Get ready for the next generation of GPS. Thanks to strong demand and vigorous competition, GPS devices have become standard accessories in cars across the nation. But they’re all looking a little less useful today now that the Dash Express (see our hands-on video) is here, offering something none of them do: a permanent, always-on Internet connection that brings the information superhighway straight to your car. Just as Web 2.0 was all about social networking, GPS 2.0 uses the same principle; by gathering and sharing real-time traffic data between all Dash Express units, it makes each one more useful than any GPS device that came before it.
The Dash Difference
Take a look at the Dash Express and you’ll first notice its large size. It measures 4.8 x 4.1 x 2.8 inches and weighs 13.3 ounces, and has a curved, upside-down “L” shape, as the top extends back from the device. The reason for the extra weight and the odd shape is that the Dash doesn’t contain just a GPS receiver, like other navigators; it has a SIRFstarIII GPS chip, a Wi-Fi antenna, and a cellular GPRS antenna. And it comes with a mount that makes it easy to attach.
Those extra connections ensure that the Dash is always connected to the Internet wherever you drive. Connect the Dash to your home or office Wi-Fi network to download free software updates quickly (we found three waiting for us when we first powered the device on). The Dash initiates its own cellular connection when you power it on (using data-only service with Jasper Wireless), so that it can download current traffic information and enable Yahoo searches. Users get three months of free service. After that, a cellular connection costs $9.99 per month with a two-year contract, $10.99 per month with a one-year contract, or $12.99 month-to-month. Plan on signing up, because an active connection is essential to get the Dash’s benefits.
Lots of GPS navigators can receive traffic information from signals broadcast over FM radio, but the Dash is the only one that pulls data from other Dash-equipped cars on the road. That’s because the Dash doesn’t just receive traffic information, it also sends information. As you drive with the Dash, it uploads information so that your data can help other users. The more Dash units are sold, the more users benefit with better traffic data.
The Dash Express offers a simplified interface that’s easy to use on the road. There are two touch buttons above the 4.3-inch screen, one for volume and one that toggles between the menu and the map view. Read the slim manual for usage tips, such as tapping the volume button twice to mute the sound. A power button on the right side puts the unit in standby or shuts it off, depending on how long you hold it. The screen offers poor glare protection. We had to turn the brightness all the way up to see it clearly in sunny conditions.
The four-button menu makes it easy to call up favorite destinations, search Yahoo, type in an address, or change your settings. If you’re out of range of Dash’s cellular service (which should rarely happen; Jasper’s coverage map includes most of the country), you can also search the 1 million onboard points of interest (POI), which is teensy compared with most other navigators.
Most people buy GPS devices because they make driving on unfamiliar roads easier. The Dash, however, is different: It aims to help you get to places you drive to all the time, only faster. It’s all about avoiding traffic.
Enter an address on the Dash and it generates two or three possible routes to get there. You view them on one map, tapping buttons on the right side of the screen to view the first, second, or third route. The driving time and distance is written next to each route. When you select one, the map shows you the traffic along that route, so you know where cars are moving and where they aren’t. Compare the two or three routes, pick the one you want to use, and the device begins navigating.
The Dash shows traffic conditions by coloring roads green, yellow, orange, or red. Green routes are clear of traffic, yellow slightly congested, orange moderately congested, and red heavily congested. If roads are gray or white, there’s no data available.
Besides using color, the Dash also shows roads as solid lines or dashed lines. Solid lines mean that a Dash user has driven that road in the last 25 minutes, so the information is guaranteed fresh. A dashed line means you’re seeing either historical data—the usual traffic condition for that road at that time of day—or data from traffic sensors embedded in the road. Devices download new historical traffic data automatically every month.
Our Dash Experience
We tested the Dash primarily in northern New Jersey, and although a Dash representative told us there were only 15 beta testers in the area with Express units, as well as a small handful of other reviewers, we always saw plenty of current traffic data for the major roads. That data proved to be always accurate, too: When the Dash told us the New Jersey Turnpike would become congested at a certain spot, it did, at exactly the right location. No local roads had traffic data from other Dash users, but this will change as more units are sold (we reviewed this unit before any were on sale, so our experience was a little limited).
Our most serious problem with the Dash came when driving on unfamiliar roads. If you’re using the Dash to find the quickest route to the office or to the kids’ soccer match—places you already know—you’ll want to use the 2D view, which shows color-coded traffic for your entire area. If you’re on unfamiliar roads, however, you’ll want the 3D view, which shows turn information more clearly—but makes everything else more difficult.
For starters, toggling between the two views takes 5 seconds, which is too long when you’re unsure about a turn. Also, the 3D view shows multi-lane highways as single lanes, so we were often unsure about the correct lane to be in. We missed a turn off the NJ Turnpike because we were in the wrong lane. Since the Dash already uses multicolored lines to show traffic data, it shows the current route in the 3D view as a white line with occasional blue arrows. However, the white line was just too hard to see.
The device also frequently calls exits by names that don’t match the existing signs: the Dash told us to take the “Highway 81 South Ramp,” when the road sign simply said “NJ Turnpike.” It also called one exit “Bright St.” when it should have said “Centre Street.”Company representatives told us that they were working to improve toggling speed; however, because this device is intended for people who already know where they’re going and simply want to get there faster, these other issues would receive lower priority in being addressed.
The Dash Express’ Online Options
Users create a free MyDash account at my.dash.net that allows them to send addresses easily to their Dash navigators. It’s a great way to build up your onboard address book: Just enter addresses into the Web page’s text box and click to send it to your device. In our testing, the Dash received addresses in less than a second, thanks to its always-on connection.
Users can also download plug-ins for Microsoft Outlook 2003 and Web browsers (Firefox, IE6 and 7, and Safari) that let them send addresses from those apps by highlighting and right-clicking. Doing so opens a new Web page with the formatted address, which you can then send to your device. In testing, the Dash formatted the address correctly most of the time but occasionally couldn’t understand abbreviations. It also couldn’t understand addresses in which the phone number was listed before the address.
The online account also lets you save your favorite Yahoo searches to your Dash, create grouped lists of favorite locations, or create lists from RSS or GeoRSS feeds. For example, you can run an apartment search on Craigslist.org, copy the RSS link at the bottom of the results page, and use that to create a feed that displays on your Dash.
While creating searches and lists is simple, the site doesn’t do enough to explain the steps to users. GeoRSS feeds, which encode location as part of an RSS feed and are used by sites like Platial, will be foreign to most users, and more guidance would be appreciated. When you’ve created a list, you can opt to save it with the Dash community. That doesn’t do much, unfortunately, as there’s not yet an option to view other people’s lists.
Express Local Search
The Dash Express has a few other helpful tricks for staying connected on the road. The gas-station search pulls in and sorts current gas prices, so you can find the cheapest station near you. This feature proved highly accurate in our testing, listing the ten closest stations to our location. The movie-theater search lets you know what’s playing at your local theaters and provides movie times.
The Dash Express’ online search is hit-or-miss and initially confusing. The restaurant search, for example, doesn’t break down restaurants by cuisine, but you can easily type in “Chinese food” to pull up local results from Yahoo. The results, however, were rarely as complete as we wanted and often included irrelevant results, such as an importer that works with Chinese food. That’s something that doesn’t happen with a static POI database.
While the Dash offers impressive live data features, don’t expect extras common on other devices. There’s only one voice (which pronounces street names), no multimedia playback options, and no Bluetooth.
Dash Express Verdict
While the Dash Express’ 3D navigation experience needs to be improved, the ability to send out updates to connected Dash units means that users should get software improvements regularly and not have to update hardware anytime soon. The Dash’s traffic data is a major improvement over current GPS devices. Not only will it earn an army of admirers who are sick of traffic jams, but it will change the navigation industry for good. However, if you live in a more rural area and are simply prone to getting lost, you’ll do better with a less expensive model from the likes of Garmin or TomTom. The Dash Express is best for metro users or daily commuters who know where they’re going and for whom avoiding major traffic jams would be well worth the monthly fee.