Dash Express GPS Full Drive Review: Total Traffic Terminator

We've been ranting about this internet-connected Dash Express GPS for months. Over the past week, we were given the opportunity to test it out for ourselves on both coasts, over a thousand miles, through intense city driving in SF and NY and road trips into the wilds. It's the real deal, delivering out of the box the most impressive real time traffic system we've ever seen, one that only will get better as each Dash user hit the road creating a swarm network of traffic avoiding drivers. Here's why:

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Having the connectivity of both GPRS and Wi-Fi makes it instantly more useful than many products with static points-of-interest catalogs, no matter how many million are boasted. And the same networking that goes to the net to get data can be used in reverse: sending addresses and search criteria to the device from any computer takes a few seconds and no wires.

But it's not a clean victory for Dash—for all of the steps forward, the upstart misses some elements essential to any portable navigation device. Meanwhile, Garmin, Magellan and TomTom are racing with their own connected and crowd-sourced strategies. This is the opening salvo of what will eventually be a tough, possibly deadly battle. So far, however, Dash is in great shape.

What Dash Got

There are four compelling aspects to the Dash Express which are not found, as such, in other portable navigators on the market.

• Live real-time traffic - It's the biggest and most powerful of the four keys, mainly because of how badly GPS traffic reporting has sucked in the past. Dash builds a teamwork system not unlike the original Napster—you got data I want, I got data you want, and that central server will make sure the sharing happens in a fast and orderly manner. As you drive, you not only help others out, but you add useful data to the historical record, so that the plan for your own commute or Friday getaway could grow smarter. As we've said before, once each metro area is seeded with a few hundred Dash units, the traffic reporting becomes exponentially better. The funny thing is, what we've already seen, with just a handful of units on the road, was already better than anything to date thanks to the historical data which runs in 15 minute increments, and therefore knows the difference between weekends and rush hour. If you're wondering who is working on the traffic modeling, it's a couple of eggheaded PhDs in Traffic.

• Live search - Most navis have search features, but they only query a POI database of an average of 5 million or so. Dash only has 1 Million built-in points of interest, but its better 99% of the time. That's because it uses its GPRS cellular connection to ping Yahoo Local search for stuff, delivering better information in the exact same amount of time. You can save search terms you like as favorites, alongside addresses and, yes, standard POI categories. Oh, Yahoo local searches are returned by relevance, not sorted by proximity, but most things can be resorted and gas can even be resorted by price.

MyDash web interface including Send2Car, GeoRSS and other features - With a quick browser plug-in, you can highlight any address and right-click, selecting the option "Send To Car." You can even highlight name and address, but for now you need to leave off the phone number. Within a second or two, the address pops up on the Dash, which could be at your side, or miles away. Blam found that entering addresses on the web interface was actually more effective than typing them on the Express, since the server can do a better job of fuzzy-matching the data you type. There are plug-ins to allow you to send any text to the Dash unit by right clicking text and selecting "Send to Car."

In MyDash, you can browse "saved searches" for dynamically updating data—a POI-like request ("CVS" or "Sushi") gives you a Yahoo Local search criteria that you can send to the Express. But you can also copy GeoRSS and KML feed URLs from around the net at sites like Yelp.com and Chowhound, containing more exotic and time-dependent stuff—"Nationwide Airport Delays" and "California Surf Report." For the most part, everything we tried worked, save a Craigslist RSS of Seattle real estate. (But GeoRSS feeds are kind of tricky to find in the wild.)

• Over-the-air updates - The Express uses any open Wi-Fi network it can to pull chunks of update down as you drive around. You can teach it your SSIDs and passwords for best Wi-Fi, but it's not necessary. Dash will deliver a few different kinds of update that we'll cover below; the important thing is to think about the last time you updated your Garmin or TomTom. Your answer is most likely "never." If you have, you probably paid a lot to do it. Dash of courses charges $10 to $13 per month subscription, but promises a constantly evolving platform in return.

-Traffic data will be updated monthly, using historical data from Dash drivers. That means that the first one will be a good 'un, as the first crop of users starts putting on the mileage.

-Big map updates will come every six months or so, about the same time Tele Atlas will release to other vendors.

-The first major software updates with bug fixes and new features (see below) will come this summer, and then every three months or so.

-MyDash servers can be updated on a weekly basis, so new web features could be appearing all the time—not that they will.

Here's a video that explains it all very well, even if it does paint it rosier than we found in real life. (That's the part we get into next.)

The Test

For our testing, Brian drove from SF to Tahoe and back with hours of city driving; I did a roundtrip from New York up to Boston. When you enter a destination, Dash looks at mileage, road speed and known traffic in planning the trip, devising up to three possible routes. In my case, it never did more than two suggested routes, and usually the first was obviously the best, but it was reassuring that it had backups in mind.

Traffic currently works with a combination of historic data and real-time data. A solid red, orange, yellow or green line means that either a Dash driver is currently on that road, or the historic data has proven so accurate it's as good as realtime fact. Broken lines, commonly seen in this pre-launch period, show shakier historic data, or data from supplier Inrix that Dash hasn't verified independently. Inrix doesn't provde data for local roads, though, only highways. Any data on local roads comes from Dash alone.

Blam says:

Getting across town during rush hour is challenging even for locals. Using Dash and trusting its copious historical information about what side streets would be empty and which would be crowded, I managed to get across town to pick up a friend and back to my place to meet another darting through side streets I'd never even known of despite living in SF almost eight years. I can't stress how useful it is to have all this data, typically the kind you see on Google Maps on highways only, in my car. Even though Dash didn't reroute me automatically (It only opts to reroute you on drastic changes in arrival time), it was easy enough to follow the green lines and avoid the reds. Over time, even more local roads will be filled in with colored squigglies.

Dash uses traffic data to calculate the original route, so it doesn't automatically re-route you just because you hit a patch of congestion. Instead, it waits until your trip has been slowed by unplanned traffic. Any trip that lasts one hour or less gets delayed five unexpected minutes, and the Express offers to re-check the routes to see if there's a better way.

At one point just outside of Boston, when I had to drive through the same congested intersection several times, it was fun to see how the intersection's condition changed from moment to moment. (Sadly, I think I was the source of the data, which meant that I was unable to benefit from it. A crowdsource of one ain't much of a crowd... or source.)

Again, what's cool is that traffic data in the boonies will soon be available as historical or live meshed data as people drive through it. The Dash servers are constantly recording (without identifying) patterns.

To get a better idea of what real-time traffic looks like, check out this video of changes to New York City's traffic yesterday from about 3pm to just after 6pm. Pick a road and note how things get stickier as rush hour approaches.

Blam and I both suffered some routing issues, however. Mine was a traditional problem—a bad bit of map data (Tele Atlas) telling me to turn left when I couldn't, and haven't been able to do for years.

This is an unexpected usage model of the Dash. Sitting with it indoors, on Wi-Fi, as it updates the traffic model. When the traffic dies down, you can road trip. But Blam's situation was a bit stickier...

I'd been eyeing my Dash GPS on my desk all day, using it to tell when the drive from SF to Tahoe to drop below the 3.5 hour mark. At 11pm, on a Thursday before Easter, it was time to go. I loaded up the car, drove 20 minutes to the Bay Bridge, and jammed into some 0 MPH road flow. The Dash had reported yellow and red, earlier, but I didn't believe it so late at night (my fault). Right then, the other GPS I was using for a benchmark, a Garmin Nuvi, suddenly lit up with traffic data that the bridge was closed and rerouted me. Dash, for all its IP connectivity, had no clue, and continued to have no clue as the police redirected me to an exit. I later found out that road closure data wouldn't be on Dash until a later software update. And without that data, the Dash merely assumed I was exiting the highway of my own accord. The rest of the Dash users behind me would have no idea of the closing, either.

Competing With Other PNDs

Overall, as a portable navigation device, it was fairly responsive. I'd put its user interface somewhere between a Garmin (on the high side) and a TomTom (slightly lower down)—not counting the extra dimension of a web interface, of course. But while driving around, the Dash would occasionally turn bush-league, pulling amateur mistakes like being slow to recalculate after a missed turn.

Some of our other troubles pointed out other standard PND features that the Express is still missing:

• Scheduled road closures generally make it into any device with some kind of connectivity, be it FM or MSN Direct.

• Other navigators can string together several destinations as waypoints, where the Express has only a one-track mind.

• When heading into a turn, other navigators tend to zoom in to show key details—some newer TomToms and Navigons even specifically point out the lane issues. The Express has none of that.

• When the GPRS connectivity dies, Dash says the Express has just 1 million catalogued points-of-interest (others have 4-12m, and man, did we feel the lack of POI when the connection went down). The rest, of course, come from connectivity. But if you're out in the middle of nowhere with no service, you get the most essential stuff (gas, hotel, hospital, airport) but you don't get as many listings for luxury or tourist spots (Blam's favorite ski resort) as other PNDs.

• When redrawing maps and calculating routes, all that traffic data causes big lagtimes in zooming and setting course. This also caused delays in rerouting after missing a turn.

• Many GPS devices like Garmin's Nuvi line have language and currency translators for travellers, MP3 playback (lame), Bluetooth dialing and speakerphone, FM transmitters.

• This thing is big. And the mount looks like a crane arm. It is giant.

• UI not as clear as a Garmin's.

• The volume goes to 11, and yes, it is as loud as 11/10 should be, although sometimes overdriven a bit (crackly).

• The voice sounds like speak and spell had a daughter with Borat. I mean, a GPS shouldn't pronounce avenue, "oovenue."

Promises and Teases

Dash may be taking our laundry list of basic stuff to heart, but it's also hinting at plenty more crazy, unheard-of features in the updates to come:

• Automated correction of maps based on car flow that either wasn't there before, or has suddenly stopped - "We don't do any of that now, but that's something we think about a lot."

• Learning routes from drivers - People who know great shortcuts can eventually be traced (anonymously), and their routes can be incorporated into the Dash's own routing algorithms. "That's super important for the future."

• Real-time traffic data appearing on MyDash website, and not just on the Dash Express screen - "We're big believers in that, not just on the device but when they're sitting at their desk."

• Third-party services - There's an API for outside developers, and there was talk of some of these hitting at launch, but soon users will be able to pick through new apps and send them to their Express. "We are working with companies. We can't tell you who but our goal in this area is to make this as easy as humanly possible." Zillow, that real estate program that can detail the price of almost any house, was demoed in the past, but will not ship on the device. Driving up to a house and pricing it is amazing:

The Dash isn't perfect today, but it is great, and will be incredibly powerful in the future. Even with fewer than 20 production units in the SF bay area during testing, the traffic's historical and even Dash user updates were extremely useful. Traffic performance today is potent thanks to the historical data and its 15 minute granularity, and will undoubtedly get better by the day as more users sign on (live data is actually minute to minute.) The connectivity with Yahoo! works to give you unlimited POIs as long as your GPRS connection is there. And although the community of shared custom searches will thicken out later, programming your own is not going to be easy for your mom, ever. Ultimately, there's a certain lack of polish compared to the big Garmin and TomTom devices, in terms of UI and odd features. But the new lower price helps take away some of the pain, even when considering the subscription price of $10-$13 a month.

After a combined 1000+ miles of driving with Dash in a week, Blam and I agree. Geek to geek, we'd say go ahead and buy with confidence based on the IP features and powerful traffic features alone. And know that this thing will only get better in the future.

(Congrats, Dash, on building a great first product. But don't forget to keep improving this thing for your early adopters.)