Dash System Is Step Up For GPS Devices

(CBS) GPS navigation systems for cars have been around for several years and portable units from Magellan, Garmin and other manufacturers can now be bought for under $200. But a GPS mostly tells you where you are and how to get to where you want to go. It can only guess at the fastest route because, in most cases, it doesn’t know about traffic.

Sunnyvale-based Dash Navigation has a new GPS system that knows a lot more than those less expensive stand-alone units because it’s connected to the Internet.

The device is exclusively available at Amazon.com for $400 and includes 3 months of free usage. After that you have to pay a $10 per month subscription fee to access data. That fee is for the 2-way radio built into the device, not the GPS. GPS itself is free because it uses government owned satellites.

The two-way cellular radio is the key to its being able to know real-time traffic information. Through the radio, every Dash unit on the road anonymously reports its location and speed. So, if you’re trying to decide which roads to take, you can enter in your destination and let Dash figure out which route will get you there faster based on actual speed of traffic. In addition to data from what the company calls “the Dash Driver Network,” the device also gets data from commercial traffic reporting systems similar to some subscription-based services available for some other GPS units. Because the amount of data it has depends on the number of Dash users, the quantity (and therefore quality) of the data depends on how many people are using it in your area. Where I live (Silicon Valley) there are a relatively large number of users. If you’re in an area with fewer users, you’ll probably have to depend on the commercial traffic services or just the plain old GPS. Dash’s ultimate success is one of those “chicken and egg” dilemmas. The more successful the company is at selling these units and getting people to use them, the better the network and the more useful the information.

In my road tests I found the GPS to be pretty accurate and was also pleased with the device’s ability to predict when I would arrive at my location. When looking for routes it typically gives you two or three choices. My only disappointment was that it didn’t analyze traffic on the three optional bridges across the San Francisco Bay to get from where I live over to Oakland, California. It picked one bridge and one alternate route but left me guessing as to the traffic conditions on a couple of other routes.

The search function is very cool. Just about all GPS systems have a “points of interest” database with tens of thousands of restaurants, hotels, gas stations, schools, hospitals and other locations and the Dash has that as well. But it also has something a lot bigger and more dynamic. When you search for a location in the Dash it goes online to Yahoo to find whatever it is you’re looking for.

For example, to find a nearby drycleaner I first pressed the menu button on top of the unit and touched the Search icon. It then brought up a Yahoo search box where I typed in “dry clean” from an onscreen touch keyboard. I touched the Search button and was presented with the option of searching “nearby” or “in another state of city.” I touched nearby and was presented with a list of nearby cleaners, with Yahoo ratings.

With gas prices approaching $4 a gallon, we’re all looking for cheaper gas and the Dash can definitely help. When you search for gas stations it displays prices as well as location and lets you sort by price. I was impressed at its accuracy. The two stations I checked actually did sell the gas for exactly what the unit said they were charging.

The connectivity also allows the device to receive over-the-air updates. The folks at Dash promise that the unit will get better over time. They also say that it learns your habits as you drive, helping it to better route you.

Like other GPS systems you can get a route to any address by typing it in from the unit, but because the Dash is Internet enabled, you can also use the “send2car” feature to type in addresses from a website while you’re at your PC. As soon as you turn on your Dash Express, those addresses will be automatically downloaded to the unit.

The unit was very easy to operate with a button on top that always takes you to the home menu. Another smaller button lets you adjust the volume on the speaker, which is a lot nicer than having to hunt for a speaker icon like you do with some navigation systems. Unlike many of the other portable GPS systems there are no extra bells and whistles such as a music player or a Bluetooth speaker phone. But, truth be told, my Magellan has those features and I never use them. If I want to listen to music I’ll turn on the radio or use my iPod and there are plenty of Bluetooth devices on the market that allow you to make hands-free calls.

At 4.8 inches by 4.1 inches 2.8 inches deep and weighing 13.3 ounces, the Dash is definitely bulkier and heavier than most other portable navigation systems. I’m not sure that’s a problem since it’s not something you’re going to carry in your pocket and it’s still small enough to carry with you on a trip to use in a rental car.

By Larry Magid
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