Waze [Android App Review]

The world of consumer electronics is not for the faint of heart. A company comes up with a brilliant new product that suddenly gets enormously popular but then before you know it, the next big thing arrives and the previous market demand evaporates. Exhibit A - just a few years ago, netbook computers were all the rage right up until the moment Apple launched the iPad in early 2010. 

Closer to the garage, Apple also triggered disruption in how we find our way to our driving destinations. Earlier in the last decade a new generation of smaller, cheaper GPS receiver chips made low cost personal navigation devices (PND) a very popular replacement for old school paper maps. When the first iPhone came to market in mid-2007, it ushered in an era of new smartphones with built in GPS. One of the first apps on those iPhones was Google Maps. 

At first Google Maps was limited to showing your current location on the map helping users to find their way around in unfamiliar places. It wasn’t until November 2009 when Google launched version of 2.0 of its own Android mobile operating system on the Motorola Droid that the end-times arrived for the makers of PNDs. For the first time, the new version of Maps included full turn-by-turn directions capability just like a PND and it was free of charge.

Since then, a wide array of free and low cost navigation apps have appeared for both the Android and Apple iOS platforms with Waze being one of the more interesting examples. Google creates its own map database from a variety of sources including its fleet of Street View cars that are driving around the world recording and photographing the world’s roads.

Waze on the other hand relies primarily on its community of users to produce maps and provide real-time traffic data that is shared with the entire community.

Warning: Tin-foil hat types that worry about being tracked everywhere they go probably should not use Waze. Actually, if you are that concerned about being followed, you shouldn’t even be carrying a mobile phone but that’s a whole different story. Follow the break to see more about Waze, and to get a download link for the application.

Youtube link for mobile viewing

When Waze is running on your phone, it is constantly sending back breadcrumbs every few seconds to the server with your location, direction and speed. By aggregating information from users in real-time, Waze can then provide the rest of the community with alerts about upcoming  traffic backups. The advantage of this background reporting is that the driver doesn’t have to do anything that distracts from the task at hand. 

But Waze also provides a mechanism that allows users to easily report accidents, hazards such as cars on the shoulder, construction zones and police speed traps. Version 3.0 of Waze was released just before this review was written with a revamped user interface. The UI now has a button right on the main screen that allows drivers to make reports with just a couple of taps on the phone screen using a menu of large colorful icons. The app records your location at the moment you hit the report button for automatic uploading. 

The trade-off for agreeing to share your data with the community is an incoming stream of fresh alerts about what you will soon encounter. Reports of a stalled car or waiting police cruiser ahead trigger automatic warnings that pop up on the screen. You get a brief message describing the hazard along with a thumbs up and “Not There” buttons. If the warning is accurate or still relevant, tap the thumbs up to let Waze know. If whatever had been reported previously is gone, tap “Not There” so that Waze can stop sending that alert to other users. 

At anytime you can pull up a list of alerts in your area or along your navigation route to see what’s coming up. When you are stopped in traffic or at a red light, the current list of nearest alerts will cycle across the screen so you can quickly determine whether to take an alternate route.  You can also check out a live map at the Waze.com site before you leave. 

The navigation function works much like most other guidance systems. The new 3.0 interface looks more grown up and less cartoonish than early versions. Users can select between 2D and 3D perspective map views and pick different color schemes. Destinations can be entered by typing or on Android devices by voice input.

One of the big advantages of Google Maps navigation over other dedicated systems is its access to the search giant’s entire web index for points of interest. The data available to Waze is not quite as vast but its growing all the time. Version 3.0 added integration with Yelp and Foursquare to expand the list of places users can find along with the associated reviews and recommendations. 

As with most guidance apps, Waze allows users to save favorite locations with two slots reserved specifically for Home and Work. The advantage of these special slots is that depending on the time of day and your current location, the app will take a guess at where you might be headed as soon as it is launched. For example, when leaving the house in the morning, I put my phone in the dock and start Waze and it immediately pops up and asks if I am driving to work. If I don’t tap close before the countdown timer ends, it assumes that’s where I’m headed, plots the route and pulls down traffic alerts. The whole process works in reverse when it’s time to head home, all very handy.

Waze automatically calculates alternate routes to a destination that can be selected with just a couple of taps on the screen. The app does keep track of your driving habits and if you regularly follow the same route from one place to another, it will set that as the default route.

Perhaps the biggest downside to factory built-in navigation systems is outdated maps. For older systems that rely on DVDs for all the map and POI databases, dealers are typically happy to charge you $100 or more for a new set of maps every year. Phone based systems like Google Maps, Waze and others download maps on the fly as you use them so you always have the latest information that the vendor has on hand.

Waze relies on the data being provided by its users to supplement its maps. When a Waze user encounters a piece of pavement that’s not on the map, they can tap on the Pave button on the Report menu in the lower right corner of the screen to start a recording of their track as they drive. Once the users stops and saves that recording gets sent to the Waze servers. The user can then log Waze.com account on a computer and check their list of recent routes to edit the map and add directions for one-way streets as well as street names. Users can also go in and edit known errors on the map. 

Unfortunately Waze has no analog to the very useful Street View that pops up in Google Maps when you arrive at a destination.

One potential downside to Waze and most other phone-based navigation apps is that a data connection is needed to get guidance and alerts. With cell carriers increasingly clamping down on data usage, this could pose a problem for users on capped plans. Waze users can check their data usage in the app settings and also enable data compression. 

Waze actually does a pretty good job of minimizing data transfer including varying the amount of detail shown based on your speed. As you travel faster on highways, the map view zooms out and shows less detail in adjacent areas. As you approach an exit where the guidance is suggesting you get off the highway, the view automatically zooms in and shows more detail.

Smartphone users looking for either a free navigation app or just a means of getting live traffic and hazard alerts, Waze is definitely worth checking out as long as you aren’t on one of the newer minimal data plans with caps of 250 MB or less. There are versions of Waze available for iOS, Android, Nokia Symbian, Blackberry and even some older Windows Mobile devices. Users of the Windows Phone 7 devices are out of luck for now. 

  • I like waze. Been using it for a while.
  • The concept is better than the execution. Waze crashes frequently, on both my Bionic and my friend's Nexus. It picks... Let's call them unusual routes, with heavy preferences on interstates even when surface roads are much faster. It has a night mode for the map and displays speedometer on the map, which is where it beats Google, but it's just not usable for me as a navigation solution because of these flaws.
  • I tried out Waze, but ended up going back to the stock navigation app for 1 big reason. When I'm streaming Pandora the stock app will actually pause the music and let me know I have a turn coming up or what not. Waze tries to "speak" over the music and is never as loud so it is easy not to catch if your not paying close attention. Other than that Waze seems like a pretty solid app and my wife actually uses it quite a bit.
  • I like waze, however it is pretty awful at navigating. it will often tell me to get on an exit ramp to head west to ultimately make a u turn at some point to go east when the left hand turn is the direction I want to go in. pretty neat concept though
  • Yes, routing is awful, to say the least. In my area this appears to be due to the assumptions they make when collecting data. Waze thinks most streets in my area are one-way or no-entrance, and that most turns are not permitted. Only when a user travels in that direction and turns that way are they considered permitted travel directions or turns. As a result, routing avoids these directions and turns, making it even less likely that users will ever travel that direction or make that turn. The result of this is that these directions and turns will always be considered "not permitted". Knowing how poor the maps and routing are in my own area, I couldn't possibly rely on it in an area I'm not familiar with. That said, I want to like it - I really do. It's a great concept. But as with any crowd-sourced product, it needs a large crowd to make it work well, and it needs to work well to attract a large crowd - a catch 22 if ever there was one.
  • only way for me to be actually happy with this app, is if samsung actually fixed the damn GPS
  • That little gps history intro is a big steaming load of crap. Gps maps were popular on smart phones before apple even thought about it. Nokia, windows mobile, blackberry and palm smartphones all had gps and maps before the iphone existed.
    Stop with the Apple pioneered this and that bs.
  • Really? That's what you got from the article?
  • I was thinking the same thing. I had Google Maps on my Nextel handset long before the iPhone existed. I also have the Telenav navigation app - way back in 2005.
  • I love the concept, but execution isn't quite there for me yet. I used it for a couple of weeks, before v3 came out. The UI needed a little work, along with making it easier to report things. It looks like they made some major improvements to fix those things, but the major flaw is the routing. It would choose very odd routes even to get to the freeway, and would always suggest those routes to and from work, even though I would constantly ignore them and go the right way. Google does well with this. I would compare the 2 and Google Maps would always give the best routing. What would make this perfect is to tie in with Google Maps (not sure if that's possible) and build these reporting and social features on top of an already established Navigation system. Get the best of both worlds.
  • I was using Waze for the better part of last year as my navigation app since Google Maps Navigation is not available in my country yet. I like the live traffic and road condition updates but the routing leaves much to be desired. The maps are being updated slowly, but I wish they just grabbed Open Street Map info and set it as a base for maps to be updated. Eventually I ended up using NavDroyd. It stores OSM maps in your SD card on a proprietary file. The maps stored have a pretty small footprint - my entire country consumes just 12MB of space! Routing is offline as well (all route calculations are done in your device) so the map and navigation works whether or not I have internet access. Routing is way better than Waze too! On one long trip, I used it to navigate through unfamiliar towns where my friend's Garmin could not! I hope Android Central does a review of NavDroyd. It's not free, but you get unlimited map downloads so I think it's worth the price. It's not perfect (a bit like beta software) and the UI isn't that refined yet, but its offline navigation capability makes it well worth the price and quirks.
  • Tried Waze twice and each time gave up (last on v3). The routing was just so bad that I couldn't use it. It never seemed to learn the routes between home/work and always insisted on another longer route. It also really needs to have an option to avoid toll roads.
  • I use waze every day, but more for the speed trap reporting than for the navigation. I agree that it doesn't do a good job with routing. But it's saved me hundreds in speeding tickets. A couple of features that the review didn't point out: When I leave work everyday I go to a place that I have saved as "school". Waze has learned that and automatically asks if I'm going to school now instead of asking if I'm going home at the end of the day. Groups: Waze allows you to create and/or join groups. There are groups in my area of people that drive certain routes or in certain areas. Along with random groups of people with common interests. So if you join a group of people who always drive on highway XYZ, you can see their hazard reports submitted by those group members. Points: Waze awards points for lots of different things, like submitting hazard reports, submitting or fixing map errors, driving on new roads, driving lots of miles, etc. It's totally unnecessary and you can ignore it completely, but it adds a little fun.
  • "When I leave work everyday I go to a place that I have saved as "school"." So, you're cheating on your wife.
  • LOL ... my wife knows exactly where I go. Just wearing my tin-foil hat to protect my privacy from the internet.
  • I like the traffic and other info, but the routing is so bad I can't use it unless I know where I'm going.
  • I've used Waze for a while & would echo most comments I've read so far. FANTASTIC IDEA
    great for traffic/speed trap updates
    about as "fun" as a navigation app can get
    I still use Google Nav when I actually need turn-by-turn directions
  • The 1st generation iPhone didn't have real GPS, only tower and wifi location (sometimes falsely referred to as triangulation). GPS radios weren't added until the iPhone 3g. And the Maps app also wasn't in iOS until iOS 2.x
  • I used Waze for navigation once, trying to find my way to breakfast in an unfamiliar city. It repeatedly told me to get on the freeway where there was no entrance ramp, once resulting in my turning into the entrance of some kind of military shipyard. Back to Google Maps, then. I briefly used it on my normal commute for traffic alerts, but then I found out that while their app is open source, any contributions you make to their map become their property. This may not seem like a big deal to people who grew up in the iPhone/Google Apps age, but to those of us who made the founders of CDDB rich only to have them turn around and lock us out of "their" data (which is now owned by Sony), it's unacceptable. I look forward to an alternative based on OpenStreetMap.
  • I also agree that Waze is better in concept than reality. I drive in LA and do a lot of surface street driving. Google maps is really the only service that offers any helpful traffic data for surface streets. Recently I tried Waze, and it does not reliably provide nearly enough traffic data. There are multiple points on my route that I would turn and go another way if it warned of traffic ahead. At times I could see traffic on the map and then it would disappear, I assume that this was because the traffic was gone, nope sorry still there. At times it almost seemed like there was too much data to download and that it would just drop the traffic data for no reason. Also, the routing sucks, it tried to have me make a series of left then right turns instead of driving slightly farther with a single turn.
  • I've been using Waze on and off, am currently trying it full-time for the 3rd time, and about to give up.
    My biggest issue is always the same - Waze uses too much CPU. Background music stutters when I turn the screen on and Waze updates the view. If I keep the screen on and phone charging, phone gets hot. In both cases, Waze crashes the phone a lot. HTC EVO 4G, with CyanogenMod 7.1 (it was the same on CM6), stock kernel, overclocked to 1.19GHz (also tried clocking at normal 998MHz).
    It feels like Waze chews through the battery faster than Google Maps and Navigation.
    It seems that Waze does not cache maps, as it always lags while drawing roads that I drive every day.
  • I really want to like Waze, but it's so rough around the edges. First, if it's ever in the background, it crashes. Not a force close, but when you return to Waze you get the "Uh oh, something went wrong" dialog box. Second, the animation and screen redraw is so jerky and stuttery. Third, I need a setting that lets me avoid toll roads (like Google Nav). I don't want to shell out my cash on toll roads, and Waze can't calculate a route that somehow doesn't include toll roads. I love the reporting of accidents an cops, but for nav, too rough.
  • As has already been stated, Waze can be bad at navigation. It's even worse for a road trip! My comments are in this post.