Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review

Garmin trumpets the addition of a camera to this gadget, but are the improvement they DON'T mention even more impressive?

Recommended

Overall Rating: Recommended

With the Oregon 550t, the new line of high-resolution GPS units from Garmin (Colorado & Oregon) finally comes of age in a compact and light GPS. It is an apparent best in class that might well deserve our Highly Recommended rating pending results of a more comprehensive review and long term testing. This was the GPS many of us were hoping to see when the original Colorado was introduced. A number of small and not so small improvements in features, functionality, battery life, speed and ease of use, size and weight all combine to make the 550t an excellent tool for precise backcountry navigation. Our only major gripe is that the display could be a bit brighter and more easily read in bright daylight. This is not unique to Garmin, and is also true of new high-resolution touchscreen displays of competitors GPS units as well. At this point we’ve learned to live with the state of technology in exchange for the much larger map area displayed.

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by Alan Dixon |

Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review

Overview

Garmin touts the addition of a digital camera as the most significant improvement in the Oregon 550t, but I am more excited about number of other improvements. Some the improvements listed below are not even mentioned in Garmin’s list of upgrades in the press release for the Oregon 550t .

Ranking of Improvements of the Oregon 550t vs. Oregon 400t (and in some instances the Colorado 400t):

  • More daylight readable screen (an improvement over the hard to read, matte finish, touchscreen of the Oregon 400t)
  • Improved Features/Usability (especially touchscreen)/Software updates (since the introduction of the Colorado series)
  • New three-axis magnetic compass (unit does not need to be held level for accurate magnetic compass reading)
  • Longer battery life
  • Greener: Ships with rechargeable NiMH batteries and charger
  • Lighter and more pocket friendly shape (than the Colorado series)
  • 3.2 Mp Camera (useful for basic documentation of your trip, and for “visuals” of waypoints, it not a “photographic quality” camera.)
BPL Measurements Summary  
Weight: 200 g (7.0 oz) with supplied 2,000 mAh NiMH batteries
195 g (6.9 oz) with alkaline batteries
150 g (5.3 oz) without batteries
Battery Life: Tested 16.5 hours with supplied 2,000 mAh NiMH batteries
Estimated 20 to 22+ hours with 2,700mAh NiMH batteries

Field Performance

Garmin released the Oregon 550 series GPS units just prior to ORSM 2009. I had a chance to test drive the new unit on a five-day backpacking trip after the show. The most touted upgrade from the 400 to 550 series is the addition of a camera, but I found another upgrade (which Garmin barely mentions) is more significant: its display.

Display

The touch screen introduced in the Oregon 400 series was a significant improvement in ease of use and speed of use over the Colorado series. The Oregon was smaller, lighter and a much more appealing and pocketable shape. But the touch screen display had a slightly matte finish that made it difficult to read in broad daylight. We had already dinged the Colorado series for being hard to read and the Oregon units were even a bit harder read*.

When I turned the Oregon 550t on, I the first thing noticed that it was easier to view than the Oregon 400 units. It is at least as readable as the non-touchscreen Colorado 400t display, if not a smidge better. I double-checked with Jake Jacobson of Garmin at the OR Show, and he confirmed that the display had changed for the Oregon 550t. “We thought the display was a lot more readable for the 550 but were hesitant to make a big deal of it for fear that end users might think it wasn’t that significant an improvement.” Is the Oregon 550t as easy to view as a GPS Map or e-Trex? No. But the new display turns the Oregon 550t into what may be Garmin’s most field-useable GPS unit.

Note: Turning off the Shaded Relief (in the Map Setup, Advanced menu) makes topographic maps a lot more readable on the 550t. In this mode, the map screen looks much more like the higher contrast, easier to read e-Trex units of the past.

*To be fair, it seems that most of the new high-resolution GPS displays, the Garmin Colorado and Oregon series and the Magellan Triton 1500 and 2000, touch screen or not, are not as bright, high contrast, or as easily viewed as their lower resolution predecessors, e.g. Garmin eTrex, or GPS Map series. After an initial disappointment with the new high-resolution GPS displays, I have learned to live with them as a necessary inconvenience to gain significant improvements in other areas. Even though I may have to tilt the display or use a backlight now and then to make it more viewable, I still prefer the new GPS units (especially the touch screen models) higher resolution maps, faster processors, and improved usability over the older GPS units. That being said, I am still looking forward to the next generation high-resolution of touch screen displays that will hopefully be brighter and higher contrast.

Battery Life - Rechargeable Batteries

Battery Life Oregon 550t*  
Tested: Garmin supplied 2,000 mAh NiMH batteries 16. 5 hours
Estimated: 2,700mAh NiMH batteries (if user supplied) 20 to 22+ hours
*Unit in 15-second backlight timeout 65% of time and backlight always on 35% of time

One of our complaints about the Colorado was that it had about half the battery life of the previous e-Trex series units. The Oregon 500t has improved power management and has better battery life.

On our five-day trip, the 550t never dropped below indicating a full charge. This is probably due to the unit powering down the screen completely when timing-out and the reinstatement of a “battery saver” mode for the GPS receiver. We welcome back this function, which worked well for the e-Trex series.

The Oregon 550t ships with the newest technology, low discharge, AA NiMH, rechargeable batteries and a very nice four-cell charger. In our testing, the 550t made its sixteen specified hours using these batteries.

Low discharge batteries retain their capacity even after twelve months of storage (90% plus capacity after six months, and 85% capacity after twelve months). This is a great convenience and means that you do not have charge your batteries all the time keep their capacity up to spec. The Garmin supplied batteries are rated at a nominal 2,000 mAh, and a minimum of 1,900 mAh. We tested them at 1,925 mAh.

Higher capacity NiMH AA batteries can run up to 2,700 mAh, true tested capacity. These batteries are not low self-discharge and typically lose around 5% of their capacity the first day and 1% per day thereafter. Thus, they need to be re-charged frequently, even if they are not used. To get the full usable capacity, you need to use the batteries in a short period after charging. If you did so, one might expect a run time of 20 to 22+ hours for the 550t. This would put the runtime of the 550t in the same range as the old e-Trex series.

We welcome the green advantages of rechargeable batteries. But rechargeable batteries have another advantage. No more wondering if you should take partially used batteries into the field for your next trip (I usually do, and carry a backup for when they run down). Now, you can just top off the NiMHs in the charger and you have fully charged batteries for each trip. Not carrying spare batteries would save you about 50 g (1.8 oz).

Operation/User Interface

The Oregon User Interface is a significant improvement over the Colorado, solving many of our gripes. The touch screen is just a better tool than the Rock-n-Roll Wheel. Menus, functions and capabilities have also improved. Text input is the easiest of any GPS I’ve used. In just a few minutes in the field, I constructed a couple of 12-20 waypoint routes on the 550t, including creating all new waypoints using the GPS unit’s maps. (The inability to easily build routes using the GPS unit’s maps was a big complaint about the Colorado.) On the Oregon a seven-year-old could do it. And no longer does the GPS “vexingly jump back to your current physical location on the map,” a big complaint when we tested the Colorado 400t.

Customizable user profiles and menus keep the “riff raff” and “fluff” features (and there are many) hidden and out of the way. It is fairly simple to configure a streamlined first menu screen with the essential navigation functions you use most often. In this mode the unit is very fast and very easy to use. Many screens have multiple display fields that can be quickly customized in a dizzying array of options.

GPS Performance

GPS performance is excellent. Without tree cover, we got a GPS fix as soon as the 550t booted and loaded maps. In a deep canyon with heavy tree cover, it took between one and two minutes to get a fix. This is no surprise. The Colorado 400t had excellent GPS performance when we tested it, and we assume that the Oregon 550t has an equal or better GPS reception chipset (Garmin considers its GPS unit processors and reception chipsets proprietary information and will not release details on them).

Water Resistance

We had a very wet trip with lots of light rain and showers during the day with some torrential afternoon to early evening thunderstorms. We used the 550t in the rain and stored it in a none-too-dry hipbelt pocket that had water pooling in the bottom. We had no problems with usability or water entry into the GPS.

Unlike the Colorado with the Rock-n-Roll Wheel interface, the 550t and its touchscreen interface is completely compatible with a flexible waterproof case. All functions can easily be used though the case cover - great for saltwater use and other harsh environments.

The Camera

The Garmin Press Release for the 550t states: “There’s no need to tote a separate camera in your pack or pocket, as Oregon 550's 3.2 megapixel autofocus digital camera with 4x digital zoom…”

Well maybe not. The camera is certainly useful for basic documentation of your trip, and especially useful for capturing a visual record of critical navigation points, geotagged with their locations. If you are happy with cell phone quality pictures, you are in luck. The Oregon 550t can do double duty as a GPS/Camera for your trip. If you want a “photographic quality” camera for a trip, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Even an inexpensive point and shoot camera has a lot more features and produces better pictures.

What’s Good

  • Fast, powerful and easy to use with touchscreen display and good menu/functions/software.
  • Excellent GPS reception.
  • Better battery life. Improved power management. Battery Save mode.
  • Green: High capacity, low discharge, rechargeable batteries.
  • Lighter and more pocketable size than Colorado Series. Closer to the weight and pocketability of old e-Trex series.
  • New three-axis magnetic compass.
  • Good 1:100K maps for the US. 100% coverage with nice shaded relief display.
  • 850 Mb of internal memory sufficient for most map uploads and photo storage.
  • Included 3.2 megapixel camera.
  • Ships with rechargeable batteries and charger.

What’s Not So Good

  • While improved, the display could still be brighter with more contrast.
  • MicroSD card slot is under the batteries and a bit difficult to access (although you probably won’t need to use it often).
  • Unit hung a couple of times in the field, but was quickly rebooted by holding down the power button. (This is a debut GPS unit. We assume a firmware upgrade will fix this in the next few months. This appears to be an industry norm for many manufacturer’s new and more complex GPS units, which requiring multiple firmware updates over a period many months to fix bugs, and add features.)
  • No 100% national coverage of 1:24K maps. Limited 1:24K map availability from Garmin: only for some National Parks, and only as an additional purchase. Magellan and DeLorme both provide 100% coverage for a “per map” fee.

Things to Know

The included US topographic maps are still only viewable on the Oregon 550t, 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. software.

Specifications

(as stated by Manufacturer)

  Unit Dimensions, WxHxD:

2.3" x 4.5" x 1.4" (5.8 x 11.4 x 3.5 cm)

  Display Size, WxH:

1.53"W x 2.55"H (3.8 x 6.3 cm); 3" diag (7.6 cm)

  Display Resolution, WxH:

240 x 400 pixels

  Display Type:

Transflective color TFT touchscreen

  Weight:

6.8 oz (192.7 g) with batteries

  Battery:

2 AA NiMH batteries included

  Battery Life:

16 hours

  Waterproof:

yes (IPX7)

  Floats:

no

  High-Sensitivity Receiver:

yes

  Interface:

high-speed USB and NMEA 0183 compatible

  RoHS Version Available:

yes

  Maps & Memory:

  Basemap:

yes

  Preloaded Maps:

yes (topographic)

  Ability to Add Maps:

yes

  Built-in Memory:

850 MB

  Accepts Data Cards:

microSD™ card (not included)

  Waypoints/Favorites/Locations:

2000

  Routes:

200

  Track Log:

10,000 points, 200 saved tracks

  Features:

  Automatic Routing (turn by turn routing on roads):

yes (with optional mapping for detailed roads)

  Electronic Compass:

yes (tilt-compensated, 3-axis)

  Touchscreen:

yes

  Barometric Altimeter:

yes

  Geocaching-Friendly:

yes (paperless)

  Camera:

yes (3.2 megapixel with autofocus; 4x digital zoom)

  Outdoor GPS Games:

yes (Wherigo only)

  Hunt/Fish Calendar:

yes

  Sun and Moon Information:

yes

  Tide Tables:

yes

  Area Calculation:

yes

  Custom POIs (ability to add additional points of interest):

yes

  Unit-to-Unit Transfer (shares data wirelessly with similar units):

yes

  Picture Viewer:

yes

  What’s Included:

Oregon 550t
AA battery charger
2 AA NiMH batteries
Carabiner clip
USB cable
Owner's manual on disk
Quick start manual


Citation

"Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review," by Alan Dixon. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/garmin_oregon550t_review.html, 2009-08-11 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review on 08/11/2009 15:47:08 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review

Jesse H.
(tacedeous) - MLife

Locale: East Bay, CA
cool toy :) on 08/11/2009 16:24:13 MDT Print View

sounds awesome for geocaching...
whats the MSRP?

Adrian B
(adrianb) - MLife

Locale: Auckland, New Zealand
Re: Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review on 08/12/2009 04:01:19 MDT Print View

I don't know.. it's heavier than my Vista HCx, with less runtime. Is this progress?

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
MSRP? on 08/12/2009 09:33:13 MDT Print View

List Price: $599.99
Street price is around the same: $599.00

Prices unlikely to fall much in the next few months.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: Re: Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review on 08/12/2009 09:55:03 MDT Print View

>I don't know.. it's heavier than my Vista HCx, with less runtime. Is this progress?

Possibly so. You be the judge.

The Oregon 550t has pre-loaded 1:100K Topos for the whole US, a much larger and higher resolution map display, faster processor, much easier to use touchscreen, better GPS receiver, a better 3-axis compass, included 850 Mb built in memory, and a camera to mention a few improvements/advantages.

The increase of speed and ease of use due to the larger mapping display and touchscreen are significant. It takes a lot less scrolling and fiddling around to get the job done vs. the e-Trex series. Having quickly done your navigation, etc., you might put the Oregon away minutes earlier than the e-Trex.

As to battery life: the Oregon 550t testing was done with 1,900 mAh rechargeable NiMH batteries supplied with the Oregon. e-Trex runtime is given with approx 2,800-3,000 mAh non-rechargeable alkaline batteries. To make a fair comparison, using 2,800-3,000 mAh non-rechargeable alkaline batteries, the Oregon’s battery life should approach the e-Trex (i.e in the range of 25 hours). That’s impressive when you assume that a larger screen, faster processor, and more power hungry GPS receiver all have the potential to increase battery drain. You could also come close to this runtime using 2,700 mAh rechargeable NiMH batteries and keep your green conscious clear.

As to weight:
eTrex Vista HCx (5.95 oz, 169 g measured with alkaline batteries)
Oregon 550t 195 g (6.9 oz) with alkaline batteries

Is all that worth less than an ounce increase in weight?

Joe Kuster
(slacklinejoe) - MLife

Locale: Flatirons
Garmin Oregon 550t Handheld Color Mapping GPS Review on 08/12/2009 10:57:17 MDT Print View

While I won't be upgrading for the camera, I have a Oregon 400T and have been wildly impressed considering I moved up from a Geko 301.

It's one of the few things you cannot evaluate on specs alone, get one in your hand and demo the unit. If nothing else, I'm sold on mapping GPS's and the touch screen works even with gloves so it made life so much nicer.

Edited by slacklinejoe on 08/12/2009 11:19:10 MDT.

WV Hiker
(vdeal)

Locale: West Virginia
chipset info on 08/25/2009 09:41:29 MDT Print View

"Garmin considers its GPS unit processors and reception chipsets proprietary information and will not release details on them"

Maybe Garmin won't release details but they can be found. Check http://www.gpsfix.net/garmin-oregon-550t-first-impression/ and you find the following:

"The Oregon 550t I received is running software 2.10 and GPS software 3.40. I’ve taken the unit apart and I can confirm that it is using the ST Cartesio chipset like the Oregon x00 series. I was hopeful for a different chipset given the issues that the Cartesio has under tree cover at walking speeds"

I'll stick with my Garmin 60 series with the proven SirSTAR chip and use real paper maps.

Edited by vdeal on 08/25/2009 09:42:19 MDT.

Chuck Clark
(chuckc1971) - F
My results on 09/12/2009 21:56:48 MDT Print View

Based on the reviews of this site, I sprung for a 550t over the DeLorme Earthmate PN-40 for a bikepacking trip. I loaded up 3 tracks and was able to use the unit immediately. Being a GPS device newb, that was awesome! Even under an often heavy canopy (Eastern KY), I had no trouble with getting a satellite signal nor did I ever lose it except, of course, in a tunnel. Battery life with the 15 second factory dim feature was excellent. Even tapping the screen for full brightness several times an hour resulted in my bettering the 16 hours reported here. Unlike the reviews on Amazon, I was very happy with the bike mount. As someone who has used zip ties extensively in the past, there is an art of getting the proper tightness with a set of needle nose pliers which makes the mount work perfect. Because I can keep the screen bright all the time, I plan to use this unit full time for my bike computer outside of bikepacking use. I don't have anything to compare this unit to outside of an old Garmin Forerunner 201. The 550t connects to satellites much faster and obviously has more backpacking use.

Justin McMinn
(akajut) - F

Locale: Central Oklahoma
Garmin 550t Photos on 09/14/2009 15:51:42 MDT Print View

Here's a few photos that I took with the 550t on my first trip with it.

http://loc.alize.us/#/tag:garmin550t/geo:51.191296,-115.963923,13,k/

I didn't have big expectations since it use a cellphone style image sensor, but I was surprised with how they turned out.

Edited by akajut on 09/22/2009 07:54:15 MDT.

Lola Nunn
(lolagotit) - F
Garmin Oregon 550t: extending battery life on 09/21/2009 20:11:30 MDT Print View

Have just recently upgraded from a eTrex Vista Hcx to the Oregon 550t. I feel that the touchscreen, camera, and other improvements far outweigh the slightly dimmer screen of the 550t (compared to the Vista). An REI Outdoor School instructor for GPS navigation pointed out that the electronic compass of the 550t (or any GPS unit w/electic compass) eats up 50% of your battery life unless it is deactivated. You don't need the electric compass turned on unless you are using Sight 'n Go, anyway. For instance, if you are geocaching, the compass screen will still idicate your bearing and distance once you have selected Go To. You don't need to activate the electic compass. But if you need to use it, don't forget to recalibrate each time you change batteries.

Justin McMinn
(akajut) - F

Locale: Central Oklahoma
Re: Garmin Oregon 550t: extending battery life on 09/22/2009 07:53:25 MDT Print View

Great tip!