Dash Express GPS - First Impressions Review
I have only had the Dash Express a few days, but what I can say is that there is a new revolution out there in GPS devices, and I think it's been quietly brewing since they announced the idea to the public so long ago. There are a lot of features and capabilities that are here that make one think there is something a lot bigger than just directions here; there is real well thought out design work to make your life better by using the Dash.
Is the Dash perfect? No, and I think the people at Dash would say the same thing, but they already have plans to improve. With the connectedness, the Dash units are capable of frequent firmware upgrades that allow Dash to tweak and improve as they go. To be clear, they are starting in a very good place. I am of the impression that they took the time to get to market and used it wisely.
The big thing with the Dash is that it is the first connected generation of GPS units to market. Expect the others to come rushing in, but this is it right here, the next generation of GPS units. The unit has both a WiFi antenna and a mobile phone radio in it to connect back to Dash servers and connect to some limited internet capabilities. This allows you to search on Yahoo! Local search, and get all kinds of traffic data back from Dash. You are also acting as a traffic probe and sending your own traffic and road speed data back to them anonymously so that you can help out other fellow Dash users (and yourself) by mapping traffic patterns. I've already done my share of traffic mapping over the last few days; hope you other Dash users in Boston can appreciate my tracks.
The design on the Dash is not like other GPS units; get used to me saying that, by the way. The unit is pretty large, but not as heavy as it looks. It fits nicely in the palm of your hand, but requires a pretty big mount to hang it on the windshield. On the up side, it's a bulletproof mount, on the downside, it's heavy and bulky. Get over it; you're going to want to take this thing with you. The mount takes some getting used to, but adheres like nobody's business once you get it right. Push the button in then flip the cam lever to lock on. Don't forget to push the button, or it will fall off the windshield or dashboard. The Dash comes with a mount extension rod for complex mounting options.
The Dash Express design is simple on the outside with buttons; a power button on the right side, and two touch sensitive buttons on the top; 1) Volume, and 2) Menu. The Volume button allows you easy access to an on screen volume control button that goes past "10" and all the way to "11" if you really want to crank it. I have to say there are a few design features that say "Fun", and being able to crank the volume up to "11" is just one example, another is the fact that the car icon on the night screen colors has little headlights that shine out a little ahead of the car. Anyway, the Menu button essentially toggles you from Map to Menu and Back; allowing you to dig deep into a menu and then pop back out to the map screen by touching the menu button.
There is a single speaker on the top of the unit, which is fairly clear and loud without being garbled. Embedded in the grill of the speaker is a small light sensor that automatically dims the brightness of the unit which is in addition to the Day/Night/Automatic Change setting in the menu that flips the unit to the day or night colors. Nice touch.
Navigation with the Dash express can start out like other GPS units: Favorites, Search (formerly a POI category type thing, but now internet connected search it's turbocharged), and Choose a Destination (Address, Recent Destinations, Address book, browse categories, and addresses you sent to your car).
It's not hard to imagine how to input addresses, they are smart enough to allow for state based searching, and asking you if something is "Nearby" or in another town/state. When you start to search for an address or location, you cross that line of connectedness and see that you are searching Yahoo! for your results. Search "Gas" and you will come up with a list of gas stations (more on gas later), search for The Gap, and you are searching the internet for local Gap stores. Search for something like "Steaks" and you are now searching metadata and not for items in a category or in the name of the business.
So I searched for Steaks around my house, and got a whole bunch of places to eat. I got everything from local restaurants to the Bugaboo Creek. Dash put a "Sort" button down the bottom where I can elect to sort by "rating" - ratings that netizens gave these steak houses, and it brings up the Hibachi Steak House as a 5-star rating. You can also sort alphabetically, and by distance. When you choose a place to go, navigation starts out differently for someone using a Dash Express. The unit gives you up to three routes to choose from when you pick a destination. The Toyota built in navigation system does this, and I think that they are onto something with the idea. I will say it comes at a cost; slightly slow route generation times, but by getting your choice of routes, you can have a little input into life with the Dash.
Another smart design feature is the ability to switch between 2-D and 3-D views, easily and quickly. By tapping the compass icon on the main map screen you can toggle between the two view perspectives. Because Dash designed the unit to be used daily and as a part of traffic commuting, they learned that a lot of people want the unit in a 2-D mode to see what traffic lies up the road. You can easily flip between the two views if you want that overview perspective, and then back to the 3-D which most people like to use when navigating.
Finally, the routing seems good in preliminary testing, with text to speech warnings at appropriate distances ahead of the turn. The text to speech voice is a little on the robotic side, but clear.
Right off the main menu you can save addresses that you use quite a bit for frequent use on the Favorite tab. You can save up to 8 addresses here. With the Dash and connected search, you can also save searches. Want to save all the Starbucks around you whether you are in Boston or San Francisco? How? Run a connected Search for "Starbucks" then on the next screen where it asks you "Nearby" or "In another State or City", hit the "Favorite" button down the bottom. This will add the Yahoo! Search to your Favorites, and you can now search for Starbucks that are nearby wherever you are.
Browse (Like a regular POI List)
Just like un-connected GPS units, you can browse through categories, but in this case, the results are grabbed in real time off the web. I like the fact that you can re-order the categories so that you can list them alphabetically, or put the ones you've used recently at the top. You can also set up the order online at your MyDash portal where there are a lot of goodies to play with.
Gas Prices - on Steroids
Dash does gas prices too, like the MSN Direct powered Nuvi 780 that I recently reviewed. I loved the feature when I reviewed the Nuvi, and I love it here. Dash has a deal with Opisnet to provide their gasoline prices, and apparently Garmin does too according to the Opisnet page. What I just learned is that Opisnet updates their prices up to four times daily, and gets data fed to them through credit card charges. So when people swipe their cards, that datastream is monitored for gasoline prices and reported on through this system. Very up to date, and you won't have to wait for someone to update a forum post to see the latest gas prices. The Dash will sort by price, and if you tap on the gas station name, you can pull up prices for all grades including diesel if they are available. You cannot sort by diesel prices or by prices for other grades (yet - remember Dash can update the interface wirelessly to add new features anytime). If you want an idea of how knowing gasoline price spreads can really make a difference, go on over to MapQuest Gas Prices and search for gas in your area to see price differences; I see a dime's worth of difference near me.
A key reason to buy a connected GPS is for the enhanced traffic capabilities. For the Dash user, these capabilities include you being an anonymous traffic probe. This allows other Dash users know about the traffic conditions around you as you drive along the roads. The Dash unit sends back speed information (again anonymously) and checks it to see if it agrees with the posted speed limit and the expected traffic speeds. If there is a difference, it starts to analyze the data and if you are signaling a slowdown, it will change other Dash units in the area so they are aware of the slowdown that you are experiencing. It also works in reverse so you benefit from their data collecting. The issue here is that if you are the pioneer, you aren't going to get the network effect that you hoped for until a few hundred others join the party.
Dash said on its blog that it will take up to 1,000 Dash units to properly map a metro area and get reliable data down onto the local roads. I see some data around Boston already from a few beta testers, but not a whole lot. That's a lot of units to get a metro area mapped, but what you will get in the meantime is your own data plus flow data from Inrix who has the most coverage and a whole lot of flow data (speed reporting not just incident data) in most major metro areas in the country. I have used it around town and to commute into Boston, and so far so good on just a few runs. The traffic capabilities are a main feature of the unit, and in some preliminary uses, the Dash Express popped up a Traffic Alert icon on the left part of the screen asking me if I wanted to see alternate routes to get around the traffic. The philosophy here is to empower you with information and optional routes and then let you decide if the new route is best for you. One design aspect that is an interesting twist here is that the normal female voice flips over to a male voice for traffic alerts. Definitely catches your attention.
Anyway, I'll have to defer judgment on the traffic features until I have more experience with the unit.
Connectedness - WiFi, GPRS, and Updates
The Dash Express allows for connectedness in a couple of ways. The first way is through GPRS mobile phone networks. That's why you'll be paying around $10 per month subscription fee for the unit (which as an aside is barely more than some TMC traffic only plans), to get and maintain the mobile phone stream of data. The second way to connect is through WiFi. The Dash Express can be configured for up to two networks (in theory home and work), as well as being configured to opportunistically grab data on any open network. I easily configured the unit for my home Linksys router, with WEP encryption; the Dash can also handle WPA and WPA2 encryption. All of this is important to get information streamed to you for internet searches, and traffic data, but the connectedness is also important for unit updates. When I had a test drive with Dash back in December, the unit happened to get updated as we were playing with it. The unit will let you know that there is an update, and then give you the option to download it, and install it. So you shouldn't have to worry about an update in the middle of your trip to grandma's house.
Over the coming weeks, I will be putting on some miles with the Dash, testing out the traffic features more and hopefully running into some tracks laid down by other Dash users. I know that there are a few beta testers in the Boston area, and have already made contact with a couple of folks who are getting theirs in the pre-order process. I'll see you or at least your tracks on the road.
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Posted by Scott Martin at March 27, 2008 9:05 AM