Dash first made themselves known back in 2006 with promises of a new type of GPS that would take navigation to the next level. While initial predictions were for nationwide availability in Q3 of 2007, that date slipped a couple of times, but today you can get your hands on one. We’ve managed to get 500 hundred miles of quality time in with the Dash Express over the past few days– Is the Dash Express for you? Here is what we found.
This GPS isn’t for everyone. This isn’t going to be the “killer GPS” that suddenly starts taking significant market share from the big names. It does however, do a few tasks very, very well and if those are the features you need, this could very well be the “killer GPS” for you. You can purchase the device and service from dash.net or from Amazon who has an exclusive for about the next 30 days. The price originally announced at $599 has been scrapped, and the new price is $399. The monthly subscription costs remain the same. (More on that later.)
The first time you see this GPS you will immediately be struck by the size. This isn’t a “slip into your shirt pocket” type GPS. You won’t be using this GPS to walk around the downtown of a big city. The Express measures 4.8 inches wide, 4.1 inches tall, and 2.8 inches in depth, and creates a device just under one pound in weight. Think of it as the size of a softball rather than the ubiquitous deck of cards comparison.
The 4.3 inch touch screen is very bright, and colors don’t wash out at all when viewed from very high or very wide angles. The touch screen is perfectly sensitive (you don’t have to tap too hard) and it was very precise. There is also a screen alignment function should it come out of sync.
Typical day/night modes are included. The night mode even shows the headlights of the car icon illuminating part of the road ahead of you… a nice bit of eye candy. The day and night modes can be automatically changed based on sunrise and sunset. In addition, the brightness setting can automatically change based on the ambient light conditions.
On the left side of the Express GPS is a USB port and a USB switch. A power switch is located on the right. Most GPS devices place their speaker on the back of the device, facing away from the driver but perhaps getting some “bounce” from the windshield. On the Dash Express the speaker is located on the top, and was loud enough in our noisy car environment.
There are also two buttons on the top, one for volume and the other for a “menu” key. The buttons have great “action” to them with a feel more like a laptop’s touch screen. Tapping the volume button brings up the volume setting on the display, from there you can tap up or down, as well as muting. You can also double-tap on the volume button to automatically mute the device. Dash has always seemed “a bit different” (in a good way) and some of that cute quirkiness appears in the volume numbers which curiously go to a volume of “11”. The “menu” button at the top of the display cycles you between the map display and the menu system.
There were a few times when I went to adjust the angle of the GPS in the mount and found myself accidentally tapping the buttons, but once you get the mount where you want it you probably won’t need to move or adjust it later.
With a GPS as big and bulky as the Dash Express there is no need to hold anything back in designing a solid mount, and they didn’t. This mount is the strongest GPS mount I’ve ever seen. The suction has a “press” button to help squeeze out every last bit of air as well as a “lock” to further help hold the suction. While not quite as versatile as a mount with a “ball and socket” type joint, this mount does have enough joints to articulate the GPS exactly where you would like to place it.
If you’re worried about theft, this GPS does raise a few small issues. Due to the physical size of the device, size of the mount, and complexity of the mount you might not have the patience to take the GPS and/or mount with you, or even locking it somewhere in your car. It just isn’t as fast to “assemble and go” as other devices, and you certainly won’t want to put it in your purse or pocket. The power cord connects to the mount and the GPS slides into a holder on the mount.
In the Box
In addition to the GPS and the mount, a few more goodies are included in the box. A Getting Started Guide will get you up and running along with an Installation guide that walks you through setting up the mount, charging, etc.
A nice form fitting case is included, though you probably won’t carry the GPS around too often. You also get the car charger, USB cable, adhesive disk if you don’t want (or legally can’t) suction the mount to your windshield, a mount extension for further reach, as well as an AC adapter. A couple of Dash stickers are also thrown in.
Routing to an Address
If you know the physical address you are going to, the Dash Express works much like other GPS devices. From the Menu, select ‘choose a destination’ -> ‘type an address’ -> and then select the stae (if different), city, house number, and street name.
For those of you who might have experienced a few quirks or restrictions on other GPS models, the Dash Express seems to get it right. For example you can enter letters and dashes into the street numbers (yes, they do exist occasionally). It can recognize states spelled out by name or by their abbreviation. Finally, the single keyboard layout is QWERTY.
One feature we did miss though was being able to smartly account for spelling mistakes. It doesn’t handle spelling errors at all.
After selecting an address the GPS will show you the address it matched to, as well as the direction and straight line distance from your current location. You can choose to view a map of the location, save it as a favorite, save it to your address book, or create routes to that location.
“Route(s)?” You ask? Yes. In my mind one of the most brilliant things about the Dash Express is that if there is more than one reasonable route to the location, it will show up to three routes to pick from. People argue with each other about the “best” route, and people argue with their GPS about the “best” route. You will find yourself arguing with the Dash Express less because it is just more easy going than other models. However, that is not to say that the Dash is prefect at routing by any means. You will see a few examples of this later in the article.
For those of you wanting to squeeze every dollar out of your gas tank, this feature can be a help with the wallet too. One drive I recently took presented me with two routes. One was an estimated 3:57 and 249 miles. The second was two minutes longer estimating 3:59, but only 215 miles. The shorter distance route that will take me two minutes longer will save me lots of fuel to the 34 miles it shaves off and the lower speeds I’ll be traveling.
Yet another reason to love this feature is that despite my stubborn brain trying to convince me otherwise, the Dash Express often came up with creative (and indeed faster!) ways to get to my destination than I would have come up with myself.
Each route option is presented with an estimated travel time based on current and estimated traffic conditions, as well as the route distance. Each route is drawn on the map for you to see and toggle between.
If you want to pan in and zoom around the map viewing the route preview, the map updates are fairly slow when compared to other devices. The map zooms in and you sometimes wait several seconds before the map is redrawn.
Once you’ve picked a route (sometimes there are three, sometimes two, and sometimes it only offers one) you tap Go and navigate on your way.
Routing to POIs
Routing to the built-in POIs is pretty simple. From the menu select ‘choose a destination’ -> ‘browse places to go’ -> and select a category. All of the built in categories (that don’t need two way connectivity) show up with Blue icons. While I’d normally complain that the ‘Food’ category isn’t broken down into sub-categories, the ‘connected search’ feature we will discuss later largely addresses the issue. Just like routing to an address, you will be presented with up to three routes to pick from.
Menu System – GUI
The menu system (GUI) on the Dash Express is fantastic. While part of the simplicity could be attributed to a lack of many customization type features offered by other manufacturers, the menu system is drop dead simple and easy to use. Everything you need is just a couple of taps away, and the buttons are plenty large. We also really love the menu button on top… If you are working your way through the menus and need to quickly get back to the map… just tape the menu button and there it is. You don’t need to keep hitting ‘Back’ as you do with many other GPS systems.
Before we get into talking about searching for POIs and Traffic (what makes this GPS what it is) let’s take a step back and talk about the radios/antennas built into the Dash Express. This is what is sometimes called “two way connectivity”.
First, there is obviously a GPS chipset which receives signals from the GPS satellites, processes them, and computes your location. Dash is using the infamous SiRFstarIII chipset inside for that task. You don’t always get equal reception in different devices with the same chipset, so it is still worthy of noting that the reception is very good. Acquisition times were fast, and the signal was accurate.
Second, a GPRS radio is built in. This communicates over the cellular phone network to send and receive data from your GPS. As such, there is a coverage area you need to be within to get the most out of your GPS. I found many areas where the coverage area was listed as ‘Coming Soon’ however I was able to get GPRS coverage.
Third is a WiFi chip. Just like the Wifi chip you might have in your laptop, this is also used to communicate back and forth over the internet to send and receive data for the various connected services. If the GPS parked in your garage or driveway can “see” your own WiFi network it can join the network to perform its tasks. You can specify password details for up to two protected networks. If the Express GPS finds “open” networks in its travels it will automatically join them. You can turn that feature off if desired.
In order to take advantage of the “connected” services you will need to be in range of either the cellular network or an open wifi network. (And of course you need to have an active subscription.)
All of those radios do take a hit on the battery though. The battery specs at “up to” 2 hours. But again, this isn’t a GPS you are going to take walking with you so battery life won’t be a big issue for their target customer. In our testing we were able to get as long as three hours of battery life.
This is where the Dash Express starts to show what it was really designed for. Above I mentioned how I dislike when the Food or Restaurant category isn’t broken down into sub-categories. Here is how the Dash alleviates what would otherwise be a setback…. Connected Search.
From the Menu, select ‘search (connected)’. From this menu I type in “japanese” as I’m in the mood for sushi. I click ‘search’ -> ‘nearby’. My search is sent out wirelessly from the GPS to Yahoo, Yahoo gathers up the search results, and sends them back to the GPS. What is even better is that the results are sorted by RELEVANCE rather than just distance or alphabetically through the Yahoo search engine.
Don’t want the relevance sort? That is okay too. You can pick to sort by distance, alphabetically, or by RATING.
This works with most anything. A search for “coffee” showed listings for cafes, diners, and retail stores that sell coffee. A search for “iPhone” showed all of the local AT&T locations. Searching for “iPod” gave me some nearby Circuit City locations. To my amusement a search for “Garmin” came back with “No matches found on Yahoo Local”. I’m sure that was unintentional.
Once in awhile the searches just don’t make too much sense. Wanting to know just how far I could push the limits, I searched for “shovel” and got results for a Tae Kwon Do school, a police station, and an apartment complex. A more appropriate search for “hardware” brought up much more appropriate locations.
It would be great if in addition to the rating, we could read reviews. I suspect that is something that will come in future versions of the software.
There were a few times when this groovy internet hookup with nearly infinite POIs let us down, however. The built in POI databases on most GPS devices are pretty good at determining the “proper” location of a POI versus perhaps their mailing address. The connected search wasn’t always as considerate.
For example when we asked it to take us to a nearby ski resort, the “connected search” directed us to their corporate offices, about 10 miles from the actual ski area. Just a small “gotcha” to watch out for.
The connected search feature also connects up with nearly live fuel prices. Updated a few times per day, you can search for fuel prices based on stations closest to you, based on the lowest price in the area, or view fuel prices near your current location.
One potential big turn-off for some people will be the few routing customization options. No multi-destination routing, not even one waypoint at this point. You can’t tell it to avoid toll roads, nor to avoid highways. No way to avoid unpaved roads. No way to avoid specific roads nor maneuvers. Basically, if you don’t like either of the (up to) 3 routes it offers, you’ll need to just deal with it and let the device re-route when you miss its suggested turn.
I do hope some of those features make it into future software revisions.
Other things you won’t find on the Dash Express are multimedia options like MP3 players, Video players, and photo viewers. If you want them, you won’t find them on the Dash Express, but this aspect doesn’t bother me at all. I’d much rather see them implementing revolutionary NAVIGATION features as they are doing.
Complimenting the “connected search” aspects of the Dash Express, the Traffic services are the second revolutionary feature of the Dash Express. Other GPS devices have live traffic reporting… but not like Dash does. Similar to other traffic services, Dash uses data from INRIX to power its traffic service. Live traffic reports from fleet companies and road sensors are delivered to your GPS in order to paint a picture of traffic on the road ahead.
But Dash takes this one step further. YOU become part of the data. If you get stuck in traffic on a particular road at 6:15 pm on a Friday evening and that data becomes part of the profile Dash keeps for that segment of road. Over time and with more data, the traffic profiles and the traffic prediction models improve. The next week on a Friday evening at 6:15 on that same stretch of road might yield the same traffic, and other drivers can be warned about it.
A fun task is to plan a route to a nearby city on your Dash. Leave it on the screen where it presents route options for you. Watch throughout the day as the estimated travel time changes based on current and/or predicted traffic levels.
While not deliberate, I discovered just how interesting and accurate that data can become. I was driving down a nearby road that is littered with traffic lights during my review test of the Dash Express. I wanted to go back and repeat a certain stretch of road again as I had missed seeing something on the display. I looped back around by way of a parallel street, and then started driving up the road again, about a mile behind where I had previously traveled minutes ago.
Where there had previously been no traffic information, there was now a solid green line over the road. Hey, those are my tracks! That is my data! It was a total eureka moment. But to further my amazement, you could even see which traffic lights I caught on green and which I caught on red. Where I had “missed” the green light you could see a couple hundred feet of road where the traffic/speed profile showed a solid red line.
Now by itself that isn’t terribly interesting… I mean to someone else driving behind me the fact that I missed that light doesn’t really mean they will miss it too. But just noticing how fast the Dash network reacted to the data– and the accuracy of that data– and then imagining how interesting it will be with much MORE data… that really makes me start to believe in this type of traffic system and the advantages over a more typical traffic model.
Traffic on the map is displayed in green, yellow, orange, and red colors depending upon the current traffic flow. This is fairly standard although many other devices only show three different levels.
If the colored traffic lines are dashed, that means the data is coming from a third party. This data can be either estimated based on historical traffic patters (what the traffic is like on that day of week and that time historically) or based on current conditions. The current conditions come from fleet companies, road sensors, etc.
When the traffic data on the map is in a solid line, this is data being augmented from other drivers in the Dash network. Either another driver with a Dash device just recently drove that road segment, or it is historical traffic data that Dash themselves have constructed for the road segment, day of week, and time of day.
If you are driving towards your destination and the traffic conditions changed against your favor, a male voice will announce that the traffic conditions have changed. (The regular navigation voice is female.) A yellow box will appear on the GPS showing the estimated time of the delay.
This makes the Dash Express like a good wine— it will get better with age as they gain more customers and more historical traffic data. The system also tries to be smart about the traffic alerts and estimates it provides. If it knows there is a ten minute delay on your route right now that is 80 miles ahead, and it thinks that delay will likely be gone by the time you get there– Dash will try to be smart and won’t accidentally sound the alarm. Likewise if there are no CURRENT delays on your route but based on historical traffic patterns Dash thinks there will be a delay by the time you get there– the Dash network is designed to take that into account as well. While we’ve spent 500 miles with the Dash it hasn’t been quite enough time to fully grasp just how much better this will be over traditional traffic systems, but it looks real good.
With all of this good historical traffic data built into the device, I would like the ability to plan a route using a starting time of a date/time in the future. For example if I’m headed into Boston tomorrow morning for a meeting, I’d like to know how long it might take me if I leave at 8:00 am. Or I might like to know what time I SHOULD leave if I need to get there by 9:30 am. In addition, when viewing the summary of routes it might be nice to know how much of a delay is accounted for in each of the routes. It shows what the total estimated time is for each route, including the delay, but it doesn’t break out what the amount of the delay is.
Following a Route
We’ve talked about how the two most important pieces of information you need from a GPS to navigate are a distance to turn field and a “next turn” graphic or intersection icon. Dash delivers these two pieces of information well. In the top left corner of the display an intersection icon appears showing the type of intersection and the path you need to follow. Next to that the distance to that maneuver, followed by the name of the next street. This is well executed.
On the other hand, the more subtle aspects of following a route can be difficult at times on the Dash Express. The colors of the display are fairly dull. Dash says they do this on purpose so that the traffic information (displayed in red, green, orange, and yellow) will “pop” more and stand out from the rest of the map. It took some time getting used to following the highlighted path.
Something else that stood out was the lack of significant auto zooming as you approached intersections. While navigating complex, unfamiliar intersections I found myself spending much more time trying to view the map than I would with other GPS devices. Without an auto-zoom at intersections, many medians and tight streets were difficult to read on the display making me unsure of the proper road to take. I hope that an auto-zoom function is near to the top of the list of Dash’s Enhancement To-do List as navigating in unfamiliar areas can sometimes be more challenging than it needs to be.
I also didn’t like that one way streets are not labeled as such on the map. The underlying maps obviously know about one way streets, however they were not labeled on the map.
Dash is quick to point out that their target audience is people who are hard-core commuters. Thus, many people in their target audience will know where they are going most of the time and be using the Express to provide them with vital traffic information about their route.
At one point I was in a friend’s driveway, no more than 30 feet from the road (which was mapped), and the GPS just couldn’t build a route to any location I would give it. It kept saying ‘No Routes Found to destination’. The weird thing was that about 10 minutes later it started to build routes again. But then 10 minutes later it was back to “no routes found”.
The only hypothesis I could come up with was that as the GPS adjusted our position something was happening that was preventing it from figuring out where to start from. However, other times when we asked it to plan routes from locations that were significantly further from the nearest mapped street it worked fine. Hopefully this was just an isolated incident and across 500+ miles of testing we only saw it that one time.
Text to Speech
The included voice was fairly good. Not the best I’ve ever heard, but it was satisfactory. There were a couple of times when the voice didn’t start speaking as soon as it should have. For example in a rotary I had already taken the exit (and the car icon on the display agreed) before it reminded me “take the second exit”. The speaker was plenty loud enough and was very clear.
One female voice is included, that is used for the navigation instructions. A male voice will announce traffic information.
Scared of State Lines?
Normally I don’t pick on GPS devices too much when I don’t agree with the route. I’ve seen every GPS on the market create strange routes from time to time and since people can’t agree on routing, I don’t expect I’ll always agree with the gadget.
I did however find some routes that really pointed to a bug in the software that raised my eyebrows a bit. The GPS actually had me drive 17 miles up one road and turn around in place and come back down 8 miles over the road I had just driven. You can see a screenshot on the right and a Google Map of the weird segment of the route below.
There must be some sort of bug either with state lines, with bridges, or with that bridge in particular. The location where it wanted me to turn around and backtrack was EXACTLY on top of a bridge where the river flowing below marks the state line. Maybe it is just scared of heights.
A Really Strange Route
Then there was this really strange route. Checkout the map below. The Dash Express took what is typically (by my own fairly frequent driving of the route) a 110 mile 2:15 drive into a 269 mile, 6:14 zig-zag across the state. Zoom in one level on the map and I’m sure you can see many much better routes than what was picked, particularly between Kingfield and Newport. The route displayed is what was picked by the Dash Express and was the only option presented. You can see the screenshot on the right and the Google map below.
I’ll reiterate though that most of the routes the Dash picked were very good. Many routes it picked were my preferred routes, and routes that nearly no other GPS devices pick. It just seems that when it misses (which again, wasn’t that often in our testing) it really missed.
After the traffic service and live POI searching, the next best feature is certainly MyDash. This website portal offers numerous ways to enhance the experience of using your Dash Express GPS.
Send2Car is a way to send addresses directly from your computer to your Dash device. The beautiful thing about this service is that it doesn’t require your GPS to be connected to your computer. It all happens over the air. Type in an address on the website, click Send2Car and if your Dash GPS is connected to the network, wherever it might be, and the GPS will receive the address. When I’m going on a trip I never plan the trip when I get in the car… I know my destination before I get in the car. So this is beautiful.
You can also attach short notes to the GPS. Imagine this. You are home and realize you forgot to get milk at the grocery store. Your spouse is still at work, but will be going by the store on the way home. You pull up MyDash, and send the address of the Store to your spouse’s Dash device. Along with the address, you type a note “forgot milk, sorry!”. When your spouse gets in the car and turns the Dash on, it will display a note that says ”A new address has arrived! [View] [Close]. You can view the address and read the notes with the reminder not to forget the milk.
There are also plugins available for Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari, as well as for Outlook 2003 so that you don’t even need to re-type the address if it is available in one of those programs.
Saved Search is another nice component of the MyDash service. Say you find yourself frequently seeking out certain types of businesses. Starbucks might be a good example if you are a caffeine junkie. So you create a Yahoo search for “starbucks’ and save it to your MyDash account. Send it to your GPS and now you have quick access to a saved search for nearby Starbucks locations.
You can also build, save, and share the equivalent of custom POIs. You can make a list of your client locations from the comfort of your PC for example, and send that list to your GPS.
Finally, for bigger geeks, if you have a location of places that is in KML format or GeoRSS format on the web, you can tell MyDash where that feed is located, and send the feed location to your GPS. The dynamic list will appear on the GPS and be constantly updated with new information.
Over the Air Updates
Having all of those nifty radios packed into the Dash Express has advantages beyond just sending down destinations, traffic, and live searches. Software updates can also be delivered over the air directly to the device. The updates are downloaded in the background, and then you are notified on the device that a software update is available for you to install. Once you agree to the update, the new software is loaded into the device and the Dash Express reboots. If you are driving, you can defer the update to a more appropriate time.
The updates don’t stop with just the software though. Map updates are also included in the service fee and I’ve been told those updates should be available at least twice per year. The traffic model will be updated every month.
Service announcements and tips can also be broadcast to Dash users from Dash themselves. For example in the image on the right Dash announced to their users a tip for switching between the 2D and 3D views.
In order to get all of the nifty traffic, search, and MyDash features you will need a subscription. While the device will navigate without a subscription, it would be pointless to do so. You could spend less money on a more capable device if you are not going to use the connected services.
When you purchase the device you will get one month free, then two more months free when you join MyDash. If you pay ahead for one year of service the costs breaks down to $11 per month and if you pay for two years in advance it comes out to $10 per month.
Cost of Ownership
With TomTom’s recently announced IQ Routes which also takes into account the actual speed drivers took to drive a road segment, some drivers might be wondering how the two systems might compare in price. Since we haven’t yet been able to evaluate the IQ Route system yet, we won’t have a full picture answer. Still, here is a short comparison of price and the most significant features.
|Dash Express||TomTom 730T|
|1st Year Monthly Services||$10||
|2nd Year Monthly Services||$10||
|Map Update After 1st Year||
|Fuel Prices 2 Years||
|Lots of Route Customizations||No||
|Live Two Way Search||
A few notes about this chart. We are comparing the current MSRP prices as established by the manufacturer. The Dash service fees are based on purchasing two years of service up-front. The TomTom service fees are for the traffic service based on 12 months included, and $60 for the year after. Dash says map updates are included in their service updates, the current North America map price from TomTom is $100. This isn’t meant to be a full feature comparison, rather highlighting the most significant aspects of the device as they relate to each other.
If I’m going to be spending some time trying to get around a larger, unfamiliar city, the Dash Express isn’t going to be my first pick to take with me. The inability of the GPS to auto-zoom as you approach intersections, and map that is sometimes difficult to scan quickly makes for it to be not the best choice when you are in tight unfamiliar areas.
On the other hand if you are a hard-core commuter who keeps the radio tuned to stations with frequent traffic updates the Dash Express is your dream GPS.