Dash Express: First Impressions of My New GPS

I've been waiting for this particular gadget for many months, and unlike some of the other early reviewers, I was not privy to any early sneak peaks; my enthusiasm was based only on what I'd read and watched (they had great early videos) on the net. Still, it was clear to me that this was going to be a breakthrough device.

[stepping up onto soapbox...]

I have been ranting for a long time that I believe GPS devices are the key device for bringing the Internet to the car and that, once that happens, we'll wonder how we ever lived without it. I don't believe the Internet will appear with next generation radios, it won't be bundled with newfangled satellite equipment, and it won't happen through some scaled down PC mounted in the car. It will be the GPS vendors who deliver the Internet to the car, and Dash is leading the way with the just-released Dash Express which provides Internet connectivity over both WiFi and cellular networks.

As I confirmed this past weekend, the results are a completely unique driving experience that make all my previous navigation routines look primitive. I won't take time here to further explore the endless possibilities of having the power of the Internet at your disposal while traveling, but it should be noted that beyond the immediate benefits Dash provides with having very real time traffic conditions at your disposal, there is already early signs of what's to come from these powerful, connected devices.

[stepping down...]

Dash Express addresses core GPS problems

Navigation devices have been adding tremendous value to drivers for years now and many manufacturers have started bolting on real-time traffic updates to make the commute even more productive. To me, this seems necessary and inevitable for what real value is there for the typical commuter to have the most accurate maps of the roads between A and B if the conditions for driving change every hour?

Early adopters have been tapping into these add-on services to better forecast their travels. But, two problems have plagued GPS devices from the beginning.

The real Achilles heel of course is that the built-in map databases are essentially static, so even your brand new unit will be out of date before you open the box. New roads, detours, street closings, and the like are commonplace but can never be accurately reflected in a device whose data was loaded months ago in a far-off factory.

The second problem is that the present state of real-time traffic services are simply not accurate enough to provide real value outside of major thoroughfares. I've always felt that the current crop of navigation devices are just teasing drivers with digital maps (vs. paper) and coarse-grained traffic conditions (vs. my actual route,) and that there was a real nirvana just around the corner (pun intended).

I need to find the closest Starbucks...NOW!

So last Friday I got my driving gloves on my new Dash Express and within minutes had it connected to satellites, the GPRS cellular network, and my local WiFi network. I'll summarize my overall impressions below but the key new experience here was that I could interact with my Dash from any computer, sending information about my places of interest right to the device -- in seconds! So whether I wanted to push a specific address of a friend's house or create a shortcut that would always be able to find the closest Starbucks, the device became personal immediately.

The innovation with Dash's new GPS is that the traffic information comes from 3 sources: a reputable commerical traffic service called Inrix, historical data, and live data. The latter two are from actual Dash owners who are sending back (anonymously) their own stats! So the more Dash drivers on the road over time, the better the information is for everyone in the Dash network. In my trips this past weekend, I saw virgin roads in the Chicagoland area where clearly I was the first to record those routes. My information is uploaded to the mothership so that I and other drivers can benefit in future commutes.

Right now, there are not enough Dash drivers to provide me with real-time road conditions, but every mile I log will go to build up the historical database which eventually will clue me in to shortcuts and alternative routes that have worked well for others. I felt like I was an early participant in a new mobile community (commute-ty?) where we all get to help each other out simply by keeping our units on.

The other big new experience for me as a long time GPS fan was the local search feature. Looking up Vietnemese restaurants in downtown Chicago was easy and even more convenient than using Google Maps on my iPhone since Dash could provide turn-by-turn directions for me handsfree.

What else I like so far

  • Real-time traffic. I have two very unpredictable paths home from the office and usually flip a coin (friendo-style) every day with mixed results. Even on this relatively standard daily routine, the idea that I will dramatically increase my odds on a shorter commute makes this a no-brainer. Like similar services, there is an additional fee to access the traffic data via the live network connection but this is the first time I've felt I was really getting the value for my money.
  • Future updates. I have begun separating gadgets into two groups: those that use future (software/firmware) updates to continually improve the original product and those that don't. Each time my iPhone, AppleTV, or Chumby gets a new software update it feels like a new gadget again. I haven't gotten any updates for the Dash yet but they've already been promised. I know this device will only get better over the next months and years.
  • Great out-of-the-box experience. This will likely fade over time but the first impression is important. Not only was I pleased to see all the equipment and instructions I needed to get started but its was simple to unbox, easy to scan the installation guide, and (most importantly) everything worked the first time. There are also nice little touches like a dash mount option (as opposed to windshield mount), well-designed power adapters for the home and car, and cute stickers to put in your window (you know, to let other drivers know how cool you are:-)
  • Touch screen. Again, I've been spoiled by the Garmin but once you go touch screen, you never want to go back. This feature is much more common in portable navigation devices and may only really appeal to folks coming over from an in-dash GPS experience.

What I don't like so far

  • Awkward shape. I'm definitely spoiled with having enjoyed my Garmin Nuvi for many months because that was useful both in the car and on foot. It begged to be taken with you, and truthfully I used the Nuvi as a handheld device in new cities before the iPhone. The Dash, by comparison, seems to be more at home in the car and would definitely not fit in your pocket. I have gotten in the habit of removing my dash-mounted GPS devices in the past, and the padded, zippered case provided in the box is good for protecting the Express when I undock.
  • Slower performance. I realize this is their first device but the Dash Express is noticeably slower on most of its navigational duties than other GPS units I've used. Its doesn't detract from the overall experience and is most noticeable when you veer off course.
  • Sensitive buttons - There are two buttons on the top of the device that are easy to activate. They don't actually depress so there is no real tactile feedback when you want to press them. More importantly, its easy to brush against them accidentally which causes maps to be swapped with menus and voiume widgets to pop up.

Some reviewers have complained about the voice prompts but I didn't think it was so bad. In fact, I have very few complaints. As I mentioned before, this is really just the first version - many more cool new features are coming down the road (really bad pun, I know).

This may not be the right device for you if you intend to also use it as a portable GPS or if you won't use the connected features, but the Pros far outweigh the Cons here. You should certainly consider the Dash Express if you think you would use features like Internet search from the device itself or the real-time traffic and especially if you like the idea of actively participating in a driver community.


Geez, GPS devices have changed since you wrote this article. You know I am not a technological person, but my Ford has Microsoft Sync that I love! Seriously, don't know if you will get this, but tomorrow I turn 40!! Yikes, but of course, you are older than I am ;p Curious to know how you are getting on. If you are ever on FB, lets catch up....twenty years is a long time.


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