Google+ Two-Wheeled Tourist: Garmin Zumo 550: Long-Term Motorcycle GPS Review

12.28.2009

Garmin Zumo 550: Long-Term Motorcycle GPS Review

The Garmin Zumo 550, a portable GPS (Global Positioning System) unit, was released by Garmin several years ago. Marketed as a "rugged, motorcycle-friendly" device, this product fulfills the needs of motorcycle riders who needed a GPS for both commuting and long-distance trips but were concerned with potential damage to their units due to weather and vibration from the motorcycle. I have personally used this device on a daily basis for two years and 50,000 miles, and during this time it has become an asset to me both as a motorcyclist and as a car driver.

PROS
Durability: The Zumo 550, is rated IPX7 waterproof, meaning that it can withstand "accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes" (from Garmin). In addition to that, the unit can withstand temperatures over 100°F and lower than 25°F. The Zumo runs just fine in torrential downpours, intense heat, and the freezing cold. During trips that I have taken where weather can fluctuate 50-60 degrees, the Zumo has not failed, powered down, or stopped operating. Along with this, the unit powers up, time and again, through miles and miles of travel attached to my motorcycle. It has withstood the vibration and battering from my 2007 FJR1300 and the daily commutes through the urban jungles of Los Angeles and the long, cross-country interstates. This durability is wonderful when the unit is accidentally dropped, too. Being my clumsy self, I am glad that this Zumo is not fragile at all. Also, direct sunlight does not affect its UV-resistant screen; I can still read its display during the very sunny days. However, I do have an additional plastic screen cover on top of it just for a little more protection on my investment.

In fact, the Zumo 550 can be seen mounted on the BMW R1200GS Adventure motorcycles of Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor in their pan-African documentary, "Long Way Down."

Easy to mount on motorcycle: The Zumo 550 comes with everything you need to have it running right out of the box. The Zumo uses a custom cradle and the RAM Mounting System, a very popular universal device mount. The mount can be attached either to a handlebar or your motorcycle's brake reservoir clamp. You can power the Zumo either by directly connecting to your motorcycle's battery or by using the Zumo's internal, rechargeable battery. I've went with the direct hard-wire route and have only had to replace the connection's fuse once in the last 50k miles. If you're using this device every day, constant power from the bike is the best option to keep it running.

Motorcycle-friendly controls: A distinct feature of the Zumo is that it possess five waterproof buttons: a power button and four function buttons. The four function buttons are located on the left side of the device (the clutch hand) so your right hand will never have to leave the throttle. Also, its touch screen is glove-friendly so poking at the screen with motorcycle gloves is possible. Buttons on the screen are also very large so choosing your options doesn't require perfect precision.

MP3 Player: The integrated MP3 player on the Zumo 550 has done away with my iPod. The Zumo has an SD (Secure Digital) card reader that accepts high capacity cards. I use a 4GB SD card that holds about 750 songs, and that's enough to get through a 6,000-mile ride and then some. The Zumo's cradle includes a heavy-duty, mini-stereo headphone jack that can connect to a pair of bud earphones (I use Skullcandy buds underneath my full-face helmet), an in-helmet headset, or motorcycle speakers. In some cases, I've been known to attach it to a guitar amp to listen to my XM radio while I'm doing maintenance on my bike. I will be discussing the XM radio feature next.

XM and Bluetooth Capabilities: Before the Zumo 550 was released, integrating XM radio on a motorcycle required a little imagination and a lot more devices to attach to the bike. Garmin has simplified this through the use of a special XM antenna. Like the GPS, this antenna is durable and weatherproof. It can be mounted anywhere on the motorcycle thanks to its strong, magnetic bottom or attached behind the cradle using a metal base, an optional accessory. This XM attachment costs about $250 and cannot be substituted with an regular XM, car mounted antenna. The reason for this is that the XM attachment IS the radio and the Zumo 550 only acts as the pass-through system.

The XM radio is excellent and can get a signal anywhere, provided that the XM attachment is exposed to the sky. I've been very satisfied with the combination of an XM radio and MP3 player; the music never ends. In addition, having access to XM's traffic reports is an important tool during a daily commute or when entering an unfamiliar city.

Another feature that comes in handy is the Zumo 550's Bluetooth option. You can connect your phone to the Zumo, enabling you to make and take phone calls using the GPS' touchscreen. However, you will need an additional microphone accessory to talk on the phone; there are several companies that make this. Otherwise, this feature can be simply used as a caller ID device.

Bike-to-Car Portability: The Zumo 550 can be used in the car, too. Along with a motorcycle cradle, Garmin also includes a suction cup mounted car cradle with an external speaker for voice-assisted directions. So, if it's snowing and you can't take your bike, take the Zumo in the car with you!

USB Connectivity: Updating and adding files to the Zumo is relatively simple. When plugged via USB cable into a regular PC, the GPS is read as two separate devices: the GPS' internal memory and the SD card's slot. This makes it very easy to upload songs, pictures, routes, and other files onto the unit.

Accessories: Theft is a big concern for GPS owners and even more so for motorcyclists because the device is always out in the open. Unfortunately, the included cradle and mount for the Zumo does not have any locking capabilities, forcing a rider to remove the Zumo when leaving the motorcycle unattended. RAM offers a locking version of its attachment arm and Touratech has a cradle clamp that makes the easy-to-remove cradle latch inaccessible to a would-be thief. I have both of these accessories mounted as well which allows me to leave the unit on my bike for longer periods of time.

CONS
If you're looking for that do-all GPS, this is definitely a great solution. However, it doesn't come cheap. A brand new Zumo 550 runs between $600-900, and if you're lucky to find its discontinued predecessor, the Zumo 450 (basically the same device without XM radio connectivity), it'll still run about $400-500. Additionally, this GPS is no longer sold at mainstream stores such as Best Buy so going online would be the best bet to acquiring this product.

Despite its made-for-motorcycle design, the Zumo 550 isn't perfect. There is a significant delay of finding GPS signals from a cold start (powering on) of up to several minutes. Additionally, it can take several minutes for the unit's MP3 player feature to load up songs, especially if a high capacity SD card is used. Lastly, typing an entry for a location or attempting to find nearby POIs (Points of Interest) on-the-fly will cause MP3 music to skip or stagger until the Zumo is finished processing your request.

Also, the MP3 player can only play MP3s. It cannot play WMA or AAC files so all music must be converted to MP3 or it cannot be played. There's also an "audio book" feature on the Zumo that I still haven't figured out how to use yet, and there's no mention of it in the user manual. That actually has been a concern of many Zumo users over the years and I wonder if Garmin has fixed that yet or given it any real functionality.

Lastly, there is still a lack of headsets and/or motorcycle mounted headphones that allow the use of both the audio and microphone outputs of the device. Companies such as Starcom sell in-helmet headsets, but they are quite pricey and require the purchase of their base systems to even deem them useful. I hope in the future that there will be a cheaper alternative that will make the Bluetooth phone connection feature of the Zumo more than just a fancy Caller ID.

CONCLUSION
The Garmin Zumo 550 is an excellent, but expensive, addition to your motorcycling experience. If you're a serious motorcyclist that needs a GPS, this is definitely one to consider if you're looking for durability and versatility. It's not perfect, but it does come pretty close to meeting your needs for getting directions and on-bike entertainment.

THE FUTURE
Garmin has released the Zumo 660, a smaller, fully touch-screen based unit that promises the same weather-resistant qualities in a sleeker case.

You can read about the Zumo 550 and Zumo 660 on Garmin's website @ http://www.garmin.com/.