Dash is one in a slowly growing number of Android options that lets you track where your car is, where you've traveled, and how much gas you've burned up. To make things simple, it combines everything into a basic scoring mechanism - though this is only part of the app's appeal. Those of you with older cars can see why your check engine light came on without having to go to a mechanic, and the enthusiasts among you can turn to the app as an extension of your dashboard that provides more information than your vehicle manufacturer deemed necessary.
Not too long ago I took a look at Automatic, a $99 onboard diagnostics tool that plugs into your car and, working with a similar app, can help you save gas and better keep up with maintenance. Unsurprisingly, this drew immediate comparisons to Dash, considering it beat Automatic to the punch with more features and a drastically lower price tag (free, assuming you have Bluetooth-enabled OBD2 dongle lying around) earlier this year. Since we had yet to write up a review for the app, and the developers have had half a year to roll out updates, it seemed like a good time to try it out for myself.
After having spent the better part of a month with Dash, I can say without hesitation that in terms of setup, ease-of-use, and overall presentation, Dash provides what I would consider a less compelling experience. But in terms of sheer number of features, it wins out. There's functionality here that Automatic simply doesn't deliver, and considering the stark difference in price, that's saying something.
Dash doesn't cost a thing to download, and the app is free of any in-app purchases. Likewise, it doesn't contain any ads. Among our readers, that's a big deal. From a developer standpoint, it can be infinitely frustrating trying to compete with someone who is willing to give away the goods for free, but for users, this works out to our benefit. All anyone who wants to check out Dash needs to do is get their hands on any Bluetooth-enabled OBD2 device, and they're good to go.
I went with this $12 option off Amazon, but I would recommend springing for something pricier if you're planning to seriously use Dash long-term. The app is only as good as the hardware it's working with, and cheaper units can lead to less accurate results. For that reason, I'm not going to judge Dash on its tracking. Unlike with Automatic, there are simply more variables to work with here, and the app's developers may not be at fault for some of the wonkiness I experienced. But more on that later.
Once you have the dongle in hand, plug the product into your car's OBD2 port, and fire up the app. Getting started isn't particularly complex, though it's not as clear as Automatic's. With both products, I installed them in the car while in a hurry. Since Dash didn't ask for my car's VIN number, setup initially seemed quicker. I was able sign-in with Google+ (Facebook is also an option, as is typing in an email address manually) and sync up with the dongle as I would any other Bluetooth device (including guessing what the unlabeled default PIN was for my cheap purchase). I started driving once the app said it was tracking my movement, only to discover that it wasn't monitoring a thing.
I later returned to see that I was supposed to ignore the notification and proceed to add in my car details before hitting the road. This was easy to do, but when I searched for my Subaru Impreza, the names of the available options were too long to fit in the dropdown menu, so I don't actually know if I selected the correct one. The information on my car's bio page looks legit (after a recent update, the information now comes from Edmunds), so I left it at that.
Coming from Automatic, I found Dash's UI more complicated than I otherwise would have. It's not particularly complex, but the app stretches across three or four screens what Automatic manages to fit into one. Recent trips are tucked away under a tab at the bottom of the screen. Your vehicle's last known position is given its own tab in the sidebar. Your overall driving score is provided front and center on the home page. None of it is difficult to find, but for an app that is tempting to use in the car (in the driveway, parking lot, or other preferably non-moving locations), I wish things were more accessible in a single place.
The information provided is good stuff. Trip data consists of your starting point, your ending point, a map of your journey, time taken, estimated cost in gas, and a driving score. The scoring section includes tips on how to improve your driving, such as idling less often and braking more softly. On this screen, there's also the option to add photos, notes, and other things I didn't bother with.
My favorite feature of Dash is the ability to locate the nearest gas stations and their prices. It can really help in a pinch, especially when you're in a new area and have no idea what the going rate is around these parts. At home, though, I quickly learned which stations routinely had the best prices.
It's worth pointing out that support for this feature tapers off when you exit the US. On a road trip a few weeks back, I discovered that gas stations don't exist in Canada.
Then there's the aspect I cared the least about - social integration. Dash encourages you to compare your score and share achievements with friends as a means to encourage better driving. It's not a bad feature to include, but with so few people around me having interest in a product like this, and my failure to see the appeal of competing with strangers, there's little here for me to toy around with. But for the people who are interested, the rankings for MPG and total miles driven add some degree of spice to the mix, and I do see the potential here for some healthy competition among family members and friends alike.
From here we move on to an area where Dash starts to compete more with the likes of Torque (though it's not nearly as comprehensive). In addition to mapping trips, judging your gas usage, and summing up your performance into a single score, Dash can provide real-time readings from your engine and other areas of the car. This information pops up while driving, showing information ranging from engine temperature to battery voltage. If you click on any of these tiles, Dash will provide background, so you don't have to understand this stuff beforehand to get any use out of it. I know I learned a thing or two.
Overall the UI is clean, but it didn't feel quite as polished as it could be. My current Google+ photo isn't particular high res, but it's not exactly the blurry mess that Dash turned it into either, as it has served me well in other apps just fine. Besides, the picture Dash pulled down for my vehicle model is even fuzzier. Some of the apps animations, such as scrolling through the list of trips, could be smoother. And those tips that scroll across the button of the home screen? You can click those for additional information, but the feature seems pretty broken.
The app looks drastically more modern than, say, Torque, but it still feels like something that is being given away for free.
My Driving Experience
As I hinted at early, my driving experience with Dash was inconsistent. Sometimes the app failed to track a trip. Other times it started tracking after I had already left the house or failed to stop tracking after I had reached my destination. Numerous short trips were occasionally combined into a single long one. As a result, it provided more of a guideline of where I drove each day than an accurate record. But as I said before, this may have as much or more to do with the dongle I used than the app itself. If you're really serious about Dash, I'd recommend pushing for a better, pricier OBD2 dongle, even if that does somewhat negate one the app's biggest advantages.
The Automatic app ships with specialized hardware that provides audio feedback whenever you accelerate too quickly, brake too hard, or drive over 70mph. Since Dash works with third-party tools, you must rely on your phone for those cues instead. Personally, I found this an annoying change in large part due to the inclusion of a couple additional alerts. Namely, Dash speaks up whenever you start or stop driving. The voice serves as an ever present reminder that the app is present, and it's more disrupting when other people are in the car than Automatic's beeps. Fortunately the app does include the option to disable all audio cues, though this is a sacrifice for someone like me who is drawn to this type of product in large part due to the real-time feedback it provides.
I was even more annoyed by the sheer number of notifications that lined the top of my screen at the end of some of my trips. Dash would notify me that I had accelerated too quickly at some point during the drive, braked too hard later on, and that my engine was running low on gas (something Automatic doesn't keep track of, it's worth pointing out). So when I got out of my car and checked my phone, up to four icons had taken over my notification bar.
There are some features that I didn't get around to testing, such as the ability to read the check engine light. My car is new, so I didn't have any occasion to. This means I didn't get to pull up local mechanics and see how accurate Dash's price estimates for repairs would end up being. Regardless, such a feature is intended to serve more as a guide than anything else, and I don't doubt that it would be better than nothing in a pinch.
Despite my numerous criticisms, Dash is by no means a bad app, and I would easily recommend it over Automatic to most Android Police readers. It's more affordable, and it comes with a number of features that the competition simply doesn't provide. But for average consumers, the story's different. Here that extra layer of polish makes all the difference. And for my own personal use, with the exception of the gas station finder, many of Dash's added features feel largely superfluous.
Dash sits somewhere between being simple to use and a tool for enthusiasts. Even if it's pretty easy to get started, the experience isn't as foolproof as it could be. In the half year since its launch, Dash has received numerous updates fleshing out features and squashing bugs. But I feel like it still needs a little bit more time in the shop to turn into something truly great.