Living the Well-Connected Life

Illustration: Mark Matcho
I didn't attend prep school with the Kennedys or schmooze my way into high society. But these days I'm feeling extremely well connected, thanks to mobile devices like Amazon's Kindle e-book reader and the Dash Express GPS.

What's unique about these gizmos is that they maintain a constant Internet connection, so I don't have to load a browser, wait for a connection, and then hunt down information on a tiny screen. They simply pull down data and present it to me when I ask for it.

In a few years, I believe, all mobile devices will be constantly connected. But I hope that the manufacturers of those devices will take appropriate steps to avoid some of the kinks found in the Dash Express and the Kindle.

Kindling Desire

Even voracious readers don't need a constant bookstore feed. So while you can use the WhisperNet connection of Amazon's Kindle Whispernet to download e-books, the device's real value is as a mobile blog and news reader. You can subscribe to nearly 350 blogs and more than 30 newspapers and magazines readable on the Kindle, sans advertisements. But at $1 to $2 a month per blog and up to $14 a month for selected articles from publications like the New York Times, the bill totes up fast.

The $359 Kindle also functions as a mobile Internet browser, though Amazon makes almost no mention of this important feature. You can call up virtually any Web site (including ones that charge a subscription fee), but they don't always display well, and my connection was inconsistent and slow (your mileage may vary). When it did work, it was great.

Dashing Hope

Like the iPhone, the Dash Express GPS device automatically logs on when you're near a Wi-Fi hotspot, but it uses a cell connection when you're not. Among other things, this two-way connection transforms your car into a real-time traffic gauge. If you run into a snarl, the unit transmits that data to the Dash servers, which swiftly recalculate how long it will take you and everyone else crawling along that stretch of road to reach your destinations.

In theory, this arrangement provides more-accurate real-time traffic data than the content from MSN Direct or ClearChannel, which depend on road sensors and historical traffic data. But the info is only as good as the number of Dash drivers on the road at one time.

The Dash's other big Net-centric feature is live search. Most GPS units rely on a static (and often woefully out-of-date) "points of interest" database for info on local restaurants and shops. Dash augments that content with Yahoo Local Search, so you can search for things like "sushi" or "contact lenses." But the results are hit or miss. For example, a search for "books" found 16 stores but missed a Barnes & Noble 3 miles from my home. On the Web, Yahoo Local displays 38 stores, including the Barnes & Noble near me.

It's too soon to tell whether the Dash is better than a standard GPS device. It will cost you $299 plus $10 to $13 a month to find out.

Like most products on the front edge of technology, the Dash and the Kindle exhibit great promise, inconsistent execution, and high prices. But they lead toward a future in which we're all well connected--regardless of our pedigree.


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