Review of the Garmin Nuvi 500 / 550
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Joined: 12 Nov 2005
Posts: 5145
Location: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Thu Jun 04, 2009 6:52 am quote
There are actully two models, the Nuvi 500 and the Nuvi 550. To clear up any confusion, both are said to be identical except for the pre-loaded maps. The 500 has road maps and topographic maps of the continental USA only. The 550 has road maps that cover USA, Canada, and Alaska, but does not include the topographic maps. Reviews of the 500 and the 550 are otherwise interchangeable. Since I intended to use this unit primarily for my scooter, I chose the 550.

Note: This is not an exhaustive review of the Nuvi 500's features and operation. Most of that information can be found elsewhere, like here: . My intention is to point out those features that may be of interest to the motorcycle/scooter rider.

The Nuvi 550 is not a dedicated motorcycle GPS. In fact, if you search Gamin's site, the Nuvi 550 isn't even listed as a motorcycle GPS. However, this model has some very nice and unique features that a scooter rider may find interesting and desirable.

The Nuvi 550 is a crossover GPS, designed for multiple uses and modes: Biking, Driving, Walking, (Marine, with an upgrade) and yes, there is a mode called...are you ready for this? Scootering! Driving mode is pretty conventional, so let's look at Scootering mode.

The scootering mode offers three options:
1) Faster Time
2) Shorter Distance
3) Off Road.

It also has a list of avoidances:
1) U-Turns
2) Highways
3) Toll Roads
4) Traffic
5) Ferries
6) Carpool Lanes
7) Unpaved Roads

There is always a question as to what a GPS considers a "highway," but so far, the Nuvi 550 has done just fine in that regard. In any case, on a long trip where highways are to be avoided, it's always best to double check your routing and make any adjustments before you leave.

Price: The Nuvi 550 is reasonably priced. I like reasonably priced. I purchased mine from for about $260.00.

It's waterproof! No need for Aqua boxes, no plastic bags, no worries. It's supposed to be waterproof to 1 meter deep for up to 30 minutes. Someone even tested it:
The battery is claimed to last up to 8 hours (more than long enough for a day's riding) and you can easily switch
the removable/replaceable batteries so you can keep a charged spare ready. I'm sure the longevity will vary depending on screen brightness and volume. I have a power outlet on the scooter but I haven't had to plug the Nuvi in yet.

The display is easy enough to see, even in sunlight. On a recent ride in sunny to mostly sunny conditions I had no trouble viewing it, even set a 50% brightness. The on-screen directions were also easy to take in at a glance. Turns and road names are displayed at the top of the screen and with a big arrow on the map (see image below). It even displays a sign showing the speed limit for the road you are riding. Incidentally, you can quickly adjust the brightness by momentarily pressing the ON don't need to go through the menu.

Glove friendly? Maybe. I was able to use the touch screen with my gloves. Bulkier gloves/hands may produce different results. (The + and - icons for zooming in and out on the map screen are rather close together.) I'm not likely to be fiddling with the unit while riding so this is not a big issue for me.

The voice prompts are clear, precise, and simple. No street names are text-to-speech. It just warns you a turn is coming up, tells you where and which way to turn, which lane to stay in and so on. Basic stuff. It was easy enough to hear and understand the directions while on my ET4 up to about 35/40 MPH. After that, I could hear the announcements but I could not understand them. This didn't present a problem since the screen is so easy to read. I just glanced at the display every time I heard it trying to tell me a turn was coming up, and there were the directions, right in front of me.

When you get your unit home, you can sign on to Garmin for the latest map update. You should download a program called the Garmin Comminicator first, which facilitates the use of your GPS with the computer.

MapSource software is included in the update! This allows you to design a specific route to your destinaton and transfer it to the GPS. There is a learning curve to be sure, but I tried it out and it looks very promising. (It also holds the promise of creating routes which can be shared with others who have the MapSource software...neat!)
Oh yes, you can also down load Mad Maps to the comes with a tour of Historic Rt66 already installed.
Your unit will also work with Google Maps, allowing you to download directions to businesses.

You can download different icons for each mode and different voices, too. I didn't find a big selection on Garmin's site, but it's there if you want it. Maybe someone here can design a scooter icon for them.

More info is available at the Garmin site:

Other things you should know about:

No bluetooth, no external speaker jack. There is also no place to attach a security strap, so get a good sturdy mount and you'll be fine. I chose a RAM mount from GPS City. They have great customer service.

The Nuvi 550 comes with a lighter-socket power adapter and a suction cup car mount. That's it. You'll need a USB cable (I used the one from my camera) to connect it to your computer, which also charges the unit. I purchased a home charger but I understand some cell phone chargers will do the job, too. It doesn't come with a case. I would recommend ordering a sturdy one.

You can also add a micro SD card if you want more room to store additional routes, maps, and pictures. You can use the pictures to display destinations if you wish. (But see "The Weakest Link" below.) Remember, this is a crossover unit: You can mount it on your bike or scooter, get off and take it for a walk in the woods (it records tracks and has a compass), do geocaching, rent a kayak for a boating trip (with optional marine maps), find your way back to your ride and trailer it all home in your car, all with this one GPS.

Picking Nits:
The POI search can be slow. Agonizingly slow. It's quick enough if you are searching local to your position, but once you start searching far and away you may find yourself in for a long wait. I have heard that this is not specific to the Nuvi, but to many Garmin models in general. For example: I searched for Fontana Dam...a place where I like to camp near Deals Gap/Tail of the Dragon. After several long minutes, I just turned the search off. My Magellan Maestro 4040 GPS found the location in seconds. If you want to know what's near where you's fine. If you're looking for POI's far along your route and you don't have specific address information, you should be prepared to make some coffee while you wait. It's much faster if you look up specific addresses on your computer ahead of time. Big problem? Not for me. It would be nice if they could address this in future updates.

Some GPS units display POI icons such as gas stations, rest areas and campgrounds on the map screen so you can see them coming up on the display as you ride. The 500/550 does not. If you're looking for a nearby hotel, you're going to have to pull over and do a POI search.
However, there is nice little icon called "Where Am I?" Tapping it brings up a screen that displays immediate useful information: Your co-ordinates and elevation, the nearest address to you, nearest intersection, hospitals, police stations, and fuel.

The Weakest Link:
Documentation. The device comes only with a quick-start manual. For everyday use, it's fine. A manual is available online but it's sadly lacking in detailed information. The happy "add a MicroSD card" or "navigate by pictures" claims are dulled by a lack of instructions on how to get these things to's not as easy as they make it sound. Be prepared to spend a lot of hours net-surfing GPS forums and playing 60 questions with impatient strangers to get tid-bits of basic how-to information that any self-respecting manual should included. The Garmin site has a lot of information, but also an arcane structure making easy access to simple information almost impossible. Bad, bad, Garmin.


To sum up, if you are looking for a reasonably priced GPS from a major manufacturer which is rugged, waterproof, does not necessarily have to be wired up for power, and has the ability to accept custom routing, you may want to check this one out.

I emailed Garmin several times with questions about the unit before I purchased it, and although it took a day or two, I always received a thoughtful reply. I tried calling them a couple of times, but the wait times were very long. To be fair, it was a Holiday weekend. After purchase, I had problems updating the unit with Firefox, however I found everything worked fine with Internet Explorer. I asked them about this and they were surprised, stating that both browsers should work, and Firefox would normally be even faster. Maybe the problem was with my security settings in Firefox. In any case, their customer service was fine.

Here is a screenshot of the Nuvi 500 / 550:

Last edited by Menhir on Sat Mar 20, 2010 5:35 pm; edited 1 time in total
Bo - midnight blue GT200 R.I.P. Tethys - 300 GTS Titanium
Joined: 22 Jul 2008
Posts: 524
Location: Bowie, MD
Thu Jun 04, 2009 12:39 pm quote
thanks for this review. I've been thinking about getting a GPS, and this one sounds like a really good all-round unit for the things I want to do.
Joined: 12 Nov 2005
Posts: 5145
Location: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Sat Mar 20, 2010 5:37 pm quote
I just updated the review a bit to reflect things that I though were worth mentioning after a year of ownership.
2005 Cobalt Blue ET4
Joined: 13 Nov 2005
Posts: 6952
Location: Portland, OR
Sun Mar 21, 2010 9:11 pm quote
Thanks for the anniversary update-- I really enjoyed having my Garmin in rural France last year; have not yet acquired a scooter-friendly model. Thanks for the welcome details!

2007 Avio Grey GTV
Joined: 22 Dec 2008
Posts: 485

Wed Apr 14, 2010 11:53 am quote
Menhir - I was looking at purchasing a 500 and noticed this in your review:
No street names are text-to-speech. It just warns you a turn is coming up, tells you where and which way to turn, which lane to stay in and so on. Basic stuff.
This is also reflected in the review you linked to. On Garmin's site, however, it lists both the 500 and the 550 as having text-to-speech capabilities - - "Speaks street names (e.g. "Turn right ON ELM STREET in 500 ft."): YES"

Can you confirm one way or the other? Was this a software update perhaps?


I did some more checking and text-to-speech is available for the 500 series through a software update from Garmin. Newer units come with it already installed out of the box.

Another Update

Garmin sells their own "scooter mount" for the 500 series. Its a mirror mount intended specifically for scooters (although I'm sure it would work for motorcycles as well).

This video shows the mount in place on an MP3 as well as a demo of "scootering mode":

Last edited by Karmann on Wed Oct 13, 2010 10:49 am; edited 2 times in total
2009 Dragon Red LX 150 "Lucia"
Joined: 08 Feb 2010
Posts: 317
Location: Seattle
Mon Jun 21, 2010 7:10 pm quote
Sorry for the Zombie Post
I'm sorry for the zombie post on this one, but I picked the nuvi 500 based on this review and have a little bit to add.

The biggest reason I wanted a GPS was for the ability to plan routes ahead of time after doing a bit of research. With a LX150, the chance to stick to side roads and bypass fast moving local highways when possible is greatly appreciated.

This review mentions that garmin's mapsource software is included. It is, but you need to pay attention in order to get it. Your maps don't come on a disc unless you decide to order them that way, and it is not as quick or easy as the download. Installing mapsource is not intuitive if you choose to download your update, and garmin doesn't offer any help in the matter.

When you first unbox your GPS, register it and unlock your one free map update that comes with the unit.

Connect your GPS to your computer and follow the directions to install the new map to your unit, but during the process keep your eyes open for a little button labeled "advanced" that appears during the install process.

When the "advanced" button appears, click it, and make sure you have selected the box that installs the map to both the device and your computer. If you don't do so, you miss out on the installation of mapsource and the ability to create and transfer routes easily to your GPS unit.
Joined: 12 Nov 2005
Posts: 5145
Location: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Fri Jul 02, 2010 1:19 pm quote
Good catch!

I wrote the review after I had the Nuvi 550 on the scooter for a while (Don't you hate it when people write glowing reviews on items 5 minutes after they open the box and "everything works fine!") so I could see it works and holds up on the road. I should have mentioned that MapSource, while free, does not come in the box.

I'd like to add a little follow-up too, based on my experience since then...

The "scooter" mode seems to be very aggressive. I've actually been routed to side streets that parallel main streets, even if the main street had low speed limits. I'm not sure how the routing engine works in scooter mode, but sometimes the results can be a bit hilarious. Still, it does the job...

...Up to a point: I've found that the "avoid highways" feature in scooter mode works pretty well, but it will still dump you on a highway if it thinks that's the best option. I was on a trip recently and I let the GPS do all the routing just for fun. I had a wonderful morning riding rural roads and then I was routed to a highway for over 70 miles with a speed limit of 65 MPH.

Later that day I checked the paper maps and sure enough, the highway was really the only decent choice through the area. But there were a few other routes the GPS could have chosen that avoided them.

I really like the Nuvi 550, but it's still best to double check the routing it suggests before you set off.
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