Dash GPS hands-on: How can a GPS be like Facebook?

You may remember the Dash Express, the GPS with a special twist that debuted a couple of months ago. That twist is two-way communication, turning it from a mere navigator into a networked powerhouse… in theory. Well, the Dash guys dropped by our offices the other day to demo the unit in person, showing me its ability to get real-time traffic data and connect to the Internet. What I saw was impressive… again, in theory. Some Dashed-off observations after the Continue jump.

Traffic Community
The main benefit of Dash is its ability to get information about traffic conditions from other cars… as long as they have Dash GPSes. If someone with a Dash is in a traffic jam, for example, his or her Dash will get the word out, letting everyone else with a Dash know about it. The system records "historical" data on traffic, too, so even if there are no Dashers (Dashites?) on a particular road, you'll have some idea of the general traffic there. Other GPSes get traffic info from municipal systems, and so does Dash, but the network adds to it, plus it gives data on all major roads, not just freeways.

Again, in theory. As you might have guessed, you'd need a critical mass of people in an area using Dash for it to be of any real benefit. Dash reps told me the number needed isn't as big as you'd think but were adamantly mum on any actual numbers of how many units they've sold — numbers most companies are quick to cite if they look good. Draw your own conclusions from that.

The Facebook Factor
What impressed me the most, though, was Dash's ability to connect to the Internet (via GPRS cellular network or Wi-Fi), providing up-to-the-microsecond information on things like restaurants, movie theaters and the like. The connectivity bestows even more powers: letting you save searches or lists of locations ("Dog Runs in Cleveland," for example) and share them with others over the Internet. Map data can be updated on the fly, too. All this info turns the Dash into a navigator that enjoys benefits similar to TiVo's automatically updated program guide and Facebook's plentiful apps.

One more time: in theory. In practice, the benefits strike me as fairly incremental (navigation is still the main feature, after all), but then again those increments could be the ones that alert you about a pile-up close to your house the one time it happens, or a great barbecue place nearby that just opened last week. For a mere $300 (the current price on Amazon), the Dash should definitely be on your shortlist if you're picking out a new navigator this summer.