Which Is Better: TMC or MSN Direct?
Steve S
I'm wondering if anyone has attempted to assess the realtime performance of the two FM data services, Traffic Message Channel versus MSN Direct?

Where I live, the local government thought it would be a good idea to completely shut down a significant portion of one of our freeways, leaving commuters to find their way on an inadequate system of arterial streets and roads.

I've been using a nuvi with a TMC receiver to try to navigate in real time, but TMC data appears to be kind of thin... and not overly timely. I keep wondering if MSN traffic would be any better (or is it the same)??? I'm nearing the end of my introductory TMC subscription, so this would be a logical time to make the jump to MSN if, in fact, it offered any better quality of data. I know that MSN carries other data, like gas prices and movie times, but I don't care about that... just accurate traffic data.

Anyone know which service might be best? Or are they the same?
Marvin Hlavac
Steve, I personally have very little first hand experience in this area. There is almost zero traffic coverage up here in Canada (as of today, January 2008). It is still very new around here.

MSN is newer to traffic than TMC, so my first though would be that TMC should be better. That may not necessarily be true, though. I've read users who had better luck with MSN in comparison to TMC. But I read the opposite as well.

I think both providers have their coverage area posted on their websites. Check if there is any substantial difference for your geographical area. But both providers continuously add new markets, so this may not necessarily be good way to pick, either.

I still think, no matter where you live, this traffic thing is far from being in its prime time. I think it is still today (January 2008) not much more than an interesting example of a technology which will be (hopefully) a good productivity tool in the future. Yet, often I see people giving very positive feedback to the traffic service, so perhaps some do find it useful even today.

I don't think there realy is a clear winner. You've tried TMC, perhaps you can now try MSN to satisfy your own curiousity.
Steve S
Marvin: Thanks for your comments.

After I posted this question, it occurred to me that I really ought to be asking Garmin; after all, it's their hardware! So I did. Here's their response:

"...Thank you for contacting Garmin International. I have found that the traffic information displayed on the device with the different traffic providers is close to the same. Aside from the other data that you described (weather movie times...) there really is no difference between the services..."

So it looks like you and they both have similar opinions. This makes sense to me, too; I think it's likely that everyone is using the same information, the traffic status reports generated by the cities and counties. As you suggest, maybe these will get better in the future as the information "highway" improves...

<<...You've tried TMC, perhaps you can now try MSN to satisfy your own curiousity...>>

...The only problem is the high cost of admission. To get MSN, I have to buy a new receiver to the tune of $125 (not $150 as previously posted) or so. I don't know if my curiosity is that great any more!
Marvin Hlavac
$150 is a lot of money, but I think it also gives you one year free service (double-check this, as I may be wrong). Also, I believe MSN sells "life time"(?) service for about $130(?). But double-check all the above numbers, as I'm just going by memory. Perhaps in long term it may in fact be considerable cheaper to go with MSN Direct (but the future is unpredictable).
Steve S
<<...Also, I believe MSN sells "life time"(?) service for about $130(?)....>>

Marvin: You are correct. (The Garmin MSN receiver does come with a start-up subscription of 1-year, much longer than the 3-month start-up subscription provided with TMC). As you suggest, I've been thoughtful about the fact that at $60 / year, the cost of TMC would exceed the cost of MSN in just 4 years... and MSN has the richer data content.

Now the only question is: Will I still be using a Garmin nuvi 4 years from today...? (Probably!)

UPDATE: It belatedly occurred to me to check Amazon, where I found the MSN Receiver on sale for about $105. With the 1-year start-up subscription, that was good enough for me! I'll post in a month or two to let everyone know what happened...
To be honest I think they are both poor. From what I have seen on the evaluation units I've tried I wouldn't pay a penny for traffic at this point in time. For reference, my main experience is in the New York City, New Jersey area. Traffic has a long way to go before it is really reliable, IMHO.
Marvin Hlavac
Hey, Paul, it's really great to see you here! Welcome to Laptop GPS World forums :-)
Steve S
<<...To be honest I think they are both poor...Traffic has a long way to go before it is really reliable, IMHO...>>

Paul: I agree with you in principle, but based on my current commuting situation, I make the discrimination between "poor" traffic reports and NO traffic reports.

For what it's worth, my experience to date is that the data stream is thin, but what gets reported is essentially accurate. What's not so clear to me is how effective the nuvi's software is at incorporating these data into its planning algorithm or whether nuvi replans on the fly as traffic conditions change (I've not seen nuvi do this). Sometimes, I think the route planning is effective, but most times I'm unsure. The problem is that nuvi never tells you why it picked one routing over another. (However, I could tell you a couple of stories where traffic data apparently did make a significant, beneficial difference in a routing...)
Steve S
As mentioned above, I've decided to give the MSN service a try, and based on the first day of service, I have to say that I'm impressed!

I'll post a more extensive summary once I've had several days to give the service a good trial, but I've already formed a few impressions.

1. To answer my own original question, MSN appears to carry the same traffic information as TMC. As I drove my normal commuting route, the same traffic messages popped up on the display at about the same points on the route.

2. However... and this is a big however for me... the MSN receiver drives several new screen displays on my nuvi 760. One of them is the traffic display, which shows my entire metropolitan region with the major freeways color-coded for flow conditions. If there was one display that I've wanted from the outset, this is the one! By seeing the entire area, I can quickly decide on whether my current route is OK or not; if not, I can see the "big picture" route changes that I need to make right away. As far as I know, the TMC receiver does not provide a comparable display (...although it will show limited displays of streets near your current location, some of which are color coded; but it's not enough to make large route changes...)

3. Contrary to Paul's comment above, I find the traffic warnings to be essentially accurate. We've had a major freeway closure in my city, and all the local radio stations are providing enhanced traffic coverage as a result. I listen to one of the better stations during my morning commute and all I can say is that this morning's traffic report coincided exactly with the MSN metro display.

4. I've said (above) that I'm not very interested in much of the other MSN data content, and that's true. Nonetheless, I grudgingly admit that I'm finding the current weather (and weather forecast) information useful. My car doesn't have an outside temperature reading (...I'm not sure what the carmaker was thinking...) but the MSN information fills this blank in nicely. The other data displays look interesting, but I don't think I'll be using them too much.

5. One of the nuvi features which has disappointed me is the FM tuner (so you can play your own music on your car radio). You need one of the traffic receivers to make this feature work. Using the TMC receiver, the FM signal strength is too low to drive the radio front end into full quieting (that velvety silent background that is the big advantage of FM over AM). So the musical signal on my radio was always static'y and not very pleasant to listen to. For whatever reason, the FM feature works a bit better through the MSN receiver. It's still not very good, but there was less static and background noise... at least today...

6. Finally, I remain impressed by the cost difference between TMC and MSN. The TMC receiver came with my nuvi (not free, of course, but it wasn't "extra"). You get a 3-month free subscription, but after that, it's $60 a year... year after year... forever. By contrast, my MSN receiver cost me $110 ($104 + S&H) but it came with a 1-year free subscription! After that, I can buy a lifetime subscription for $130. The MSN service provides more data and the break-even point is only about 4 years. That seems like a pretty reasonable deal to me! (One caution: In the fine print, MSN provides no guarantee of service after 2012! My guess is that this is just a legal safety valve in case MSN doesn't go over well with the masses, but I can't imagine that they won't be successful. Even if they do stop service in 2012, that will be past the break-even point... for me!)
Marvin Hlavac
Realistic expectations + living in a good coverage area = a happy customer . Thanks much for sharing the info, Steve! It prompted me to connect my MSN Direct receiver to Microsoft Streets and Trips 2008 yet again to check the coverage in and around Toronto. Nothing much has improved over the past few weeks . Out of the many highways we have here, only one(!) has (very limited) traffic flow data.
Steve S
In "Day 1 with MSN," I promised that I'd be back in several days to relate my experiences.

Obviously, it's been a few weeks, but that amount of time was necessary to be sure that I had a handle on the few differences between TMC and MSN.

First of all, I have discovered that both MSN and TMC offer a "metropolitan" traffic display on my nuvi 760 (See item 2, above). How I missed that earlier is beyond me. I will say that one of the less-sensible things about the way the nuvi is organized is that many useful displays are clustered under the "System" icon, rather than being paired with the navigation display. The metropolitan traffic display is one such display...

Second, I can confidently say that there appears to be little or no difference between the traffic information content on TMC and that on MSN. However, there are some display differences that might make one think that the two information streams are different.

We've been having a few waves of bad weather where I live, so there were a few days when the metro display was alive with slow traffic, accidents and road closures. During those days, I was able to switch between the MSN receiver and the TMC receiver (although it took several minutes) and compare the various displays.

Interestingly, most of the displays looked about the same, but on the metro display, I was surprised to notice that the TMC-driven display appeared to have more symbols (accidents, road closures) overlayed over what looked like the same basic data (red, yellow and green road markings). Because I had to shut down, swap the receivers and boot back up again, it wasn't possible to rapidly compare the two displays... but my conclusion is that, except for these additional symbols, TMC and MSN are for all practical purposes, the same!

Third, it has become clear to me that using a GPS device without real-time traffic data is like using a computer without the Internet; you're missing a very significant capability! Of course, you have to live somewhere where traffic feeds are provided... but if they are, you should use them. This implies that if you buy one of the cheaper GPS units, which lack this capability in the first place, you'll be missing out on one of the most significant benefits that these units can provide! The metro display, by itself, is so useful that I now use it all the time.

From now on, you can't say that nobody ever told you!!

Fourth, some here have complained that the traffic data in their area is poor or inaccurate. I can only say that in my area, the quality of the traffic data appears to be pretty good. I have seen instances where the traffic was supposed to be slow, but it wasn't. I've passed accidents that didn't appear on the display. but overall, after weeks of use, I can say that the number of these incidents have been very minor.

Fifth, I have been impressed by the relatively large and uniform coverage area of MSN, in my area. TMC appears to be just a bit larger, but both systems are essentially comparable. Of the two, TMC comes up faster, but MSN provides so much more content that one would expect it to be a few minutes slower. As I mentioned in my last posting, I'm not one to use all the information flows that MSN provides, but the outside temperature, the weather and the nearby gas prices have all proven themselves to be useful at one time or another.

Sixth, I've already spent a lot of verbage on relative cost, and IMO, MSN has the edge. Remember that MSN's DirectBand network isn't necessarily guaranteed after 1 January 2012; this is probably some sort of licensing agreement legality, but I'd be amazed if that actually became an issue in 2012.

So, what is my conclusion?

<> If you're going to buy a GPS, get one that will accept real-time traffic information. Of course, if you live and drive in an area where you have no coverage, this issue is moot.

<> On the basis of cost and content, MSN is the way to go, even if the receiver costs extra.

<> If you live in the fringes of your coverage area, TMC may be a better choice.

<> Finally, with so many potentially useful displays to choose from, don't be tempted to switch back and forth between displays while you drive! In that sense, traffic-enabled GPS can be as dangerous as a cell phone!!
Marvin Hlavac
Steve, thanks very much for the update! As a person who hasn't considered traffic service to be of too much importance yet (because of my perceived lack of quality of the traffic service), I'm now more interested in it, after reading your impressions: "...it has become clear to me that using a GPS device without real-time traffic data is like using a computer without the Internet; you're missing a very significant capability!"
I don't quite agree with the statement. There is more than one use for a GPS. While traffic data might be important when using it in a work environment to navigate to a variety of addresses in a high traffic area, using it for planning and executing trips for pleasure ( or of long distances) do not require or benefit from the extra expense. Also off-road or hiking (or geocaching) would see no benefit from it. I dont believe the former is in the majority yet.
Steve S
<<...While traffic data might be important when using it in a work environment...using it for planning and executing trips for pleasure ( or of long distances) do not require or benefit from the extra expense...>>

Forum member tcassidy brings up an interesting issue. Of course, I am coming at this issue from the perspective of a regular user, which by definition means that I'm using my GPS every day to solve routing problems in real time. No argument there.

But even so, I really can't agree with the statement above. When I travel for pleasure, even when I'm headed to sparsely populated areas, the route frequently...almost always...passes through urban areas. Those areas have traffic, and I've been caught in jams even when (especially when?) I use the outer loop freeways to try to bypass the densest parts of the urban area. Since many urban areas now have at least some TMC or MSN coverage, it would still be beneficial to have that information, even on a pleasure trip...

Of course, if you're simply headed to the Badlands and your route never comes near another urban area, then tcassidy is right. But I've never been able to plan many trips like that...
Thanks Steve for all the info - very interesting

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