Any geocacher will tell you that their most important piece of kit is the GPSr. Whilst some are happy to casually geocache with a smartphone, those of us who are a little more ‘dedicated’ treat the selection of a new GPSr with the upmost of care.
For the last few years, I’ve been using the Oregon 300 and have been very happy with it. But when a geocaching weekend away last year resulted in the Oregon 300 somehow losing all my hints, I thought it was time to consider upgrading and bought myself, after much consideration, the Oregon 650.
Now if you want a full review of the 650, comprehensive field tests and all it can do, I suggest reading Andy Byers’ review or Rich’s review of the Oregon 600. I use my GPSr for one thing and one thing only, hunting geocaches, and that’s purely my focus here. I’ve been using the device for a few months now and have found over a thousand caches with it. Here are my honest impressions as a geocacher.
Garmin claims the 650 can hold unlimited Geocaches and for me that’s a big selling point. In reality, it’s limited by its 3.5gb internal memory. Like previous Oregons it can hold a microSD card but I run my GPSr with the UK Ordnance Survey maps so in reality that slot is taken up with those.
For me, the appeal of unlimited geocaches is that on a two hour journey to a geocache series, I can add all the geocaches I’m likely to drive past without too much hassle. I’ve put a lot of effort into building a comprehensive GSAK database over the years and it’s pure convenience to be able to export everything for miles onto the 650 without further hassle or fine tuning filters.
I’ve found that if you squeeze 100,000 geocaches onto the thing you’re likely to see crashes (at least with the earlier firmwares), 60,000 and it’s a bit unreliable, but the device will happily run 30-40,000 geocaches. I suspect that some of the instability was caused by me playing around with the camera function and using up valuable memory space but I’ve been regularly uploading 30,000 geocaches to the device to take with me on a day out for the past couple of months now.
The downside to this is in instances where the next geocache in the series isn’t the next nearest geocache. If you try and select another local geocache from the Geocache selection tab, it can take a good thirty seconds for the list to load. That’s a little infuriating when you’ve got a big geocaching day and want to avoid any standing around but it’s not a deal breaker. I suspect it’s based on the number of geocaches you have stored on the device, and you might have to experiment with how many you upload at a time to find your personal sweet spot between capacity and performance.
Geocaching User Interface
I’m getting old and my eyesight isn’t what it once was, so I really appreciate the big buttons for hints, logs, description (although I’m not sure I need one for chirp, but I can forgive Garmin for pushing their own product). It’s also easy to enter in revised co-ordinates for when you solve multis and bonus puzzle caches in the field (although the cursor can sometimes be hard to spot in the field and the text is a little small). The ability to increase the text size of descriptions and hints is very useful. There’s some extensive user configurability for the device but only at the top level and not within the Geocaching sub-menu. I really wish I could configure it so I could swap that chirp button for a shortcut back to the map so I don’t have to go out to the main menu every time.
If you’re into Opencaching, Garmin has added a few features such as viewing geocache photos and viewing the awesomeness rating. But with the removal of Wherigo software, you can’t help but wonder if there’s a deliberate push towards introducing new features for Garmin Opencaching and ignoring some of those for Groundspeak Geocaching.
The 650 features a transflective color TFT touchscreen. The thing you immediately notice is how much smoother it is compared to the older Oregons. On my Oregon 300, I’d almost have to break a finger to press a button, but the 650 acts more like a smartphone with easy scrolling and even pinch zooming. It’s also a lot brighter. It’s genuinely lovely…until you take it into the field.
This is an expensive bit of kit and you’d presume for the$480 price it’s targeted at the hardcore outdoor adventurer. The issue is that once out in the wild, it’s a little too easy to knock and accidently press a button. I’ve managed to accidently log geocaches after a finger brushed the screen and then spend a couple of wasted minutes working out why the geocache I was heading to has since disappeared.
Worse still is rain. Anything more than a light drizzle and the device will start flicking through random screens. At first I thought it was the pressure of raindrops hitting the screen but it turns out that it’s apparently down to the way the touchscreen works and senses touch. All that refraction of light from raindrops causes havoc with the sensors.
Of course, there’s an option to lock the screen, but one of my geocaching colleagues can tell you an amusing story of how I tried to lock the device in a light downpour and found it had flipped screens and changed displays before I could even lock it. Apparently I managed to teach him a few new choice swearwords that day. If I’m doing a big power trail, I’m logging my find, selecting next closest, checking the map for direction and then the hint whilst walking towards it. I flip a lot between the map and the geocaching user interface, and even if I could lock it between geocaches, it’s just not possible to do so in even moderate rain.
It’s bad enough to make this a real deal breaker for geocachers. I’ve spoken to several others with the same problem who feel the same way. Nearly every geocacher has been caught out by rain and the device becomes almost inoperable at times in anything more than a light shower. You could get a case for it but for me that defeats the object of spending the money on a waterproof, rugged device device.
Then there’s the design. Now I don’t mind my GPSr looking pretty, but I do want it functional. One of the things I loved about my 300 is that the screen was set so far back, if you did drop it face down onto a rocky surface, the screen was well shielded. This is no longer so with the screen flat against the edge. I never worried about my Oregon 300 taking a tumble, I feel my 650 is made of paper. I’ve already managed to put a small scratch on the screen.
The 650 is the first GPSr I’ve had which will also make use of Glosnass satellites. In theory this should make the device super accurate (although it seems to me this uses additional battery) but the early firmwares put me as much as 350 feet off in clear cover. The latest firmware includes a GPS fix and in the couple of times I’ve taken it out since, the GPS seems to behave but I’ve not tested it enough to say conclusively. It usually takes a few firmware iterations for the GPS accuracy to improve on new Garmin devices but I have to be honest and say so far, at best I’ve found it similar to my old Oregon 300.
The Oregon 650 is a mixed bag. The software of the Oregon 6xx series is a marked improvement from earlier Oregon devices but the hardware is a massive step backwards for geocachers. It’s a device for the Sunday afternoon geocacher rather than the hardcore fanatic, which for the price seems a bit absurd. Did no-one at Garmin think to test it in the rain?