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Garmin Oregon 400t GPS Review

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

Hitting the trails a couple of months ago, the Garmin Oregon 400t makes a big leap in technology for handheld GPS devices… the first major handheld GPS device with a touch screen display. Building on the foundations of the Colorado line, the Oregon line aims to make the GPS easier to operate through touch. But how well does it deliver? We’ve been kayaking, hiking, geocaching, mountain biking, and driving with the new Garmin Oregon GPS giving it a workout over a few months time for this review.

Physical Design
Taking the Oregon out of the box, I was a bit surprised about the size. The Oregon is smaller than I imagined and fits very comfortably in the palm of your hand. But it was also a bit heaver than I anticipated, coming in at 6.8 ounces with batteries giving it a dense, but rugged feeling.

On the back of the device is a clip that can be used to attach the included carabiner as well as access the battery compartment (two AA size). I was a little concerned about just how waterproof the Oregon would be given the very low pressure required to close the battery compartment, however I didn’t have any issues with water getting in there during several days of ocean kayaking.

Along the bottom is a rubber gasket which hides the USB port. After a sea kayaking trip I did notice a bit of salt building on the inside of that gasket around the mini USB port. It was easily wiped away, however this does give me a little bit of concern over extended periods of time. Also at the bottom is a small loop that could be used to attach a lanyard. Unfortunately the hole is really tiny so you wouldn’t be able to get a very thick cord through there. Still, I’m glad to see this attachment spot is at the bottom of the device as this puts it in a more user friendly orientation as it is hanging from your neck. When you grab it with your hand you are holding it in the correct orientation when you go to view the device, rather than a loop at the top which would put the device upside down when you pick it up while it is hanging from your neck.

There is just one button on the Oregon, the power button along the right side. Garmin seems to want to emphasize the touch screen as much as possible and eliminated all but the most essential buttons. Personally, would have liked to have seen at least one more button dedicated to marking waypoints (more on this later).

Touch Screen
The Garmin Oregon touch screen is certainly the biggest reason you might consider this device over other models. The touch screen is the Garmin Oregon’s biggest asset, as well as the biggest weakness.

First the good… The Garmin Oregon GPS is hands down the easiest handheld GPS to operate. Nothing else comes close. If you are new to GPS and tend to be intimidated by consumer electronics, the Garmin Oregon will be your best friend. Mud on the display? No problem. Water on the display? No problem. Wearing thick ski gloves? No problem…. Well you might have some accuracy issues with such a thick finger, but the touch screen can still respond. Do you find naming waypoints is a tedious process “arrowing” around the keyboard on a typical handheld GPS? The touchscreen of the Oregon handles this like a breeze.

The bad? The only “touchable” part of the display I didn’t like was that panning the map can be somewhat difficult. If you don’t apply firm pressure, the screen can sometimes get “stuck” while you are trying to pan and register a click instead. The issue is compounded by the fact that a tap on the screen is the method that adds a new waypoint. So whenever I would try to pan around on the screen I’d wind up with a half dozen new waypoints I’d have to clear out.

But the biggest issue I had with the Oregon 400t is the readability of the screen itself. The transflective color TFT display is difficult to read in most lighting conditions. No matter what direction I was facing, where the sun was, the angle of the sun, or even if I was in the shade the screen is not even close to being as readable as previous Garmin models such as the 60 series.

While enjoying hiking or geocaching this wasn’t quite as much of an issue since I could orient the GPS in my hand to find an angle where I could scan the screen. But kayaking, driving, or mountain biking you can’t just move the screen around at will as it is strapped down somewhere. This made it very difficult to keep tabs on my progress while enjoying those types of activities. The backlight will help, but it will also kill the battery life. And even with the backlight turned on I didn’t find the screen as readable as my older 60CSx.

Maps
The Oregon comes with different sets of maps depending on the configuration. The 400t I tested comes with topographic maps of the USA based on USGS 1:100,000 resolution data. You can see other configurations below.

 200 300 400t 400c 400i
US Inland Lakes Mapping Optional Optional Optional Optional Yes
US or UK BlueChart Mapping Optional Optional Optional Yes Optional
US or European Topography Optional Optional Yes Optional Optional
2-Axis Compass
Altimeter
Audio Tones
Wireless Communication
RS-232/NMEA Serial Communication
Alarm Clock No Yes Yes Yes Yes

When you can clearly see the maps they look fantastic. In low light conditions with the backlight on for example the maps look spectacular. Despite only being 1:100k resolution, they are still good enough for the activities most people will use the device for. As we have noted before, Garmin TOPO is Going 24k. Screen redraws were very fast and you even get a good number of POIs such as parks, schools, and churches.

Something we really missed though was the ability to use those maps from the computer. If you purchase the 400t, the maps come pre-loaded on the device and can’t be transfered to your computer. However you could also purchase the Oregon 300 and add the accessory topo maps and essentially wind up with the same outfit as the 400t. Then those maps could be used with some of Garmin’s desktop software for route planning. Otherwise with the 400t there isn’t any way using Garmin software and maps to plan a route on your computer that follows a trail, and transfer that route to the GPS without manually building a number of point to point segments.

The maps can also display in 3D. No, we are not taking just “shaded relief” although the Oregon can do that as well. The GPS can actually view the terrain from a ground perspective to give you a real world view of what the terrain looks like. The graphics in this mode are not as clear as they are in the 2D/shaded relief modes, and if you are accustomed to reading topographic maps you might find the feature “fun”, but of relatively small practical use. The view just always looks “overzoomed” and “pixelated”.

Electronic Compass
The Garmin Oregon does feature an electronic compass and a barometric altimeter. The electronic compass allows the GPS to determine direction (North, South, etc) while the GPS is standing still; something most GPS devices cannot do. It can be handy to view the compass while you are stopped to take a break, but keep in mind that the electronic compass in the Garmin Oregon does require you to hold the GPS level to get an accurate reading. For example I was sea kayaking in the fog making a long harbor crossing without any view of land… just white fog in all directions. With the waves the electronic compass wasn’t any use, however I could still follow my plotted route on the map screen so long as I was moving. You should never rely on GPS as your sole means of navigation, so carry a traditional compass along with you too. The barometric altimeter increases the accuracy of the elevation reading since GPS tends not to be nearly as accurate vertically.

Profiles
I enjoy numerous types of outdoor activities, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, snowboarding, geocaching, etc. With many handheld GPS devices on the market today I’ve been frustrated by the fact that for each of those activities there is different types of data I would like displayed on the GPS. For some I might typically keep the GPS in a map view while geocaching, a route instructions view kayaking, a trip info view while mountain biking, etc. Every time I go enjoy one of those activities I typically have to reconfigure a bunch of settings to get the GPS to show me what I want to see. Not so with the Garmin Oregon.

Using the concept of “Profiles” the Garmin Oregon series allows you to setup different preferences for different types of activities. The pre-configured profiles are recreational, geocaching, automotive, marine, and fitness. Using those profiles I can setup most of my different activities with their own profile so I don’t have to keep changing settings every time I enjoy the outdoors. Very clever, and something I hope other devices adopt.

Geocaching
Geocaching is particularly fun on the Garmin Oregon due to the touch screen display and the ability to download geocache information straight from the Geocaching website into the Oregon to enable paperless caching. When I go geocaching I tend to hit several in one day. So I’m creating lots of routes, zooming in and out of the map, flipping to the satellite info screen to view the current estimated accuracy, etc. With “tap intensive” activities like geocaching, the true power of the touch screen comes into play. When you go back to a GPS without a touch screen you will realize just how convenient the touch screen is.

The Oregon also features a short range wireless communication option with other similarly equipped GPS devices. Quite a few times I’ve been out geocaching and have run into other geocachers. Typically the conversation will go “Hey, have you been to X-Y-Z cache?” You can use this wireless communications feature to “beam” waypoints back and forth to other users. Quite handy.

Chipset Accuracy, Speed
We did encounter a few questionable issues with the accuracy of the calculated location and the speed of signal acquisition. If the device was turned off for a couple of days and the batteries were replaced, it seems the ephemeris / almanac data was cleaned out… something to be expected. But when it was turned back on the Oregon took much longer to get a satellite signal than expected. With an unobstructed sky view I’d hope it would get a signal in 10 minutes or less, but it often took greater than 20 minutes and once took over 40 minutes. During these times the GPS would even be receiving a strong signal from 9-11 satellites as evidenced by the picture below. Typical “warm” or “hot” starts were still very speedy though, typically getting a satellite fix in a matter of seconds.

The other chipset type issue we had became apparent when reviewing tracklogs. It wasn’t uncommon to view a few “blips” in the tracklog where it suddenly moved us 30 or 40 miles in a matter of seconds showing us going 30,000 mph. That happened a couple of times and while the tracks can be easily cleaned up when they were moved to the PC, this type of thing almost never happens on our 60CSx.

Another tracklog issue we had was that sometimes the first few points in a new track displayed at the position we were at a few days ago. So if I went hiking in New Hampshire one way and then kayaking in Maine on the second day, often the start of the track from the second day in Maine (as evidenced by the timestamp) would show a position in New Hampshire on the first few points.

Finally tracks we recorded just didn’t seem as consistent as tracks recorded from our 60CSx. For example walking around our block a half dozen times typically produces tracks that are very closely bunched together. Recording over several days might show the biggest difference in tracks of about 60-80 feet. Recording tracklogs of the same route on the Oregon wouldn’t produce as “tight” of tracks with differences of 100-150 feet on subsequent days.

These track and accuracy issues won’t be a big deal to most people, and don’t make the GPS a bad device. It is worthy of noting though because older Garmin devices performed better at these tasks than some of the newer models. People who have owned the older devices will likely notice it, but it is probably not a deal-breaker for the average GPS user.

The Final Fix
If you’re debating about getting an Oregon, your decision will likely rest with the screen. Those with the highest praise for the Oregon will enjoy it because of the touchscreen. Those with the highest criticism of the Garmin Oregon will look elsewhere because of how difficult the screen can be to see.

If you are using your GPS as part of an emergency toolkit to throw in your backpack, or just turn it on (“set it and forget it”) for casual use you will probably not get the best use of the touch screen and enjoy something from the eTrex or 60 series better. However if you are constantly fiddling with settings, changing screens, looking at track logs or trip summaries, the Garmin Oregon’s touch screen can make it your dream GPS.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.

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