latest handheld GPS receiver, is the new and improved
Oregon 550 series. It picks up where the Oregon 200, 300 and 400
left off, adding a built in 3.2 megapixel camera, with automatic
geocoding of where the photo is taken, a three axis compass, giving
accurate readings regardless of how the unit is held and what Garmin
says is improved visibility with the touchscreen. The
550 and 550t model, which adds preloaded 100k topo maps of the United States,
also benefits from the firmware improvements made to the
original Oregon units. In
addition to the camera and three axis electronic compass, the 550 has a
barometric altimeter, and the ability to share wirelessly between
Garmin units. The 550 lists for $499 and the 550t for $599. Check discount prices here.
The Oregon 550 comes in a similar package as the previous Oregon
models. It does however, include an NiMH battery charger (does not rapid charge) which
will charge four batteries at a time. However, the package only
includes two rechargable batteries. The 550 also supports
operation with lithium or alkaline AA's. There is a very
brief quick start guide and the owner's manual comes on a CD-ROM.
However, it is a manual for all of the Oregon models, 200 through
the 550t. It is not as detailed about the features as I would
First, the Oregon 550 has the same recent feature updates in the Oregon
series. Waypoint averaging, waypoint edit, Sight-n-Go and even
the ability to custom name a map file, with the .img extension is
available. As of November 2009, Garmin released its Garmin Custom
Maps, which adds incredible versatility to the unit. In December,
a beta update introduced dashboards to the compass, map, elevation
pages, adding even more ability to customize the Oregon. We
you check the Garmin WebUpdater on regular basis for these updates. I am focusing on the camera,
geotagging, touchscreen and compass, since these are the main
changes in this
This is the main menu page, with my
own custom photo added for the
The camera is 3.2 megapixel and the images it captures are much better
than I expected. (I had feared nothing more than a cell phone
type camera) You have the option of setting the resolution to
3.2MP, 2MP or 1 megapixel, which will vary the file size of the image.
the 2 megapixel images, they average about a 500 KB file.
For 3.2, expect about a 750 KB file per image. The camera
seems to do pretty well, even for up close photos, however there is no
macro function available.
Options page in the camera setup. Again, with my own personal background image.
Here are some actual photos taken by the 550, which supports both portrait and landscape layout.
My hand got in the way of this one, however it shows the camera is able
to capture fast moving images, as shown with the bicyclist.
Note the two hikers in the middle of the photo.
The camera does allow you to focus, by holding the shutter button.
The lines on the screen will go from white to green, when it is
in focus. There is also a setting for low light or standard
View through the screen, green indicates image
is in focus
left side to see + and - for zoom and sun/moon icon to adjust light
The 550 has a 4X digital zoom, which works pretty
good, but the range of zooming in, is not what a regular camera would
offer. Overall, I am happy with the camera and while it is not
to replace my Sony H-50, the 550 will be an acceptable substitute when
I don't have a camera with me.
This is the feature that has me the most excited about the 550.
Each photo taken with the built in camera, will automatically
have the location of where the photo was taken saved in the EXIF of the image
file, provided you have a satellite lock. I have been able
to export these photos taken in the 550 and they show up in my Sony
picture viewer, which supports geotagging. You can also load in
photos you have taken with any digital camera, which are geotagged.
I prefer to geotag my photos with RoboGeo
a great program which has many features and allows you to customize it
for your individual needs. (For some reason, if you stamp the
data onto the image in RoboGeo, the location won't show up in the
Oregon, but if you only write to the EXIF headers, it will work just
fine.) You can also use Garmin's new BaseCamp program to geotag your photos taken with another camera. There is also the ability to load a
photo into the 550 and then attach it to a specific waypoint,
without the photo being geotagged.
This is a photo taken with the 550 and
This has a photo attached to the
This shows the photo and waypoint data
pressing the globe will show the location
on the map page
This shows thumbnails of the photos
page has a black square
You can search the photos, and select one to
stored inside the Oregon 550
photo was snapped
navigate to, just as you
would a waypoint
Garmin appears to be pushing the Oregon 550 users to Picasa to upload, share and manage photos taken from the 550's camera. When you connect to the new myGarmin Agent, you will be prompted to use Picasa.
Note the photo I took with the 550 and then on the right side, you can
see the location of where I took the photo. It is a small island
on the lake.
I have successfully used Garmin Connect Photos
and have been able to easily download pictures to the Oregon 550, that
also appear to be geotagged and show up on the map page, where they
were tagged. The pictures come from Panaramio and many of those
can be found in Google Earth. You must use your myGarmin login,
to access the photos from Garmin Connect Photos.
The compass is a 3-axis and allows you to get an accurate reading,
regardless of how you hold the unit. In the Oregon 400t, the unit
must be held level to get the heading.
The 550 compass does require a three step calibration process, with screen grabs below which outline the process.
Overall, once I got it calibrated (the third step required several
attempts) the compass seems to be right on. As with other Garmin
units, the electronic compass only activates when you slow down under 3
mph. If you are going faster that 3 mph, it relies on the GPS
heading for the compass arrow. The compass has the new large
but also supports the smaller arrow, available in the earlier Oregon
The touchscreen may be where the jury is still out. Garmin calls
it improved and I do like it better. However, it is much more shiny
and fingerprints show up much easier. I think it does look clearer,
than the 400t, but I can't decide if the outdoor visibility with the
backlight off, is any better. In my opinion, I really can't see much of a
With the backlight on, outside
With NO backlight, outside
I have successfully loaded some of Garmin's 100K TOPO product, (US TOPO
2008) as well as Garmin's 24K Southwest TOPO and CityNavigator
street maps, version 2010.1. I have also been able to load in
some third party Garmin compatible TOPO maps as well with no issues at
all. I am switching between the various map products, using the
Profile feature. You can create up to 10 separate profiles,
creating specific features and settings, depending on the use of
the Oregon-- recreational, automotive, geocaching, etc.
Garmin Custom Maps
The major addition to the firmware for all of the Oregon and Dakota
series units, is Garmin Custom Maps. It allows you to create your
own maps, scan in existing maps or even aerial photos and georeference
them to be able to add them to your unit. My personal favorite is
to use is ExpertGPS, as I believe you can get good images
georeferenced, which are highly accurate. There are plenty of
other ways out there and you can do it yourself using Google Earth.
Garmin's own explanation
is very good, so I am linking to it and then adding some of my own
images, so you can get an idea of what these can do. One problem
I have noticed, that it can be hard to take a map of an amusement park
for example and georeference it accurately, because many paper maps,
are not to scale. The USGS maps, seem to be much better.
You can also select if you want the image to cover other map data
or if you want to see the map data already in your GPS over the photo
images, such as roads, streams, contours.
Garmin custom map with USGS topo & 24K Garmin TOPO
Garmin custom map with aerial image & 24K Garmin
Garmin has also added the ability to customize your screen even more.
This means, you can have a small compass, also on the map page.
There are many options you can choose yourself. As of this
writing, it is in the beta stages, but we expect it will be released in
a regular update soon. You can also read more here and some screen examples are below.
Map with compass dashboard. Can also select elevation plot,
stopwatch, trip computer or geocache, as seen above on compass page
Garmin has recently added support for APRS
for amateur radio. Click here
for Garmin's take on using an Oregon or Colorado for APRS and
information on the cable required for it to work, about $30. Through
our testing by obtaining the
specific Garmin made cable, it has worked well. The biggest
limitation however is the fact you must connect the cable to DC
power. There is also the issue of having to individually
delete each APRS station which is downloaded to your device, because
you cannot delete waypoints by symbols only. Another limitation
is that the map page does not automatically update to an APRS station's
new location, when that data is received. Hopefully Garmin will
make these adjustments which are in the 60CSx, which would really make
the Oregon a viable option for APRS use. There is a
workaround for APRS if you don't have DC power to run the USB cable,
which works with my Kenwood D7AG. What I did was buy Garmin's USB to serial cable,
and a serial cable to mini plug from Blue Hills Innovations online
store. (You have to use a null modem adapter to connect the two
cables) The Oregon itself will then power the serial converter
USB bump. It will drain your Oregon batteries faster, but is an
alternative if you are really interested in portable APRS with a
handheld and don't mind a long cable.
Bugs and Glitches
has made several firmware updates since the 550 series was released in
July. There have been many new features added and as of this update, I
don't see any critical bugs or glitches.
The back of the unit is the same as the other Oregons, although the
lever to open the back cover, is spring loaded. The accessories,
mounts, cables, etc, used with the 400t are all compatible. The
map icons are a little different, they look more like the updated
icons in MapSource.
Battery life seems similar to the 400t, the rechargables are
suppose to give you 16 hours. The lithiums appear to give you
about 24 hours and alkalines about ten. Having the camera
enabled, does seem to drain the batteries much faster.
Shows larger mountain icon
With Southwest 24K topo,
to a location.
For waypoints with saved information such as address and phone
number, the data display is different in the 550 and some of those data
fields do not show up. The 550 has
about 800 MB of internal memory remaining and I am using a SanDisk 8GB
microSD card for additional mapping and photos. The 550 handles
waypoints differently with .gpx files than in the previous Oregon
units. It seems to add more flexibility in dealing with multiple
.gpx files. Garmin's new program BaseCamp (Read Jack's article here)
appears to be geared to manage waypoints, routes and tracks in the
Oregon. When you connect the Oregon to BaseCamp, it will bring up
not only waypoints, routes, tracks, but also any geocaches you have
loaded in, and you can access hints, logs, descriptions, etc.
There is also a BaseCamp version for Mac available here.
The Oregon 550 appears to be the latest and greatest Garmin handheld, but
once again at a premium price. The 550 has the benefit of all of the development of the first versions of the Oregon over the past year, which is a plus. There
is a webpage compiled by those on the Groundspeak forum, coordinated by
g-o-cashers (Scott) who keeps a
running list of issues with the Oregon and he appears ready to run an issue list on the 550 series. Here is a link. The
official Garmin Oregon page where you can see all of the specs on
the 550 is here.
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