Waze social navigation stays in the game

The Waze navigation app for iOS sets itself apart from other apps with a strong social-networking element.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
4 min read
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Any developer making navigation apps for the iPhone has to be looking at the impending arrival of Apple Maps with fear, as it will come preinstalled on iOS 6 and offer turn-by-turn voice prompts for free. But Waze can make a few arguments why its navigation app trumps the upcoming Apple Maps.

The Waze app's initial focus was crowdsourced traffic, and it has evolved to offer full-blown, free navigation. Its social focus is something that Apple Maps will have a difficult time duplicating, but also limits Waze's usefulness in some areas. Waze's traffic features make it useful for everyday driving, even with known destinations.

The interface loads up with a map view, just like a typical navigation app. This map, which can be set to 2D or 3D views, is filled with traffic flow information on streets along with icons denoting accidents, police, and other Waze users. As the local traffic is garnered from Waze users, how well the local roads are covered will depend on the amount of Waze users in an area.

At the base of the map are two icons, the left one opening up a menu for navigation, a mailbox, and a list of nearby incidents, and the right one launching a reports menu. The reports menu lets Waze users notify the system about traffic jams, accidents, and police cars, or just post general notes. Waze has engineered the reports interface to require very little phone use, but it still takes a driver's gaze away from the road. To mitigate distraction, the app also has a voice command function. Once initiated, it walks the driver through a series of voice-prompted steps to adding a report.

Waze keeps its navigation interface simple, with a search box and icons for points of interest, favorites, and prior destinations. In addition, drivers can program in a home and work address, accessible at a single touch to the navigation screen. These saved addresses make it easy to use Waze during the daily commute. As another useful piece of information, Waze includes fuel prices for gas stations in its POI database.

Using the search box to enter an address or business name generally results in a list from Microsoft's Bing search engine. However, a tab at the bottom of the screen lets drivers search a number of other Internet sources and the iPhone's own contacts database. Some of the other Internet sources include 4Square, Yellow Pages, and Google. For each location result, Waze shows the map and gives drivers the option to add it as a favorite, start navigation, or include it in a multidestination itinerary. Drivers can also use voice command to initiate a destination search.

Waze shows graphics and offers voice prompts for route guidance. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

With route guidance active, Waze not only offers voice prompts for upcoming turns, but also recalculates the route dynamically. The guidance screen shows the estimated time to the destination, taking into account traffic conditions as reported by other Waze users. Waze will show the route on its map with upcoming turn graphics at the top, or the driver can view a list of turns for the route.

As free route guidance, Waze works well enough. We set it for a few destinations around the San Francisco Bay Area, a region with many active Waze users. Its voice prompts called out the names of streets for upcoming turns far enough ahead for us to change to an appropriate lane. It offered multiple routes to the same destination, along with estimated times of arrival using each route.

A few times while giving route guidance Waze did not offer what would have been a useful voice prompt. For example, as we approached a three-way freeway junction Waze remained silent, and it was only because of our familiarity with the area that we knew to take the center route. Other navigation systems will provide explicit direction when approaching complex freeway junctions. Also, on reaching a destination Waze would not specify which side of the road it was on.

Waze is strictly an online app, and will not work in areas without a wireless data connection. It does not include a means of caching a route for offline guidance, as some apps do.

The maps Waze uses are updated by community members, which can be a mixed blessing. Active users are more likely to keep up with changes in local roads, but in areas with few Waze users, the maps can become outdated. However, picking a few random areas around the country and comparing Waze maps with Google maps showed very good similarity between the two.

Click here to download Waze for iOS.