There are a lot of different GPS units from which to choose, but the Dash Express is the first to include a cellular connection in its device. It really is the main feature that differentiates it from competitors, so it's even more important that this extra functionality is compelling. So, how do the Internet features fare?
When the Dash Express has a cellular signal, you will see the word connected on the search button at the main menu. Without a cellular signal, you can perform only local search, and the rest of the search options are grayed out. When connected, the default input box at the search window searches Yahoo for keywords you enter. In addition to the Yahoo searches, there are a number of saved search categories, including Airports, Food, Gas and Movie Theaters. The Gas and Movie Theater saved searches make special use of the Internet connection. The Movie Theater search will not only show you the theaters in your area, but it also will list the current show times. For the Gas search, each result also includes local gas prices along with how recently that information was gathered. You also can sort your results by price, which makes it quick and easy to find the cheapest gas in your area.
One of the most-touted features of the Internet connection is live traffic information. As I mentioned before, the Dash anonymously gathers the location information of all Dash units and combines it with trusted road sensors, information from commercial fleets and other data sources to create what it calls the Dash Network. On the main map screen, each street with traffic data shows up color-coded. Green represents good traffic; yellow indicates slight congestion; orange, moderate traffic; and red means heavy traffic. In addition, the Dash uses solid lines when the traffic information comes from its trusted Dash Network and dotted lines when the information is from less-trusted sources. So essentially, if someone else with a Dash Express is on the same road ahead of me, I can get very accurate traffic information. As you drive to your destination, if the GPS unit detects traffic ahead, you will get an alert on your screen with the option to calculate alternate routes.
One of the more straightforward Internet features is Send2Dash. Often one of the more annoying features of a GPS is typing in an address on the touchscreen. With Send2Dash, you can log in to a custom portal on the Dash site, type in an address and then send it to your own Dash, where it will show up the next time it starts. This makes it nice and easy to build an address book. There's even a Firefox plugin, so you can highlight an address and then right-click and select Send to Car.
The Internet-enabled features on the Dash—specifically the enhanced searches—are great features, especially the Gas search. The Yahoo searches also work well as a supplement and second opinion to the internal map of destinations. The traffic, however, is a mixed bag. When it's accurate, it has been a lifesaver. It takes some time and familiarity with the map to interpret what light, moderate or heavy traffic really means, and how much weight to give to the dotted less-reliable traffic lines. Once you figure it out, however, you can search ahead while you commute and often see problems before they affect you.
On the downside, traffic information isn't always as “live” as I'd like it to be. I've seen a situation or two where I've been in pretty heavy congestion or even in stopped traffic a number of minutes before the Dash updates. Of course, maybe I'm the traffic canary in the coal mine helping the rest of the Dash community in the Bay Area. I know that Dash is working on traffic reporting, but for now, I recommend supplementing the Dash data with something like the Yahoo Traffic Incidents Dash application.
Like Apple with the iPhone, the Dash has allowed third parties to write custom applications, “Dash apps”, for use on the device. The applications are easy to add from Dash's Web portal, and so far, all of them are free. There are a number of interesting applications, but here are some of the more notable ones:
Trapster—search for and report speed traps and red-light cameras along your route.
Weatherbug—weather forecasts for your location or destination.
Yahoo Traffic Incidents—accidents or slowdowns along your route.
Trulia—local available real-estate with pricing.
Baktrax—a list of local radio stations and the last few songs they played.
All in all, the Dash apps are one of the more compelling reasons to have a Dash Express right now. It's these sorts of programs that move the Dash from a standard GPS to use when you are lost to a GPS you use on your dashboard every day.
Kyle Rankin is a VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin.