July 24, 2006

Review: Garmin StreetPilot C550 Review by GPS Lodge

"The C550 is the must have GPS for the foreseeable future."


For the past month we have been driving all over the place guided by the Garmin StreetPilot C550 GPS, it has been an excellent experience. The unit has a lot going for it, and it more than delivers on the promise of getting you from here to there; it pampers you as you go with confidence and style. The interface is clean, the routing well done, and the traffic reporting very helpful and very well done. This is an excellent product that I would recommend to anyone looking for a mid-tier GPS. It’s on the pricy side with it being at the top of the mid-tier line, but if you have high expectations, the Garmin StreetPilot C550 can deliver.

Like all C-series StreetPilots, the C550 is compact enough to go anywhere, and easily fits in a suitcase (4.4 by 3.2 by 2.2 inches and 9.5 ounces). The day after I received the C550 for review, we packed it up and took off for the outer banks of North Carolina. On the C550, there's a volume dial, a USB port, and a power button on the right, an SD card slot and an external antenna input on the left, with a power/traffic connector, audio-out and mic-in ports on the back. I liked the volume control dial on the side, which allowed you to dial the volume up or down depending on how loud you want the voice; let’s face it sometimes you don’t need the audio prompts, and you can just run on the visual data.

The small but very usable size is a great size for packing, yet with a 3.5 inch screen, it’s about as small as you would want to go for easy readability and data entry using a touch screen. When we arrived in North Carolina, I was a bit put out when the StreetPilot didn’t know about the connector road to the airport, but to my surprise upon picking up the local newspaper, I found that the road had been dedicated the day before; we were some of the first to drive on it. I guess I can forgive the C550 for not knowing about a connector road that just opened the week before. It was an easy trip to the beach house via some excellent BBQ at a local restaurant that we found with the POI database on the StreetPilot C550. I love North Carolina BBQ.

If you have ever navigated with a Garmin model, the interface will be familiar, starting out with a simple screen that asks, “Where to?” or “View map.” The screen also has some telltale buttons on it that indicate more capability than the lesser siblings of the C550, including traffic and music icons. A behind the scenes but very important upgrade is the SiRF star III chipset that locks onto satellites in tough conditions. When I used the Forerunner 205 I got reception through my roof while sitting on the second floor. I decided to take this to another level, and went into my basement with the StreetPilot C550 and it didn’t miss a beat; the satellite reception was at full strength. I had two stories of wood frame construction over my head, but that wouldn’t stop the C550 from hanging onto satellites! I don’t think you’ll have trouble navigating with the C550 in tough reception situations.

Navigation with the C550
Entering a route is very easy, and you can choose to enter and address, an intersection, pull from a list of favorites or a list of recently found locations, cities (centers), or you can browse the map to touch on where you want to go. You can also pick a Point of Interest (POI). The POI list is categorized into 13 categories, which gives you the opportunity to search for a store, and attraction or gas stations, etc. The default is to look near where you are right now. With a simple touch of the “Near” button you get to choose where you want to search: “Where I am now”, “A Different City”, “My Current Route”, or “My Destination”. This can help out a lot, and it helped me pick a restaurant along my route to New Hampshire for a weekend away.

We were able to pick a place to eat along the way and the C550 was able to design my route to get me from here, to the restaurant and keep on going to my destination. The POI database is robust, and was pretty reliable too. While navigating the main screen also offers you to “Stop” navigation and “Detour” around problems. This detour button helps you get around immediate issues that are present in the road. Just press it and you’ll find another route to your destination.

The C550 Finds me a Shortcut - The navigation on the C550 was rock solid, and helped me save time. On my way to NH, there was a portion of the route that would have taken me along one state route, then take a left on another state route to almost double back on the first route. The Garmin C550 showed me a shortcut on some local roads that cut across the middle and saved me about 10 minutes. It was a pretty good feeling that I was getting in on this shortcut that only locals must know about. I was intrigued that there was an out of state BMW in front of me taking the same turns and same route. As we pulled up to a stop sign, I found out why – he had a Garmin Nuvi 350 on his windshield! No wonder he was taking the shortcut too.

The text to speech navigation was great; and did very well all but the most complex cases. The “Turn right on Maple Street” was a nice command instead of “Turn Right” which can be seen on the C330 and some other lower end models. There are dozens of voices that you can use in many different languages. One day we practiced our German and Spanish as I drove around town with my kids in the back, listening to the C550 tell me where to go in those languages.

Settings on the C550
The Garmin StreetPilot C550 comes with the usual configurable settings that you seem to set and forget about. The settings button is smallish, which is fine since I usual didn't find myself digging through there too often. You can set the map preferences - 2D- North up, 2D- track up, of 3-D, as well as the level of detail that gets displayed. Other settings allow you to set your route preferences (faster or shorter distance), what you want to avoid (highways, unpaved roads, Toll Roads, Carpool Lanes, Traffic, Ferries, and U-turns, etc). The settings menu is also where you can turn on your Garmin Lock, which is an anti-theft tool that makes the unit boot up and wait for a password. Without the right password, you can’t use the unit, which would render the GPS useless to the thief. Within the set-up menu you are also able to set up your Bluetooth phone, which will allow you to use your C550 as a hands free device. The Garmin C550 will pop up an icon when a call comes in to ask if you want to answer the call. Very nice. You are able to call POI’s within your database too. Check for your phone's compatibility on Garmin's Web site.

Change the Splash Screen Image
If you want to change your splash screen, the screen that comes up when the C550 is powered up - you can do that too! Hook the C550 up to your computer, drop a jpg into the main Garmin drive (get it to 320 x 240 resolution - it works best) and then select the image in the settings area. Get into the settings, then "Display" and change the splashscreen image. It will give you the choice of the images in the Garmin drive, and then you will need to confim. Snap - you get your customized splash screen.

C550 Traffic – Worth its Weight in Gold

Garmin did things right when the designed the C550 and made the traffic receiver an integrated part of the 12 volt power adapter. Unlike other GPS units you won’t have to have a power cord AND a traffic antenna hanging off the back of the device, it’s all in one package (GTM-20 adapter). trafficalert.jpg

When you are navigating with the Traffic receiver, it will monitor the traffic alerts in the area through an FM signal that it picks up through Clear Channel’s Total Traffic Network. You get 3 months free with the unit, and then it costs $60 per year after that. Check HERE for coverage. When there is a traffic issue along your route, an icon pops up in the corner of the screen indicating trouble, touch it and it tells you some detail about the incident. You can then elect to avoid the traffic issue by pressing the “Avoid” button. traffic1.jpg
In seconds you are re-routed around the traffic – no problem. I ran into a couple of incidents, where this came in handy. I love it; traffic avoidance is the future of these little devices. Bonus – even if you don’t have immediate access to a 12 volt power outlet, the Garmin C550 will run on its batteries, while powering the traffic receiver too; you won’t miss a heartbeat even if the outlets are full.

Garmin C550 Wiindshield Mount – Easy one-handed operation.
Garmin has also upgraded the windshield mount on the C550 from a cradle that worked very well on the C300 series to a ball and socket mount that works even better. Easy one handed operation that makes taking this thing off and on the windshield a very simple task. You’re going to do this a few times a day, most likely, trust me this makes a difference.

MP3 Playback
The Garmin StreetPilot C550 has MP3 playback capability, and has an audio out jack to plug it into your stereo if that has an input. 1087.jpg

The audio quality is acceptable, but not hi-fi through the small speakers in the unit. The playback didn’t blow me away, but it’s a nice addition to the unit. The songs are gently interrupted by turn commands and prompts, bouncing right back to the song afterwards. You can load MP3’s on via an SD card, or directly onto the unit itself via USB cable. From what I could tell, the C550 had about 675 MB of drive space free – I presume that you can load all of this up with MP3’s. That’s not so bad, about 150 songs worth, and with SD cards coming down in price, a 1GB card is an easy way to add music. I would have loved an FM modulator to play the music back through my stereo, but then again, I have an iPod I use through the stereo, so I really didn’t use the MP3 playback capability much.

I thought that the Garmin StreetPilot C550 was excellent, and a well designed GPS. I am now addicted to the traffic feature and, as a commuter through traffic, would pay the money to have it. The navigation was great, even showing me shortcuts known only to locals and other Garmin users! The Garmin C550 comes as loaded with well thought out and easy to use features that make navigating a breeze. The C550 is the must have GPS for the foreseeable future.

If you are interested in learning more about the less expensive sibling to the C550, the Garmin StreetPilot C340 - read our review.

Read More in: Automotive GPS | GPS News | GPS Reviews | Garmin GPS Reviews

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Posted by Scott Martin at July 24, 2006 9:35 AM

Recent Comments

Lots of good info. I would like to know if this C550 unit can be hooked up to a laptop while using it in car so can read it better?

I jhave one on order and this is the only thing I can't seem to get info. on


Posted by: Dick Larson at March 16, 2008 2:37 AM

The unit has an external microphone jack and so if your car supports an Auxillary input, you can play music talk on the phone etc. using the car speakers.

Very handy.

This is a great unit albeit a little on the pricey side.


Posted by: Venkat at April 6, 2007 7:33 AM
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