First Look: Dash Express GPS Device Harnesses the Web

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Any number of GPS devices can help travelers with driving directions and provide point-of-interest databases for storing information on hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. Dash Navigation's $400 Dash Express does all of this, but its smart Internet-connected service makes the unit a great aid for everyday driving, too.

Whereas other GPS devices that retrieve data (such as traffic conditions and gas prices) depend primarily on Bluetooth connections or specialized radio services such as MSN Direct, the Dash Express offers robust two-way communications via built-in GSM cellular and unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. The Dash Service ($10 to $13 a month) makes full use of these networks, enabling users to enter destination addresses via the Web (with awkward touch-screen finger tapping kept to a minimum) and to perform Yahoo Local searches from the car.

Before using my shipping evaluation unit, I spent a few minutes activating the service's 90-day free trial at MyDash, a process that entailed submitting my name and e-mail address and the device's serial number. Dash says, however, that the company does not link my personal identification information with its device tracking information. Shortly after submitting the required data, I received an e-mail message containing a link that I clicked to submit my activation code.

Once activated, the service offered to start sending destinations to my unit, starting with my home address. From your PC, you have the option of typing in an address or cuttting and pasting one in from a Web site. You can streamline the latter operation by installing a free Dash browser plug-in (Internet Explorer or Mozilla) that adds a 'Send to car' right-click menu option for highlighted addresses. The service can send geo-enabled RSS feeds (such as one I created on Yelp for places I've reviewed), too, as well as the results of custom searches to the device.

Now I was ready to drive. Weighing 13.3 ounces and measuring 4.8 by 4.1 by 2.8 inches, the Dash Express is bulkier than most recent LCD-based GPS devices I've seen; and its included car charger connects (oddly) through the mounting rig rather than to the unit itself. As such, the Dash isn't a great candidate for pedestrian use or for transporting between cars.

The Dash's bulkiness didn't hamper its usability, however. To access its volume controls and main menu, you tap clearly labeled touch-sensitive areas on the top plastic casing. When the Dash displays maps, its 4.3-inch, 480-by-272-pixel touch screen provides just two buttons--one for zooming in and the other for toggling between two- and three-dimensional views. Thanks to its antiglare coating, the display was reasonably legible even in bright sunlight.

The Dash's biggest boon is its connectivity. When I powered up the unit, the cellular connection took about a minute to kick in (and not much longer for the GPS fix to appear--check it via a 'Geek screen' menu option hidden in the settings). Immediately, I heard voice announcements heralding the arrival of each of three addresses I had sent via the Web. I quickly accessed them by tapping 'Choose a destination' and then 'Send to car'. You can designate destinations as favorites for easy retrieval down the line.

You can type addresses into the Dash Express, of course, and it ships with a points-of-interest database that you can search or browse by category. But when the device is connected via the Dash service, its search option performs a Yahoo Local search. A search for "dim sum," for example, retrieves not only the addresses of nearby Chinese restaurants, but their star ratings. A search for "gas" brings up not only the locations of nearby filling stations, but their prices, updated four times daily. Searches were reasonably fast, if not lightning-quick--about half a minute each in my tests. The results are presented in a similar fashion, whether you're connected or not.

Once you've chosen a destination, the device generates up to three possible routes, including one that it identifies as the best based on its estimates of traffic. Dash Express says that these calculations incorporate real-time traffic data, provided at launch by a company that monitors highway sensors and by fleet operators. Over time, however, the routing will include information collected from other Dash users. The actual routing uses four levels of color coding to indicate anticipated traffic--from green for no congestion to red for stop-and-go conditions.

Dash's service isn't supercheap: Monthly costs range from $10 to $13, depending on whether you pay as you go or prepay for a year or two. I'd be more willing to invest for a longer stretch if, for example, Dash could also receive and send e-mail. Without the service, you have no particular reason to get this GPS. With the service, though, Dash becomes an appealing option for commuters and other frequent drivers who don't mind spending a bit more to take advantage of the Dash's many features.

Street price: $400; service costs $10-$13 per month

PCW Rating: 90 (Superior)

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