Garmin Oregon 550t Camera

Today online retailers like GPSNow.com started shipping Garmin’s new top of the line outdoor handheld GPS, the Oregon 550 and Oregon 550t.  I’ve been able to get my hands on an Oregon 550t and will kick things off with a first impressions post to detail my experience with the new GPS receiver.

The two new Oregon models, the 550 and 550t, are closely related to the touchscreen Oregon 300 and 400 models which Garmin released a year ago.  They are identical in size and similar in function with a few notable upgrades on the x50 models including a 3.2MP digital auto-focus camera, support for geotagged photos and a 3-axis compass.   The major difference between the two new models is that the 550t includes preinstalled 100k US Topo maps which look identical to the topo maps on my Oregon 400t.  The 550t has 4GB of internal memory with about 1GB free (Garmin specs 850MB) after you take away space for the topo maps and other files.  I’m guessing that like the Oregon 300 the 550 has only a basemap and 1GB of memory leaving a around 900MB free.

Hardware and GPS Receiver

The Oregon 550t I received is running software 2.10 and GPS software 3.40.  I’ve taken the unit apart and I can confirm that it is using the ST Cartesio chipset like the Oregon x00 series (see photo below of 550t).   I was hopeful for a different chipset given the issues that the Cartesio has under tree cover at walking speeds, but this is an area where Garmin is continuing to work on improvements for the entire Oregon line so I’m hopeful we’ll see further improvements.

Garmin Oregon 550t ST Cartesio chipset

Externally there really isn’t much to report on other than the location of camera lens on the back side above the familiar rail mount.  The latch which closes the battery cover is now spring loaded and that gives it a more positive compared to the x00 series Oregon.   The carabiner that comes with the 550 is a little shorter than the Oregon x00 series carabiner so that it doesn’t get in the way of the camera lens.  The good news is that all the existing Oregon and Colorado rail mount accessories should work the same with the 550 models.

In addition to the newly designed carabiner the 550t comes with the owner’s manual on CD (which also serves as an updated manual for the x00 Oregon’s), a quick start guide, a four cell NiMH AA battery charger and two low-discharge 2000mAh AA NiMH batteries.    As I suspected Garmin does not recommend using alkaline batteries in the 550t if you are going to use the camera.  I’ve noticed that using the camera does drain the batteries quickly but I’ll need more time to complete some battery tests.

Screen

When you power on the 550t the first thing you notice is that the screen looks a little different than the x00 Oregon.  I’m guessing we are looking at the same touchscreen display as the x00 Oregon with a different protective layer that is glossy, instead of a matte cover like the x00 series.  The end result is brighter display than the x00 series, I would estimate 10-15% brighter, and similar to the Colorado.  You do see more reflections with the glossy surface and I also wonder about its scratch resistance, but overall this is an improvement over the Oregon x00′s.   Although it is almost impossible to capture a “typical” picture of the screen the photos below show the unit running with full backlight in indirect outdoor light, bright direct sunlight and low light as compared to the Oregon 400t (right)

Garmin Oregon 550t in indirect lightGarmin Oregon 550t in direct light

Garmin Oregon 400t and 550t display comparison

Camera, Images and Geotagging Support

The camera was my next stop.   Garmin allows you to control the resolution (3.2MP, 2.0MP or 1.oMP) and storage location for the images (internal memory or SD card).  The low light mode and digital zoom controls (up to 4x according to the specs) are found directly on the camera screen.  As we reported yesterday the camera and the photo viewer both make use of the accelerometer and turn when the unit is rotated to work in either portrait or landscape mode.   Auto-focus is activated by pressing the shutter button and holding it until the framing square on the screen turns green (see image below).  Releasing the shutter button takes the picture.   Pretty standard stuff but implemented in a typical easy-to-use Garmin fashion.   I did find myself wishing for faster access to a preview mode and a way to quickly delete unwanted photos (you can delete any photo — you just have leave the camera and go into the photo viewer).  The shutter lag is noticeable, I took a number of bad photos as a result of moving the camera away too quickly. On the flip side I notice that the camera can focus about two inches away from the subject to take macro shots.

Landscape camera mode Garmin Oregon 550t

If a photo is geotagged, and every photo seems to be tagged if the GPS has lock when you take the photo, you will see a “globe” button at the bottom of the page in the photo viewer which displays the location of the photo on the map.  If you look at the details of the photo it tells you the coordinates, time taken, camera it was taken with, and distance away.   Elevation would have been nice too. The photo viewer has some nice filter options for photos including most recently taken, near a location or on a specific date.  I uploaded a geotagged picture from Picasa/Google Earth and it was recognized by the Oregon 550t and located properly on the map.

Photo viewer summary - Garmin Oregon 550tPhoto preview - Garmin Oregon 550t

Photo location using geotagging - Garmin Oregon 550tPhoto detail mode - Garmin Oregon 550t

Like waypoints and points of interest, photos are a objects you can navigate to under the WhereTo menu.  Photos you have taken can also be used as your background thanks to a new configuration option.

Waypoints on the 550t have a new photo attribute which allows you to associate a waypoint with a photo and waypoints can also be easily created from photos.   If you view a waypoint with a photo or a photo in a list view you will see a small thumbnail of the photo next to the waypoint/photo name.  I really wish Garmin would add the waypoint symbol here for waypoints without photos!

Photo List View - Garmin Oregon 550t

Picture quality is good, not great — about what you would probably expect from a good cell phone camera but not as good as my kids’ $80 Canon point and shoot.  In 3.2MP resolution mode the pictures are saves as 2048×1536 JPEG’s and they are between 400kB to 900kB in size, the average being around 600kB-700kB per photo.  Click on the thumbnails below to see the full images.

Fruit indoor photo - Garmin Oregon 550t

Hoover outdoor photo -- Garmin Oregon 550t

I haven’t been able to access the myGarmin photo upload service yet but Picasa was able to recognize the Oregon 550t and uploaded photos quickly thanks to the high speed USB interface.

3-axis Compass

The 3-axis compass is another feature I was anxious to try.  I’ve never liked the 2-axis compass on the older models because of the need to hold the unit flat.   The 3-axis compass is similar except you calibrate once on each axis, which takes about the same amount of time to calibrate as the 2-axis compass.   The compass turns on/off around 1-2mph like the x00 Oregon but it is much easier to rely on since you don’t need to worry about how you are holding the unit.   Garmin has changed the look and feel of the compass as well, not only did they “supersize” the compass pointer (you can still select the thin pointer), but the rotation of the compass is much smoother.   The pointer no longer jumps to a new heading, it glides like a real compass.  Although I’m not a compass page navigator I think those who rely on the compass tool will like these changes.

Garmin Oregon 550t compass pageGarmin Oregon 550t compass calibration

I did experience two calibration failures and one case where the compass started spinning which required a reset.  Time will tell if this is going to be frequent problem or not.

UserDataSync

There have been changes in the 550 around how data is managed but I need to spend a little more time with this feature to understand it more completely.   The GarminDevice.xml file mentions a “UserDataSync” mode for the content in \Garmin\GPX which is different than the x00 Oregon.    Based on my initial testing it looks like waypoints and routes created on the unit are stored in daily gpx files in \Garmin\GPX.  Deleting these files or the waypoints and routes contained in these files removes the objects on the unit itself.  If this is the case it would be a hidden but somewhat radical difference from the x00 Oregon’s which keep separate internal databases that are not directly accessible by external software programs like BaseCamp and Mapsource. From a user perspective this would eliminate a lot questions around how data is managed.

High Speed USB

The high speed USB interface is another nice “sleeper” feature.  I haven’t timed it yet but map transfers to the unit are much faster than my 400t.  The 550t also supports the “any name” map file support added in the x00 Oregon which gets you away from the limitation of only being able to use a few very specific filenames to load maps (i.e. gmapsupp.img)

Miscellaneous

Geocaching, Wherigo, trip computer, 3D view, profile management, wireless transfer, altimeter and the other tools that the x00 Oregon’s picked up during the recent beta phase all seem to work the same.  The map page does use a new set of larger high color icons which are easier to see but can cover up the map in congested areas (see below).

Garmin Oregon 550t large map symbols

Summary

Even though a picture might be worth a thousand words the question is whether the Oregon 550t is worth $599 and the 550 is worth $499?  There is no question that these are expensive units and ultimately you’ll need to decide whether the camera with geotagging, improved visibility screen, 3-axis compass, high speed USB and other minor tweaks are worth it.  I’m guessing that most folks who forked over money for an Oregon 300 or 400 in the last year aren’t going to see the need to upgrade right now.  But the Oregon 550 deserves some serious consideration if you are in the market for a GPSMAP 60CSx, Colorado, Oregon or Delorme PN-40 and think that the integrated camera is something that you’ll use.

As a geocacher having a camera with geotagging support is my primary motivation for getting the 550t.  I already carry a separate camera for recording hints, coordinates, interesting containers, damaged containers, and maps at trailheads.   None of these require a fancy camera but all of these uses could be enhanced if the photos were geotagged.  This reason alone was enough to push me up into the 550t series.  For other outdoor activities, recreational or professional, which require the recording of data using photos, geotagging can be a real time saver and Garmin’s all-in-one Oregon 550t makes it very easy and fun to use.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be busy adding content on the Garmin Oregon wiki including a Versions page, Issues List and FAQs for the Oregon 550.  In particular I’ll be on the watch for stability concerns as the initial releases of both the Colorado and Oregon were plagued with crashes and bugs.    So far, my experience with stability has been good other than the issues with the compass, but more runtime is required.  I’ll be posting here again on GPSFix about the 550t as I get more information on stability, GPS receiver performance, battery life (it is definitely worse), USB transfer rates, the DataSync feature and any other differences I encounter.

If you have any questions about the Oregon 550t or something you didn’t see covered in this post, please feel free to post a question and I’ll either respond or add my response to a future post.

Where to Buy

GPSNow.com is about the only place shipping these units today although many sites have them available for preorder. I would expect them to be showing up in the next day or two at other retailers.  The good news is that I can highly recommend GPSNow.com for their customer service as I have personally bought GPS receivers and accessories through them.