Hands-on Gear Review
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Street Price: $599
Pros: Large high-resolution display, easy text entry, intuitive interface, customizable menu system, 3.2 MP camera, includes rechargeable batteries and carabiner clip.
Cons: Display is hard to see in direct sunlight, relatively imprecise screen, no push buttons.
Best Uses: Entering lots of waypoints or for car navigation.
The Garmin Oregon 550 is a powerful and easy to use touchscreen GPS device that has been replaced by the newer and much better Garmin Oregon 600. The difference between the two units is dramatic and if you're looking for a top-tier GPS we encourage you to spend the extra cash to get the 600. Check out our complete Handheld GPS Review to compare all of the models tested.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
The Garmin Oregon 550 is a remarkably versatile and easy to use, yet also surprisingly powerful, GPS unit. It includes many of the same features as its more accurate cousin, the 62 series, but adds a larger and higher resolution touchscreen display. This display is the main reason to opt for the 550 over the 62sc: it allows for faster text entry and makes the unit more suitable for car navigation (because car navigation requires you to enter lots of addresses).
Beyond the 550's screen there are many advantages to Garmin's interface, software, and mapping capabilities. First, the 550's interface is incredibly simple and intuitive. Anyone can pick up the device, mark a waypoint, and do basic navigation within minutes. Garmin's navigation capabilities are also more extensive than other manufacturers: the 550 displays the distance to the next waypoint as well as to the destination (Magellan and Garmin only show distance to destination). Similarly, the 550 comes with tools that other manufacturers don't include: you can calculate the area of a track and send data wirelessly to other enabled Garmin devices. The 550 is both easy to use and advanced in its interface and tools. However, the newer Garmin Oregon 600 is even easier to use and has more advanced track and waypoint management features.
The Oregon series comes with six profiles that allow you to customize the display for various activities. For example, you can have four data fields for biking and two for hiking. You could track up (map orients in the direction the GPS is pointed or traveling) for hiking and north up (north is at the top) for kayaking. Or you could have a specific profile that displays certain maps or custom maps, such as Yosemite National Park trails on top of aerial imagery).
Garmin's software, Basecamp, is equally powerful yet easier to use than Magellan's VantagePoint and is much simpler than DeLorme's Topo North America. One of our favorite features is its ability to show waypoints and tracks in Google Earth.
Our testers found the 550's camera to be a very useful tool. By geotagging photos automatically the unit allows you to navigate to a photo and displays images in BaseCamp. The Oregon 550 comes with two rechargeable AA batteries, a charger, and a carabiner clip.
The main drawback to the 550 is its plastic touch screen, which is no where near as precise, vibrant, or easy to see at the Garmin Oregon 600's glass display. The difference between the two screens is dramatic and the 550 feels clunky and rough compared to the fast and smooth 600.
If you plan to use a GPS in below freezing conditions it's worth considering a model with push buttons, which are more reliable and easier to use in cold temps with gloves on. We suggest the Garmin GPS Map 62sc or the Garmin eTrex 20.
The 550 is best suited to GPS users who either want a GPS for hiking and car navigation or want a simple and easy to use unit. With little explanation someone can successfully use the 550 with no prior experience with GPS. This makes it a great choice for geocaching with young children or working with volunteers.
The Garmin Oregon 600 offers many improvements over the 550. We recommend the Garmin Oregon 450 if you don't want a camera. We do not suggest the 450t or 550t models, which come with a 100k topo, unless you travel frequently and don't want to bother with downloading free maps. (You can get plenty of maps for free from GPS File Depot.) Instead, consider getting Garmin's 24k US Topo, whose finer scale is better for navigating in steep terrain and whose roads and trails are routable. The 450 and Garmin Oregon 550t can do turn-by-turn directions with Garmin's City Navigator maps (~$80 for North American coverage).
Garmin Oregon 550 User Manual
— Chris McNamara and Max Neale
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Most recent review: August 4, 2013
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