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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dash Express review

Dash_express_review

UPDATES:

I’ve had the Dash Express for over a month now and have been enjoying testing it out. The Dash is a revolutionary new type of GPS navigation device that brings Internet search to your car along with crowdsourced live traffic. The cellular connection built in to every Dash unit sends anonymous location data to Dash servers. This data is then translated to traffic flow speeds that are updated on all Dash units every 15 minutes. If there are enough Dash users on the road in your area, you will receive traffic data superior to that offered by any other GPS device available in North America.

In this review, we’ll look at the Dash service plan, their hardware, interface, how well the crowdsourced traffic feature works, the unit’s Internet search capabilities, and how the Dash Express compares to other GPS navigators in terms of features. I’ll conclude with a list of pros and cons, as well as  a recommendation on who should consider purchasing a Dash Express.

Activation and the Dash Express service plan

Activation is a very simple process. Just go to MyDash to activate your 90 day
free trial. After that, service plan options are as follows:

  • 2-year prepaid plans run the equivalent of $9.99 a month
  • 1-year prepaid plan are $10.99 a month
  • Month-to-month plans are $12.99 a month

Service plans include map updates which are delivered to your device over the air. Large updates will likely be delivered via the Dash’s WiFi connection. You can use your device without a subscription, but you will not receive map updates and traffic service, nor will you have access to Yahoo! Local searches.

Not a pocket navigator

This ain’t no slimmed down nuvi. The Dash is a bit of a beast, thanks to the inclusion of three communication systems — WiFi, GPS and cellular. You can see below how it compares in size to my Garmin nuvi 660. Though both share a 4.3″ wide screen, you can see that the Dash is definitely bulkier.

Dash_vs_nuvi

Dashvsnuvitop

The mount (shown below) is oversized too. It’s rock-solid, but is a little more difficult to install and take down than most mounts. I understand that some sort of universal friction mount should work but I haven’t tried that out, though I have to wonder how well such a mount would support the unit’s weight and whether it would topple in sudden stops and starts and sharp turns.

Dash_mount_right

Dash_mount_left

There are only three buttons on the unit:

  • The Menu button, a wonderful feature, toggles between the menu and the map
  • The Volume button brings up volume controls and a mute option
  • The Power button, located on the side of the unit, is a little too
    easy to accidentally engage if you are removing the unit for use in hand

One other hardware note — there is an ambient light sensor on the unit that automatically regulates the screen brightness. This is a very nice feature, though a couple of times I did notice it causing screen washout when driving east into the low morning sun.

An intuitive interface

I’ve found the Dash Express to be pretty intuitive, which is something that many GPS manufacturers struggle with. This was easier for Dash, because the Express focuses on traffic and search, and menus aren’t cluttered up with dubious frills like Bluetooth and MP3 players. There are some occasional oversights, such as the inability to sort your address book by proximity to current position.

Crowdsourced traffic

Like many navigators with live traffic, Dash uses color coding to show traffic flow (green, yellow and red). The dotted lines shown below are based on historical average speed data.

Img_1659

The dotted lines turn solid when another Dash user has traversed the same segment of roadway in the past 15 minutes. EDIT: As Jaysen points out in the comments below, solid lines don’t necessarily mean there are other Dash users; it just means that Dash has more reliable data about traffic on that segment of road during that 15 minute period.

I live in a small city of around 70,000 people and, as far as I know, there is only one other Dash user in the area. So a few weeks after its release to the public, I took a road trip to Charlotte to test the Dash in rush hour traffic. I was quite pleased to see the Interstate highways frequently populated with solid lines, indicating a good sized network of Dash users in the area. Unfortunately, there was very little coverage on other major thoroughfares. Where there was traffic coverage, it seemed relatively accurate, and though not foolproof, it certainly seemed better than traffic systems relying on TMC data. The arrival time estimate on a cross-city trip at rush hour was quite good.

I wish Dash would open up their forums to the general public, instead of just registered Dash owners. There is a Dash Local forum that lets Dash users connect with other owners, and it does give an idea of where Dash users are located. Large metro areas are represented, but there are also threads for places you might not expect such as Birmingham and the Florida Panhandle. There are also state threads for North Carolina, Tennessee, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

In the month or so I’ve had the Dash, I’ve seen historical average speed data show up even for the small city I’m in, probably due to INRIX taking this data  nationwide for Interstates and other major highways.

Routing and navigation

One of the nice things about Dash is that it offers multiple routes for a given destination, as shown below. When traffic information is available, this is taken into account in estimating travel time.

A downside is that you can only program in one destination at a time. No via points are allowed. This is an area that the designers must surely be looking at for a firmware upgrade.

Dash_multiple_routes

Routing was good in most instances, although as another reviewer has said, when it misses, it really misses. On a trip to Trader Joe’s in south Charlotte the unit literally sent me in circles. Routing algorithms are tough, and navigation companies that excel in this have been at it for many years. Hopefully, Dash will be able to improve their performance in this area in the future.

The unit has text-to-speech, so it calls out the names of upcoming turns. Generally, labeling of exits on the screen was nicer than that of my nuvi, with both the exit number and name being given. I say generally because occasionally the unit would display obscure or inaccurate road names. For example, NC Highway 152 was labeled Oak Ridge Farm Hwy. Worse, an
exit ramp to I-40 West was labeled CSI Farm Road, making me wonder if I was being taken to a field of dead bodies!

Internet-based features

Internet-based features of the Dash Express fall into several categories.

Yahoo! Local search 

Wow! Internet access in your car. I absolutely love this feature, and it makes the Dash Express a tempting purchase even if you don’t live a traffic-clogged commuter’s nightmare. It is so nice to be able to search for restaurants and sort them by reviewer rating. You can also sort by relevance, distance to me or alphabetical order.

Dash_search_1

Dash_search_2

Send2Car

With a Firefox, Internet Explorer or Safari plugin, you can highlight an address, right-click and send it to your car, instantly. And I do mean instantly. Without wires. Magic. Okay, maybe not magic but it is way cool.

Gas/Movies

With this feature you can get gas prices and movie listings.

Dash_gas_prices

Saved Searches, MyList, MyFeed

Saved searches allow you to send your’s and other people’s Yahoo! searches to the device and have it remain in the menu system. This can be stores like Costco, various parks, etc.

MyList allows you to create custom lists that can be shared. An example would be the best restaurants in your town.

MyFeed is the most technical way to get data from the Internet to your device. This feature allows you to utilize GeoRSS feeds or KML URLs. Here is the Dash Feed Format Developer Documentation. Currently posted examples at my.dash.net include dog parks and nationwide airport delays. These come to you live over the Internet and are constantly updated. One GeoRSS feed I’m getting is weather for my region, including current conditions and forecasts for a couple of days. This is a great example of the possibilities engendered by this technology.

Managing your Dash Express

My.Dash.net is a one stop location for managing your device and sending info to it.

Lost my connection

While I never had any problem with the cellular connection in Asheville, I did encounter difficulties near the hotel I was staying at right off I-485 in south Charlotte. I had to do a full restart in my car to get the connection working. I also experienced a loss of Yahoo! Local search capabilities (it kept timing out) even though the unit was connected and showing live traffic. Dash has posted a cellular coverage map online, and I suggest checking this out before making a purchase.

How the Dash Express stacks up against the competition

Dash has wisely chosen to go with their strengths. Rather than add such frills as Bluetooth and an MP3 player, the Dash Express makes the most of two-way connectivity, focusing on crowdsourced traffic and Internet search. If I could stop the comparison there, the Dash Express would look pretty good. Unfortunately there are downsides to the unit beyond
the lack of frills. Routing algorithms that are unsophisticated, the inability to include a via in a route, the bulky hardware, etc., all conspire to make this less than the ideal travel companion.

Dash Express Pros

  • Crowdsourced traffic is superior to any other live traffic information for GPS navigators
  • Yahoo! Local search is great for finding newer businesses and reviews of restaurants, etc.
  • Other Internet based features such as “Send to car” and saved searches are very nice features
  • Multiple route options displayed
  • Map updates are included in service fees
  • Comes with a carrying case
  • Intuitive, well designed controls

Dash Express Cons

  • The unit is bulky
  • Service fees
  • Only one million on board points of interest (POIs), which isn’t an issue unless you lose your connection
  • Via points cannot be included in routes
  • Unit does not auto zoom in for turns
  • Data entry keyboard for Yahoo! Local search feels a bit cramped
  • Occasional routing problems and other hiccups indicate that the Dash Express is not quite ready for prime time

 

Recommendations

I highly recommend the Dash Express for commuters who often endure traffic problems. There is no other comparable unit available in the North American market.  It should be well worth the service fees, especially when you consider that map updates are included in the cost. The only real downside for traffic warriors is the size of the unit and I think the pluses outweigh that one negative.

I absolutely love the Internet search feature and wish I could recommend the Dash Express to a wider audience, but the size is just too big for an every day navigator, and the unit is not quite up to par with others in most regards other than traffic and search.

Dash has created exactly what they set out to — the ultimate commuter GPS. Personally, I hope they can expand on this in the future with a GPS for the rest of us.


More Dash Express reviews

 

 


Other Dash Express resources

Buy the Dash Express at Amazon

Related posts:

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.

Comments

  1. Jaysen says:

    The solid traffic lines aren’t necessarily other Dash drivers. They’re also from road sensors that are considered “reliable.” Unfortunately, this seems to be a common assumption among Dash users, and it skews their perception of how many other Dash’s are on the road.

  2. Good point Jaysen. I’ve modified the review, adding a note about that.

  3. Good review. I am also in NC (raleigh area). I am a DE user and I have sent them several emails and problem reports as I am also having major “timed out” connectivity issues here. I recently traveled to FLA., and while I was in SC I had no connection at all through the entire state. It wasn’t until I got to GA that I realized how the GPRS connectivity is really supposed to work. Other than that, I’m really happy with the unit, but I hope they fix that issue soon.

  4. doughboys says:

    Not auto zooming on turns and routing issues are things that definitely need addressing.
    I’d be curious how active the Rhode Island thread is on the My Dash forum. Thats where I live. Does it seem like there are a lot of RI area users? I can imagine the maps are off quite a bit around Providence they are in the midst of changing the 95/195 interchanges.

  5. Wow, no connection throughout SC! Any idea how that happened?

  6. There are two Dash users discussing RI in the Dash forum. One lives in Providence, the other in Coventry. The latter works in CT and uses I-95 South. There may be other Dash owners who just aren’t active on that forum.

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