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Dash Express review

We've been waiting to get our hands on the Dash Express ever since we heard about it way back in 2006, and though we've seen a ton of photos and even toyed around with a beta version of the GPRS / WiFi-connected navigator, actually using the device for a lengthy period of time revealed some pretty interesting things. The main verdict: yeah, it's way pricey, but if you've got the scratch, this is the GPS you want -- and if the community features take off like Dash think they will, it's going to be a game-changer. Read on for the full review!

The actual Dash Express hardware isn't too remarkable at first glance -- it's a little larger than you'd expect, but other than that there's not a lot to it, just the two touch-buttons on top and a power switch on the right side. We do appreciate the separate cradle power connection, which lets you just slide the Express in and out of its mount without any plugging / unplugging. There's also a mini-USB port for home charging -- it showed up as an "RNDIS / Ethernet Gadget" when we hooked it up to a computer, but other than that nothing really happened.

What's really interesting about the Express is what's inside -- a variant of the OpenMoko GT0X reference design, the same kit that powers the Neo 1973 open-source phone. In fact, the Express was partially designed and is built by OpenMoko's parent company, FIC, which also makes the Cloudbook and several Linux-based cellphones. That makes a lot of sense, since the Express connects to cell networks just like a phone, but it also means the Express's Linux build and internals have been around the block a few times, and just like you'd expect, we never suffered and bugs or glitches while using it.

As far as the GPRS and WiFi radios go, well, apart from typing in our home wireless network SSID and password (there's no auto-discovery, which is lame if you have a long network name), most of the nitty-gritty is hidden away. Either it says "connected" in the main menu or it doesn't, and it seems to roam pretty seamlessly from one connection to another. We're assuming the 90-day free service clock starts the first time you hit the network, since we didn't have to activate anything or register with the portal -- we were just up and running right away. Each unit has a Dash Device Number, or DDN, which you can register at the portal to enable all the slick community / push features, but it's not required.

As far as the actual interface goes, well, it's a GPS. If you've used a nicer PND before, nothing's really going to shock you. That's going to be the hardest thing for Dash to overcome, just as TiVo had to slowly educate users as to why they'd want to pause and rewind live TV: sure, it can work just like what you're used to, but once you figure out how much it's capable of, going back seems ridiculous.

Case in point, and probably the most-cited Dash Express network feature: almost every GPS can tell you where the nearest gas station is, but the Express actually looks up the latest prices for you and points you to the cheapest.

The same goes for movies, and, more importantly, for traffic. The Express uses three sources for its traffic displays: a commercial provider called Inrix, and Dash users themselves -- "historical" data that's displayed as a dotted line, and (anonymous) live data that times out after a while and gets added to historical pool. Since the commercial data is more or less limited to highways, it's city streets that really benefit from Dash user data -- and the more users there are, the better it's going to get. More on that later.

Once you enter a location, the Express calculates three routes based on traffic, distance, and time, and you can pick which one you'd like. Surprisingly, we didn't hit any major traffic while we were testing (so much for that karma), and we weren't able to test the re-route features, but it's there if you need it.

There were some quirks with the basic GPS functionality, though -- initial signal acquisition took quite a while, and things got pretty wacky when we lost signal under bridges and between skyscrapers. At one point the Express was insistent that we turn onto the street we were currently driving on, and at another it decided that we had spun around 90 degrees but also said we had arrived at our destination. To be fair, once we got back to open sky, the Express jumped back on the signal almost instantly, and Dash says the Express is probably a little too honest about momentary signal loss -- a future software update might tweak the unit so that it keeps barreling ahead like most of its competitors.

Hmm. We don't remember getting there sideways.

There are quite a few ways to flex the Express's GPRS connection, but most of them involve a visit to the portal. From the device itself, you're more or less limited to generic keyword-based Yahoo! Local searches, which can't really be refined in any way and are frequently rather literal in their results. For example, there are a ton of Mexican restaurants in and around our neighborhood in Chicago, but a search for "tacos" just brought up places with the word "tacos" in the name, some of which were several miles away. We only saw results like that a few times, though -- searches for things like "WiFi" and "sushi" were far more useful.

Once you sit down at a computer and log onto, however, things get way more interesting. From there, you can access other users' saved Yahoo! Local searches, share lists of interesting locations, and subscribe to GeoRSS feeds, which are currently pretty hard to find. After some searching, we found one for local music, and it was pretty amazing: a constantly updated list of acts at nearby venues. There are similar feeds for everything from dog parks to airport delays, and if the Express takes off, we can see GeoRSS going mainstream pretty quickly.

"If the Express takes off" is actually the major part of the puzzle, of course. While the Express is pretty great on its own, it's only going to be really great if lots of other people are using it too, filling in traffic data and populating the site with content. That's called the network effect, friends, and when we asked Dash, they were pretty upfront about it -- although they've gotten solid traffic data in DC with just 20 beta testers and even better data in LA with 40, the goal is (obviously) to build a strong community of Dash users who frequent the portal and add to the traffic data pool, which can then start filtering out bad data and become even more accurate. In fact, Dash is so confident that the Express experience will get even better over time that they suggested that we test it again in three months, just to note the database improvements.

There are also some other, more tangible improvements to come over time: since Dash is always talking to your Express, things like firmware updates and feature upgrades can happen automatically. Dash says Express owners will eventually be able to do things like buy movie tickets and make restaurant reservations from their units, but once you start thinking about it, the possibilities are almost endless. We'd like to be able to tag and share interesting locations for later research, or bring up predicted future traffic information so we could plan trips better, or contribute back restaurant ratings on the fly or... you get the idea. It's an always-on 'net connection, we want to use the hell out of it, you know? For right now, though, getting the most out of the Express's features requires frequent trips to, which is a little frustrating. (For the record, works fine with The Phone That Must Not Be Named's browser, and yes, we felt like total nerds testing it out.)

The only other issue is price, which is just a little bit harder to ignore -- actually, at $400 for the Express and $13 a month for the service, it's almost impossible to focus on anything else. Even if you sign the two-year agreement which lowers the monthly fee to $10 / month, you're still putting a $640 dent in your wallet. That might sound reasonable for those of you who pre-ordered the Express when it was still $600, but in a market that's becoming increasingly saturated with inexpensive traffic-capable PNDs, it's going to take some doing for Dash to convince consumers it's worth it.

That brings us back to the TiVo comparison, actually. We were frequently struck by similarities to the TiVo experience as we tested the Express -- everything from the "almost there" boot screen to the Linux foundations to saved searches seems familiar -- and the more we think about it, the more Dash has almost exactly the same problem as TiVo: convincing people its product is superior enough to justify the monthly fee. Just like TiVo, the Dash Express is best-in-class at what it does, but that monthly fee is going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people. If $600 bought you the Express and lifetime service, we'd be all over this thing; for now, we're going to say that it's revolutionary enough for road warriors and golden-pocketed early adopters to buy immediately, but we'll eagerly await the day when the power of the Dash community makes us willingly pay to join the club.