It’s not every day that I find a product that threatens to completely change an entrenched, mass-market segment. Perhaps the Kindle and the iPhone are two recent examples, but in mass market terms those two devices are oddities, two exquisite outliers that will change the way we read and make phone calls in the years to come but in terms of market penetration will probably maintain a low profile for years to come. Dash.net’s new Dash GPS device, however, comes at us out of left field and promises to change the things we value in a standalone GPS device. I’ve been following these guys for almost two years now as they inched closer and closer to launch and today I’m glad to announce that you can finally buy the Dash device at Amazon and a number of other retailers.
So what makes this thing so special? In short, it is the first GPS device that is more than a digital version of the ratty old road atlas in the trunk of your car. Sure, it gets you from point A to point B but, commuters will love this, it also tells you about traffic spots and connects with your PC through the Internet for quick address updates and searches. In short, it gets you from point A to point B on time and helps you avoid traffic at all points in between.
UPDATE – Fixed price and a few small points regarding GPS data.
The map portion of this device isn’t as fully featured as some GPS devices we’ve used. There are no waypoints, for example, so a long trip from San Fran to New York will give you the shortest route without stop overs in Las Vegas and Scranton. The hardware itself is quite large compared to similar devices and the processor is a bit aged. It does have gesture-based map redrawing, so you can slide your finger across the screen to look at the terrain. However, the redraw speeds are quite slow and sometimes disconcerting. This is 1.0 hardware, however, so I’ll forgive it its minor problems and talk about what really makes it good.
The Dash unit constantly reports your speed and position —
hopefully anoynmously — to their servers. It also uses Inrix data for some cities but focuses on fresh data from other Dash drivers. Dash’s servers also send out real-time traffic updates and sometimes estimates based on activity on that particular road at any particular time. For example, if there is no historical data for a road, it will probably remain dead. If there is some data — either taken from a third-party provider or a Dash customer who travelled that way perhaps a week or day ago — it is a colored dashed line. Finally, if the road has been recently driven and there is current data, it will appear as colored solid line. The traffic readout is fairly simple: red is bad, yellow is OK, green is super great.
The biggest problem? The Dash is a flocking device. This means that many people have to own Dash devices for the service to make sense. This number doesn’t have to be big, however. Los Angeles and parts of New Jersey have about 40 beta testers each wandering the roads and even with one beta tester in Brooklyn — who I suspect was actually Erick Schonfeld — gave me some info on the expressway that always seems to be clogged at the Battery Tunnel.
Dash is for commuters. it is not for the family of 5 in an RV road-tripping across America. Every time you choose a route, it offers at least two possibilities and ranks them based on estimated time. If the highway is clogged, for example, it will route you around the traffic. That, friends, is a lifesaver.
This minor point — that the GPS device can talk to other devices and servers — is the key to this brave new world of directional devices. Sure, you cellphone can do this as well, given the right software, but cellphone GPS hasn’t quite taken off. Folks like mom and grandma don’t want to be squinting at 3-inch screen. They want something big, that talks to them, and that can route them around accidents. That the Dash can also do Yahoo Local searches (type in “plunger” or “hamburger” and get lists of hardware stores and diners, respectively) is just icing on the cake. You can also right click an address in most browsers — on Windows or Mac — and send it to the Dash over the air. You’ll never need to bring your device in for map updates or software improvements again. Best of all? It gives local gas prices for nearby gas stations and you can build little “itineraries” i.e. waypoints that you can visit in order. The example Dash gave was an Entourage collection of points in Los Angeles. Yes, you too can eat at the places Ari ate.
All of these features are accessible via the Dash.net website.
In terms of usability, the Dash’s interface is actually simpler than most other GPS devices. Because so many devices now add in Bluetooth and “POI” support, their menu structures are complex and messy. The Dash, because of its fairly narrow focus, has none of that. It is considerably larger than most other GPS devices but it comes with a comically large dashboard mount that actually worked better than most other mounts I’ve used.
All is not completely rosy with the Dash device. It costs $399 and $9.99 a month for service. This is considerably better than the original $599 they were about to charge, but the service charge might be a little steep for some. For commuters, however, it is a lifesaver. If you spend any time in your car, the Dash’s features wlll woo you immediately.
Is Dash the iPhone of the GPS industry? No, but it is the Kindle. The package isn’t perfect, but it is powerful and intelligently built and it is, in short, the future.