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Hot Tech in the Summer Time

The gadgets you should take on your summer vacation.
Steve Morgenstern
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, July/August 2008

Summertime, and the living's not easy. Water's splashing, and your gear isn't dry. Traveling's tough, and your flab's not good-looking. So hush, little baby, don't you cry—go shopping instead! We've got the gear right here to tackle the challenges of summer living with style, whether you're sweating in the sunshine, staying cool by the pool or venturing far from home in pursuit of warm-weather pleasure.

Dash Express GPS
In primeval days, if a wandering ape-man asked a passerby the way to such-and-such pond of primordial ooze, he would promptly be clubbed over the head and, in short order, be transformed into a snazzy item of clothing. At least that's my natural-selection explanation of a man's ingrained distaste for asking directions, and for the resultant sales boom in GPS navigation units, which would seem to have closed the issue. But despite their near-magical ability to locate and direct you, most GPS devices have two inherent shortcomings: limited storage and the map database's inevitable loss of accuracy over time.

Dash Navigation came up with an ingenious solution—a GPS unit that communicates with the outside world. The Dash Express introduces wireless communication over the cellular network. That means maps, points of interest and even the system's internal software can be regularly updated, without the user lifting a finger (or booting a computer).

That's great—but it's just the beginning. Wireless connectivity on the go means you can search the Internet (via Yahoo! Local search) for precisely the destination information you need, instead of relying on a limited points-of-reference database stored in the GPS. Dash uses the wireless connection to include gas-price quotes when you search for gas stations, and movie schedules when you search for theaters. That rates a "wow" already, and more information services are in the works.

The other killer feature is that every Dash unit regularly, and anonymously, reports its speed and position back to the company's Mother Ship to generate up-to-the-minute traffic reports and send them out to other vehicles. Until now, the accuracy of traffic information was severely limited by the scarcity of highway sensors. When every Dash-equipped car becomes, in effect, a live road sensor, the accuracy and the range of traffic info should skyrocket. The units just began shipping, so it's early to judge the value of this feature. But the company says that dozens, rather than hundreds, of active units in an area are enough to produce reliable traffic information.

All this cellular data chatter isn't free. There's a monthly charge of $12.99 for using the Dash network (it's lower if you commit to one or two years of service).

Everything isn't perfect in this first release, including some GPS fundamentals. In a drive around my neighborhood, the system misread a highway underpass, identifying it as a traffic circle and misdirecting me as a result. The distance to a turn was often displayed inaccurately, making me wonder whether to take the turn I'd reached, or one still coming up. On the other hand, the text-to-speech reading of road names was near flawless, the display is bright and easy to read and the controls are logical enough to work without your having to read the manual. As for the software problems, Dash is bound to fix them soon—and the fixes can be delivered with no work on your part.


Nintendo Wii Fit
If you've been looking for a spouse-friendly excuse to splurge on Nintendo's wonderful Wii game console, I have just what you need. The Wii Fit add-on kit combines a pressure-sensitive balance board with cleverly designed software that leads you through more than 40 different exercises and activities that develop balance and flexibility, health and stamina. And if the required Wii console happens to also play the irresistible Guitar Hero game, and my current favorite, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, we'll just call that a side benefit.

Which is not to downplay the value or the fun factor inherent in Wii Fit across gender and age barriers. The kit includes the two-foot-wide balance board, which communicates wirelessly with the Wii console, and Wii Fit software. When you stand on the board, internal sensors precisely measure weight and balance. Lose an ounce (or vice versa), and the Wii Fit software can tell. This is much more than a glorified bathroom scale, though. Every time you change your center of gravity, even slightly, the system can tell, an ability that fuels diverse activities in four categories: balance, aerobics, yoga and strength.

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