I spend a lot of time in my car. Like a fair number of people who work in the San Francisco Bay Area, I commute a long distance—in my case, 60 miles one way. I've learned to time my commute to avoid the worst of the traffic, but I still spend about three hours each day in my car. I've tried different GPS (Global Positioning System) units here and there, but because most of my time in the car is spent going to the same place, I don't typically need a lot of driving directions. A GPS would sit unused only until I travel or go to a new restaurant, which is only every once in a while.
Now, I like gadgets at least as much as the next Linux geek, so when I first heard about the Dash Express GPS, I instantly was intrigued. Basically, Dash has created a new GPS unit aimed at the commuter market. This GPS adds a GPRS cellular connection, so that it has an always-on Internet connection while you drive. The Internet connection can be used to get new software updates and maps, but one of the main selling points for the Internet connection is improved traffic, routing and search data. The Dash network keeps track of each GPS unit anonymously and combines its data with traffic sensors and other data points to gauge up-to-the-minute traffic data it then shares with each Dash user.
The Internet connection also allows the Dash Express to source other Internet services when you do a search. Along with the built-in database of locations of interest, you also can search Yahoo for anything from the closest coffee shop to the best sushi place nearby, as Yahoo searches not only return locations but also ratings for each result.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Dash for me and other Linux users is the open-source nature of the device. For one, the hardware itself runs Linux. The hardware is actually similar to what is being used in the OpenMoko cellphones. In addition, Dash has opened its API, so interested parties can register as developers and write their own applications to run on the Dash Express. Later in this review, I talk about my own experience writing a Dash application.
Of course, the GPS unit and cellular connection aren't free. The Dash Express currently retails for $299 and includes three months of free cellular connection. After that, the cellular connection costs $12.99 with a month-to-month contract, $10.99 per month with a one-year contract and $9.99 per month with a two-year contract. If you choose not to renew the cellular connection, the unit still functions like a standard GPS, but you no longer will be able to use Send2Car, Dash applications, Yahoo searches and other features that require the Internet.
Although the Internet features might seem cool, a GPS device still needs to be able to find your destinations and route you there correctly. Plus, if you don't renew the cellular connection, you'd like to know that the device still would be useful. First, though, let me point out the elephant in the room. One of the first things you will notice about the Dash Express is that it is big compared to other modern GPS devices (4.8"Wx4.1"Hx2.8"D and 13.3 ounces). Although the face of the device is about the same size as other devices, it's as thick as the Garmin GPSes from a few generations ago. Along with its thickness, the top of the device actually extends back a few inches in a sort of L shape and houses the speaker. Unfortunately, this means you won't be storing the Dash Express in your pocket or possibly even in a small glove compartment.
The installation is pretty straightforward, and out of the box, the device will connect to a cellular network (or open Wi-Fi access point) for any Internet features. The interface itself is simplified compared to some other GPS units and relies almost entirely on the touchscreen for input, apart from a physical menu and volume button on the top of the device. When you calculate a route, you will see and hear turn-by-turn directions from the main map screen. The interface is pretty clean (Figure 1) with most of the screen taken up by the map.
As a standalone GPS, the Dash is so-so. A few times I searched for a business only to find that when I got there it was out of business. The routing isn't entirely perfect either and seems to favor larger highways and more direct routes, even if they are slower. My town has four different exits on the highway, but even though the first exit is the fastest, the Dash always routed through a different exit. There is a particularly bad bottleneck along my commute that occasionally backs up for miles. There's an alternate route to my house right before the bottleneck that normally takes longer except when there is very heavy traffic at the bottleneck, but the Dash seemed unaware of this as an alternate route.
The Dash does appear to be dealing with the routing issues actively. You can report a problem directly from the device, and it will tar up all of its logs and other information about your current location and send it off to Dash via the cell connection. Once you get home, you will see an e-mail response in your inbox, and you can go to Dash's Web site to fill out the details of your problem. I did, in fact, report an issue with routing around the bottleneck, and Dash was quick to respond. Apparently, the next iteration of its map and routing internally does not have the issue, so presumably my problem will be fixed at the next update.
Kyle Rankin is VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin
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