With mobile phones offering such good navigation, it’s easy to wonder why you should buy a motorcycle sat-nav. For those who only need to use a GPS once every so often, a phone tucked into the top of a tank bag just might do the job.
But if you ride a lot, a motorcycle GPS is a worthwhile investment – they’re more expensive than car sat-navs because they’re shock-proof, waterproof, need a touch-screen that works with gloves, must have Bluetooth for connection to an intercom, and need to be resistant to UV rays and fuel vapour. They also need a solid, reliable mount for safety in the event of a crash.
You won’t get annoying distractions at a critical point of navigation like you might using a phone, and they’ll work regardless of how good your data signal is.
There are two main players in the motorcycle sat-nav market right now – the £399.99 TomTom Rider 500 and the £349.99 Garmin 396 LMT-S. I’ve used them both for several months, on their own and back-to-back, and you can read the full reviews here. Each has advantages and disadvantages, so here’s BikeSocial’s guide to the best GPS for your bike…
The TomTom 550 includes mapping of the entire world
The TomTom Rider 550 comes with worldwide mapping and free updates for as long as TomTom supports the device. The Gamin also supports the 396LMT-S in the same way, but its device only has mapping of full Europe. You could buy a more maps later, but they won’t come with free updates.
Also available is the TomTom Rider 500, which for £20 less than the 550 has mapping of Europe only. There’s also the Garmin 346 LMT-S, which for a drop of £50 over the 396 only covers Western Europe, and doesn’t include a car bracket. Keep in mind that if you want to add extra maps later, you’ll need to pay for them and, crucially, it won’t be supported by free updates.
Garmin’s on-route weather is a great feature
When paired to your smartphone, both the TomTom and Garmin offer live traffic updates and allow you to make and receive calls when paired.
Both will plan a twisty route, which can be great for exploring new roads on the bike, but while the TomTom 550 has some motorcycle-related points of interest and curated routes available, the Garmin has the advantage of a media player, which allows you to either control music from your phone to play through your Bluetooth headset, or even to put tracks on a MicroSD card and play them direct from the device.
The Garmin also has the option to display alerts for upcoming sharp bends, rail and animal crossings, as well as the Trip Advisor and FourSquare apps built in (though I find these of limited value).
The Garmin can also display other notifications from your phone, like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and other apps – it even told me when my Blink home security system had armed. Keep in mind though that these can take over the whole of the Garmin’s screen – the TomTom uses a bar at the bottom of the display only, compressing all that’s above it so you never lose view of your navigation.
My favourite feature, unique to the Garmin, is traffic reports for your route (as long as you have a data connection) – a great indication of if you should stop to put some waterproofs on.
At the time of writing, the TomTom wouldn’t connect for calls and texts from my iPhone. I spoke to TomTom’s customer service team on 0207 949 0134, who explained that an update to iOS 11, and the subsequent iOS 12 software is causing the 550 to not work with calls and texts, but they expect to have it fixed by December 2018.
The TomTom mount has an optional lock available
Both come with Ram-branded bike mounts that hold the devices securely, and neither has ring connectors on the ends of the wires that would make it easier to link to your bike’s battery terminals.
The TomTom’s mount is a little more bulky, but it’s not intrusive and there is the option of a locking bracket, which is handy for popping into the services without having to pocket the device; Garmin doesn’t offer this.
You’ll need to thread the power cable from the mount down to your battery, and this is easier thanks to the more compact wiring of the TomTom, which has its step-down circuitry built into the mount, rather than in a separate box as on the Garmin. The TomTom also has a self-resetting fuse built in, whereas the Garmin has a mini spade fuse.
The TomTom has the better system, but it’s worth noting that even without the sat-nav connected, the mount always draws about 5mA (though this will take a very long time to starve your battery). Usefully though, it has a small, secure waterproof connector just before the mount – this means that you could very quickly move the whole bracket to another bike that has a Ram ball mount. You might not need power, but if you did, you could add just the battery lead for only £6.99, meaning you can have your TomTom on multiple bikes without lashing out on a whole new bracket
The first Garmin mount I used kept losing power while riding – on one trip I had to switch to my phone when it let me down. The problem was faulty connection pins in the cable, which wouldn’t pop back out. It was replaced under warranty, but the cable looks like it could be prone to problems if too sharp a bend is put in it as it leaves the cradle.
Both the TomTom 550 and the Garmin 396 can be updated via WiFi, which means no more faffing about plugging into a computer.
It’s a draw
TomTom’s sidebar shows fuel, speed cameras, parking and other POIs
This is the area that’ll likely cause the most debate. The TomTom uses a capacitive screen, just like a smartphone, whereas the Garmin has a more traditional screen with an extra layer over the top. This means the TomTom has a clearer, more contrasty display than the Garmin.
Both work when you’re wearing gloves, and I’ve had no problem using each, even with thick winter gloves.
The Garmin uses the same layout design that it’s had for many years – welcome no doubt to owners of the older models, but the TomTom’s fresh design carries just as much information, and has the benefit of the brilliant side bar, which shows upcoming fuel stations, road works, traffic delays and various points of interest. This really is a game-changer, and as anyone who rides knows, being aware of when the next fuel stop is on your route means fewer stops to top up ‘just in case’.
Both devices are safe in the rain, but the TomTom’s screen isn’t perfect
Not everyone is a fan of the TomTom’s screen, and the reason is rain. In a very heavy downpour, it can be possible for the water droplets to activate a button or move the map.
Spraying it with a hose or flicking water at is much more likely to affect it, but in the real world, I’ve only had it happen twice in three years of using all the Rider models, and whether it happens at all does depend on where it’s mounted. Also, it only tends to happen when you stop moving and the rain can drop straight down onto it – move again and a quick wipe then press the main map button and you’re back in business.
You could also fit the Wunderlich sun shade from Nippy Normans, which at £30 provides a peak that’ll help keep the rain off. There are cheaper versions on eBay, but they don’t attach as well as the quality Wunderlich version.
Ultimately, I’m more than happy to put up with the odd glitch for the TomTom’s excellent display layout, but if the company went back to a traditional screen I wouldn’t complain.
Otherwise, both devices are completely resistant to water ingress, even on a naked bike through several hours of torrential rain (as I’ve found out).
A handful of the very first TomTom Rider 400s in 2015 had an issue with water getting inside, but this was quickly fixed and hasn’t been an issue since.
Both the TomTom and the Garmin can have destinations programmed quickly and easily using the built-in search function. Annoyingly though, the Garmin won’t easily allow you to set up a route until it’s found satellites – irritating when sat in the house or in a multi-story car park. The TomTom simply plots a route based on where it last saw itself (which is usually very close to where you are), then corrects if necessary once it’s linked to the satellites again.
You can ‘Plan a thrill’ on the TomTom, or an ‘Adventurous route’ on the Garmin – both deliver twisty routes that take in varying levels of elevation (if possible) and ever tighter bends. Neither is perfect, sometimes taking you into a city if there’s nothing more twisty nearby, but they are still very good; I’ve found some great little roads in the UK, France and Spain using these systems, and thoroughly enjoyed the rides. They won’t beat local knowledge of course, and keep in mind that some of the roads can be quite narrow and bumpy – not perfect for a sportsbike.
TomTom’s system is more intuitive to programme than the Garmin’s, and it’s easier to try different options when planning the route.
Garmin’s desktop Basecamp software is very capable, but much maligned for its complexity – TomTom’s own MyDrive web-based software and smartphone app give all the route planning I need, and communicate flawlessly with the device. You can try it for yourself at mydrive.tomtom.com
In my testing, the Garmin didn’t alert me to as many closed roads as the TomTom
Like any sat-nav, accuracy depends on the number of satellites connected, but these have both been excellent, giving me no issues – the only lag you’ll see is on a small roundabout, but that’s the same on any consumer GPS.
Both will plot a route quickly (though the TomTom is slightly faster than the Garmin), and both give clear directions throughout.
When connected to your smartphone, they’ll tell you of upcoming traffic problems – while you can filter on a bike of course, you can still save a lot of time by avoiding severe delays. The TomTom can be set to automatically recalculate the route, but I like to have it ask me. Cleverly, it will show alternatives in the sidebar, and mapped in green as an alternative route, so you can make your choice without ever having to touch the device; annoyingly, the Garmin requires a few clicks through notification windows to adapt your route.
A data connection should also show you any closed roads, but on a back-to-back test, I found the TomTom to be much more accurate than the Garmin, which over a 200 mile ride, twice led me to closed roads; at the same time, the TomTom was warning me to detour.
If you stray off course during normal navigation, both will recalculate quickly. If you’re using an adventurous route, the Garmin is sometimes quicker to get you back on track than the TomTom, but there’s a huge caveat to that – explore too far off the programmed route and the Garmin will simply give up, displaying ‘unable to calculate route’ then force you to re-programme it.
Garmin’s fuel system has merits, but TomTom’s redesign is better in many circumstances
Garmin has a clever fuel tracking system – you tell it how far you typically get out of a tank, then it can plan your route based on the location of fuel stops. Every time you stop riding, it’ll ask if you’ve filled up with fuel so it can reset its built-in trip. Potentially a great idea when you’re riding in the more desolate parts of the world, where fuel might be scarce, but do bear in mind that your actual economy can vary significantly depending on how you ride… you’ll have to programme it on the safe side (I’ve see 71mpg one day, 58mpg the next on the BMW G310GS).
The Garmin’s system soon gets irritating, constantly cluttering your screen with intrusive pop-up windows that cover the map if you run off course, and it’s not that clever – at one point, I clicked on a fuel warning notification then selected a nearby filling station; when I stopped there to fill up, I was warned again that my fuel might be low and asked if I wanted to search for fuel station.
You might forgive this, but during my back-to-back 200 mile ride I urgently needed fuel, yet the location the Garmin took me to hadn’t sold fuel for a long time – it was a well-established supermarket. On the same ride I also passed what it said was a fuel stop, but hasn’t been for as long as I can remember. Conversely, the TomTom’s database seems much more up to date, and I’ve yet to be sent to a dud.
Both devices allow you to quickly find nearby filling stations if necessary, but the TomTom’s side bar makes this a feature rarely needed – by always showing the next two stops on your route, along with how far away they are, you always know whether you need to stop, or can carry on riding to the next station.
Both devices visually and audibly warn you of mobile, fixed and average speed cameras, but the TomTom’s side bar makes the warnings much clearer – there’s a speed camera logo shown, with its distance away, and the whole sidebar changes to yellow if you’re a couple of miles per hour over the limit, and red if you’re any more.
When connected to your power bracket, the battery life is irrelevant, but if you’re programming routes or riding a different bike and want to pop the sat-nav in a tank bag (or gaffa tape it to the tank as I once did), battery life does matter.
The Garmin lasts an hour and a half before the screen drops to 40% brightness, which is too dim for outside use. It shuts down completely after another hour and a half.
The TomTom’s battery works for over six hours – enough for a long day’s riding, and it easily took me from Peterborough to Oulton Park and back over the course of two days.
Both can be charged via USB, the TomTom using a MicroUSB port (the same as on Android phones and many current devices), while the Garmin uses a MiniUSB.
Live traffic is a great feature to have, whether in the car or on the bike
The Garmin 396’s inclusion of a car mount makes it better value than the TomTom, for which you’ll have to buy one separately at £49.99 (though this is powered, so you don’t have to plug the lead into the device).
The Garmin recognises if it’s not in the bike mount, and can switch into ‘car mode’, which changes some of its settings – for instance, you might be in ‘adventurous routing’ on the bike, but it can go to ‘fastest’ in the car. Offsetting that though is the fact that this just isn’t necessary on the TomTom’s more logical menu system, which gives you the option to either plan a thrill or plot a fastest route very easily.
The fact that the TomTom is less demanding of your attention when it sees a faster route means it’s the one I prefer to use in the car. Still, Garmin’s inclusion of a mount means it has to win.
The Garmin’s design is dated, and the regular use of pop-up windows mean it’s a rather ‘needy’ device, while the TomTom is clean, simple to use, yet no less powerful.
Both devices of course allow you to import GPX route files, so you can use whatever software you like if you want to plot a very specific route (like I did on a back-road ride down through France and into Spain a few years ago).
While I used to take great pleasure in reading maps, I wouldn’t be without a sat-nav now, both on the bike and in the car. Whether I’m following a route or not, the clear notifications of fuel stops and speed cameras are immensely useful, and while I have access to both the TomTom 550 and the Garmin 396 LMT-S, it’s the TomTom I use every day.
TOTAL SCORE: TomTom 10 | Garmin 4