Over the last two days Garmin has been busy rolling new versions of BaseCamp and software for the Colorado, Oregon x00, Oregon x50 and Dakota all aimed at delivering their newest mapping product — BirdsEye.   As we discussed in a previous post, BirdsEye allows users of the “state-named” Garmin GPS units to download and make use of aerial imagery on the handheld and in BaseCamp.  When CustomMap support was introduced several months ago users could achieve similar results but with this release Garmin is trying to make the process dead simple – for a price.

As of yesterday afternoon (no April Fools!) BirdsEye subscriptions were made available on Garmin’s US site. The annual per device subscription will cost you $30 US.  To use Birdseye you simply need to follow the link above, purchase the subscription and then activate it using your GPS device’s serial number. Once your unit is registered with Garmin’s servers you can start to download maps using the newest version of BaseCamp for the PC or Mac. You’ll also need to make sure you are running the latest device software which supports Birdseye — use WebUpdater to download the correct version for your unit.

My initial tests are encouraging. Although the servers have been slow (or down) at times I’ve been able to select and download imagery to both my Oregon 550t and Dakota 20 without a hitch. The process for doing this in BaseCamp is simple: just connect your unit, select a region, choose one of three resolutions and the maps will be downloaded to your computer and then your GPS. Once downloaded you need to enable them like any other map so that they are visible on the map page.

The highest resolution imagery for my area is very good, identical to what is in Google Earth. One complaint I have is that the images are over saturated when they are displayed on the GPS. This may have been a trade off to make the maps a little brighter on dim high resolution displays. My other complaint is the time it takes to download high resolution images for even a relatively small area. At least until the servers are little less loaded you’ll want to be selective about how much you download.  Of the three resolution levels available only high and highest are usable. The standard resolution which you will see if you use the demo feature is blurry even when zoomed quite far out.

So what to do with these new aerial maps?  For me it will be helpful geocaching. Some optimizations in BaseCamp, like the ability download a single tile around every cache in a selected set, would be helpful for planning a day out caching — you can only download rectangular areas at this time which chews up a lot of space and adds download time. As for hiking or biking, again, it would be nice to be able to download just the tiles along a selected track or a route. Here in New England where we have a lot of tree cover I’m not sure how useful these images will be unless I’m biking on double track — something that would actually show up on an aerial.  I have noticed that you can pick out individual trees and stonewalls using the highest resolution maps so they may be more useful than I originally expected.  I reviewed some imagery from an area where I recently did some desert hiking in Arizona and Birdseye maps would have been incredibly helpful there.  The single-track trails (many weren’t marked on any map) were clearly visible on the aerial shots.  I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the area I just visited in Mexico had decent coverage.  Ultimately the usefulness of this feature will come down to your local topography, the quality of imagery in your area and the types of activities you pursue.

It is also worth mentioning several other new features which have been overlooked in the excitement around BirdsEye. BaseCamp now supports the ability to display pre-installed maps. On my 550t after 20 minute initial sync I can now see my built in Topo 100k maps in BaseCamp just like any other map. The GPS has to be attached in order to use the maps. Similarly, BaseCamp supports the ability to display CustomMaps you already have installed on the GPS. For some reason this worked on several of my CustomMaps but BaseCamp threw errors on others.

Dakota and Oregon x00 owners should note that their unit software updates also came with new GPS firmware. I haven’t noticed any difference on the Dakota but the release notes indicate there are fixes to improve acquisition. Users on the wiki forums are reporting that there an no noticeable improvements to WAAS.  There is a bug in the new unit software which causes street names to disappear from the map page.  To keep abreast of bugs found in the new unit software, Birdseye or BaseCamp stop by the discussion group on the Oregon wiki.

Oregon x50 owners coming from the 3.26 beta will notice the Custom Symbol support made the cut to 3.3 but the tracklog archiving features did not. I hope this feature makes its way back into an official release soon — I found it incredibly helpful for managing my tracklogs on my recent trips to Arizona and Mexico.