Garmin Colorado Review – First Impressions

Last summer I got word of two new hand held GPS receivers that would be entering the market in late 2007/early 2008: the Magellan Triton and the Garmin Colorado.

The Triton hit the market first, and the release was a disaster.  The units suffered hardware and software issues, and they have been pulled from the shelves at many outdoor retailers while Magellan works out the bugs.  This disappointed me since I was really looking forward to getting one.  The Triton’s main selling point was the integration with National Geographic Topo, the mapping software tool of choice for many outdoor enthusiasts, including myself. This was an exciting idea for a techie and outdoors nut like me, and I overlooked the Garmin Colorado because Magellan was a no-brainer choice.

I had always intended on spending my REI dividend on the Triton, but as I heard story after story of bugs and failures from the early adopters, I started looking at the Garmin Colorado.   I was able to hold one in my hand and physically try it out at a geocaching event at the beginning of February, and it was lust at first sight.   The Colorado was also not without its own problems, but the majority of them were software issues and have already been addressed with regular firmware updates.

Yesterday I used my embarrassingly enormous REI dividend (side story:  when I worked at REI about seven years ago I watched a guy use a $1200 dividend to fit his entire family in new ski equipment.  I applied for the credit card the next day) to buy a Garmin Colorado 400t, and the extended entry contains my initial 24-hour impression, along with some snazzy screenshots.    Note: Before doing anything with the Colorado I updated the firmare to version 2.40, which fixes many issues, especially with the geocaching features.  If you buy a new one off the shelf, make sure to load the latest firmware to the device.


Navigating around the Colorado
The Colorado has a very different physical navigation design than any other GPS receiver.  It uses a click wheel at the top of the device along with two softkeys (like on a mobile phone).  You use the clickwheel to scroll through menus, the center pad to pan around the screen, and the center button to select highlighted items. The two softkeys to perform whatever action is listed in the corresponding corner.

By pressing the right softkey on most screens I bring up my ‘Shortcuts’ menu. This is a menu of the major function areas of the Colorado, and I can scroll through the menu items by rolling the clickwheel.   The screenshot to the left shows the Shortcuts selection menu with the “Map” function area highlighted and ready for selection.

Things are a bit confusing here for the first-time user.  Not every function area is immediately accessible on the Shortcuts menu; sometimes options will appear in the ‘Others’ submenu – the contents of the Shortcuts menu depend on what profile the Colorado is set to use.  The idea is to not clutter the menus with options that you won’t need when using the Colorado for a specific purpose.  For example, why would I need hunting and fishing data if I’m out geocaching?  But, I might want it if I’m using the Colorado in a marine environment. I think the profiles are a good idea to help manage the many features of the Colorado; I just need to learn where things are in the two profiles I’ll use the most, geocaching and recreational.


Out on the Trail
This afternoon, I took the Colorado out on its first excursion, carrying it along on my regular run out of the Rhus Ridge trailhead in Rancho San Antonio. The following screenshots were taken on the trail today, and the described features are just the tip of the iceberg with regards to the Colorado’s capabilities.

When I select the Map function from the Shortcut menu I get the screen to the left – it’s a topo map of my location, and I can pan around it with the center of the clickwheel, zoom in and out by scrolling the clickwheel, and I can select further options (like customizations) with the left softkey.  Here, like on most screens, the right softkey brings up the shortcut menu.

The 400t model includes 1:100,000 scale basemaps for the entire US pre-built into the GPS. This is great – no more spending money on accessory software and uploading regional maps every time I go backpacking – they are already there for me. This is a huge time saver in my trip preparation – with my old GPS, sometimes it took me as long to prepare and upload maps as it did to pack for the trip.

The maps look pretty nice based on today’s terrain, which included one steep climb and a jog along rolling hills.  The trails/access roads even appear in a rough estimate on the map, although they weren’t terribly accurate.  I look forward to getting it into the Sierra where terrain and trails can be a bit trickier.


Geocaching with the Colorado
The Colorado understands the geocaching gpx files and loads them as geocaches instead of regular waypoints. I had loaded a Pocket Query from Geocaching.com onto the Colorado before heading out today – this is a simple task, since the unit mounts like an extra drive to the computer, enabling me to simply drag and drop the gpx file into the Colorado’s folders.  This is far less fussy than previous GPS units I have used, where I am always struggling with getting the various softwares to recognize the devices.

The caches appear on the map screen, so as I was jogging along the trail and watching my track I could see that I was approaching a cache.  I pulled up the Shortcuts menu and selected the Geocaches function (the geocaching icon to the right of the map icon in the first screenshot).

The Geocaches menu brings up a list of the nearest geocaches, as seen in the screenshot.  I had checked the name of the cache that I was approaching by scrolling the cursor over the cache icon, and this matched the closest cache on the list. Selecting this from the list brought up the cache information with basic details such as difficulty and terrain, cache size, and distance to the cache as seen in the first screenshot below.  From this details screen I could also bring up the full details and last logs on the cache as well as the hint, as shown in the second screenshot below.  These features may make my Palm and Cachemate program pretty much obsolete, although I still need to play with the logging/marking as found options on the Colorado to make sure it is sufficient for long trips where I may not be logging my caches right away.


Satellite Screen

The Satellite Information screen looks like every other GPS I’ve owned, with the Tie Fighter style satellite images and the signal strength bars, but it is much prettier, just like all of the Colorado screens.

The Options menu on the satellite screen allows you to turn the GPS off, in case you need some of the GPS’s functions without wanting to use up the battery.

Also included is the GPS accuracy, which is a useful thing to know when recording a waypoint or walking around in a circle looking for a cache.  The maps also allow for customization so that I can show this information in the fields on the map screen too, so I don’t have to come to this screen to find it.

By tapping the power button when the unit is on I get the other Information Screen, which includes the battery status, general GPS signal, and backlight adjustment.  I’ve noticed that the backlight setting doesn’t seem to save all the time between power offs and battery changes, but this is minor as I’m finding that I like to adjust it regularly anyways, depending on the lighting I’m in.  As you can see from the screen, adjusting the backlight is simple – it’s simply done with the clickwheel.

A quick note on the Battery indicator:  under the GPS settings I can select the kind of battery I have installed in the GPS – NiMH, Lithium, Alkaline, etc.  I’m assuming that this will affect how the Battery indicator works, but since I’m still on my first set of batteries I have no idea how accurate this is yet.

Trip Computer

The trip computer is shown in the two screenshots above (first, the selection icon from the shortcut menu, and then the trip computer itself).  This screen show the statistics for your outing (assuming that you remember to reset it before your trip).  It tells me that today’s run wasn’t very efficient – I spent most of the time stopping or walking slowly and playing with the Colorado, instead of actually running.

The data fields are customizable, but I have not yet played with the zillion options available.  The above screenshot shows the defaults that were set in my new unit.  I can see that today’s run/walk was 4.18 miles long, and that distance was covered in 1:09 of moving time, and I was stopped for an additional 9:55.  My max speed was pretty good; it was probably when I was on my favorite open flat stretch of terrain and jogging, but the moving average was pretty low since I often slowed to a slow stroll while fiddling with the Colorado.

I’m a sucker for statistics like this when I’m on the trail, so I’ll be using this screen a lot.

Elevation Profile

The elevation profile screen is like the trip computer, in that it provides statistics on the trip.  When I took this screenshot, I had climbed the steep trail up Rhus Ridge and was working my way along the gentler trail to Black Mountain.  The peak of the graph is around where I turned around, but I had done some wandering around a small hill with great views in that location which were recorded as the spikes.

The elevation screen tracks things like current elevation and total ascent/descent.  There are many different ways to visualize this screen (barometric data), but I have not yet tried this and so I will not comment on it.


Conclusions

I know this entry is long, but it only touches on a small fraction of the functionality that the Colorado provides and I don’t want to blabber on much longer.  So far the unit seems quick to respond, the buttons and click wheel are crisp and responsive, and the screen looks great.  My 24 hour impression is entirely positive.  I hope it stays that way as I’m able to dig deeper into what the Colorado has to offer.

I’ll be using the Colorado for two primary functions: backcountry navigation/information, and geocaching.   The functionality of the Colorado goes way beyond that, but I don’t know how useful I will find those options.  In addition, the Colorado supports the new whereigo game, which I intend to try out with my abundant spare time (ha).

There are also maps that have been created by the community that provide more information than the default pre-loaded topo, and I’m definitely going to be looking out for those.  I’m going to be loading the 24k Santa Clara Park Maps first, which should give me more topo detail than the 100k seen in this last screenshot.

I’ll post follow up entries if I find anything else that I just have to share.

Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd

Free range human. Mountain sports addict. Craft beer drinker. Tech nerd. The best days are those spent above 10k ft. Team OmniTen and Evernote Ambassador. Meet me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google +

  • http://www.garmin.co.uk Garmin Web

    Great review and very informative. It might be worth bookmarking the Garmin Blog as we put up to date news and product info on there very regularly. You can find that here: http://garmin.blogs.com/uk/

  • http://ttnmmis Brad

    Hey there, thanks so much for the great info! I want to buy one of these this week but I heard the National Geographic topos might become available for these units. Is this true? If that happens will they work on both the 300 and 400 model? Also, is there any difference in the 300 and 400 other then the 400 has the pre-loaded topo?

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR HELP!!!!

    Brad

  • http://colocalders.com Kate C

    Very nice review! It’s nice to see more screen shots than the three that are on the Garmin site. Plus, it sounds like there are a lot of unhappy users out there, and your brief comments about setting up the type of battery and backlighting options make it sound like some of those other issues are user error.

    REI has these on sale for 25% off right now. I think it would be worth the investment after reading this review.

    And hey, if you’ve changed your mind and think they suck, shoot me an email. I’m interested in hearing what people who’ve really used the Colorado think.

  • frank p

    Is there a way to hand load GPS cordinates. Lots of places are giving out their GPS coordinates but I can’t find a way to enter them. I also have friends who have other units and have been to areas and want to hand me thier info, but I can’t load them.

  • Calipidder

    @frank p -

    The UI isn’t super intuitive when it comes to manually entering a coordinate. If you select ‘Mark Waypoint’ in the menu, if will record a waypoint at your location, then immediately present you with a menu of things to do with that waypoint (change name, edit location, etc). I just hit edit location and enter the coords I want.

    Hope this helps – Rebecca

  • http://www.snowarea.org misho

    Do you know what is difference between Oregon 400T or 400c or 400c?

    Thank you a lot
    Misho

  • http://alwaysjanuary.blogspot.com/ Randy

    Very cool. Glad to hear it comes with some decent base maps. I have the 60CSx and I didn’t use it for the longest time because the base maps suck and I didn’t want to pluck down 100 bucks. I finally broke down after Garmin released their new regional 24K topo maps that include road maps. I got the California-Nevada ones, and they’re actually pretty cool. Just wish my unit supported the contour shading like the newer ones.

    I hadn’t heard that any of the Garmin units would be allowing use of the NG Topos. That’s pretty cool.

  • Mike Gibson fire chief (ret.)

    I’m pretty impressed with the new colorado 400t. My question is: Can the unit be plugged into a cigarette lighter in a vehicle to keep the unit powered and the batteries trickle charged as well?

  • Calipidder

    @Mike – You can buy the car accessory kit that includes a lighter adapter. It won’t charge the batteries but it will power the unit when plugged in.

    @Randy – The unit doesn’t use NG Topos, it’s their own topo.

  • foghorn

    Misho: all reviews I’ve read say the difference between the 300 and 400 models exists only in the maps. I saw one spec that seemed to say the 300 had less memory, but that may have had to do with the SD card.

  • rickerev

    I’m wondering about the Colorado 400t. I have a chance to get one at a really good price. I’ve read about battery issues, and people worrying about accuracy. I”m a techie and love my gizmos, so I don’t think I’d be too worried about the interface and learnability. No matter how good a deal I may get on it, I still don’t want to shell out the cash for something that will end up being a dud. Just want to get advice from those who’ve owned the Garmin Colorado 400t – in your opinion, still worth getting? (hiking, biking, and just starting to discover geocaching). Thanks for any input.

  • http://www.geocachefanatic.com Lucy

    Thanks CalPidder. I added your review to my review of the Colorado Unit and the apps from Blackberry and iPhone…

    http://geocachefanatic.com/?p=340

  • http://jonathancamp.com Jonathan

    The Garmin Oregon 400t GPS is a great device. I’ve written a short writeup of my experiences and how to use it with some really great free software here:
    http://jonathancamp.com/2009/11/16/garmin-gps-oregon-400t/

    I’ve outlined four great free resources and website that enable you to pre-plot routes, show tracks travelled and upload / download GPX files easily to your Garmin Oregon 400t.

    http://www.gpsvisualizer.com is a particularly great web site with a whole host of free features that making walking / treking offroad easy and a joy.

  • Pingback: Garmin GPS Oregon 400t handheld with European maps « Jonathans Blog

  • http://www.garminemporium.com Garmin Emporium

    God love google, great blog. Have an excellent day.

  • http://navigonsatnav.co.uk John

    Long time reader – first time poster! Great post. Appreciate the work thats gone into the site so far, keep it up! :)