Sunday, March 18, 2012

Screen visibility problems on the new generation of handhelds


UPDATE: Screen visibility took a major leap forward recently with the Garmin Oregon 450, and it appears that later production runs of the 550 series now include the improved screen.

The new Garmin Colorado and Magellan Triton series (and now the Garmin Oregon too) have higher resolution screens than anything we’ve seen before in handheld GPS receivers. But those gorgeous and detailed displays come at a cost. Many early adopters have been surprised by the decreased visibility of these units in their natural habitat — the great outdoors.

To understand what’s going on here, let’s take a brief look at the technology involved. Handheld units typically use thin film transistor (TFT) liquid crystal displays (LCDs). These TFTs use a polarizing filter that determines how light is used. There are three different TFT technologies that can be used in displays:

  • Transmissive TFT – Uses backlighting to illuminate the display.
  • Reflective TFT – Uses ambient light (e.g., sunlight) to illuminate the display.
  • Transflective TFT – Has a mirror like surface that allows backlight to pass through, yet also has the ability to reflect ambient light.

If you guessed that handheld GPS receivers tend to utilize transflective TFT technology, give yourself a gold star.

The problem is the increased number of pixels per square inch in these new, high resolution, receivers. Basically, more pixels equals less reflectivity. I’m no expert in this technology, but a couple of folks have tried to address it over at Groundspeak in this thread on the Garmin Colorado backlight.

I wrote about visibility issues in my Magellan Triton 1500 review;
I found it usable under light canopy, but severely limited in the brightest conditions. Interestingly enough, my Garmin Colorado 300 is more legible in full sun than in cloudy conditions, though in general it seems to outperform the Triton screen (I hope to have a full review of the Colorado 300 posted in the near future). These companies may be using different transflective technologies; the Triton 1500’s performance is also impacted by the additional touch screen layer.

I asked Garmin about these issues and received this response…

“Our engineers pushed the limits of technology with the Colorado’s vivid 3-inch display, working to bring Garmin’s customers the best resolution and readability without conceding quality in either category,” said spokesman Jake Jacobson.

I don’t think this is a deal-killer on these units. Just don’t expect a super-bright screen in all conditions. Which is something you may have on your current GPS!

Related post:

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. Interesting how the spokesman said “pushed the limits of technology.” Both the Colorado and the Triton are doing just that, and both have their share of usability issues in their firmware. I wonder if Magellan and Garmin pushed the limits too far, or perhaps just too soon. Garmin’s 60 and 76 series still seemed quite popular, so Garmin could have spent another six months perfecting the Colorado. But would that have allowed them to announce the Colorado at a big trade show? On the other hand, the eXplorists, while good units, were getting long in tooth. Understandable that Magellan would want a new handheld out ASAP, but the initial Triton problems have made me more wary than before about making a purchase.

  2. What are digital camera displays made from?
    They don’t seem to be “too” bad for outdoor visibility!

  3. No idea what type of technology digital camera screens use. I wonder if its transmissive and not transflective though.

  4. Sheeriignoria says:

    To spot the expert, pick the one who predicts the job will take the longest
    and cost the most.

  5. Drew Knox says:

    The extraordinarily poor visibility of the Oregon 300 in broad daylight on a bike mount (so that you can’t keep tipping the unit for a better angle) is absolutely a deal break for me, especially after staring at a bronze screen for 5 hours. Where’s my old GPS 76CX?

  6. Charlie R says:

    My wife got me an Oregon 450 for my birthday. I’m sorely disappointed with the display. I have a hard time viewing it without straining under almost all conditions, either with the backlight on or off.

  7. The 450 and not the 400? Check out the Customizing section of this post for some tips on improving the display…

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