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Top handheld GPS units for serious outdoor enthusiasts

The Garmin Oregon 450t (*Est. $450) has all the features expected of a high-end GPS receiver for serious enthusiasts. A color touch screen, intuitive interface and customizable profiles and menus allow for a personal and user-friendly experience, while the three-axis electronic compass takes the worry out of having to hold the unit steady and level to get an accurate reading. Geocachers love the time-saving and eco-friendly paperless feature of downloading geocache site details into the GPS receiver directly from the Internet. Using Bluetooth connectivity, users can share info wirelessly with other compatible Garmin GPS receivers, and reviewers enthuse about the "cool feature" of the BirdsEye aerial 3D maps.

Professional reviewers and users alike highly rate the Oregon 450t. Rich Owings of GPSTracklog.com not only recommends the Oregon 450t as the best midrange GPS, but also as the best overall GPS receiver. The customer reviewers at Amazon.com are equally pleased with the Oregon 450t, awarding it a rating of just under 4 out of 5 stars, although they do identify a few drawbacks.

The Garmin Oregon 450t ships with preloaded topographic 1:100,000 scale maps of the United States. Owings argues that the maps are not worth the additional cost over the base Oregon 450 model, which does not come with maps. His alternative is to download the many free 1:24,000 scale maps available on the Internet. But some customer reviewers at Amazon.com disagree, pointing out that these smaller scale maps do not contain geographic features, such as unpaved roads and trails, of interest to off-road and backwoods navigators.

With its ability to store 200 routes with 1,000 waypoints, and 200 saved tracks with 10,000 points, the Garmin Oregon 450t provides enough data space for the travels of the ardent enthusiast. Although the Oregon 450t does not have a camera, it does have a picture viewer which allows users to download their own photos. In addition, its photo navigation feature allows people to download geotagged photos from other sources and to navigate to those locations.

Even though the touch screen of the Oregon 450t has been improved with a greater viewing angle over that of its predecessor, the Oregon 400t, professional reviewers and users still report some difficulty in viewing the screen in bright sunshine. Owings suggests creating separate profiles for sun and shade viewing, with different settings in each. Another drawback identified by users is the lack of detail in its downloadable documentation, a complaint also heard from users of other Garmin GPS models.

Some might also be interested in the almost identical Garmin Oregon 550t (*Est. $500). The only differences between the Oregon 450t and the Oregon 550t are the addition of a camera and the use of slightly different batteries. The Oregon 550t has a 3.4 megapixel camera with autofocus and a 4X digital lens. "Fletch" at GPSMagazine.com says the Oregon 550t's camera is on par with most cell phone cameras, and he considers it adequate for geocaching or posting pictures online. He especially likes that it automatically geotags photos with location coordinates. One complaint centers on the cumbersome way the 550t makes the user link photos to waypoints, with Owings of GPSTracklog.com concluding "Garmin can do better than that."

Some less expensive handheld GPS are also highly rated

While high-end, high-performance GPS receivers are a must for serious enthusiasts, some less-costly units perform nearly as well, though with not quite as many features. The Garmin Dakota 20 (*Est. $250), for example, scores points with a number of reviewers, including those at About.com and GPSTracklog.com. About.com's Fred Zahradnik calls the Dakota 20 rugged and versatile -- small enough to use while running or to mount on a bike, capable of being immersed, strong enough for backpacking, and even powerful enough to use as a car GPS. He notes that it has a marine chart mode and dedicated geocaching.

The Dakota 20 is a more basic GPS unit than the Oregon 450t/550t. It's about 25 percent lighter, with a smaller overall size and display. Comparable to the more expensive GPS receivers in this category, it displays in color, has a touch screen, has a three-axis electronic compass and a barometric altimeter, and comes with the same memory and SD card capabilities. It differs in that it does not arrive with preloaded maps, and can hold fewer routes and waypoints, 50 and 1,000 respectively. There is neither a camera nor a picture viewer, and users cannot navigate to tagged photos.

That said, Zahradnik summarizes the Dakota 20 as "an excellent value in a versatile, compact handheld." GPSTracklog.com's Rich Owings also highly recommends the Dakota 20, describing its features as a blend of Garmin's Oregon and eTrex lines (the latter is covered in our section on budget handheld GPS). He says it combines the Oregon's user-friendly touch screen and triaxial compass with eTrex's small size, light weight and long battery life. He calls the Dakota 20 GPS "a great choice for hikers, bikers, geocachers and just about any other category of handheld users."

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Garmin Dakota 20 Waterproof Hiking GPS
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $279.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Garmin Oregon 550T 3-Inch Handheld GPS Navigator with 3.2MP Digital Camera (U.S. Topographic Maps)
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $499.99 $379.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Garmin Oregon 450t Handheld GPS Navigator
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $399.99 $315.00   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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