The Good: Smooth operation on the road; easy delivery of addresses and search results to device
The Bad: Search parameters for finding nearby businesses are limited
The Bottom Line: Limitations aside, the most interesting thing to happen in personal navigation in a few years
Over the last few years, it's been hard to get excited about the latest in-car navigation devices. For the most part, whether they come from Garmin (GRMN), TomTom, Magellan, or anyone else, they will get you from your starting point to your driving destination reasonably well. The differences between these devices are almost beside the point. Some will give you a little traffic information on the way, some will tell you about the weather, and still others will play music as if the stereo in your car wasn't enough.
This is why I've been eager to get my hands on the Dash Express. It's been nearly two years since startup Dash Navigation first introduced plans for an Internet-enabled navigation device.
Priced at $399, the Dash Express brings two nice advances compared with other satellite-based GPS (global positioning system) navigation devices. First, using cellular data networks, it receives live traffic updates and presents the latest conditions on the same screen as the map for the route you're following. Second, when you're at home or the office, the Express can receive addresses and saved search results from a Windows (MSFT) or Mac (AAPL) computer using your Wi-Fi connection or a cell network—an enormous improvement over typing in addresses on a navigation device's touchscreen.
These extra capabilities come with fees to cover the cellular data connection and a Web service that lets you search for an address and transmit it directly to the device using the "send to car" feature. The service costs $11 a month if you sign up for one year or $13 if you pay for a month at a time.
Traffic Data from Multiple Sources
I used the Dash Express on a trip from Manhattan to eastern Long Island and back. As you might expect, the traffic information was more useful closer to Manhattan. Traffic conditions are indicated on the display map by shaded colors on the lines representing roads. Green is good, while yellow and orange indicate congestion, and red means you're probably better off taking another route if possible.
These alerts are only helpful to a point. When a yellow alert box popped up to warn of congested traffic ahead, the device didn't suggest an alternate route, and I wasn't certain what to do other than take the next available exit. That turnoff wouldn't have been entirely helpful since I wasn't familiar enough with the area to chart my own new course. Of course, knowing which side streets to take when the freeway gets congested is common knowledge among daily commuters, who probably won't need this device to suggest an alternate route.
In addition to relaying road conditions from third-party traffic reports, Dash Express gathers information from an intriguing secondary source: other Dash users. Indeed, your Dash unit will anonymously report your direction and speed on a given road to the company's servers so the information can be shared with other Dash users in the area. The device lets you know who's telling you what; information gleaned from another Dash user is represented by a solid colored line and updates from a traffic service are indicated by broken colored lines.
Since there aren't so many Dash users at this early stage, the reliance on user-generated information would seem to be a weakness, but it's not. True, there's strength in numbers: The more Dash Express units there are on the roads, the more accurate its traffic reporting will be. Nevertheless, I saw solid lines all over the New York area, all the way out to eastern Long Island, and as far west as the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, meaning other drivers with Dash units had driven there recently.
Hits and Misses
The other helpful feature is Dash's connection to Yahoo! (YHOO) Local search. From my office in Manhattan, I searched for restaurants nearby, and was referred to local steak houses and pizza joints. I did another for "comic books" and was given suggestions that ranged from local shops to the names of publishers with offices nearby.
Another interesting feature is the ability to search for gas stations nearby. The constant Internet connection allows the device to display updated prices for some stations. You can also get updated movie listings and times for cinemas nearby if you get a sudden notion to catch a movie.
I was tripped up by the "saved search" feature on the Dash Web site. There you can search for stuff you want, say, the locations of a chain of restaurants in a given area, and send the data to the device and share them with other Dash users. Here the search parameters are limited to city names and Zip Codes. I easily built a list of Burger Heaven restaurants in Manhattan, but the Zip Code requirement prevented me from creating a list of Cracker Barrel restaurants along Interstate 95 or even within a particular state.
Although it's possible to get some of these traffic and search-type features with the navigation services appearing on more cell phones, Dash Express is fairly novel among dedicated GPS devices. All considered, I think Dash Navigation is off to a great start. Its plan is not to try to outsell established players on the new device, but eventually to license its technology to those very same rivals. If they're smart, competitors will be whipping out their checkbooks soon.