants to invest $200 million in the company "at a $10 billion valuation for the company's preferred stock."

CardStar iPhone app wrangles multiple membership cards

Saturday, January 03, 2009
di 5:22 PM

I went to the gym yesterday and forgot my membership card at home. Like many times before, I was able to smooth talk the reception ladies into letting me in anyway. But the point is, it's really a hassle having to carry those cards around.

I have one for the gym, one for my car insurance, one for my health insurance, another for my dental insurance, and another, of course, for Subway. There's only so much room in a wallet.

Coincidentally, my colleague Josh Lowensohn pointed me this morning to a really cool iPhone app called CardStar.

Basically, it's database software designed to store most, if not all, of your membership cards for virtually all merchant and service categories: drug stores, grocery stores, gyms, libraries, retailers, and travel and entertainment agencies.

The app includes about 130 companies in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. If you are a member, you can just enter the membership number and the barcode of the card will be automatic retrieved and stored in the iPhone. Next time you need to use the service, you can just display that code on the iPhone's screen and show that to the scanner instead of the card.

The nicest thing about CardStar is that it also allows for entering membership of merchants or companies that are not already included in the app. I tried that with 24 Hour Fitness and it worked. Now all I need to get into the gym are tight shorts and my iPhone, which I would normally carry anyway.

Mesa Dynamics, the developer of CardStar, said that going forward, it would add more features, including access to additional information of a merchant, plus coupons and promotional content.

The CardStar app is available now at App Store. It normally costs 99 cents, but currently is available for free. Do your overstuffed wallet a favor and go get it.