Garmin Oregon 600 - a brief review

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Not long ago, a GPS unit (I rather like the British word "satnav") that you carry around when hiking, was a geeky item for gadget freaks. These days, most fairly well-off people carry a smart phone with that capability and take it for granted, so much so that it's reasonable to wonder if there's any value left in a dedicated handheld satnav. I still rather like having one, I use it either when hiking, or mounted on my handlebars when cycling. I prefer it because it's more rugged in poor weather, and also using the GPS won't drain my phone battery. For the last few years I've used the Garmin 60CSx. It's a nice unit, but my device has a worsening fault with it freezing on startup. [1]

So I fancied getting something new, and I settled on the Garmin Oregon 600. So far I haven't had a chance to use it on the bike, and the winter means I won't get such a chance for several more months. But I did take it for a few days hiking in Switzerland, and thought I'd share my experiences.

The Oregon has a touch screen, rather than the dedicated buttons of the 60CSx. I was a bit concerned about that, since when I bought the 60CSx I also looked at the Oregon of the time and concluded that the screen wasn't bright enough. But things have improved a lot over the few years since, and the screen looks lovely and bright now. The touch screen generally makes it easier to operate. I have some concern about what I'll do in the winter when I have gloves on, but we don't do much winter hiking, so I think we'll not be too worried about it.

The Oregon comes in several variants. I bought the basic 600 model. There's also a 650, which adds a built in camera. Since I'll have my smart phone with me, and usually a more serious camera, I didn't feel that was worthwhile. The other variation in the line is the 600t (and 650t) which adds a complete set of topo maps for the USA, but these are worthless as I'll elaborate on later.

For our hiking trip I found the Oregon 600 worked out really well. The unit fits nicely in the hand, and the display is bright and clear. The touch screen makes using the map display much easier, with the usual pan and pinch operations that we're used to with smartphones. I found the battery life to be excellent, a pair of rechargeable batteries easily lasted for a couple of days hiking.

The unit is extremely customizable, with every slot on the UI customizable to a particular application or screen within an application. This can be a bit of a problem, as you can invest a lot of time setting up the unit to way you'd like it to work (and it's confusing should you accidentally remove a key application from the main screen, can't figure out how to get the unit to find locations, and have to resort to googling the web to find you need to dig the application out from setup menus). A nice feature is that you can save your customizations for different modes of use - so I can have one set of customizations for hiking and another for biking. This looks very useful, although I haven't tried switching modes yet.

The accuracy of the unit seems pretty good. I tend to treat a satnav as unit to use in combination with map and compass, and I don't do things like geocaching, so I'm more tolerant of lower accuracy than some would be. But it seemed to track our hiking well. That said, we tended to be in open country, not in woods, or in canyons that are a challenge for a satnav.

The great plus on modern satnavs is how they work with maps, and when it comes to maps and Garmin there is both bad news and good news. For biking with the 60CSx I bought a set of Garmin's routable street maps for North America. This allowed me to plot a route out on my computer before the ride and then follow it, an approach which works really well for me. But the Garmin maps are locked to a single physical device, so I can't transfer them from my now defunct 60CSx to my new Oregon. This is ludicrous, it actually acts as a disincentive for upgrading a Garmin unit, and means there's little incentive to stay within the Garmin brand. If you've invested money in maps, it's very frustrating to not be able to use them with another device, particularly when maps are so easily available for free on your smartphone [2]. Indeed this, plus my annoyance with the startup fault on the 60CSx, were reasons to move away from Garmin when I wanted to replace the unit.

But there's good news on the maps front - a vibrant ecosystem of open-source maps (see below for links). I had discovered these with the 60CSx, which is why I'd never bothered with buying topo maps (and why the "t" units are a waste of money). I'd downloaded excellent topo maps for hiking trips in the US and Europe. There are also routable street maps based on open street maps, although I don't yet know how well they will work for me until spring gets us back on our saddles. But at least for the swiss trip, I found excellent open source maps that I could easily install and use. And I appreciate that, unlike the 60CSx, the Oregon allows me to easily switch between different map images without faffing around with the file system on the micro SD card. Garmin's BaseCamp application — for working with maps, waypoints, and tracks — has steadily improved over the years on the mac. I use it both for pre-planning routes and waypoints and also for looking at tracks when we're done.

All in all, I like my upgrade. The Oregon 600 is all in all a better experience to work with than the old one. If you're considering a dedicated hand-held satnav, then this is a good choice (with the proviso that I'm only basing it on a single hiking trip so far.)


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