Having been using and teaching the use use of conventional GPS receivers for a number of years I was interested to see how the next generation with on screen mapping would perform. As all the mapping is based on the same Ordnance Survey maps, the only differences are between how each unit operates, and affordability.
While the units are expensive, the mapping seems even more so. Combine the cost of this with PC based mapping and you are looking at a hefty chunk of money, certainly more than I could afford. Luckily for me a Garmin competition in TGO brought me a brand new Oregon 550 and mapping for the National Parks. Out with the old and switch on to the new…
The Oregon 550 is a great concept. A touchscreen GPS with optional on screen mapping (courtesy of a Micro SD card), and built in camera, which takes photos which can later be used to navigate to as a waypoint. So how easy is it to use?
To start with, along with the usual cables and instruction disc, the Oregon 550 comes with two rechargeable batteries and a battery charger. Having charged and used these batteries I can say that I found them to be unreliable, and that at times the unit would become unresponsive and slow. In some cases the tracklog failed to record some sections, not good at all should you wish to backtrack, or even just keep a log of your trips. I found that often the only way to fix this was to switch the unit off and on, but the problem would reappear later anyway. Other rechargeable batteries acted the same way, but using standard alkaline batteries apparently remedied this problem, and I had less problems with it while it had alkaline batteries fitted.
Another handy feature is the attachment point on the back, which is far more secure than the previous clip attachment, and allows the unit to be attached to a carabiner or to a secure bike mount. The rear cover release is located at the bottom of this clip, and is a definite improvement on the similar looking system on the Colorado models, which slides on, and can occasionally catch on the rubber seal.
The unit itself keeps many features from most of the other Garmins in the range, so if you have used other Garmin units you should be able to quickly master this one, however instead of buttons almost all the features are accessed via a touchscreen, which is glove friendly (although if you are wearing big chunky gloves a stylus from a Nintendo DS can prove rather useful).
The default page is the main menu, which allows you to access the usual features, including a trip computer, camera, a photo viewer, waypoint and track managers, along with maps and compass. From the main menu you can also customise the unit, changing the display size and information, and you can even use your own photos as wallpaper. The trip computer is excellent and more versatile, having a maximum of eight easily changeable data fields, so that your location, speed, height and more can be accessed at a glance. Take some time to find the right setup for you and won’t regret it.
Additional mapping is optional. The unit has a built in base map, which has some road mapping in it. However buying one of these and using the base map only would be like using a Ferrari for the school run. It can use the Garmin European road mapping, which I did use while waiting on the Micro SD card with the maps to arrive, and this is an improvement over the inbuilt map, however if you want it to work to its full potential then you just have to install the Discoverer mapping. The screen on the unit isn’t overly large, and panning can be slow at times, and is acceptable on it’s own, but used in conjunction with a paper map it is be a fantastic combination. I was using the National Park Discoverer mapping card, which, as it suggests covers Britains national parks. The good thing is that should you go “off map” then another large scale overview map kicks in, and if you zoom in you have road mapping available. The road mapping comes in extremely handy, as you can navigate to a point “on road” as opposed to the traditional direct line. This is great for cycling, or just for getting you to the hills in the first place, and optional car and cycle mounting kits are available. You can even search for individual addresses and travel to them, handy for finding an after walk pub!
For general hill use the national park card is a good budget option, having a fairly decent coverage of the more popular hill areas, but should you wish to travel to more remote locations then the full OS mapping is necessary.
Another good feature is the 3.2 megapixel camera. It is of reasonable quality for taking snapshots,comparable with the cameras found on most mobile phones and has a 4x digital zoom. When you take a picture the GPS records the location. Should you wish to navigate back to where the picture was taken, simply select the picture and go to it. It’s that simple.
One area in which the Oregon 550 differs from the previous generation of GPS, is that your computer “sees” it differently, much like a digital storage device. Instead of downloading tracks directly to mapping software, these are transferred from one drive to another as GPS exchange files. I use both Memory Map and Quo mapping, and find it easy to use with either system.
Similarly, tracks, waypoints and geocaches can be downloaded directly from websites and into the GPS as GPS exchange files, far quicker and easier than previous methods.
The unit did have some drawbacks initially, the battery problem being one. Another problem was far more annoying. It is good practice to reset your GPS prior to a walk, otherwise the odometer begins to add all your previous walks together. Having completed my first walk using this GPS I saved it as normal, and reset the unit. I arrived home to download the information on to the PC to find…..nothing. Selecting clear current track not only clears the track, but waypoints too. Initially I thought I had made a mistake somewhere, and tried again, with the same result. Having loaded in information before the walk, I now found myself on the hill without the waypoints I had saved for the walk. This wasn’t critical, they were there as a backup, but it was a cause for concern. A visit to the Garmin website led me to the solution. The unit was in need of updates or patches, which correct software errors. These are available on the website, but Garmin really should encourage new owners to update their GPS before using it. With the updates installed, it operates perfectly.
Overall I’m very impressed with the it. It’s versatile and is a million miles away from the first generation GPS which told you where you were and little more. Useful from the minute you leave your house, to the trail and back, it’s one of the items which will end up near the top of your kit list, and unlike the GPS of yesteryear, near at hand, not stuck somewhere in your rucksack.