ANATOLY IVANOV / PROSE / 2010-03-30

GARMIN DAKOTA VS GARMIN OREGON GPS COMPARISON REVIEW

by Anatoly IVANOV

BACKPACKING / CLIMBING / CYCLING / GADGETS / RUNNING / TRANSPORTATION / TRAVEL / REVIEWS

Thinking about the ultimate outdoor navigation luxury? A rugged, handheld, mapping, routable GPS unit? Well, Garmin has been making them for years, offering a lot of choice and creating new products as often as possible. 2 months after I had published my extensive comparison of their bleeding edge Oregon and Colorado, Garmin introduced a new line of devices: Garmin Dakota 10 and Dakota 20.

In my previous article, I’ve selected the Garmin Oregon as the better tool, albeit with hefty drawbacks. Specifically, screen readability.

So, to give you a complete picture of the current situation, I’d have to carry and use 7 devices at the same time!

I think a compass is a must-have, especially for backpacking, so I’ve reduced the list to units with a compass:

The only difference between the Oregon 300 and the Oregon 400 is the preloaded maps. So I could use the Oregon 300 to describe both. The Oregon 450 is essentially the Oregon 550 without a camera. I had occasional access to the Oregon 550, so, in the end, the units I’ve actually held in my hands are:

To make it manageable, I’ve concentrated my attention on the Dakota 20 and the Oregon 300, with occasional reference to the Oregon 550.

 

Photo: Garmin Dakota 20 handheld in direct sunlight (no backlight)

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 handheld in direct sunlight (no backlight)

And although the 2 units allow a very wide range of activities – driving, cycling, hiking, sailing, fishing, hunting, training, geocaching, weather trending, calculating, even waking you up and taking pictures – my focus is much more narrow.

DEFINE THE CONTEXT: NEEDS AND OPERATING CONDITIONS

When choosing a GPS unit, I’d suggest to first answer 2 questions:

  1. what problems does the device need to solve?
  2. in what conditions will the unit operate?

Ideally, a GPS receiver should solve your problems in the most effective and efficient way.

MY NEEDS AND OPERATING CONDITIONS

I’ve tested the Dakota and the Oregon in 3 contexts:

1 / Road cycling

2 / Hiking

3 / Running

So, how do the Dakota and the Oregon answer my precise needs and perform in these conditions?

FORM FACTOR

The Dakota is a puffy cutie. The Oregon is a clumsy overweight.

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 (left) and Dakota 20 (right)

// Size

Do you remember the days of the Garmin Geko? Well, we’re finally going back there.

 

Photo: Apple iPhone 3Gs (left), Garmin Oregon 300 (center) and Dakota 20 (right)

 

Photo: Apple iPhone 3Gs (left), Garmin Oregon 300 (center) and Dakota 20 (right)

 

Photo: Apple iPhone 3Gs (left), Garmin Oregon 300 (center) and Dakota 20 (right)

// Weight

The Dakota is 30% lighter than the Oregon. Still, both are far from anything feathery.

As measured on my electronic scale (1 g precision):

  Garmin Dakota 20 GPS
Garmin Dakota 20
Garmin Oregon 300 GPS
Garmin Oregon 300
Empty: 103 g (3.63 oz) 146 g (5.15 oz)
With 2 AA
rechargeable NiMH:
164 g (5.78 oz) 205 g (7.2 oz)

// Build quality

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 (left) and Dakota 20 (right)

I’ve dropped both units from about 1 m (3.28 ft) onto wooden floor. I’ve also ejected the Dakota from my bike handlebar mount to slide 5 m (16.4 ft) on polished concrete. No complaints.

// Weather resistance

According to Garmin, both the Dakota and the Oregon will drown but will remain alive for 30 minutes at a 1 meter depth, as per IEC 60529 IPX7 standard.

What about low temps? LCD displays tend to slow down in subfreezing conditions. The lowest I could take the units was a mildly cold -15° C (5° F) in the Alps. No effect on performance.

// Handheld

 

Photo: Garmin Dakota 20 handheld in direct sunlight (no backlight)

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 handheld in direct sunlight (no backlight)

I can hold each unit with just one hand and operate the functions with my thumb.

// Bike mounted

The Dakota and the Oregon share the same rail-mount. A Garmin plastic adapter attaches either to the handlebars (crosswise) or to the ahead stem (lengthwise) with 2 nylon zip-ties. A small rubber insert is supposed to keep the mount in place, but both units rotate downwards or sideways after a series of bumps, no matter how much I tighten the zip-ties.

 

Photo: Garmin bike mount compatible with Dakota and Oregon GPS on a Brompton

The solution, shared by Dominique BLACHON, is to:

  1. wrap the handlebars or the ahead stem with a layer of inner tube (cut to size)
  2. attach the Garmin mount over the wrap

As a result, both units stop rotating so much on the handlebars and barely budge on the ahead stem.

However, the slide-in and slide-out process remains cumbersome:

The Dakota’s more compact form saves precious handlebar space.

 

Photo: Garmin Dakota 20 on ahead stem (drop handlebars) under low-angle sunlight (no backlight)

On my road bike with FSA Omega Compact 42 cm / 31,8 mm drops, I can fit:

An impossible combination with the Oregon.

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 on ahead stem (drop handlebars) under low-angle sunlight (no backlight)

// Running

Both units weigh more than a map and a thumb orienteering compass. However, if you want to focus on the fun of running rather than on the fun of orienteering at a 175 BPM heart rate…

USER INTERFACE

// Screen dimensions, resolution and color depth

The main, and crucial, difference between the Dakota and the Oregon is the screen dimension, resolution and color depth:

  Garmin Dakota 20 GPS
Garmin Dakota
10 / 20
Garmin Oregon 300 GPS
Garmin Oregon
200 / 300 / 400 / 450 / 550
Dimensions
(physical):
3,6 x 5,5 cm (1.43 x 2.15 in)
2.6 inch diagonal
3,8 x 6,3 cm (1.53 x 2.55 in)
3 inch diagonal
Dimensions
(pixels):
160 x 240 px 240 x 400 px
Resolution:
(pixels per inch)
111 PPI 157 PPI
Color depth: 65 000 colors 65 000 colors

In other words, the Dakota’s screen:

While the Oregon’s screen:

For your reference, Garmin’s GPSMAP 60CSx display seems really antique compared to both the pretty Oregon and the utilitarian Dakota.

So, looks like the Oregon has the best display? Well, in a dark room with screen backlight switched to the max, yes. But things get more complicated outdoors.

// Screen technology

The Dakota and the Oregon use the transflective screen technology (with additional layers of resistive touchscreen on top):

Ideally the system works in such a way that instead of fighting strong illumination from the outside by even stronger illumination from the inside, the technology lets the outside light source do the work. The backlight, which requires a lot of electrical power, is switched off to preserve the batteries.

The differences between the units?

The gloss adds contrast to the picture, so readability improves about 10%, if you don’t mind the reflections.

The matte touchscreen of the Oregon 200 / 300 / 400 has an advantage: it’s less sticky. Fingers slide from point to point. The glossy screen of the Dakota 10 / 20 and the Oregon 450 / 550 tends to grip moist fingers, but not as badly as the iPhone’s screen.

// Screen performance

A bright, easy-to-read screen is crucial. What’s the use of a high-tech mapping GPS if you can’t see where you’re going?

But display readability is a combination of 2 factors:

  1. hardware (the screen assembly)
  2. software (the interface and map design)

So I’ll assume a nicely designed map – high contrast, simple shapes, restrained or switched off relief shading – to gauge the hardware performance:

direct sunlight

By design, transflective technology works best in direct sunlight, so the Dakota is perfectly readable, while the Oregon is quite readable. All without backlight. But direct sunlight occurs either at noon, or when you tilt the unit towards the sun.

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 (left) and Dakota 20 (right) under direct sunlight (no backlight)

indirect sunlight

If the sun isn’t shining directly on the screen at a 90° angle, as, for example, in the morning or in the evening due to sun angles, or on your handlebars:

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 (left) and Dakota 20 (right) under indirect sunlight (no backlight)

You can try to compensate the Oregon’s dimness by switching on the backlight. Unfortunately, it’s not powerful enough to counteract the well-lit outdoors. Backlight at 100% hardly makes a difference:

 

Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 (left) and Dakota 20 (right) under indirect sunlight (no backlight)

clouded

Without backlight:

With backlight:

But to become readable on a lightly overcast day, the Oregon requires its backlight to be set at about 80%. Essentially a flashlight fighting the sky: the batteries go fast.

night

No problem, great displays. If we’re talking navigation, of course. Because the Dakota is bad for watching photos back in camp.

At maximum setting, Dakota’s backlight is about 20% weaker than Oregon’s. However, it’s not a problem in my opinion.

Although both the Dakota and the Oregon lack a “night mode” used on most in-car GPS, including Garmin’s and TomTom’s, you can adjust the backlight to your liking and preserve a bit of night vision.

sunglasses

Everything above just gets worse.

However, the Dakota remains very readable. While with the Oregon you have to choose screen readability… or glare discomfort, UV damage and flies in the eyes.

// What’s the problem with Oregon’s screens? What’s the solution?

The smaller and lower resolution Garmin Dakota is very readable in the outdoors without any supplemental backlight. Shouldn’t the bigger, higher-resolution Garmin units be even better?

Unfortunately, no. The resolution is the root of the problem. Garmin faces the resolution vs luminosity dilemma:

In order to draw the beautiful images on the modern high-end screens of the Oregon, Garmin improves resolution. More pixels per square inch equals more optical definition, detail and subtler color gradation for the user interface, maps, compass, etc.

The screen holds a grid of pixels. Each pixel unit is like a window, a combination of a glass pane and a window frame. The “window frame” holds the pixel in place and transfers electrical current to the pixel. Light can pass only through the “glass panes”, but not through the “window frames”.

To achieve higher resolution, in other words, higher pixel density, each pixel needs to be smaller. The whole “window” gets tinier, there’s more “windows” in the screen, but the “window frame” density grows as well, decreasing the overall transparency of the system. Result: a dimmer screen.

The solutions would be to:

  1. make the pixels’ “window frames” super-micro-tiny
  2. make the pixels’ “window frames” transparent
  3. increase the backlight intensity to overpower the outside light
  4. decrease the resolution to enlarge the “glass panes”, sacrificing image quality

Solutions 1 and 2 would require some yet to be invented technology. Solution 3 would require either a more efficient backlight (such as LED) or much more powerful batteries. Of course, it’s possible to work on the 3 solutions at the same time.

But, for now, you’ll have to choose between either:

And it’s not even a Garmin-only problem. Magellan faces the same challenge, as well as any manufacturer of electronic devices used outdoors.

Astonishingly, Garmin has made the right choice of a lower resolution screen in the new Dakota to obtain a readable device. A counterintuitive move, against all marketing hype and technical evolution. They’ve recognized that lower tech works better, at least for now. I applaud Garmin for such an honest self-assessment and corrective action.

// We forgot something: the ambient light sensor

Neither the Dakota nor the Oregon carries an ambient light sensor that would control the backlight! You have to manually press a button on the side and then adjust the backlight level.

Bearable when hiking. A pain when cycling.

Suppose you ride through the fields and the sun is shining. Great. But then you get under the trees, or, worse, into a tunnel. Reach out for the backlight button. Adjust. Then back into the fields. Adjust again. Or leave the backlight on. And drain the batteries in no time.

Bike lights have illumination sensors to automate the hassle of frequent adjustment. Even basic cell phones have ambient light sensors. The iPhone: of course. But not the Garmin’s high-end GPS.

// Touchscreen

Garmin uses the resistive touchscreen technology in the Dakota and the Oregon: 2 thin sheets of electrically conductive material separated by a thin space. When something or someone pushes from the top, the 2 layers touch together and the system registers a “mouse click” in that area of the screen.

The touchscreen requires simple pressure to work. So far, I’ve used the Dakota and the Oregon with my:

and in all weather conditions:

Very reliable, although not as precise as on the iPhone.

Despite screen size differences, the Dakota and the Oregon share similar graphic design to work with the touchscreen. All functions have large, dedicated icons, the same as on the Mac or on the iPhone. Additional features appear as needed: zoom buttons, back button, contextual menus, scroll buttons, input areas, etc.

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Dakota main menu (left) and setup menu (right)

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Oregon main menu (left) and setup menu (right)

The Dakota and the Oregon feel natural and intuitive:

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Dakota road map (left) and topographical map (right)

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Oregon road map (left) and topographical map (right)

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Dakota alphanumeric input methods

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Oregon alphanumeric input methods

Well, it’s not as magical as on the iPhone. Both units annoy with their alphabetical keyboard layout, especially when compared to iPhone’s QWERTY landscape mode. Both drop frames during animations here and there. The map takes some time to redraw. And the design lacks a bit of Apple’s refinement.

Nonetheless, Dakota’s and Oregon’s interface is a real pleasure to use:

The interface allows for extreme precision when placing waypoints or choosing objects on the map:

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Dakota precise object selection on the map

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot: Garmin Oregon precise object selection on the map

OK, but how does the Dakota’s smaller screen accommodate the user interface?

But:

However, 2 factors make touchscreening more difficult on the Dakota:

  1. Garmin places an elevated frame around the screen to protect it. So, unlike with Apple’s iPhone, which has its screen flush with the surrounding body, you can’t place the thumb at the screen / frame border to control either the Dakota or the Oregon. A slightly thicker screen frame – 3,3 mm (0.13 in) for the Dakota compared to 2,9 mm (0.11 in) for the Oregon – gives a bit of advantage to the Oregon.
  2. Dakota’s smaller screen reduces the size of some graphic interface elements. Smaller buttons, arrows and icons – smaller margin for error when touching the screen. Typing or selecting at the screen’s edge is more difficult on the Dakota than on the Oregon. While you can pan the map toward the center to make things easier, there’s no way to make the keyboard bigger. With the Dakota, I tend to mistype the left column letters A, E, I, M, Q, U, Y, inadvertently choosing the next column’s letters.

So if you plan to type often, the Oregon may be a better choice.

But overall, once you’ve used either the Dakota’s or the Oregon’s touchscreen, there’s no going back to wheels and buttons. Same as with the iPhone.

// User-interface quirks

// Screen durability

fingerprints

The matte screens of the Oregon 200 / 300 / 400 collect fingerprints, but not as much as the glossy screens of the Dakota 10 / 20 and Oregon 450 / 550.

scratches

The elevated frame around the screen helps. But if you take several additional precautions:

Then both the Dakota and the Oregon screens will remain relatively scratch-free.

If you do not plan to baby the unit like an expensive cell phone or a pro camera lens, then expect rapid screen deterioration. As with any tool.

POWER SUPPLY

Both the Dakota and the Oregon use 2 standard size AA batteries of any type:

Very smart. No proprietary battery packs like in the Garmin Edge 705. Or Apple iPhone.

Want to charge your batteries with a solar panel? A hub-dynamo? No problem. Want to swap the batteries with some other device? Here you go. Unplanned power shortage? Get a pair of AAs in any store, anywhere on the planet.

Whereas, a proprietary battery:

POWER USE (BATTERY LIFE)

Same batteries. Different screen sizes, different backlight outputs and thus, different power appetites.

To squeeze more juice:

Battery life:

MAPS

A GPS receiver is almost worthless without a map. Sure, it could still help in 2 cases:

It’s the combination of a GPS receiver with a map that realizes the full potential of GPS navigation. In yester days, you would use a transparent GPS plotter to find your position on a paper map. Sometimes under pouring rain and raging wind. Nowadays, the exact same maps are available directly on the screen of the GPS receiver. Pure luxury, as long as you have juice in the batteries.

// Why should you worry about maps when choosing a GPS unit?

Problem is, maps are intellectual property, same as music or movies. And most of mapping data is proprietary, DRM-protected, often tied to a particular brand of GPS receivers.

It’s like with the FairPlay music bought from the iTunes Store before 2009. You could listen to these tracks only on the Apple’s iPod.

So, before you choose a GPS unit, consider the maps available for it. And as with the choice of a paper map, choose carefully. Bad maps can kill you.

// What is a vector or pixel map?

When choosing a digital map, prefer the vector variant.

// Cycling maps

Statistically, cycling over long distances or traveling with a folding bike to unknown cities is the domain of exceptional weirdos. Not a lucrative mass market. Result: no one makes cycling maps for GPS devices.

So, for urban navigation and intercity biking, we have to use maps made for cars. 2 companies dominate the road maps market:

  1. NAVTEQ, an American company (wholly-owned subsidiary of Nokia)
  2. Tele Atlas, a European company (wholly-owned subsidiary of TomTom)

TomTom manufacturers in-car GPS navigation devices, and thus, stands as Garmin’s direct competitor. As TomTom owns Tele Atlas, it won’t sell you a map to help you use a Garmin GPS. If you want a road map for a Garmin, you’ll have to buy NAVTEQ maps. Not much choice.

Unless you consider the OpenStreetMap as a dependable navigation tool, of course.

NAVTEQ / Garmin City Navigator Europe NT

I’ve been using the NAVTEQ’s map of European roads compiled into a proprietary Garmin format. The map covers:

I’ve totaled about 3 500 km (2 175 mi) with this map in the Geneva, Vaud, Fribourg, Neuchâtel, Bern and Valais cantons of Switzerland; the Île-de-France (Paris agglomeration), Ain and Haute Savoie departments of France; as well as on the Canary Islands of Spain. Part of that mileage was done by car in Switzerland and France with a TomTom also onboard. I wasn’t driving. I was in the side seat, comparing the 2 systems.

Screenshot of Paris Marais district in GoogleMaps

Screenshot of Paris Marais district in GoogleMaps

Screenshot of Paris Marais district in Garmin RoadTrip

Screenshot of Paris Marais district in Garmin RoadTrip

But the main advantage of NAVTEQ’s map easily outweighs its drawbacks. The entire European road network, with even the tiniest streets, all wraped in a very compact package… It’s so liberating! The digital map saves weight, bulk and time:

You can go cycling in any direction, for as long as you wish, and never get lost. Unless your batteries are dead, of course.

// Hiking and backpacking maps

For backcountry travel, a detailed (1:25 000 cm) topographical map allows you to move faster, easier and safer.

Generally, such maps are made by government organizations and either sold or sometimes made available for free. The mapmakers, not the end-users, choose the digital format and compatibility, so, before you buy a GPS unit, check if the country you’re heading to makes maps that work with it.

In Europe, that means checking for each country, as there’s no centralized European Union cartographic organization. Yet. If you live in the USA, that’d be like checking whether the State of California supports Garmin GPS units. And then finding out if the State of Nevada does as well.

Topo Swiss v2

The Topo Swiss v2 is a digital vector map developed by the Swiss Topo, the cartographic agency of the Swiss Confederation.

They have been making gorgeous paper maps for more than a century. Their 1:25 000 maps are the most accurate and detailed topographic representations of Switzerland used by hikers, climbers and of course, the military.

The Topo Swiss v2 map is compiled for Garmin devices. It combines data from 1:25 000 cm and 1:50 000 cm cartography, in vector form, and includes tons of information:

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Photo of paper map (left) compared to Garmin Dakota screenshot of digital map (right)

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Photo of paper map (left) compared to Garmin Oregon screenshot of digital map (right)

Plus, the digital map includes information not present on the 1:25 000 paper maps:

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Photo of paper map (left) compared to Garmin Dakota screenshot of digital map (right)

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Photo of paper map (left) compared to Garmin Oregon screenshot of digital map (right)

The map’s detail is stunning. An amazing work of graphic design.

I’ve been using the paper versions of the map for years and its accuracy and minutiae have always impressed me. The digital vector map goes even further, as you can zoom in beyond what you could do with a loupe and yet maintain sharp object display.

However, sometimes the amount of information can become overwhelming, especially on the smaller screen of the Dakota. To improve the readability of any topographical map, adjust the settings of your device:

// Watch out for the difference between maps on SD cards, maps downloads and maps on DVDs / CDs!

The Topo Swiss v2 is sold on a CD.

But the NAVTEQ / Garmin City Navigator Europe is available in 3 forms:

All cost the same, but, consider the differences!

SD card map:

map download:

DVD / CD map:

Honestly, the only reason I can find for you to buy an SD card or download version of a map is if you don’t have a Mac or PC. SD cards are cheap and the power to create and edit stuff on your computer is priceless. Buy the DVD / CD versions!

ROUTING

// What is routing and why it’s a trade secret?

The ultimate navigation aid, routing allows you to select the point of departure, then the point of arrival, and let the GPS unit:

Routing requires:

A routing engine involves a huge number of parameters and algorithms: a lot of math and logic.

Each GPS manufacturer tries to build a better routing engine to differentiate itself from the competition. The result – a piece of proprietary software – is kept secret. So neither Garmin nor TomTom will discuss the details of route selection.

Maybe a good thing for the GPS manufacturers. Not so good for us, end-users, as we have to reverse-engineer the logic behind the few options available in the GPS setup and the routing engine’s real-world performance.

// Garmin’s routing engine

Garmin says they do their best to keep the routing engines of their current GPS units as similar as possible. My personal experience with the Dakota and the Oregon confirms that: both are identical when it comes to routing.

The units’ Setup menu provides several ways to control the routing:

transportation type:

The car mode is Garmin’s main mode. Most people that can buy a GPS receiver use cars to move around, right?

So, from a market share viewpoint, it makes sense to first develop a routing engine for car navigation. The GPS-buying cyclists and pedestrians… Well, as I’ve said already, we are a minority in the real world, and we are a minority in the GPS world as well.

As I understand it, the bicycle and pedestrian modes build upon the car mode with maybe some differences and adjustments that Garmin prefers to keep to itself. I haven’t found major differences. According to Garmin, “no elevation data is currently considered in bicycle routing”. I’d extrapolate that to the pedestrian mode as well.

For now, whether you’re on a bike or on foot, you’re still a car in Garmin world. You can’t ride against traffic on one-way streets open for two-way bicycle traffic or use bridges closed to cars. But you can walk (run?) on toll-roads and highways, no problem. Just remember to adjust the avoidance settings below.

avoidance setup:

guidance method:

// The special case of routing for cycling in Paris

I’ve tested the Dakota in Paris and its suburbs. Poor fellow tried its best to navigate the madness…

// The special case of routing for cycling on the Canary Islands

The Canary Islands, especially Tenerife, is a hostile place for a road / city bike. The car and the bus shape the islands’ infrastructure, just like in the US. Of all the times I’ve been there, I’ve seen at most 2 commuting “utility” cyclists. Only tough “sport” riders in Spandex brave the shoulderless roads, tourist drivers, zapping locals, 2 000 m (6 560 ft) elevation gains, unmaintained portions and the lack of road signs…

Despite sending me climbing steep village roads more often than I’d like, the Dakota literally saved my life on numerous occasions when navigating around the dreadful TF-1 Autopista del Sur toll highway. You see, they use the same interchange ramps to get you onto the highway, as well as onto the unnamed, unmarked, little-used auxiliary roads running parallel (the only way to cycle the island along the coast).

So, when you’re blasting along cars accelerating in their 3rd gear to reach the 100 km/h (62 mi/h) entry speed and the only thing you see is the highway 50 m (164 ft) away… you have to trust Garmin and NAVTEQ for making the right choice 5 m (16 ft) before the death lanes. And it works! With repeatable results.

Screenshot of Autopista del Sur of the Tenerife island in GoogleMaps

Screenshot of Autopista del Sur of the Tenerife island in GoogleMaps

// The special case of driving on trails or how to route with Topo Swiss v2

The amazing feature of the Topo Swiss v2 is its ability to route on trails. The Garmin routing engine thinks we’re driving, slowly, on some road, while, in reality, we’re hiking on a path. The Dakota and the Oregon will reassure you with indications like “NE on trail”, and even tell you when to take the next turn. Very cool.

Garmin Oregon GPS interface screenshot

Screenshot (Garmin Oregon): route over the Jura ridge (left) with routing directions on the trail (right)

// Routing quirks and bugs

COMPASS

A compass is very helpful when:

Garmin either omits or includes different types of compasses in the Dakota and the Oregon models:

A 2D compass requires you to hold the GPS unit parallel to the ground, similar to an old-school, analogue compass. A 3D compass works no matter how you hold it. Much more user-friendly.

My advice: get a device with a 3-axis compass. You’ll be glad you did.

ALTIMETER / BAROMETER

Personally, I rarely use either the barometer or the altimeter on a GPS device:

But it’s nice to have a backup just in case.

As with the compass, Garmin omits or includes the barometer / altimeter depending on the model:

GPS SIGNAL RECEPTION: ACCURACY AND SPEED OF ACQUISITION

// Antennas

Both the Dakota and the Oregon have no protruding antennas. Instead, they use a variant of the ceramic patch antenna that wraps around the body’s internals, like in most cell phones of the last 10 years. Also following the mobile technology trends, the units lack a connection port for an external antenna.

// GPS signal processing

Because radio signals from the GPS satellites are very weak when they reach the GPS receiver, the quality of signal processing is very important to filter out the noise and calculate a correct position, quickly. Signal processing occurs both at the hardware and software levels in the GPS receiver.

A simulation of the 24 GPS satellites (4 satellites in each of 6 orbits), including the evolution of the number of visible satellites from a fixed point (45ºN) on earth (considering “visibility” as having direct line of sight)

Animation: the GPS satellites’ constellation moves around the Earth (author: El Pak)

// Real-life performance

MAPS, WAYPOINTS, ROUTES AND FIRMWARE MANAGEMENT ON THE MAC / PC

A GPS management software on the Mac / PC maximizes the potential of the unit. It allows you to use the power and ergonomics of a “normal” computer (large screen, full-size keyboard, mouse or tablet) to:

// Maps, waypoints and routes management

Garmin provides 2 programs for each platform, Mac and Windows, to manage your maps, waypoints, routes and tracks:

Mac OS:

Windows

I have no idea why Garmin develops and supports 4 different, but very similar programs. I want one program for all my waypoints, routes and maps!

MapSource for Windows has been available for years, and, from my experience, provides a solid, extensive and efficient toolset.

RoadTrip for Mac became available only in September 2008, while BaseCamp for Mac appeared even later, in July 2009. Despite their young age, the 2 combined offer an almost 90% feature parity with MapSource and BaseCamp on Windows.

All Garmin programs share the same awkwardness: no simple synchronization. Nothing like the iPhone / iPod synchronization with iTunes.

// The special case of Mac OS and maps “Made for Windows and Garmin MapSource”

Fortunately, the newest maps from Garmin, such as the NAVTEQ City Navigator Europe, install on the Mac just fine. Straightforward, out of the box.

Unfortunately, most non-Garmin maps, precisely, the topographical maps of Europe, are officially made only for the Garmin’s MapSource on Windows. Usually, they use an oh so Windowsy installer, so you can’t just drag and drop an open-standard file somewhere.

So, what if you want that awesome Topo Swiss v2 on your Mac? There is a solution. Follow the convoluted procedure:

  1. install the map on a Windows machine (either virtual or real)
  2. unlock it on Windows via the not so easy-to-use, special plug-in required, web-based process
  3. install the Garmin MapConverter software on the Windows machine
  4. convert the unlocked PC map in the MapConverter
  5. save the converted map somewhere a Mac can access (virtual folder, USB drive, network volume…)
  6. install Garmin MapManager on your Mac
  7. open the converted map in MapManager
  8. MapManager installs the map into RoadTrip and BaseCamp

As easy as 1, 2, 3… 8! But doable. Normally, any map made to work with Garmin MapSource on Windows should work with Garmin RoadTrip (or BaseCamp if the map has elevation data) on Mac OS.

// GPS firmware management

Firmware is the software that runs your GPS unit, its operating system, like Mac OS or Windows. Keep it up-to-date for best performance.

On the Mac OS, Garmin provides an easy to use Garmin WebUpdater to update the firmware of your unit. On Windows, MapSource performs this role. Hook up the Dakota or the Oregon via USB, make sure you’re connected to the internet and the software will check that you have the latest and greatest from Garmin. Rather neat!

However, it turns out WebUpdater does not install “beta” software. Uh oh!

So when Garmin tech support tells me I need to install the “Beta Software 2.95” in order to be able to select restaurants by their cuisine on the Oregon… Well, I have to manually download the “convenient” self-expanding Zip package (.exe), unpack it on Windows, then copy the needed file over to the GPS unit, then reboot the GPS. Halleluiah! I no longer have to ride to a restaurant to find out if they do veggies!

I suspect that either Garmin’s quality assurance department is entirely focused on FAA certification of its aircraft systems, or its development team has embraced the perpetual beta paradigm.

So let me rewrite that statement. If you want the latest and greatest from Garmin, like POI subcategories, manually install the latest beta software. At your own risk, of course.

TRAINING FEATURES

In theory, the Dakota 20 and Oregon 300 / 400 / 550 can connect to all ANT+ heart rate belts and cadence sensors. In practice, that means Garmin’s products, because neither Polar nor Suunto make ANT+ devices. The Finns use an older version of ANT (without the +) for their systems that’s incompatible with the newer one. As an owner of a Suunto t6, I can either forget EPOC analysis and switch to Garmin, or suffer crowded handlebars and devices overload.

Moreover, both the Dakota and the Oregon ignore power meters. Unlike Garmin’s cycling specific units, the Edge 500 (no mapping) and the Edge 705 (mapping without car view). Frustration induced by marketing.

SPECIFICATIONS

Before I get to the conclusions and alternatives, compare the specs of the units I’ve reviewed:

  Garmin Dakota 20 GPS
Garmin Dakota 20
Garmin Oregon 300 GPS
Garmin Oregon 300
Dimensions:
(width x height x depth)
5,3 x 10 x 3,3 cm
(2.1 x 3.9 x 1.3 in)
146 g (5.15 oz)
(2.3 x 4.4 x 1.4 in)
Weight empty: 103 g (3.63 oz) 146 g (5.15 oz)
Weight with 2 AA
rechargeable NiMH:
164 g (5.78 oz) 205 g (7.2 oz)
Display size
(physical):
3,6 x 5,5 cm (1.43 x 2.15 in)
2.6 inch diagonal
3,8 x 6,3 cm (1.53 x 2.55 in)
3 inch diagonal
Display size
(pixels):
160 x 240 px 240 x 400 px
Display resolution:
(pixels per inch)
111 PPI 157 PPI
Display color depth: 65 000 colors 65 000 colors
Display technology: transflective LCD with backight transflective LCD with backight
Display finish: glossy matte
User interface: resistive touchscreen resistive touchscreen
Waterproof: yes (IPX7) yes (IPX7)
Bike mount: yes yes
Built-in memory: 850 Mb 850 Mb
Data cards: micro SD micro SD
Max number of waypoints: 1 000 1 000
Max number of routes: 50 50
Turn by turn routing: yes yes
Compass: yes, 3D yes, 2D
Barometric altimeter: yes yes
European road maps: yes yes
European topographic maps at 1:25 000: yes yes
Computer interface: USB 1 USB 1
Mac OS support: yes yes
Windows support: yes yes

For detailed feature comparisons of the Dakota 10 and the Oregon 200 / 400 / 450 / 550, take a look at Garmin’s web site. Select several units, then click the “compare” button. Just remember that you’ll be looking at manufacturer’s data.

VERDICT

ALTERNATIVES

REVIEW CONDITIONS

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Special thanks to Simon GILBERT of Garmin Europe (UK), Romain WALT of Bucher + Walt (Switzerland) and Dominique BLACHON.

FURTHER READING / ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB

CHANGE LOG

2010-03-30 Added “Further reading / Elsewhere on the web” section.
2010-03-25 First publication.

26 COMMENTS

carlos / 2010-04-14 10:58

I´m really impressed Anatoly ……….VERY good comparative …..

Thank you for your work

Timo Kierek / 2010-04-14 20:46

Very nice review. Helped me pretty much to make up my mind which device to choose.

Thank you

Bill McCready / 2010-04-25 03:18

Thank you for all your thoughtful research and well-written analysis.

Koen / 2010-05-01 18:38

Very good comparisons.

I own an colorado 300 and am averagely pleased with it.

Remark for cyclists: In belgium we have routable topo maps and routable cycle maps, so you don’t have to use citynav, and encounter only nice cycling routes and roads.

آرش / 2010-05-02 20:32

is it OK to use a touch screen GPS hand-held for mountaineering purposes? I mean with gloves and extreme cold weather conditions? please drop me a letter. thanks

ANATOLY IVANOV / 2010-05-03 19:14

Carlos, Timo, Bill and Koen – thank you! I appreciate your feedback.

ANATOLY IVANOV / 2010-05-03 19:20

آرش, as I write above, both the Oregon and the Dakota work with thick gloves and mittens, to be precise, the “Versant Nord super warm, waterproof, 3 finger mittens” that I use on belay.

Also, as I say in my review, “the lowest I could take the units was a mildly cold -15° C (5° F) in the Alps.” So, for the moment, I lack any hands-on experience in temperatures lower than that.

What do you mean by “extreme cold weather”? For me, that’s anything below -35° C.

آرش / 2010-05-04 19:23

Thanks for reply. Yes temperature below -35° C is extreme cold. I meant cold with blizzard & fog.

Steve Anderson / 2010-06-16 10:20

Amazingly comprehensive review. Thank you very much! My Garmin eTrex Vista C fell off my handlebar mount last weekend and was smashed by a car. Based on your review, I see a Dakota 20 in my future.

Haemish Graham / 2010-07-12 22:40

Great article but I have one question. I just bought a Dakota 20 GB Discoverer and was disappointed that there does not seem to be an 3D navigation. Some of your images seem to show it but I suspect the raster based Ordinance Survey maps preclude that feature. Is it possible to get turn by turn 3D navigation by purchasing the Garmin GB TOPO maps?

ANATOLY IVANOV / 2010-07-20 16:41

Thanks Steve!

The GPS under a car sounds painful. I hope you’ll like the Dakota for cycling. I haven’t found anything better yet and ride with it all the time.

ANATOLY IVANOV / 2010-07-20 16:43

Thanks Haemish!

Sorry for the late reply and sorry for not being able to answer your question regarding the 3D routing of Garmin GB TOPO maps. I just don’t know. I haven’t used GB topo maps you mention.

How about asking Garmin directly?

Jim Webster / 2010-08-01 11:06

Thanks Anatoly for your superb analysis I have learned so much more about GPS systems reading this article, this will be my first hand held/walkers gps, and I now know what to buy-Dakota 20, and agree about Switzerland, toured with ‘Tin Tent’ and the Garmin Nuvi 660, 3 years back, and it never failed to get me to where I wanted to be next, it also successfully walked me from Zermat station to a hotel in the town to the surprise of party with me. kind Regards Jim

Gary Chuck / 2010-10-04 23:30

Great review. Definately see the Dakota 20 in the near future. Was about to get the 705 but was hesitant about the battery issue as I often go on multiple day rides out in the backroads of Ga. (USA) and somtimes won’t be able to recharge.

Thanks a million

ANATOLY IVANOV / 2010-10-13 21:06

Thanks Jim and Gary!

Peter Pomm / 2010-12-09 18:06

While the Oregon 550 and 450 share the same firmware, their displays differ. Garmin is now deploying newer displays for the 450 which are still matte and not glary as you wrote in your detailed comparism. While the 450′s display might not be as matte as the ones known from the x00 Oregons, it is still not the usual glare display, so finger prints are not much of an issue.

Stuart Swann / 2011-03-31 20:51

Fantastic review Anatoly. I need to buy a GPS for an upcoming walking holiday and this has been an enormous help.

Before reading your review my preference was for an Oregon 450 – not much more expensive, bigger screen and 3D map viewing. Now the Dakota 20 definitely looks better. What I would really like to know is from your experience over the last year have there been any improvements to the readability of the Oregon that have changed your opinion at all.

One other thing is that I rang Garmin today about licensing of maps such as the GB Discoverer. What they told me is that maps may come on 3 types of media.

1) CD/DVD. These can be loaded on a PC for use with BaseCamp etc. but can only be unlocked on a single GPS device. Hence if your GPS is lost, damaged or you want to replace it with a newer model then your collection of maps will all need replacing.

2) Preloaded on Micro SD/SD. The maps are ‘locked’ to the card and can be used in any compatible device, e.g. if you lose your GPS, you only loose the SD card that is in it at the time. The maps cannot be directly loaded on a PC but the person at Garmin did say that the GPS can be connected to a PC and BaseCamp used by streaming the maps from the GPS. I asked about performance and he said that this would be limited by the power of the PC rather than the speed of streaming.

3) Download. These are unlocked on a single GPS device. They cannot be loaded directly onto a PC but can be streamed from the GPS for use with BaseCamp etc.

I don’t yet own a GPS so cannot test the above but if it is true then my preference would be to buy preloaded Micro SD cards.

Any comments would be appreciated, particularly whether the Dakota 20 is still your strong preference.

Many thanks

Stuart Swann / 2011-04-01 15:56

Having a think about what I posted yesterday I started to wonder how accurate the info was that Garmin had given me. I therefore had a dig around and found this which I thought was useful. It is written for OS Discoverer in the UK but I imagine that it will apply to other regions as well.

ANATOLY IVANOV / 2011-04-02 20:35

Thanks Stuart.

From what I understand, my statement in my article remains valid even today. The only reason I can find for you to buy an SD card or download version of a map is if you don’t have a Mac or PC. SD cards are cheap and the power to create and edit stuff on your computer is priceless. Buy the DVD / CD versions and compile the maps for your device.

Otherwise, yes, the Dakota 20 is still my strong preference.

ramesh bala / 2011-07-31 19:43

Thanks for the great review Anatoly.

I recently purchased the Dakota 10. Unlike what you have observed it has a ‘compass’ icon on the startup screen. However it doesn’t seem to function reliably at all. Sometimes responding to change in directions some times frozen.

Have you seen any of that behaviour.

I am a beginner hiker and got it for 219$ in clearance at Dicks sporting goods. I like the price but wonder if I should return and get a Dakota 20, which seems at least a 100$ more :(

Thanks again for taking the trouble to make navigation easy in this complicated GPS world :)

Lance McBride / 2011-11-22 12:00

Thank you for a great review!

Wilhelm / 2011-12-02 08:29

Great review Anatoly-definitely one of the best i’ve ever seen!

I bought a Dakota 20 some time ago and its excellent!

I only have one problem-if I calculate an area it saves it in either square meters or square kilometers… if its more than 10 000 square meters it saves in square kilometers. The problem I have is with small areas between 10 000 and 100 000 square meters because the dakota rounds it to two decimal places-eg 17 870 square meters will be saved as 0.02 square kilometers which means nothing to me!

Do you have any ideas? There is probably just a setting I must change….

Thanks in advance.

Bob Newton / 2011-12-28 18:08

Excellent analysis, much appreciated. I’m a big cyclist and hiker/climber and want a GPS that I can use for both. I got a GPSMAP Csx when it first came out and the original mounting system is garbage. Was thinking of getting a bike specific Garmin but it looks an upgrade to a Dakota is a better play than diverging.

Tony Carrick / 2012-03-04 16:36

Incredibly thorough review.

However, I don’t get the statements regarding the screen usability and brightness. I have an Oregon 450 and I have no problem viewing the screen in virtually any conditions. Perhaps Garmin fixed this issue as I bought the unit in summer 2011.

I also don’t agree with the size issues. I have no trouble fitting this unit into my hand and I wear men’s small glove sizes. I also bike and run with the unit. I wear the Oregon strapped to my arm quite comfortably. And the larger screen size is an advantage for navigation on bike and in the car in my experience. On bike the screen is large enough to accommodate both routing information and metrics such as speed, avg speed, distance, etc.

ANATOLY IVANOV / 2012-04-12 00:02

Sorry for the huge delay — have been (and still am) swamped.

@ Ramesh

No, the compass on the Dakota 20 is pretty stable. Of course not as stable as a Silva Jet orienteering compass, but still.

@ Wilhelm

Wow, that’s a tough question, and frankly, I don’t know how to change the rounding parameters. I’d actually use some other tools for that purpose, like a digital map and some software used by cadasters.

@ Tony

Glad you “have no problem viewing the screen in virtually any conditions” with the Oregon 450. But have you compared it side by side with the Dakota?

And, wow, OK, if the size is not an issue for you… we’ll just have to agree to disagree. For me the Oregon is big, although I wear Outdoor Research L size gloves and used to play the piano. I can’t run with the Oregon, no way.

And I would definitely get a dedicated car GPS. Even for off-regular-roads use on a 4×4.

Ron / 2012-08-31 10:38

You have given me the information I needed. A dakota it is. Thank you.

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