Updated 11/4/10: I’ve added a chirp FAQ page on the Garmin Oregon wiki if you are looking for more detailed help with your chrip.

After getting my hands on a Garmin chirp this morning I’ve been able to play with the tiny transmitter to see exactly how it works. The chirp is a simple wireless beacon that transmits a small amount of pre-programmed information to a compatible Garmin GPS within proximity of the chirp.  Aimed primarily at geocachers, the $20 device should be an exciting addition to both new and existing geocaches and well as some creative non-geocaching uses (I’ve bought an extra one to put on my key chain).

Programming chirp

When you receive the Garmin chirp it is erased so the first GPS which connects to the chirp can program it.  Programming the chirp consists of enabling chirp on the GPS (Setup>Geocaches>chirp Searching) and sending the chirp a name, a “message” and set of coordinates.  The programming controls are found under Setup>Geocaches>Program chirp. This can be done by setting each field manually or by using a waypoint or geocache to transfer the information all at once.   The chirp will take on the name and coordinates of the waypoint or geocache selected.  The chirp message field is programmed with the waypoint note or geocache hint. The chirp name is limited to 9 characters and the message to 50 characters so the amount of information stored in the device is fairly limited.  It takes about 30 seconds to program the chirp once you start transmitting to the device.

Geocaches > Setup

Programming Options

Manual Programming

Transmitting Data to chirp

Garmin has done an excellent job with security.  Once the chirp is programmed it becomes locked to the GPS which programmed it.  After that no other GPS can reprogram the chirp unless you have the last 5 digits of the unit ID of the GPS which “owns” the chirp.  I was able to swap control between my units without any issues but in general it seems secure enough to discourage people from stealing them or tampering with them in the field.

The GPS which “owns” the beacon can also erase the chirp. This puts the device back into its original unprogrammed state so it can be programmed by another GPS.

chirp After Programming

Programming an unowned chirp

Placing the chirp

Based on my testing you really want to have an unobstructed view around the chirp to get best results, placing it up high also seems to improve range.  When I placed the chirp on one side of a tree trunk I would consistently connect within about 20′-30′ if I was facing the chirp. However, with the tree between me and the chirp I had to be within 5′ to receive the alert.   If the chirp is in a metal container like an ammo can it won’t register until you open the container.

Finding the chirp

Once the chirp is programmed it is constantly transmitting its information to any GPS within range.  Users searching for the chirp must enable chirp searching on their GPS and when they get within range for about 10 seconds the chirp data is automatically downloaded to the GPS.  The Oregon/Dakota geocaching dashboard has a chirp status which tells you if chirp searching is enabled and whether you are in range or not. This feature is not available on the GPSMAP 62/78 geocaching dashboard.

Navigating to chirp

Oregon Geocaching Dashboard

When you view the chirp you see the name, message and coordinates as well as how many visits and when the last visit was made.  You can then “Go” to the chirp (similar to a waypoint) and this will be begin navigation to the programmed coordinates.  The chirp coordinates are saved as a special waypoint but the message is not preserved in this waypoint and you can easily overwrite the chirp waypoint when you encounter the next chirp.  Garmin should provide a way to save all of this data permanently once you move out of range and turn the unit off.

Battery Life and Other Details

Garmin claims the replaceable CR2032 lithium coin cell will last a year and work in cold weather.  One really nice feature is the warning you will get on the GPS if the battery is getting low. The unit is small (1.3″ x 0.9″ x 0.3″ / 3.3 x 2.3 x 0.7 cm), lightweight (< 1.o oz / 28 grams) and feels solid.  It comes with an IPX7 waterproof rating which means if you drop it in water or it gets rained on it will still work, Garmin does not recommend submerging the chirp.

Software and Compatibility

The only chirp-compatible units are the Garmin GPSMAP62/78, Oregon (300, 400 and x50) and the Dakota 20.  The Colorado does not seem to be supported even though it features the wireless ANT protocol which chirp is based on.

You’ll need to update your GPS software to use the chirp.  Updates were made available this morning and can be installed using Webupdater.

If you are having problems connecting to your chirp with this software go to Setup>Fitness and disable the heart rate monitor and cadence sensor if you have them enabled. My Dakota would not connect to chirp because it was configured to search for an HRM. I’ve submitted this to Garmin as bug.

Pricing and Availability

The chirp is available online at REI for $19.95.

Summary

While I wish the chirp was capable of holding a little more data and cost about half as much but I like the way Garmin is thinking.  This is one of the most creative new products we’ve seen from Garmin in a while and its been done with typical Garmin focus on simplicity and ease of use.  Time will tell if the battery life, range and field durability is good but I like what I see so far and can’t wait to get my first cache out using chirp — hopefully tomorrow!