It's been almost two years since Dash Navigation first announced its Dash Express portable navigation system, and we're happy to say that you can now finally get your hands on this device. The Dash Express is unlike any other portable navigation system on the market today because it offers two-way connectivity (cellular and Wi-Fi), giving drivers access to a whole new world of information via the Internet and the network of other Dash-connected users. You can conduct live (and more relevant) Web searches via Yahoo Local search; get real-time traffic data; wireless send addresses to the system; and much more. It really adds value to portable navigation devices, and it's the type of innovation that we think will take GPS to the next level--so much so that we even gave it a Best of CES 2007 award.
So did it deliver? Was it worth the wait? Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that we absolutely love what the connectivity brings to the device. We found great use and value in being able to conduct live searches, look for gas stations by lowest fuel prices, view traffic flow, and more. The Send2Car feature also worked flawlessly. The bad news is the unit was a subpar navigator. It was consistently off the mark when tracking our location, which ultimately affected route guidance. Now, Dash says the Express is for commuters and drivers who typically know where they're going and want the new features. OK, that's all well and good, but we're sure there will be times they have to venture to new places. And come on--the Express is still a GPS device, and it should be able to perform the core navigation functions well, especially if we're paying $399.99 for the thing. If Dash irons out those kinks, the Express will be a force to be reckoned with. The Dash Express is available starting today from Dash and Amazon.com, and includes three months of complimentary Dash Service. Afterward, you will have to purchase one of their plans, which range from $9.99 a month with a two-year plan to $12.99 per month for month-to-month.
The reaction has pretty much been the same from every passerby who has laid eyes on the Dash Express: "Whoa, that's a big device." At 4.8 inches wide by 4.1 inches high by 2.8 inches deep and weighing 13.3 ounces, the Dash certainly is a beast and harkens back to the days of older devices such as the bulbous Garmin StreetPilot c550. Dash says the extra bulk is because of the integrated wireless radios, which we understand, but we still think the company could have streamlined the design better, particularly the protruding backside, which is an eyesore.
On front, there's a 4.3-inch WQVGA color touch screen with a 480x272 pixel resolution and antiglare technology. You can adjust the brightness manually or turn on the ambient light function, which will automatically adjust the backlight depending on your environment. As with most portable navigation systems, there's a mode that will also automatically switch the map colors for daytime and nighttime. The display is sharp and maps are bright, but we wish the street names were in a slightly larger font.
We found the Dash Express to be quite simple to operate. The Dash has an intuitive user interface, and we were able to start planning trips and conducting searches without cracking open the user manual. Still, we recommend checking out the reference material and playing with the device before hitting the road for the first time, since the Dash has a lot to offer.
There are two touch-sensitive controls on top of the unit: one allows you to adjust the volume, while the second (labeled Menu) toggles between the main menu and the map screen. We had no problems with the volume control, but the menu button was a bit temperamental. For the most part, it always registered our touch, but there were a couple of occasions where we had to tap it a couple of times to switch screens. Finally, there is a power button on the right side and a mini USB port on the left.
The Dash Express comes packaged with a vehicle mount (windshield and dash), a mount arm extension, a car charger, an AC adapter, a soft carrying case, a USB cable, and reference material. The car mount has various knobs and buttons for adjusting the angle of the device and securing the entire apparatus to your windshield or dash. Despite the heft, the mount did a good job of holding the Dash in place while driving about town.
There are a number of features that make the Dash Express special and unlike any other portable navigation system on the market, starting with the Internet connectivity. With a built-in Wi-Fi and cellular radio, the Dash can use a Wi-Fi or GPRS connection to provide you with live content in the car. This allows you to perform more relevant and up-to-date searches with Yahoo Local search rather than relying on a stagnant points-of-interest database.
To start, just tap the search option from the main menu page, then enter a search term, and Yahoo will retrieve results closest to your location or in another state or city. Remember, this isn't like your regular POI catalog, you can really drill down and search for specific items. For example, let's say you're out shopping for bicycles. Just type in "bicycles" and Yahoo will find any relevant businesses as well as provide star ratings for the business based on user reviews. Once you have the search results, there are options to route to the location, save it, map it, or add it to your Favorites list. In addition, Dash Express provides current movie times and filters gas stations by real-time fuel prices. Sadly, at this time, there's no way to use the Dash as a hands-free speaker system to make or receive calls.
The Internet connectivity also allows for a couple of other features. One is called Send2Car, which lets you send addresses from your computer straight to the Dash Express. All you have to do is log onto the MyDash Web site where you can then enter an address, add notes about the trip, and then hit the "send to your car" button. If a family member or friend owns a Dash unit as well, you can share addresses with them by typing in their Dash ID. A pop-up window will appear on your Dash unit to let you know that a new address has arrived for you. There's a nifty "MyFeeds" function too that works like an RSS feed. Our demo included a feed to someone's favorite surf spots along the California coast with updated surf reports, which was very cool.
Finally, Dash can deliver system updates, including map updates, over the air. You don't have to connect to your PC or purchase any additional software; it's all done behind the scenes without much user involvement. You'll simply be notified when an update is available. Since there is this over-the-air capability, Dash can disable your device in case it gets stolen.
Another differentiating factor is the traffic capabilities. Dash Express uses a combination of historical data, information from traffic-flow provider Inrix, and other Dash owners to gather real-time updates and traffic patterns for your route. So right out of the box, the historical information gives you an idea of what kind of congestion you'll encounter along your route. Each Dash Express unit also automatically (and anonymously) sends data, such as position and speed, back to the Dash server, which can then update all other Dash units about current road speeds. Clearly, the more Dash users there are on the road, the more accurate and comprehensive the reports will be. If you're a little wary since there are only a limited number of Dash units (beta users, mostly) in use right now, you should know that everything is backed by Inrix, which collects data using road sensors, commercial fleets, and other sources.
The traffic information is also used in route calculations as the Dash Express is able provide up to three different routes with an estimated time of arrival for each based on road conditions. Like most GPS with traffic capabilities, Dash identifies heavy congestion with red lines, slow areas with yellow ones, and clear roads with green. The system goes one step further with solid lines to signify real-time reports from the Dash Network while dashed lines indicate historical data or Inrix sources. It all gives you a quick glance at what you're up against before hitting the streets. If an incident comes up while you're already traveling, there is a detour function. You also have the option to control how much traffic you want to see: all traffic, live traffic only, or just traffic along your route.
Some other things of note on the Dash Express: It comes preloaded with TeleAtlas maps of the United States and has a 2 million POI database, in addition to the connected search function. The system supports text-to-speech functionality and automatic route recalculations.
We tested the Dash Express in San Francisco, and from a cold start, it took the unit about three minutes to get a fix on our location under clear skies. Subsequent starts varied from just a few seconds to a couple of minutes. As we drove around the city, we noticed that the Dash was slightly off the mark with its tracking; most of the time it was behind by a block, but it could be as bad as up to three blocks off. We know that Dash wants to target the Express at commuters and users who pretty much know where they're going, but it's still a navigation device at its core, and there shouldn't be such a discrepancy.
Next, we entered our standard trip from the Marina District to CNET's downtown headquarters using the Send2Car function. The feature worked flawlessly; we simply entered the address on the MyDash Web site and the information arrived almost instantaneously on our review unit. The Dash Express took longer than other portable navigation systems to calculate a route, but we're not going to knock it for slow performance, since it is creating three different routes. We chose the itinerary that would take the shortest amount of time and checked out the list of turn-by-turn directions, which we found to be accurate. While on the road, once again, we found that the Dash's position tracking lagged behind us. On a couple of occasions, this caused us to miss a turn, since it didn't alert us until after we had already passed the street. Fortunately, route calculations are pretty swift. The text-to-speech voice directions were loud and clear, but it mangled some street pronunciations.
Connecting to Wi-Fi and cell networks was completely hands-off and painless; the Dash automatically connected as soon as we fired up the device. The search functionality was definitely a highlight. It was pretty powerful to be able to search for almost anything on the fly. That said, we did find that search results could be pretty wild. For example, a search for MP3 players brought up a car wash and detail shop. Still, these instances were few and far between, and we found much value in the search capabilities.
Last, but not least, the Dash Express is rated for only about two hours of battery life, and we found this to pretty much be true. The battery drained quickly after a couple hours of use outside the car, so keep a charger handy at all times.