The Colorado series is a new line of high-resolution-display GPS units from Garmin. Backpacking Light tested the Colorado 400t model, which includes built-in topographic, recreational POI, and elevation data for the entire United States at 100K scale.
One of the Colorado's most prominent features is its new color TFT display which, at 240x400 pixels, provides higher resolution than any other GPS in this class. The display is particularly well-suited to the topographic and marine data. In addition, the Colorado includes a beautiful shaded color basemap and does 3-D terrain rendering, both of which are enhanced by the display. However, we did find that the display and color choices are dark and difficult to read, even in moderate light, requiring frequent use of the backlight.
The Colorado's large display has over twice the resolution of older Garmin units. Note that this promotional image from Garmin makes the map colors and display look much brighter than they do on the actual unit. (Image courtesy of Garmin)
The other obvious stand-out feature is the new Rock 'n Roller input wheel. This innovative input wheel has the simplicity and power of a Blackberry wheel with an additional inner rocker ring that allows for cursor slewing, map panning, and movement in text fields. The scroll wheel allows for a new interface design that makes many basic functions like jumping to a different display page or navigating to a single waypoint easy and intuitive.
The revised screens and menus on the Colorado are generally simple to understand and navigate, though some intermediate and advanced tasks are now actually more cumbersome to access than on previous models. While our experienced GPS users liked the Rock 'n Roller input wheel, they found that some important tasks, such as route building, took additional steps or were deeper in menus than on previous Garmin GPS units.
Improved ease of use: it's easy to scroll though the basic menu, Macintosh Dock style, and perform essential functions using the new Rock 'n Roller input wheel (shown at top of GPS). (Image courtesy of Garmin)
This may in part be due to the fact that the Colorado appears focused primarily on features and automation for Geocaching and Whereigo enthusiasts. While it does display detailed topographic maps (and high-quality nautical charting GPS with additional map data such as those included on the 400c and 400i versions), trekking and route navigation seem to us to be a secondary focus.
The Colorado comes pre-loaded with topographic maps for the entire US, as well as recreational points of interest data. One serious caveat to note is that this mapping data is only accessible on the Colorado, not on your computer. Data usable on your PC is an additional purchase (more on that in a bit). However, for map viewing (on the Colorado) across the full United States, there's no need to connect the Colorado to a PC to load and manage maps; it's ready to go right out of the box. The Colorado does come with Mapsource software (minus maps) for transferring routes, tracks, geocaches, and additional mapping data acquired separately; however, without the additional PC readable maps, route planning on the PC is limited and frustrating.
The Colorado also features a built-in electronic compass, altimeter, and barometer, as well as ANT wireless compatibility for connecting to other devices and accessories. The Colorado can serve an automotive/pedestrian GPS like a Nuvi (with additionally purchased mapping data), a training device like a Forerunner (with optional heart rate monitor or other hardware), and a picture viewer (of any supported file stored on the internal or SD memory).
Finally, the Colorado can wirelessly transfer tracks, waypoints, routes, and geocaches with other Colorado units and also mounts on a computer desktop as a storage device, just like a USB drive making file transfers blissfully simple. It runs on two AA batteries and includes an SD card slot for storing not only additional maps, but also photographs, Geocaching data, and other files.
- Large, high resolution display. Good color, detail, and shaded relief.
- Most often used, basic GPS functions easy to find for new and occasional users, due to graphic based software menus and Rock 'n Roller input wheel.
- 1:100K topographic maps for the entire United States pre-loaded in GPS.
- Plug-n-Play USB computer interface: the Colorado mounts as an external USB drive.
- Superior GPS reception.
- User customizable main menu: display only the functions you need.
- Good ergonomics.
What's Not So Good
- Display (both text and graphics) is hard to read in moderate to dim light.
- Some display text is quite small and difficult to see.
- Short battery life in comparison to eTrex units.
- Intermediate to advanced functions can be more cumbersome to find and use than on previous Garmin GPS units.
- Limited 1:24K map availability from Garmin: only for some National Parks, and only as an additional purchase.
- No satellite imagery.
- Heavier than eTrex series and other "mid-sized" GPS units by 1.5 to 2.0 ounces.
- Rock 'n Roller input wheel will not work in many protective enclosures/cases.
Things to Know
- The software vexingly jumps back to your current physical location on the map, even when performing tasks such as route building, where such jumping is extremely undesirable.
- The included US topographic maps are only viewable on the Colorado 400t, not on a personal computer. To view the topographic maps and use them to enhance route planning on your PC, you need to purchase Garmin Mapsource Topo U.S. 2008.
- Panning and zooming can be slow at very large display resolutions (map scale approximately 20 miles or greater).
- The Colorado is still a bit buggy. The unit hung on more than one occasion, and we had to pull the batteries to get it to reset. The Colorado is quite new, and patches and enhancements are inevitable; make sure you update your Colorado with the latest firmware (the latest version as of this review was 2.40 - since then, a beta 2.5 version has been posted).
Specifications(Unless identified otherwise, all are manufacturer claimed)
|Position accuracy||WAAS-enabled 3 meters|
|Memory||Expandable SD card|
|Quad Helix Antenna||Yes|
|Display Size||2.6 x 1.5 inches|
|Screen Pixels||400 x 240 inches|
|Battery:||2 AA alkaline, NiMH or lithium (not included)|
|Battery Life at 70 Degrees||15 hours (manufacturer claimed)|
|The following are BPL measured:|
|* 13.7 hours, alkaline batteries, no backlight, compass off|
|* 11.5 hours, alkaline batteries and backlight set at 100%, compass off|
|* 21.5 hours, lithium batteries, no backlight, compass off|
|Dimensions||5.7 x 2.4 x 1.4 inches|
|Weight||7.3 ounce (manufacturer claimed)|
|7.5 oz (214 g) alkaline batteries BPL measured|
|5.8 oz (165 g) without batteries BPL measured|
|Physical & Performance:|
|Unit Dimensions, WxHxD:||2.4 x 5.5 x 1.4 in (6.0 x 13.9 x 3.5 cm)|
|Display Size, WxH:||1.53 x 2.55 in (3.8 x 6.3 cm); 3.0 in diag (7.6 cm)|
|Display Resolution, WxH:||240 x 400 pixels|
|Display Type:||Transflective Color TFT|
|RoHS Version Available:||Yes|
|Maps & Memory:|
|Preloaded Maps:||Yes (topographic)|
|Ability to Add Maps:||Yes|
|Accepts Data Cards:||SD Card (not included)|
|Track Log:||10,000 points, 20 saved tracks|
|Automatic Routing (turn by turn routing on roads):||Yes|
|Geocaching Mode:||Yes (paperless)|
|Outdoor GPS Games:||Yes|
|Sun and Moon Information:||Yes|
|Custom POIs (ability to add additional points of interest):||Yes|
|Unit-to-Unit Transfer (shares data wirelessly with similar units):||Yes|
- Colorado 400t
- Preloaded topographic maps
- Worldwide basemap with shaded relief
- Carabiner clip
- USB cable
- MapSource Trip & Waypoint Manager
- Owner's manual
- Quick start guide
The Colorado has the largest and highest resolution display of any handheld recreational GPS. In bright daylight and held at the right angle, its sharp display presents high-resolution maps with good color and detail. At 400 x 240 pixels, it is larger than the Quarter VGA and has over twice the display resolution of older Garmin units, such as the GPSMAP and eTrex series. Note that the display is at a finer pitch than those previous units (That is, while the resolution is doubled, the physical size of the display is not, being only slightly longer than the display on the 60 and 76 series GPS units. So, the pixels are smaller, and some displays seem to use type and graphics that are better suited to larger pixels.).
With features approximately the same, you can see how much more map area the Colorado 400t (left) displays than the eTrex Vista HCx (right). (Screen shots via software) (Alan Dixon notes: Actually, while the level of map detail and area of coverage is correct, in the field, the HCx would display the same map coverage and level of map detail, but 10% to 20% larger because its pixels are that much larger. Unfortunately, up scaling the HCx screen-capture significantly distorts the JPG file with a serious case of the jaggies for text and contour lines. Given that the two displays have differing individual pixel sizes, I see no way out of this, and the above seems to be the best approximation to compare the displays.)
Comparison of Selected Handheld Mapping GPS Dimensions
|GPS Unit||Oz||Display (inches)||Pixels||Dimensions (inches)|
|Garmin Colorado 400t||7.5||2.6 x 1.5||400 x 240||5.7 x 2.4 x 1.4|
|Garmin GPSMAP 76CSx GPS||7.6||2.2 x 1.5||240 x 180||6.2 x 2.7 x 1.4|
|Garmin eTrex Vista HCx||5.6||1.7 x 1.3||240 x 180||4.2 x 2.2 x 1.2|
|Magellan Triton 500||6.6||1.7 x 1.3||320 x 240||4.7 x 2.2 x 1.2|
|Delorme Earthmate PN-20||7.0||1.7 x 1.3||220 x 176||5.3 x 2.4 x 1.5|
Also, in lower light, a heavily overcast day, at dusk or dawn, even in room light or the interior of a car in daylight, the display appears dim...significantly dimmer than other Garmin GPS units we have used. To see the display in low light, our reviewers used the backlight much more often than with previous Garmin units.
While larger and higher resolution, the Colorado 400t display uses a darker color scheme with less contrast, which can be difficult to read in moderate to dim light. Note how hard it is to discern the topographic lines on the Colorado 400t (right) in comparison to the eTrex unit (left), which has a much lighter display color scheme.
Several things besides overall brightness appear to hinder readability of the display in low light:
- The color scheme of maps, menus, and other displays is much darker than previous Garmin units. While these deep, rich colors look nice in bright light, they appear quite dark in dim or even moderate light. Some display elements are quite close in shade and color (e.g. display text is close in color and shade to its background). In dim light the text and background start to merge and become hard to distinguish. The same is true for map contours, trails, and other imagery.
- The display often presents very small letters and icons. Some of these will challenge the farsighted in bright daylight, and in the dark they challenged even some of us with good close vision. It appears that some type and graphics were not scaled up to adjust for the new, smaller pixel size.
|The Colorado sometimes uses small fonts, which are not easy to see. In this case, critical position information is in a very small font and not prominently located on the screen. It is quite difficult to read. Note how much more readable the GPS location (and most other information) is on the older eTrex display. (Note: In the field, the screen never looks as bright as the software-generated screen shot at far right.)|
Menus and Operation
The Colorado makes use of three primary controls for navigation: the Rock 'n Roller scroll wheel and rocker pad and the two buttons below and to either side of it. The Rock 'n Roller wheel zooms on the map screen and moves the highlight in lists, while its rocker pad slews (moves) the cursor on mapping screens, and moves the highlight in lists as well. The left-hand button pops up a menu of options for the current screen, while the right-hand button pops up a list of screens to cycle through.
Cycling through options with the scroll wheel is relatively intuitive, though some of us found the "round" menus rotated in the opposite direction than was intuitive using the wheel (we got used to it). For those preferring the older style of "paging" through device screens, that is an option available in the settings, although you may have to download a new firmware version.
Because the Colorado is meant to serve so many audiences and has more features than many GPS units, menus can sometimes feel cluttered or filled with options not germane to the task at hand.
The Colorado is something of an all-in-one unit for the mass market, with a multitude of functions designed to serve many different GPS users. These additional, non-backpacking features can clutter the screen menus. (Screen shot via software)
However, the main screens list can be customized so that only those of interest appear on the primary arc of choices, with the remainder hidden under an "Other..." option. In addition, these customized settings can be saved in groupings for easy accessibility (the unit ships with Recreational, Geocaching, Automotive, Marine, and Fitness groupings, and you can create and name your own.)
Numerous settings allow customization of how the Colorado works and displays information. Also, many screens are configurable for data fields and sometimes for layout as well.
|Examples of the Profile screen, with the ability to create a new profile: the Compass screen showing editing data fields and the Datum choices within the mapping settings. (Screen shots via software)|
One caveat: the scroll wheel is not ideal for text entry. Rather than navigating a matrix of letters (as on some GPS units), the Colorado displays a few characters at a time in an arc, and you rotate the wheel to move through letters, symbols and the backspace command, pressing the center button of the Rock 'n Roller to enter a choice in each slot. This is a bit cumbersome.
Text entry can be tedious with the Rock 'n Roller. With no "shift" function, it takes forever to scroll to the lower case letters. We also missed the "Clear" function (available on eTrex units) to delete a long previous name in one stroke. (Screen shot via software)
The combination of wide-ranging menus, Rock 'n Roller, and the all-in-one feature set do come at a cost. The non-backpacking features (and sheer number of choices per menu, in some cases) can inhibit usability. Interface simplifications make some intermediate and advanced functions harder to access and/or more time consuming in comparison to the eTrex and GPSMAP units. For example, we found it exceptionally vexing to create a new multiple waypoint route, whether using a list of waypoints (sorted only by nearest to most distant), or using the map display.
In what may have been a move to help novice users find their current location, the Colorado has a maddening tendency to jump its map display back to your current location when you attempt actions at another point on the map. For example, slewing the cursor to a waypoint and adding that waypoint to a route (or even sometimes just turning the wheel to zoom in or out) causes the display to snap back to your current location, not remain at the location you'd panned to. This may be a bug, or it may be a feature, but we found it extraordinarily frustrating, especially when route building or exploring terrain ahead. It made route building exceptionally tedious and inefficient!
Adding a waypoint to a route via the map is a mix of joy - as in this clear, useful screen - and frustration - the GPS is about to jump the display back to its current location, hundreds of miles away, as soon as I add this point to my route. I'd prefer to stay at this location and use the cursor to select waypoints, only returning to the current location on the map when I'm done. We have yet to find a way to defeat this "feature." (Screen shot via software)
We used the Colorado in Yellowstone National Park, the central Sierra Nevada's Stanislaus National Forest, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, Shenandoah National Park, the Chesapeake Bay, and the open space preserves of Marin County, California. Conditions ranged from open water to densely forested canyons; weather ran the gamut from clear and sunny to a snowstorm, with temperatures dipping as low as -14 °F overnight on one occasion and hovering in the 20s on many.
Because the Colorado locks onto and tracks satellites well, even in sheltered terrain, it's a pleasure to use for basic tracking and route recording. Screen legibility issues aside, the large, detailed maps are useful in the field; they present a lot of detail, and we found the shading a meaningful addition. However, these features are mitigated by frequently too tiny fonts and dark color choices that often render maps difficult to read.
Among the many surprises discovered in the field was the omission of route and waypoint management features available on previous units like the 60CSx and Vista HCx. For example, it's not possible to reverse a route or track on the Colorado. This means that you can't "trace back" on a track you create while out in the wilds, nor can you reverse a pre-planned route to use on your way out. So, when doing an in and out trip, you'll need to create two versions of the route on your PC and load both into the unit in advance.
It's also difficult to create a route on the fly in the field, whether using preexisting waypoints or adding points to the map. We detailed some of those frustrations earlier in this review, and suffice it to say that the current software on the Colorado left both Alan and Steve pulling their hair out in frustration when trying to create or adjust a route in the field, such as on our Yellowstone expedition, when we had to reverse our originally-planned route, then add side trips, due to an illness in the party and other unexpected events.
These are serious shortcomings for backcountry navigational use. While they are potentially addressable via software updates, so far Garmin has not done so, and so at this point the Colorado falls well behind the GPSMAP 60 and 76 series and the Vista HCx, both of which BackpackingLight recently recommended for backcountry use.
The Colorado draws a lot more power the previous GPS units we've tested. It only ran an average of 13.5 hours at room temperature with alkaline batteries, no backlight and the magnetic compass off (two batches of batteries from different manufacturers). This is less than the Garmin specified run time of 15 hours and less than half the life of the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx with a similar high performance GPS receiver. It would be nice if run time could approach the range of 20 to 25 hours offered by the Vista HCx.
Cold weather field testing showed (as one would expect) even faster battery depletion: when used at 10-20°F the Colorado's battery life was cut by half. Also, while the Colorado allows you to set your battery type to alkaline, NiMH, or lithium for more accurate battery capacity metering, we found in our field testing that battery life was often overestimated, particularly for alkaline and NiMH batteries.
Conspicuously missing is some sort of "battery saver" option: for example, shutting down the display while continuing to run the GPS and save a track log.
In low temperatures or for long trips, we strongly recommend using lithium batteries. In other conditions, the environmentally conscious - or frugal - might choose to take extra rechargeable NiMH batteries for long trips.
We often resorted using a backlight setting of 50% or more to make the display more readable in low light. Fortunately, using the backlight even at 100% had only a minor reduction in run time (11.5 hours).
The above screen shot showing excellent reception in our limited sky view reception torture test. (Screen shot via software)
The Colorado has excellent GPS reception. Even in difficult conditions, the Colorado produces high accuracy fixes. In our lab and field testing, we found its GPS reception performance equal to or better than the top performing Garmin Vista HCx and GPSMAP 60CSx.
|First Fix||Fix at 5 min|
|Garmin Colorado 400t (1)||0:47||200||4||24||8|
|Garmin Colorado 400t (2)||3:10||140||4||30||6|
|Garmin eTrex Vista HCx||3:30||160||3||24||6|
|Garmin eTrex Venture Cx||no fix||no fix||0||no fix||1|
We like the Colorado's ergonomics. The curved and rubberized case is easily gripped, even when wet, and has a nice feel in the hand. The two buttons and the Rock 'n Roller input wheel are easy to use single-handed (equally so for lefties). The unit has the easiest battery cover removal and battery change of any GPS we've tested other than the GPSMAP 60CSx.
The Colorado ships with a slide-in carabiner clip. We found this to be unnecessary extra weight and a "floppy" way to carry the Colorado; we preferred to carry the unit in a shoulder strap or hip belt pouch, or even in a pocket.
The Colorado 400t ships with 1:100,000 scale topographic mapping data for the entire United States, including 3-D data and a colored shaded relief basemap, already installed in internal memory.
Maps show trails and roads in many areas, in addition to the topographic information. The map screen is also customizable to show data fields or not, and at what zoom level to display additional details. At wider zoom levels, the topographic information is hidden, and the basemap displays by itself - it's a really nice shaded relief map, and though it displays under the topo data as well, it shines on its own.
Example of shaded relief basemap overlaid with topo lines.
In bright light, the Colorado's map display is significantly better than previous units. The display is larger and higher resolution, displaying far more information than previous eTrex and GPS Map units. As noted before, viewing in dim light is problematic.
|In these field shots, you can see how the display is not brilliant as screen shots captured via software on the Colorado 400t, seen above and many other places in this review. Map on left is close to what the display looks like in field with good light. On right is something close to what the display looks like in the field in moderate light. In dim light, it is often unreadable without using the backlight.|
A large and detailed map screen, with two selectable, transparent data fields on the bottom, provides excellent navigational information. It's something like combining the map and compass pages from an eTrex, only larger and on one screen. De-cluttering the screen of all menus and data features is a great option.
|Left: Colorado's map screen with data fields. Right: Skip the data fields and have all map! This 1:24K map detail of Shenandoah National Park is from "Garmin National Parks East" (at an additional cost), loaded into the Colorado via Garmin Mapsource software. (Screen shots via software)|
It's possible to load in additional maps (such as Garmin's 24K National Park data and marine charts, or third-party 24K maps produced in the Garmin format). Marine charts and land maps co-exist on the Colorado and will display seamlessly on the same screen. Plus, it's easy to switch between maps using one of the options choices on the mapping screen.
On the downside, satellite imagery is not available for the Colorado at this time (except for limited instances on newer marine charting cards), and most commercially available map data from other manufacturers are not compatible with Garmin GPS units.
The Colorado also provides a 3-D map view. This seems to be a derivation of Garmin's automotive navigation feature, more suitable for street routing than for backcountry use. For topographic maps, it is quite slow to refresh, has a limited range of vision, and doesn't provide much useful information. It seems more gimmick than useful feature for backpacking use.
Example of "3-D view" showing same area as previous "screen detail" shots of Shenandoah National Park. (Screen shot via software)
The Colorado includes many screens standard in other GPS units: compass, data, elevation plot, and so on, as well as many new or improved screens. We won't cover them all here, but we did find a few useful in our testing, including this mapped tide table and a Sun and Moon calendar:
|The Garmin contains useful screens, like a new sunrise/sunset calculator and tide tables. Note: we wish Garmin had included the much more powerful tide table function from previous marine units, like the GSPMap 76 series. It allowed you to calculate the tide level for any hour of any day in the year and included a daily graph of tide levels, not just a report of high and low tides. (Screen shots via software)|
Performance on the Water
The Colorado is an excellent marine GPS when marine maps (e.g. G2 vision cards, pre-installed maps on the 400c and 400i, or Garmin Blue Chart loaded via comptuter) are installed, providing most of the features of the old GPSMAP 76C series. The expedition kayakers on our testing team were enthusiastic about the Colorado's larger high-resolution screen and extensive capabilities with nautical charts.
The Colorado is moderately waterproof (the GPS case can withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes), assuming that all the covers are closed properly and the seals are in good order, which is not always a safe assumption. It is not immune to mud, grit, sand, long-term exposure in wet environments, and especially not exposure to salt water. In many environments it's a good idea to use a protective case over any GPS. Unfortunately, the Rock 'n Roller input wheel cannot be rotated when the Colorado is in most protective enclosures/cases, rendering many functions inaccessible, which is a serious hindrance to marine usage.
The Rock 'n Roller input wheel can't be rotated in most protective enclosures/cases. Previous units, such as the GPSMap 76 series, worked fine in a protective case.
The Colorado comes with Garmin's Mapsource software, which runs only on Windows. Mapsource allows updating and loading of maps to the unit (via separately purchased Garmin mapping data), and loads and retrieves waypoints, tracks, and routes. Its user interface and route and waypoint manipulation abilities are basic, but adequate for most trip planning. Beta versions of Macintosh software are available from Garmin, and we found them even more basic and limited at this point.
The Colorado, like all Garmin GPS units, can only use Garmin's proprietary mapping data. The only way to load maps into the Colorado is with Garmin mapping products. A surprise to us, especially at the Colorado's price point, is the failure by Garmin to include the Topo 2008 data disc with the unit. As a result, there's no way to use the detailed maps from the Colorado 400t to plan routes on your PC. The only way to do this is to purchase the Garmin Topo 2008 data disc for an additional $100. Route planning on the unit, on the other hand, is frustrating unless you have already created a set of waypoints (see our comments about unwanted re-centering of the screen to your current location), which is a task better done on a PC with the full maps to reference.
The software limitations are mitigated somewhat by the fact that it's possible to use many other software packages, such as National Geographic Topo or Google Earth, to create routes and waypoints (but not maps) and load them into the Colorado 400t.
Documentation and Manuals
The Colorado ships with a small manual that's really not much more than a quick start guide. We believe the unit would benefit from the more complete documentation that we've seen in previous Garmin units like the eTrex and GPSMAP series.
Suggestions for improvement
- Improve display readability.
- Make the display brighter.
- Use lighter and higher contrasting colors for display scheme (or at least add a low light color scheme option).
- Increase font sizes on important information such as waypoint or POI names.
- Improve battery life.
- Allow option to turn off display to save battery life while keeping GPS running.
- Eliminate snapping back to the current location when planning out a route, marking waypoints, and after executing a "Where To?" search (or at least this elimination an option).
- Include Garmin Topo US 2008 with the unit (or at least make it very clear to prospective buyers that they cannot view or do trip planning on a PC with the 400t's pre-loaded topographic maps, but can only do so with the basemap).
- Reduce GPS weight.
- Add power user features and shortcuts back (e.g. improved route planning, turning the compass on/off from the map screen).
- Add additional sorting modes for waypoints (e.g. alphabetical).
- Allow reversal and/or track-back of routes and tracks.
- Publish a more detailed user manual (or at least a downloadable advanced version on the Web).
- Design a waterproof case that works with the Rock 'n Roller wheel. This is much needed for marine and other harsh environments.