So you’re looking for a rugged navigation unit that’d help you in the outdoors, in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of a mega-city. A dedicated GPS receiver. Something that would survive hiking and cycling. Sun and rain. Sweat and snow.
Let’s see what Garmin has to offer. A huge choice! But let’s trim it to the mapping / routable GPS units, the ultimate in navigation luxury.
2 Garmin models stand out: the Oregon and the Colorado.
I’ve played with both at the Friedrichshafen Outdoor show in July 2008 and then posted my initial preview. Hoping I’d waited enough for the beta-bugs to disappear, I got a Colorado 300 and an Oregon 300 in the first days of March 2009 and have tested them extensively till mid-May 2009.
Both units can do a lot. Driving, cycling, hiking, sailing, fishing, hunting, training, geocaching, weather trending, calculating, even waking you up and now taking pictures… Allow me to narrow the focus of my review.
When choosing a GPS unit, I’d suggest to first answer 2 questions:
Ideally, the GPS receiver should solve your problems when and where you need it, in the most effective and efficient way.
I’ve tested the Oregon and the Colorado in 2 contexts:
So, how do the Oregon and Colorado answer my precise needs and perform in those conditions?
Both the Oregon and the Colorado are big. And fat.
Photo: Garmin Oregon 300 handheld in direct sunlight (no backlight)
Yes, Garmin has definitely improved upon the GPSMAP 60CSx… But compared to contemporary gadgets? The Nokias, the iPhones and the iPods? What’s taking all that space inside?
Photo: Garmin Colorado 300 handheld in direct sunlight (no backlight)
The Oregon is smaller than the Colorado, but not by much. It’s basically the Colorado without the antenna and the thumb wheel.
The Oregon is a bit lighter than the Colorado. Both are far from anything feathery. Do you remember the Garmin Gecko days?
As measured on my electronic scale (1 g precision):
Garmin Oregon 300
Garmin Colorado 300
|Empty:||146 g (5.15 oz)||167 g (5.9 oz)|
|With 2 AA
|205 g (7.2 oz)||226 g (8 oz)|
According to Garmin, both the Oregon and the Colorado will drown but will remain alive for 30 minutes at a 1 meter depth, as per the 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 balmy -10° C (14° F) in the Alps. No effect on performance.
I’m thankful I can hold each unit with just one hand and operate the functions with my thumb. But still, I would expect something more compact these days. Both units feel like supersized soaps.
The Oregon and the Colorado share the exact same rail-mount. A Garmin plastic adapter attaches either to the ahead stem (lengthwise) or to the handlebars (crosswise) with 2 nylon zip-ties. A rubber insert is supposed to keep the mount in place.
Photo: Garmin bike mount (next to stem) compatible with Oregon and Colorado GPS on a Brompton
Photo: Garmin Oregon on a Brompton under indirect sunlight (backlight off)
The Oregon and the Colorado screens feature the same:
Both units provide detailed, smooth, full color imagery. Things look like on your notebook computer or desktop LCD display. Gorgeous and contemporary. In comparison, Garmin’s GPSMAP 60CSx looks really antique, like the first cell phones with color displays.
The Oregon and the Colorado use the transflective screen technology:
Ideally the system works in such a way that instead of fighting strong illumination from the outside with 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?
A bright, easy-to-read display is crucial in the outdoors. What’s the use of a high-tech mapping GPS if you can’t see where you’re going?
Unfortunately, both Oregon’s and Colorado’s screens are dim. Very dim. As in “hard to see”.
I was aware of the problem, reading reviews on the web and listening to friends’ feedback. But I wasn’t expecting it to be that bad.
Thanks to the transflective technology, both the Oregon and the Colorado are quite readable in direct sunlight, the Colorado doing about 5% better.
Photo: Garmin Oregon (left) and Garmin Colorado (right) in direct sunlight (backlight off)
If the sun isn’t shining directly on the screen and bouncing back into your eyes, as, for example, in the morning or evening due to sun angles, both screens are dim.
Photo: Garmin Oregon (left) and Garmin Colorado (right) under indirect sunlight (backlight off)
No strong external light to pass through the screen and bounce back? Well, let’s turn on the backlight. Unfortunately, the Oregon’s and the Colorado’s backlights are not powerful enough to compensate for the well-lit outdoors. Even if I switch the backlight to 100%, it barely makes a difference.
No problem, great displays.
Although both the Oregon and the Colorado 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.
Everything above just gets worse. Screen readability vs glare discomfort, UV damage and flies in the eyes: you choose.
The Garmin GPSMAP 60CSx screen is quite readable in the outdoors without any supplemental backlight. Shouldn’t the newer Garmin units be even better?
Unfortunately, the newness is the root of the problem. Garmin faces the resolution vs luminosity dilemma:
In order to draw the beautiful images on the newer screens (user interface, maps, compass, etc.), Garmin improves resolution. More pixels per square inch equals more optical definition, detail and subtler color gradation.
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”. With higher resolution, or pixel density, the “window frame” density grows as well, decreasing the overall transparency of the system. Result: a dimmer screen.
The solutions would be to:
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.
Neither the Oregon nor the Colorado carries an ambient light sensor that would control the backlight! You have to manually press a button on the side / on the top 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.
Even basic cell phones have ambient light sensors. The iPhone: of course. But not the Garmin’s high-end GPS.
OK, here’s the big one:
Garmin uses the resistive touchscreen technology in the Oregon: 2 thin sheets of electrically conductive material separated by a thin space. When something or someone pushes from the top, the layers touch 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 Oregon with my:
and in all weather conditions:
Very reliable, quite amazing. Diffused all my initial skepticism.
The software interface is changed to work with the touchscreen. All functions have large, dedicated icons, the same as on the Mac or on the iPhone.
Screenshot: Garmin Oregon main menu (left) and setup menu (right)
Additional features appear as needed: zoom buttons, back button, contextual menus, scroll buttons, input areas, etc.
The Oregon feels natural and intuitive:
Screenshot: Garmin Oregon road map (left) and topographical map (right)
Screenshot: Garmin Oregon alphanumeric input methods
Well, it’s not as magical as on the iPhone. The Oregon drops frames during animations here and there. The map takes some time to redraw. And the design lacks a bit of Apple’s refinement.
Nonetheless, the Oregon’s interface is a real pleasure to use:
The interface allows for extreme precision when placing waypoints or choosing objects on the map:
Screenshot: Garmin Oregon precise object selection on the map
Honestly, once you use it, there’s no going back. Same as with the iPhone.
When compared to the Oregon’s touchscreen, the Colorado’s interface is frustratingly slow and unintuitive:
Screenshot: Garmin Colorado map with “shortcuts” button pressed (left) and setup menu (right)
Screenshot: Garmin Colorado map with “options” button pressed (left) and object selection (right)
Screenshot: Garmin Colorado text input for upper case letters (left) and lower case letters (right)
The only reason I thought Colorado’s interface might be useful was for gloved use. Forget about it! Oregon’s touchscreen is much, much more glove-friendly than Colorado’s wheels and buttons.
Both the Oregon and the Colorado use 2 standard size AA batteries of any type:
Excellent! Very smart. No proprietary battery packs like in the Garmin’s Edge 705. Or Apple’s iPhone.
Want to charge your batteries with a solar panel? 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:
Both units gulp down batteries. A 2-hour drive from Geneva to Goppenstein in Switzerland exhausted 2 fresh alkaline AAs (3D in-car view with backlight set to max).
To squeeze more juice:
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 plastic GPS plotter to find your position on a paper map. Sometimes under pouring rain and strong wind. Nowadays, the exact same maps are available directly on the screen of the GPS receiver. Pure luxury, as long as you have some juice in the batteries.
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.
When choosing a digital map, prefer the vector variant.
For urban navigation and intercity biking, a map made for cars works pretty well. 2 companies dominate the road maps market:
TomTom manufacturers in-car GPS navigation devices, and so is Garmin’s direct competitor. As TomTom owns Tele Atlas, it won’t sell you a map to use on a Garmin GPS. If you want a good road map for a Garmin, you’ll have to buy NAVTEQ maps. Not much choice.
I’ve been using the NAVTEQ’s map of European roads compiled into a proprietary Garmin format. The map covers:
I’ve totaled about 1 500 km (932 mi) with this map in the Geneva, Vaud, Fribourg, Neuchâtel, Bern and Valais cantons of Switzerland, as well as in the Ain and Haute Savoie departments of France. Part of that mileage was done on a car with a TomTom also onboard. I wasn’t driving. I was in the side seat, comparing the 2 systems.
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.
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 Oregon does as well.
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 cm 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.
Photo of the paper map (left) compared to the screenshot of the on-device digital map (right)
Plus, the digital map includes information not present on the 1:25 000 paper maps:
Photo of the paper map (left) compared to the screenshot of the on-device 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.
The Topo Swiss v2 is sold on a CD.
But the NAVTEQ / Garmin City Navigator Europe is available in 2 forms:
Both cost the same, but, consider the differences!
Honestly, unless you have neither a Mac nor a PC, I don’t see a reason to buy the SD version. SD cards are cheap and the power to create and edit stuff on your computer is priceless. Buy the DVD / CD versions!
The ultimate navigation aid, routing allows you to select the point of departure and the point of arrival and let the GPS unit:
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 says they do their best to keep the routing engines of their current GPS units as similar as possible. My personal experience with the Oregon and Colorado confirms that: both are identical when it comes to routing.
The units’ setup provides several ways to control the routing:
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, 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.
The amazing new feature of the Topo Swiss v2 is its ability to route on trails! The Garmin units’ routing engine is able to process the trail data and calculate a route using the foot paths. The Oregon and the Colorado will reassure you with indications like “NE on trail”, and even tell you when to take the next turn. Very cool.
Screenshot: route over the Jura ridge (left) with routing directions on the trail (right)
How to make it work:
Screenshot: Garmin RoadTrip automatically calculated route from A (north) to B (south)
Screenshot: manually created route from A (north) to B (south) using the route tool in Garmin RoadTrip
The units fail to route over great distances. Not enough processing power.
Example: I want to ride from where I am, in Geneva, Switzerland, to Paris, France. Distance: 550 km (414 mi). Satellites: acquired. Weather: great. Please, get me there. No way, man: “Route calculation error: not enough memory available”. Does not compute on the device, while on the Mac / PC, Garmin’s RoadTrip / MapSource calculate the route just fine.
Both the Oregon (models 300, 400 and 550) and the Colorado (models 300 and 400) carry an electronic compass.
A compass is very helpful when:
However, I wonder why Garmin has opted for a much less user-friendly 2D compass for the 300 and 400 models. A 2D compass requires a perfectly level unit. No tilting the screen.
Fortunately, the newest Oregon 550 has a modern electronic 3D compass that works regardless of the inclination of the GPS receiver. Unfortunately, it also includes a camera, instead of shedding some weight and bulk.
Both the Oregon and the Colorado include a barometric altimeter (models 300, 400 and 550).
Personally, I rarely use either the barometer or the altimeter on the GPS:
But it’s nice to have a backup just in case.
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 the exact position, quickly. Signal processing occurs both at the hardware and software levels in the GPS receiver.
Animation: the GPS satellites’ constellation moves around the Earth (author: El Pak)
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:
Garmin provides RoadTrip for Mac OS and MapSource for Windows to manage your maps, waypoints, routes and tracks.
While MapSource for Windows has been available for years, RoadTrip became available only recently, in September 2008. Despite its young age, RoadTrip offers quite a close feature parity with MapSource. Both programs are solid, stable and work at the same speed. Fortunately, the user interfaces differ to conform to the general Mac OS and Windows look and feel.
Unfortunately, RoadTrip on the Mac is still a work in progress and lacks some of MapSource features:
Both RoadTrip and MapSource do not allow simple synchronization with the GPS unit:
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:
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 on Mac OS.
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 Oregon or the Colorado 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! A feature that has been working on the older Colorado, by the way.
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.
Before I get to the conclusions and alternatives, compare the specs of the units I’ve reviewed:
Garmin Oregon 300
Garmin Colorado 300
(width x height x depth)
|6 x 11,5 x 3.5 cm
(2.3" x 4.5" x 1.4")
|6 x 14 x 3,5 cm
(2.4" x 5.5" x 1.4")
|Empty:||146 g (5.15 oz)||167 g (5.9 oz)|
|With 2 AA
|205 g (7.2 oz)||226 g (8 oz)|
(width x height):
|3,8 x 6,3 cm
(1.53 x 2.55 in)
|3,8 x 6,3 cm
(1.53 x 2.55 in)
|3 in (7,6 cm)||3 in (7,6 cm)|
(width x height):
|240 x 400 px||240 x 400 px|
|Color depth:||65 000 colors||65 000 colors|
|Screen technology:||transflective LCD with backight||transflective LCD with backlight|
|User interface:||resistive touchscreen||buttons and input wheel|
|Waterproof:||yes (IPX7)||yes (IPX7)|
|Built-in memory:||850 Mb||384 Mb|
|Data cards:||micro SD||SD|
|Max number of waypoints:||1 000
(2 000 on Oregon 550)
|Routes:||50 (200 on Oregon 550)||50|
|Turn by turn routing:||yes||yes|
(3D on Oregon 550)
|European road maps:||yes||yes|
|European topographic maps at 1:25 000:||yes||yes|
|Computer interface:||USB 1
(USB 2 on Oregon 550)
|Mac OS support:||yes||yes|
Special thanks to Simon GILBERT of Garmin Europe (UK) and Romain WALT of Bucher + Walt (Switzerland).
|2010-03-26||Added comparison with Garmin Dakota in “Verdict” section and a link to my review of the unit in “Further reading / Elsewhere on the web” section. Updated iPhone alternative.|
|2009-06-02||Added “Further reading / Elsewhere on the web” section.|
what is a fair price for each unit?
Sorry, I don’t mention prices because they vary depending on regions, shipping rates, currency exchanges and taxes. Too many variables.
Try your local shops, then take a look online.
‘Spasiba bolshoi’ for your test/comparison of both Colorado and Oregon. It was a pleasure reading the text and I’m left with the impression that you know what you’re writing about.
For some time I’m ‘ready’ to buy a new Outdoor model, if only to have something new to play with. That’s why I was really interested in the introduction of the Colorado and a bit later the Oregon.
Once I saw the construction of Colorado’s backcover I was cured from any desire for this model.
Now I’am still following the development around the Oregon, I like it’s profiles and it’s ability to read tracks from the mSD card but this model still fails to convince me. I read something about improved readability for the 550 screen, but if it’s only more backlight I’m not happy. I hate fingerprints and scratches on a display, also I mistrust the durability of touch screens, particularly when used outdoors where it can easily get knocked and touched with dirty gloves (sand-grains).
I’m anxiously awaiting a new model that out-performs my 60CSx very clearly and in all aspects that are important to me.
So-called features like built-in camera’s, MP3 players, picture viewers, etc. however don’t appeal to me. So far, I can’t find a better ‘one for all purposes’ GPS_r / navigator combination, I guess I remain loyal to my present one, as it always did to me.
Your comments helped me to resist the urge for something new as long as that ‘something’ does not bring me important improvements in the first place.
If I hadn’t experienced the good screen readability of a 60/76-series I would certainly find it a bit harder to resist the Oregon.
Where can I buy Swiss Topo V2? The Swiss Garmin site seems to not have a purchase option on the maps section.
The Swiss Topo V2 can be purchased in many Outdoor shops in Switzerland. A non-exhaustive list of retailers is available at http://www.garmin.ch/fr/revendeurs .
A large number of online shops also sell this map. For example:
Very nice work!
Thanks a lot
I’m indonesian. How about going to the sea? I need for indian ocean + java sea maps. Did colorado have sea map too?
Thanks for the great review.
Like many others I had a tough time deciding between the 60Csx and the Oregon 300. Since I will be using it in the dual role of auto and pedestrian modes, I selected the Oregon 300 for it’s better performance on the road with routing, map redraws, etc.
My old Garmin GPS V has been getting very slow with the more recent map updates; something I expect is happening with the 60Csx too. I have really enjoyed the design of my old GPS V with it’s ability to rotate the screen orientation that is very handy for auto vs pedestrian navigation.
I must confess, with the exception of entering text into the unit, I prefer the collection of hard buttons on the GPS V to the touch screen on the Oregon 300.
Also as should be obvious, the grey scale screen of the old unit is far more readable under all lighting conditions, but as you say, the older lower resolution displays have much less map detail.
With regard to size, the Oregon seems to be good, as it still easily slips into a pocket or pouch on a backpack strap, which is not something that can be said of my GPS V or a 60Csx.
While the Oregon is not perfect, it seems reasonably well designed overall.
Loved your review on these gps devices, I sold my 60csx and are now considering what to buy, I can say that the only reason that I sold the 60csx was that I would like to have a model which is supporting the so called paperless methode (geocaching). So after reading your review I made my choice and when I am visiting the USA next month I will buy the Oregon 400
Fluefiske from Holland
Very nice write up. Very comprehensive and helpful. Thank for your effort.
‘Spasiba bolshoi’ for your test/comparison of both Colorado and Oregon. It was a pleasure reading the text
I’m left with the impression that you know what you’re writing about.
Well, I‘m glad that’s the impression you get. I write only about stuff I know, and if I don’t know something, I say it in the text, explicitly.
Once I saw the construction of Colorado’s backcover I was cured from any desire for this model.
Actually, the Colorado cover is OK. Not super easy to get off, but not a major flaw either.
I read something about improved readability for the 550 screen
Yes, I can confirm. The Oregon 550 has a glossier finish, which results in a slightly better visibility.
I hate fingerprints
Well, if you dislike fingerprints than the whole touchscreen idea won’t work for you, including the iPhone.
I mistrust the durability of touch screens, particularly when used outdoors where it can easily get knocked and touched with dirty gloves (sand-grains).
So far, so good with the Oregon. Obviously, I haven’t had the unit for 5 years, but the screen surface has been holding up pretty well.
How about going to the sea? I need for Indian ocean + java sea maps.
I’m sorry, but I don’t know. I have little experience with portable GPS navigation on the water. Try looking on Garmin’s web site or Googling.
Thank you, Markus, Jason, André and Jay! I appreciate your feedback.
Maybe you’ve seen my post on Twitter: I’ve just received the Garmin Dakota 20 and from my first impressions it may be the GPS unit to choose. More compact, more readable.
Will publish a comparison review of the Dakota, after testing it thoroughly (minimum 1 month). Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS updates to get notified of the new review.
Thank you for this VERY informative writeup! I use GPSs not only for fun but work as well, and it is amazingly difficult to find comprehensive reviews on them. I’m interested to hear what you’ve got to say about the Dakota. Please keep me posted.
Thanks again, and keep up the great work!
Victor in NC
Excellent review and so well explained. I have used a GPS for about 10 years now (upgrading 4 times) and am thrilled to bits with my new all-singing all-dancing Garmin Oregon.
However, like you say, the screen is a nightmare. I am a walker, so changing the backlight is not a problem and made customer friendly by not having to unlock the screen to do this (good thinking, Garmin). I now walk with no backlight during the day, as it little improves visibilty. However, I do try up-ing it now and again, to get that tiny bit more detail in tricky situations – like when I can’t see anything at all!. My other gripe with the screen is that it is so very easy to scratch and damage. I do much of my walking off-path and have to battle with undergrowth, fences, walls and heaven forbid, thick forest. My GPS is held in my hand most of the time but is slung round my neck for when I need both hands. I then shove it in a handy breast pocket to protect it but just jiggling with my mobile phone caused loads of tiny pit-like marks. Was I heart-broken? You bet. I now have a special, custom built (i.e. expensive) bit of flimsy plastic to prevent this happening again.
And now to my question. Would really like to know why, on a very recent trip to walk the Tour du Mont Blanc (with extra climbing, of course), I had the Topo maps but no Grid Reference? Any suggestions, please?
Next year I hope to walk the Pyrenees, end to end and a GR might just prove useful when the weather gets bad, which it surely will at some stage.
Thanks again – brilliant work (and I got to find out how many WPs and routes my unit will hold – been wondering about that for months).
Carole Engel – LDWA (Long Distance Walkers Asociation) 19932
Awesome review. Was ready to go out and get the Oregon, even though I am leery of the screen quality as yours and others have noted. BUT! I saw the final post about the Dakota 20 and your teaser comment. So, is a review pending? Imminent? In the oven?
Been using a Legend Cx for years on my European bike trips. Outside rubber piece is coming off so its time for an upgrade. The new touch screens look great but I just can’t get over that poor visibility.
Yes, good idea to wait. ;-)
Yes, a Garmin Dakota 20 review is indeed in the oven. A photo session yesterday with the weakening sun of October. Working through the draft. Trying to squeeze the writing in between other projects. The Dakota 20 review is now the next to be published on my web site, please stay tuned, either manually, on Twitter or via RSS.
Thanks Victor, I use the GPS in a professional context as well, for my photography, particularly location scouting and navigation.
Thank you Carole.
I would recommend to avoid any elecro-optical gear hanging around the neck or on the shoulder when walking off-trail. Otherwise, lenses, screens, binoculars – all will be destroyed pretty quickly. And, plan for the inevitable: that’s the reason I buy a B+W UV filter for each new camera lens.
Personally, I put the GPS with unlocked screen in the side pocket of my ULA Conduit, screen side facing the belt padding. I put it out only to sight-check, then back in the pocket.
To your question… what do you mean by “Grid Reference”? The grid printed on the topographical maps? The coordinates of your position on your GPS?
Very usefull articale. One question you have not mentioned the range of map co-ordinate systems possible with either gps. I have recently lost a Garmin quest which alowwed one to programme many different systems ie GB Nation Grid etc. I would like to be able to dipaly both Nation grid and UTM.
I also look forward to A reviedw on the Dakota 20
Very informative – thanks!
However, the “Topo Swiss” map is not developed by Swisstopo, but by Garmin. Swisstopo’s maps are called “Swiss Map” and are NOT vector maps and NOT made for GPS devices but for PCs. There might be some possibility to transform them in a format readable by GPS devices, but this is not the intended use, most likely not worth the effort (because it is a pixel map and will stay a pixel map) and is probably illegal.
Information about both products in German here (comparison of features in the PDF at the bottom of the page): http://www.paravan.ch/faq/index.php?action=artikel&cat=6&id=21&artlang=de
I should probably have added above that the basic data of “Topo Swiss” is the same as for Swisstopo’s “Swiss Map”, so your argument that the quality of the data is very high is of course true.
have you ever tried to use a OpenStreetMap ? There are some renderings:
http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/DE:All_in_one_Garmin_Map (sorry only German descrition)
or basic info about Garmins and OSM:
Thanks for a very informative review. Indeed these devices seem a bit bleak compared to an iPhone, although it doesn’t cut it quite yet. I’m wondering though how the iPhone screen compares in tough lightning conditions?
Hello Anatoly. Great info
I am seriously considering the Dakota 20 mainly for geocaching with my son here in Southern California, USA.
When can we expect to see the Dakota 20 vs Oregon comparison review?
I want the 3 axis compass (like in the Dakota) but I think the WhereIGo geocaches seem like a cool fun idea, but the Dakota does have those :(
But screen visibility is very important so…
Maybe go with Oregon 450 instead? which has the 3 axis compass, but more expensive and all I want is a geocaching GPS! Sigh
Thanks and keep up the good work
The Garmin Oregon offers the following choice of position formats:
From what I know, Garmin does not develop maps or other navigation data (examples: elevation data, POI, airport approaches, etc.) In other words, they do not survey countries around the world to create maps.
Garmin specialty is hardware and embedded software that interfaces data read-in from instruments (examples: GPS, air-speed, attitude) with navigation data created by private companies (examples: Navteq) and state agencies (examples: USGS, US NACO, France IGN, SwissTopo).
Garmin does help to convert the data into formats compatible with Garmin devices.
In my understanding, the core data of the Topo Swiss map is produced by the Swiss Federal Office of Topography, and not by Garmin.
The PDF document you reference above dates from 2005. 5 years old. And even that document mentions Garmin Switzerland as Bucher+Walt, the importer and reseller of a large gamut of equipment. No mention of Garmin painstakingly surveying the Swiss Alps.
Furthermore, all maps produced roughly since the invention of Postscript and Bezier curves’ editing software (examples: Freehand, Illustrator) are vector maps. The cartographers use aerial imagery and local surveying to draw maps in vector format, name locations with vector fonts, add details like topography, symbols, etc. The files are then printed on paper, reused in other products, or rasterized into what you seem to call “pixel” form (TIFF-style data). But the source remains in vector format.
The iPhone is barely useable in bright sunlight. Just reading a book on my iPhone, sitting in the sun, is sub-optimal. And I have to crank screen brightness level to maximum, draining the battery real fast.
Dedicated GPS receivers like the Garmin Oregon, Colorado or Dakota also have a huge advantage: they work without cell phone coverage. Using GoogleMaps on the iPhone is nice when you have coverage and when you’re ready to pay 1 EUR per 1 Mb of data roaming when outside of your country.
The Dakota vs Oregon article I’m preparing has side-by side shots of Oregon, Dakota and iPhone for size and bulk comparison.
Honestly, I’m not the best person to talk to about geocaching. I don’t do geocaching at all and have zero experience with Garmin geocaching features.
I apologize for the delay with delivering the Dakota vs Oregon article. It is at the top of my writing list and I’m doing my best to free some time from photography and design projects to finish and publish it.
I’ve logged thousands of kilometers on the bike and on foot with the units, backpacked, used in the cities (including nightmarish Paris), in different lighting conditions, temperatures (+25 to -15) and weather (sunny to snowy). So, the data is ready.
The pictures are ready.
The text is waiting several draft revisions. My writing workflow involves a lot of re-reads and re-edits.
The short conclusion is that the Dakota 20 is the best outdoor GPS unit we can buy today. Regardless of price.
Even if the Dakota 20 was twice more expensive than the Oregon 550, I’d still get the Dakota 20.
1. Screen usability. I can read information from the Dakota in any lighting condition.
2. Size. Easier to handle than the Oregon, takes less handlebar space, weighs less.
So, if you trust my opinion without first reading the detailed review, get the Dakota 20.
Sorry again and thank you for your patience!
Hi Anatoly. Fantastic review and was going to get an Oregon 300.
Now really reconsidering in buying a Dakota 20 instead which I need to get as soon as possible as I am going to be travelling for the 10 weeks shortly. I will use it for two main things – Geocaching and following (both on road and off road) routes when mountain biking.
A couple of questions:
In the UK I’ll produce routes using bikehike.co.uk which will follow footpaths from OS mapping and also a combination of auto routing using google maps. The shop units and staff haven’t been able to tell me the following: when coming to a route (waypoint) change of direction can it give a countdown to that point and the intended new direction? I can’t see that you actually follow the map on the screen of either the Oregon or Dakota when cycling – or do you? Does the reduced screen resolution inhibit use when following maps.
Look forward to your help and the long review.
The Dakota, Oregon and possibly Colorado (haven’t checked) allow to display “distance to next”, “ETA at next”, “time to next” and “next waypoint name” on the screen.
If your map is routable, the GPS will calculate the distances on the paths / roads. If your map is not routable, it’ll calculate distances in straight lines.
What do you mean by saying I do not “actually follow the map on the screen of either the Oregon or Dakota when cycling”? There’s no in-built speaker calling out the turns… I have to follow the map and routing directions using my eyes.
Screen resolution is not as important as screen readability. If you can’t see what’s on screen, however high-resolution it may be, you can’t use the GPS.
After reading every word of your Garmin vs Colorado review, I do trust your opinion. I trust it enough to pass along my brand new Oregon 300 to my son and opt for the Dakota 20 even without reading your review — but I’m really looking forward to it. On every bike ride in bright sunlight, I find myself staring at a reflective, solid bronze screen wondering if I’m on the route. The problems with daylight screen visibility on the Oregon can’t be underscored enough.
Overall, yours is the best in-depth review of a particular GPS’s functions and features I’ve ever read.
Thanks Drew, I really appreciate your comment.
I’ve finally published my Garmin Dakota vs Garmin Oregon GPS comparison review. Sorry again for the delay, looking forward to your feedback.
Just a few comments. You mention the Colorado cover being “much” easier to remove than the Oregon’s. I can’t see how the Oregon’s cover could be any harder to remove than any other, but I’ll take your word for it. However, you’re making it a point and I think it need not be. Removing the Oregon’s cover is a very simple matter of flicking a little locking switch and pulling it off! Done! If you have the carabiner attachment on then it’s a matter of sliding your thumb under the attachment and sliding it off (very quick) and then removing the cover. Sounds like you have spent enough time with both so I wonder why you’re having trouble with any of this. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but the removal of the Oregon cover, at least, is as simple and fast as it gets.
Second point is regarding the bike mount slipping after a few bumps. I have an Oregon 400t, but it doesn’t matter which, this will help. If you can’t put your mount on the gooseneck of the bicycle, which I see from the photo in your review you probably can’t, then place a thin piece of rubber (perhaps cut from an old bicycle tube, etc) between the mount and the metal before cinching down the zip ties to give it extra grip.
Your response to a comment from Phil regarding following the compass while biking mentions not having turns called out due to no exterior speaker, but you didn’t mention that there is a beep that sounds audibly when a turn is coming so that time spent looking at the screen is limited to the very short period necessary to determine where you turn next and in which direction, a couple seconds really at most if zoomed correctly. And the beep comes once for nearing your turn and then twice for an immediate turn, so if you know your general direction, you needn’t look at the screen much at all.
Since you don’t geocache, I’ll say that the Oregon and Colorado both are exceptional geocaching units, as is the 60 CSx, but the Oregon gets my vote for top performer with its GUI interface and touch screen, and both have the myriad ways you can customize the “profile” screens for your particular activity, switching back and forth between them easily and quickly when changing activities. Geocaching, Recreational, Automotive, Marine and Fitness profiles are standard and you have the ability to create your own versions for specific uses you have, each allowing a totally different setup of icon access for ease of use, not to mention the ability of the new “dashboard” feature to add specific, smaller versions of other features on the GPS to the Map View, both when navigating and/or when NOT navigating! This is a very useful thing. For geocachers, for example, the map view while driving could show the nearest geocache with a small icon next to it that, if pressed, will give the details of the cache. Or you can add data fields with ETA, speed, compass, stopwatch, elevation plot… It goes on and on. And, unfortunately, so do I.
I really wanted to thank you for your review and point out a couple things, but I got carried away. So, thanks for your review!
Thank you for the detailed comment, I appreciate it.
You mention the Colorado cover being “much” easier to remove than the Oregon’s.
Actually, it’s the opposite in my text: “The battery cover of my Oregon 300 squeaked and moved 1 mm when pressed. […] As an advantage, the cover is much easier to remove than on the Colorado: changing batteries is simpler.”
So I wholly agree with you.
Maybe you refer to some other point in my article where I might have mixed up the units’ names?
Second point is regarding the bike mount slipping after a few bumps. […] place a thin piece of rubber (perhaps cut from an old bicycle tube, etc) between the mount and the metal before cinching down the zip ties to give it extra grip.
Absolutely. I’d received such a suggestion from Dominique BLACHON shortly after I published the Oregon vs Colorado review. I’ve applied the idea to both ahead stem and handlebar positions and it works great.
So I’ve included the tip in my more recent Garmin Dakota vs Garmin Oregon GPS comparison review.
Thanks for the beep tip! Haven’t tried that one… and will as soon as possible.
Thank you very much for this article. Could you please clarify, if Colorado/ Oregon’s automotive mode can be used right out of box, or navigation engine must be purchased separately.
Thank you once more
As I say in my article:
Routing, or, in other words, automotive mode, requires:
Thank you very much for such a quick reply!
I’d like to ask one more question, if I may. How many channels utilize Colorado? I am asking about this, because MTK chipset, used in both devices supposed to have 12 channels, while the devices (Oregon/Colorado) I tested yesterday at Bestbuy displayed only 9 of them. The result was same in both the real and demo modes. So I am really confused. Could you, please, clarify the situation before I buy one.
Thank you once more
Sorry Arth, I don’t have the Colorado to boot it up and check out the number of reception channels. But, honestly, having 9 is really, really more than enough for a precise 3D position.
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