Garmin Oregon 550t GPS system review

Looking at the Garmin 550t (t standing for topographical maps), you would be forgiven for thinking someone had handed you the previous version. It's so alike, that at first we thought that Garmin had just sent us the wrong unit.

Why? Well it comes in virtually the same rugged casing, features the same 3-inch screen, and allows you to find geocaches with ease. It's powered by the same two AA batteries, features the same user interface and, well, is virtually the same in everyway possible.

It's not until you start to look closely that you can spot the differences. The first and most major of which are around the back of the device.

Rather than have to worry about carrying a digital camera with you to nab proof of your finds, Garmin has now added a 3.2-megapixel camera complete with digital zoom.

Accessed at the touch of a button, you can grab pictures of your geocache, or anything else for that matter, and store it to upload later. Images are geotagged as you would expect and rather like Navman's slow to take off NavPix service, you can choose to navigate to the picture directly via the included software on the unit. In real terms though, it means that the GPS location is saved to the EXIF information of the image, which in turn means that when you share images with services like Flickr or Panoramio you can find them on a map.

In use and the addition of a camera makes perfect sense: it's easy to use, and while the 4x digital zoom isn't that helpful (remember digital zooms only zoom in on the image, not the object you are taking a picture of) the fact that the camera is there is good enough.

As for the quality? It's what you would expect from a 3.2-megapixel camera and while most geocachers have mobile phones with cameras built-in, it saves that frustrating upload when you are back at your computer or downloading an image from your camera/phone to go with the "I've completed this cache" log.

But it's not just the camera that has been added to try and convince you to part with your cash. The screen, something that we complained about with the 400t, has also been improved. It's now brighter, which in turn means you can actually see it when out and about in the field.

When we say brighter, it's not mobile phone bright, but it's still an improvement and certainly makes a difference. Direct sunlight will still beat you (Garmin needs to talk to Olympus on making non-reflective screens) but you don't need to hide in your coat as much.

Other new features are even harder to notice, Waypoints get doubled from 1000 to 2000 and routes are increased from 50 to 200.

So that's the differences, but if you haven't played with the 400t, what's the 550t actually like?

Robust is probably the best way to describe the design. It's certainly good enough to be dropped (we know, we tried) with a hard, but rubberised casing protecting all the gubbins inside. Indented on the front is a 3-inch touchscreen display while the on/off button, USB socket and battery release catch are the only other elements that mark the flush design.

Lifting the battery release catch reveals two AA batteries. The inclusion of AA batteries rather than a purpose built lithium-ion offering is welcomed as it means you don't need to find a power supply - ideal for when you're far from home or civilisation.

When it comes to controlling the Oregon 550t it's all via the touchscreen, not great if it’s cold as you'll have to loose the gloves, however the screen is responsive. Features are either listed six to a screen with the ability to scroll through them very much like the iPhone, or in a list format top to bottom.

Scrolling through the menu system is very easy thanks to the up/down buttons at the bottom of the screen.

Core to the product of course is the mapping system that allows you multiple views of your location down to 20ft. If the top down approach isn't for you, the 550t also offers a 3D view as well as other features like Elevation Plot, the ability to find nearby Points Of Interest, and set waypoints to name but a few.

Mapping is 3D worldwide, but you can also buy add-ons as microSD cards for street mapping (£79.99), marine mapping and topographic maps.

For those who like geocaching, there is a geocaching.com app included so you can send geocache locations straight to your handset. You'll need to download a plug-in from Garmin (listed in the manual) but once that's done all that is left for you to do is connect the 550t to the computer.

Yes the download is Mac, PC and Linux compatible and once installed the app then allows you to manage your caches. It's incredibly easy, incredibly lazy, but best of all ditches the need to carry around scraps of paper, or learning how to type in a lat/long coordinate into the thing (you can do that as well). Those looking to go old school also get a digital compass as well.

Besides the GPS functionalities of the handset the Oregon 550t also offers an image viewer, (randomly) a calendar, calculator, sun and moon times, alarm clock, stopwatch and best times to fish and hunt on any given day - love it.

Verdict

Recommending that you upgrade from your previous 400t would be a hard thing for us to do. Yes you get the camera and a better screen, but the core functionality here is the same and both units are fairly expensive.

If, however, you've been put off from signing up because of worries of the screen on the 400t then this is a good time to jump in.

The addition of the camera is a logical one rather than a must have and the new improved waypoint and route counts are likely to only appeal to a hardcore set (you know who you are).

The only gripe we would have is the cost. Like the 400t, the 550t is expensive, £468 ($600) expensive, meaning this is one for the regular geocacher rather than someone who would do it on a "I'm bored this weekend", kind of moment. That said, for the price you do reduce your hassle and need to understand technology to a minimum.

In our 400t review we winged that the screen was too dull. Garmin have fixed that so it only seem far for us to up the score from an 8 to a 9 for this model.