Hands on with the Garmin nuvi 500
The Garmin nuvi 500 represents Garmin’s foray into the “crossover” GPS market, aiming for a device that functions well whether used for driving, hiking, cycling or boating. This review will take a hard look at how well Garmin pulls that off, but first let’s get some basics out of the way.
UPDATE: Here’s a post I did about dual-use GPS, and how well they work for both road and trail.
The 3.5″ touch-screen nuvi 500 comes pre-loaded with City Navigator and topo maps of the 48 contiguous United States, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The other model in this series, the Garmin nuvi 550, offers highway coverage of the entire U.S. and Canada but drops the topo maps. Neither unit has text-to-speech, so you’ll hear “drive one-half mile, then turn left” instead of “drive one-half mile, then turn left on Main Street.”
There are some other nice features found on the nuvi 500 series though. Based on the nuvi 2×5 platform, the nuvi 500 offers:
- A redesigned map screen with an extra data field showing your current speed
- Speed limit display
- Tracklog display
- Recent cities and streets can be accessed from search screens
- Where am I?
- Photo navigation
- Terrain modeling
- MSN Direct or FM/TMC traffic (optional)
You can read about these features in more detail in my Garmin nuvi 205W review.
There are also a couple of features found on the 500 and 550 that are not present on the 2×5 series nuvis — multi-destination routing and a removable, li-ion battery rated at up to 8 hours.
Garmin nuvi 500 usage mode
From the main menu, tap the icon in the center of the top bar (the walking icon is shown in the image below).
This brings up the screen below, allowing you to select the usage mode. Note that boating is not listed as an option unless you have a BlueChart® g2 or g2 VisionTM map loaded.
Unless you check “don’t ask me again,” you’ll first see the following screen overlay.
If you change modes often, you may want to leave this box unchecked, as it will bring up options to select your map view and routing preferences.The options presented are as follows:
- Driving -Chose driving vehicle icon, map view (track up, north up or 3D), driving route preference (faster time, shorter distance or off road)
- Walking – Choose walking vehicle (defaults to boots), map view (track up, north up or 3D), route preference (on road or off road)
- Bicycling – Choose bicycling vehicle icon (defaults to bike), map view (track up, north up or 3D), route preference (on road or off road)
Garmin nuvi 500 driving mode
The nuvi 500 series has lost none of its automotive prowess; it performs just as well on the road as any nuvi with comparable features. As a result, I’m going to focus this review on it’s uses for non-automotive pursuits — geocaching, hiking, etc.
Garmin nuvi 500 as a handheld
With any “crossover” GPS receiver, compromises must be made, and it appears that Garmin made them all on the handheld side of the equation. First, what they got right…
The unit appears to be well designed in terms of being waterproof. Battery life also seems good; it is rated at 8 hours. If you need more than that, it has a user-replaceable battery so you can always buy and carry a spare.
But there are more problems than not. Let’s start with the hardware. There is no lanyard attachment, and the unit is awkward to hold. It is pocket-sized, but there is no touch screen lock as there is with the Oregon series. The case seems a little fragile; I’d hate to drop it on a rock, and I definitely wouldn’t put it on a mountain bike.
Worse still, some basic handheld functionality is missing. While the 500 will display your track, and can “TracBack,” you cannot load even one track to the device. Nor can you reposition waypoints to your current location; not as important as loading tracks, but a pet peeve of mine.
Also note that you cannot change the interval or method for recording track points. The nuvi 500 records a relatively low number of track points when compared to other handhelds. It starts a new track segment when you change modes, or even if you search for a waypoint. Not only that, but it leaves a gap of up to several hundred feet in the tracklog when it does so.
Garmin nuvi 500 compass
The nuvi 500 does not have an electronic compass. It uses GPS signals to ascertain your direction, so you must be moving to get an accurate reading (that’s because the unit has no way of ascertaining which way you are facing if standing still).
That’s not so bad, but the manual says “…you must have a clear view of the sky” to navigate with the compass, and I’ve found that to be all too true. When under canopy, the compass is very slow to respond to a change in direction, sometimes taking 500 feet or more at walking speeds.
This is puzzling, because the distance to the destination was fairly accurate, steadily getting smaller even as the compass was telling me to go the opposite way at times. To further muddy the waters, comparing the track of the nuvi 500 to my 60CSx and aerial photos, the nuvi did very well, occasionally showing some error, but never more than 60 feet.
I’m left to conclude that the inability of the compass to guide under even light canopy may be more of a software issue than a problem with the antenna and/or chipset.
Perhaps this will be improved in a future firmware release, along with another compass / off-road navigation issue; the “Arrive in ____ ft” field below is
Until they get this fixed, the compass screen is largely useless. Fortunately, the map screen, when routing off road, shows the distance to next and direction in the upper left corner, as shown below. Tapping this field takes you to the compass.
The arrow in this field doesn’t point you in the direction of your destination any better than the compass, but seeing the distance to your goal certainly helps.
That is if you’re within 500 feet of the destination. Above that, it only displays the distance in tenths of a mile, meaning you could walk 500 feet before figuring out that you’re going the wrong way!
According to the manual (which is less than clear), the compass is supposed to function as a course pointer in off-road mode. Therefore, it should indicate your relationship to a course line to your destination, rather than acting as a bearing compass, showing the direction to your destination. The image below is taken from the manual, which states, “when the red arrow points at the bug indicator, you are going directly to your destination.”
Despite this, in my field tests, the direction arrow seemed to point towards the destination, as if it were functioning in bearing mode. A call to Garmin tech support indicated that the manual may be in error. Note that there is no user setting allowing you to switch between bearing and course mode.
I cannot recommend using this device in the backcountry until the myriad compass issues are resolved. I found it very difficult to rely upon the nuvi 500 for off-road navigation.
Finally, if my notes on the compass are a little confusing, just know that it parallels the experience of using it!
Geocaching with the nuvi 500
Like the Colorado and Oregon models, the nuvi 500 series fully supports paperless geocaching, displaying the full description, cache size, difficulty and terrain ratings, as well as recent logs. Caches can be transferred directly from geocaching.com using the Garmin Communicator plugin or pocket queries can be dropped into the Garmin / GPX directory on the unit. You must be a premium member of geocaching.com ($3/month) to run pocket queries or transfer
the full information to the unit. Screen shots follow.
Paperless caching is great, but it’s not quite ready for prime-time on the nuvi 500, thanks to the compass problems mentioned above. Out of six cache attempts, I only found one without resorting to pulling out my 60Csx, which often as not I did just out of sheer frustration with the nuvi. The unit is pretty useless for finding caches unless they are right on the trail. It is definitely not a unit for someone just starting in the sport! Having said that, it could be a great geocaching unit once the compass is fixed.
Garmin nuvi 500 tips
- Quickly tap the power button to bring up an option to change the screen brightness; this is a nice way to prolong battery life when you leave your car to use the device as a handheld
- Hold the lower right corner of the screen while powering on the device to bring up a hard reset option (erases all user data)
- After you transfer routes from MapSource, select Tools > My Data > Import Route From File
Conclusion and recommendation
There is something very attractive about having one device for multiple uses. I have to say that I really like being able to load all waypoints to one unit, use it to drive to the trailhead and then use it for a hike. But many compromises must be made with this type of unit, and as I said earlier, Garmin appears to have made them all on the handheld side. They left all the nuvi auto functionality in, but seemingly did the minimum on the handheld side, without adequately testing it as well. It’s almost as if they didn’t even talk to their handheld folks in developing it.
Until the compass issues are straightened out, I cannot recommend this unit for geocachers, hikers or mountain bikers. Where you will be sticking to roads (road biking), or moving faster (4WDs and ATVs), it may be worth considering.
If you are seriously looking at a “crossover” type unit, you should consider a couple of things:
- What is your primary use going to be? Would you rather compromise on the auto or handheld side?
- Rather than spend $400 or $500 on this unit, you may be better off with a low end nuvi (like the 200 or 205) for your car, and a basic (Venture HC) to mid-range (60Cx) handheld.
While Garmin may fix the compass functionality, the future might not bring many more improvements for the nuvi 500 series. Garmin seems determined to keep the nuvi platform simple, and I doubt that they will add the ability to load tracks, or any advanced handheld functionality. With luck though, they’ll use it as a learning experience for a new line in the future.
More Garmin nuvi 500 reviews
- The first consumer-authored Garmin nuvi 500 review has been posted at GPS Now.
- PC Magazine gave a 3 out of 5 star rating in their Garmin nuvi 500 review
- CNet also gave a 3 out of 5 star rating in their review of the nuvi 500
- There is a Garmin nuvi 500 review thread at GpsPasSion
- GPS Magazine has posted a Garmin nuvi 500 review based on a pre-production unit
- The Changelog reviews the Garmin nuvi 500
- A user review of the nuvi 500 has been posted at Singletracks.com
- A motorcyclist reviews the nuvi 500
I’ll be posting more hands on GPS reviews as they appear, but in the meantime, here are some…
Other Garmin nuvi 500 resources
- A PDF version of the Garmin nuvi 500 owners manual
- Confused about so many models and choices? Use this Garmin nuvi comparison tool or check out my own Garmin nuvi comparison chart.
- The official Garmin nuvi 500 web page.
- There is a dedicated Garmin nuvi message forum at GpsPasSion.
- And another nuvi forum at GPS Review
- How to access archived nuvi trip logs
- Five tips for nuvi newbies
- Yes, it really does appear to be waterproof:
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