Garmin's Oregon 550

Touchscreen GPS Navigator

Updated: December 10, 2009

By: Sam Penrod

Return to GPS Information Home Page


Garmin's 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 other compatible 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 have liked.

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 suggest 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 unit.

This is the main menu page, with my
own custom photo added for the
background image.

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.  For 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 light.  


                             View through the screen, green indicates image is in focus                         Look at 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 going 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 waypoint                This shows the photo and waypoint data
pressing the globe will show the location
on the map page


This shows thumbnails of the photos                               The map page has a black square                        You can search the photos, and select one to 
stored inside the Oregon 550                                           where each 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 generated heading for the compass arrow.  The compass has the new large pointer, but also supports the smaller arrow, available in the earlier Oregon models.

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 difference.

     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 map                            Garmin custom map with aerial image & 24K Garmin Topo Map

Dashboard Support
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
Garmin 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.

Other Observations

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, autorouting
                                                                                        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.  

Questions/Comments: Visit the Forum