Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment
What do you get when you cross a portable navigation device and a cellphone? Dash Navigation's answer is the $399 Dash Express, the most credible attempt yet to crack the ancient driver conundrum of figuring out what's nearby and the best way to get to it. In doing so, it stands to elevate the portable navigation device from a glove compartment shut-in to a mobile mentor -- one that Dash hopes that customers will find valuable enough to justify $10 (or more) per month on a service fees.
Dash's cellular connectivity enables it to take a hybrid approach to traffic information. Routes for which Dash has available information are marked with either green, yellow or red lines depending on the heaviness of the traffic. Solid lines indicate that the data has been supplemented by the Dash driver network – cars that have Dash units sending information upstream in real time. Dashed lines convey information that Dash picks up via its historical traffic pattern information provider Inrix. Dash claims that it needs about 1,000 units in most cities to cover major routes, double or triple that for the largest US cities such as New York or Los Angeles.
Even with its emerging network, the Dash Express is surprisingly effective at routing around known trouble spots on the fly. And while it occasionally failed to pick up on congested stretches, on several occasions it was so accurate as to the emergence of traffic that the route turned red just as conditions forced the car to slow to a crawl. Even at its early stage, Dash certainly proves the concept of the traffic-routing prowess of a "live" GPS device.
Where the immaturity of the network may be hurting the product, though, is in the creativity of its alternate routes. The device starts a navigation request by providing up to three different ways to get there. However, the routes often have superficial differences, and Dash's slow cellular connection can require more time before starting the route than competitive devices. In contrast to the speedy (and free to use) EV-DO connection found on the Amazon Kindle, the Dash Express uses the glacial GPRS data standard. While Dash has done a good job of keeping the overall system responsive, it can't completely hide the effective difference between broadband and early dial-up modems. The Dash Express also supports WiFi to handle more bandwidth-intensive but less-frequent tasks such as downloading map or system updates.
Not all of Dash's connectivity occurs behind the scenes. By partnering with Yahoo! Local search, the device enables owners to tap into an always up-to-date database of local information, rendering obsolete the war over which device has the most millions of points-of-interest. Being able to find a business by name rather than having to look up its address is the physical-world equivalent of typing in a domain name versus having to remember an IP address.
Other slick features include the ability to send an address to the device from a home PC using the "Send2Dash" feature and, of interest to a more technically adept crowd, the ability to subscribe to RSS feeds of locations. Were Dash's cellular network support faster, one opportunity would be leveraging its WiFi and wide-area connectivity to create an in-vehicle hotspot. Such bridges are already being considered for WiMAX.
Much of the product's extended gestation focused on user testing, the refinement payoff of which is evident. While some portable navigation devices' screens have enough visual clutter to rival tactical war game displays, the Dash maps – which are more effective in 2D than the more common "birds-eye" view used on other devices – are legible and clean.
The best example of its claimed "55 mile-per-hour user interface" (unusable by Sammy Hagar) is a large traffic alert that warns you as you're approaching a trouble spot and presents the option to select a new route. That said, there are times that directions could be more precise; the product would benefit from techniques such as the "Reality View" screen that Navigon uses to communicate lane positioning. A Snooze button-sized Menu button on the device's oversized flat-top provides finger-friendly access to Dash's controls, and is placed just to the right of the volume button. Dash's guts make for a large and heavy device that is a marked contrast to the popular Garmin nuvi series. However, the windshield mount that Dash provides holds the device firm.
The next Switched On will take a closer look at Dash's prospects as it navigates the space between cheap, unconnected PNDs and GPS-enabled cell phones.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.