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Garmin Oregon 200 – a waterproof, multipurpose GPS for the bike

It’s quite a few years since I joined the ranks of GPS-equipped riders.

My conversion from GPS sceptic to GPS user happened in the Alsace back in the early years of this decade. I was leading a group ride, and doing my usual thing, trying to navigate from a map on the tank. I’d preplanned the route and knew where I wanted to go but we’d barely got underway before I was confronted with a junction with two roads going in the direction I wanted and not a sign in view.

I made a snap decision and took the wider, better surfaced of the two roads. Within half a mile we were climbing away from the river we should have been following, and I knew I’d taken the wrong turn.

I carried on, hoping to improvise, looking for a road that would lead us back to our planned route, but the road came to a dead-end at a large car park outside the local football stadium, which had been built on the flat land on top of the hill out of the river valley.

We did a U turn, backtracked down to the town and took the cobbled narrow road that I’d ignored. Two minutes down the valley, we were out of the town and on the sweeping bends beside the river I’d chosen.

Over lunch, Steve wandered over to have a chuckle about the football stadium excursion, and told me he’d known instantly we were on the wrong route from the GPS. He demonstrated the black and white map, and the primitive routing function on his Garmin GPSIII plus that allowed him to have pre-set the waypoints for the trip.

Well, I was impressed enough that when he upgraded to the next generation, I bought his old GPSIII plus, wired it into the bike’s electrics, and there it’s sat on the handlebar ever since.

As the prices of GPS units fell, the maps got better, screens turned colour and routing improved, so my III+ was relegated to the role of digital speedo and clock, with a cheapie Garmin i3 designed for a car tucked up under the screen out of the rain doing the routing. That set up has served me well for the last four years or so.

But this summer, the III+ screen began failing, so I decided it was time to update it to something more modern.

I looked at the options and steered away from the motorcycle-specific Zumos towards the Oregon/Dakota range.

The closely related Oregon and Dakota series are both much more portable than the Zumos, which means they’re true multi-purpose GPS’s – important as I wanted to use the GPS on my MTB and when walking. The Zumos are too big to slip easily into a pocket and too heavy for an MTB.

Unlike the Zumos with their internal battery pack, the Oregon and Dakota are powered by AA batteries which means you’re not tied to a dedicated charger. Another consideration is that you’re not left with a doorstop when the battery fails, needing either expensive back-to-base repairs or risky home surgery. Let’s face it, this is likely to be long before the GPS packs up.

I also wanted something that would run my existing (and expensive!) Garmin Euro-maps I’d already bought on mSD for my i3, which ruled out the Tom-Tom and the new Data-Becker bike GPSs.

Finally the tall screen view is ideal for navigating. I’m amazed that no-one else seems to have commented on this but the wide screen view is totally wrong for following a route that’s AHEAD of you!

I also wanted to keep the price down and the Oregon 200 seemed to offer the best blend of screen size, features and price. Cheap the Zumo’s aren’t.

Missing features over the Zumo were:

– lack of built in UK routable map, which was easily remedied as an excellent open source one is available via Talkytoaster, more on which on another review – lack of internal speaker and no MP3 player, which isn’t that important on the bike in my opinion – lack of bluetooth, which again isn’t an important feature to me

Probably the biggest question marks were firstly the fact that the car kit is an additional extra and not cheap at over £40, and secondly the lack of spoken turn-by-turn instructions which would have been useful in the car. But given its main use was to be on-bike or hand-held where I wouldn’t use the spoken instructions in any case, this wasn’t a deal killer. I simply ordered a bicycle mount to fit the Hornet’s bars.

Out of the box and fired up, it took a few minutes to lock onto satellites as expected, but was soon ready for action.

Mounting it on the bike and going for a ride showed the immediate concerns were two-fold.

Firstly the dullness of the touch-sensitive screen made reading the map page difficult with no backlight. Worse, the trip page wasn’t any better, with the white on black numbers being almost invisible in daylight. Turning the backlight full up and permanently on helped marginally but impacted battery life, bring it down around 3-4 hours with a set of nearly new 2700mAh NiMH batteries, a long way short of the claimed 20 hours.

As a comparison, my i3 is clearly visible in bright sun with the screen brightness permanenty set on 2 of 5, and battery life is 6-7 hours at this setting. The Oregon trip page was difficult to read because the numbers were far too small and with poor contrast. Whoever chose to make the display white on black over a coloured and patterned background clearly never used it outdoors!

Secondly, there was very limited customisation of the fields on the trip meter with only small-sized fields displayed. The old III+ gave you an option to expland two of the fields to use most of the display. As the trip display was one of the main reasons for purchasing the device – I still wanted a digital clock and speedo on view most of the time, this poor display was a second major disappointment.

This was not an encouraging start. At this point, I was definitely thinking of sending it back, notwithstanding the unit’s excellent performance in the hand-held mode. With a suitable map installed, it was able to route me round footpaths in woodland in a hilly area where I often get disoriented and lost with just an ordinary paper map.

Reading around on the internet found an excellent forum and reading the posts there, it turned out the screen brightness and readability was a well-known problem.

I came up with two solutions others had discovered.

The first option was a series of white backgrounds to replace the patterned backgrounds that the device ships with. Installing these via USB immediately seemed to improve the map readability (I suspect the background is still behind the map), and it certainly helped the clarity of the white numbers on the trip meter – they were being dimmed and ‘fuzzed’ by the coloured background half-hidden behind – but they were still difficult to read.

The second suggestion was a firmware upgrade. Now I’m always a bit dubious about doing things like this. The internet is littered with stories of firmware upgrades that have gone wrong, but the unit I had bought from Amazon had a fairly early firmware version. So I took a chance and ran the upgrade software from Garmin.

A few thankfully hitch-free minutes later, I had the latest stable release on the Oregon, and was able to start playing with the new functions.

The most important change from my point of view was that the trip meter display could now be made black numerals on plain white background. Instantly I had good readability in sunlight with the backlight off.

I could also choose how to display trip info – a large number of small fields or three large fields. Joy! I could have my large digital clock and speedo back! It’s not quite as clear as the old III+ but it’s perfectly usable even with the backlight off.

The backlight itself can be set to come on at junctions to aid readability whilst preserving battery life, and with intermittent backlight use, battery life has been extended to seven or eight hours, which should be more than enough for most riding days, though I’ve not yet tried it at night for any length of time. It also comes on when you touch the screen if you need it for any reason.

Routing works fine on the opensource UK map, routes can be uploaded and tracks can be downloaded by USB and displayed in Garmin’s Mapsource PC application.

The unit also supports Points of Interest (POIs) which means a speed camera database can also be uploaded, as well as custom POIs. The proximity alert switches to a new warning screen, but remember there’s no alert tone because there’s no speaker, so it’s not as good as a car or bike specific GPS for this function.

Finding locations is achieved via the usual series of menus that allows searching through built in and custom POI’s, waypoints, recent finds and cities. The on-screen keyboard is alphabetic rather than QWERTY which takes a little getting used to, but it works. It’s quick and simple to find a destination and route to it.

The touch-screen is fairly good. It does tend to think that a ‘drag’ is actually a ‘tap’ at times, which is a pain as you have to cancel the pushpin the tap made, but cancelling takes the screen display back to your original location, so you have to start panning again. You can’t use it with a gloved finger, but quite frankly with the risk of scratching the screen, would you want to?

Route planning is fortunately much easier on the PC. Connecting the device to the PC took a moment to set up – there was an initial “device not recognised” problem, but finding the right sequence of connecting cables and pushing power buttons eventually got it installed. The unit and the microSD card then show up as seperate drives on the PC, making it easy to move the POIs and routes back and forth.

When using routing, it’s possible to switch off the map view and onto a turn-by-turn screen, where each new junction is fixed on screen. As you approach a time and distance countdown shows far far off you are, then when you’re nearly there, your little travelling ‘dart’ appears at the bottom and works its way up to the junction. As soon as you’ve negotiated it, the screen jumps to the next junction and resets the countdown. It’s surprisingly practical.

One other thing I do like is the way that profiles are supported. This allows to you do things like reorder the main menu, change backlight settings and reset the trip page display to suit specific uses.

It’s got geo-caching, man overboard and hunting/fishing functions I’ll never use, but the (ir)relevant buttons can be re-ordered and even deleted from the menus so they don’t clog the interface up in my profiles.

I’ve set up a “trip n map” profile where I mostly use the trip page so the backlight is on low and intermittent, a “routing” page where the routing functions are on the first menu page and the backlight is on high and intermittent, a “walking” profile where the on-board compass is easy to show. The settings are ‘sticky’ so there’s no need to reorder everything when you next use the GPS for a different purpose. There’s also a ‘screen lock’ option for use in a pocket.

Functionally, it’s vastly improved by the firmware update, but there are still a few tricks missing. The ability to switch directly from map view to trip view and back via an onscreen button would be useful, as would the ability to remove the transparent buttons from the map altogether, perhaps only appearing when you touch the screen.

The data screens that can be displayed on the map are transparent so they overlay the map, which is the worst of both worlds. It would be better if that part of the map was just cut off and the digits displayed plain black on white.

There are signs of penny-pinching. It would be nice if batteries were included, and though the PC cable is in the box, there’s no 12v cable to connect to a cigarette lighter or auto mount.

The bicycle mount is also a bit primitive compared with the one that held the III+ on, just a bit of plastic with a half-moon cut out and four cable ties, which isn’t much for £13! The old mount was a hinged design that clamped around the bars and locked with a nut. It’s also a bit fiddly to lock onto and unlock from the mount.

Verdict? Overall, the Oregon 200 is good but it isn’t perfect, and the screen visibility will be a big factor for some people. For my uses, 4/5 and recommended. But do try to check the screen before you buy, and bear in mind that firmware update.

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