For some time now, we’ve been looking at different turn by turn navigation apps. We’ve seen a number of them that were pretty good, but costly, some that were decent, but free, and even a few that were very useful, but required an annual subscription. The big problem with turn by turn apps has been traffic. Add some traffic problems and the best GPS can become worthless, unless it can route you around the traffic. As a general rule, a dedicated GPS tends to do a better job, but there are times when your dedicated GPS fails or isn’t available. Having an app on your smart phone can make the difference between getting there and getting lost. While Waze isn’t perfect, it does have an innovative take on managing the traffic issue that we think makes it worth the look.

Waze is the product of Waze Inc, a company founded by Ehud Shabtai to fix the problems that he found with your typical GPS applications. Waze is available as a free download for iOS, Android, Blackberry, Nokia, and Windows Mobile phones, so if you’ve got one of these phones it won’t cost you a lot to give Waze a try. So let us give you an idea of what you’re in for.

Waze does two things differently from just about any other turn by turn navigation system out there. First, it doesn’t try to use the computing power of the smart phone to choose routes. Waze depends on the data network to connect your phone to their routing servers which calculates your route and sends the route (and any alternates) back to you. Naturally, this means that if you’re in an area outside of the phone network, Waze can’t calculate your route. For a cross-country trip, this is less than ideal, but for day to day commuting, this won’t usually be an issue.

The other thing that Waze does is that instead of subscribing to a traffic reporting service, and dealing with the latency of reports and updates, Waze uses the userbase to identify traffic areas. Some folks will be fine with this, but others will want to avoid Waze altogether because of it. Part of this is the ability for users to report accidents, traffic jams, police activity, and other road hazards. The other part is that the client periodically reports its position and speed to Waze, allowing Waze to build a model of the traffic flow and determine how big a slow down area is. This aggregate model allows Waze to report traffic with a high accuracy and a very low latency period. So it will tell you where the traffic issues are now, and will clear them out as soon as the traffic dissipates. Privacy advocates will, of course, hate this, as they will view anything that reports their location, no matter how anonymously, as a violation of their privacy.

Like any GPS system, Waze lets you search for an address and plot a route. Waze also highlights the top three destinations that you travel to, and keeps a record of your recent searches, favorites, and other saved locations. Once the route has been chosen, it tells you the approximate distance, time, and gives you an ETA for arrival at your destination. It’s what happens in between that is a bit different.

Naturally, you’ll be getting turn by turn directions along your route. Waze will even give you voice directions so you don’t miss a turn. And you can still play music from your smart phone as you drive. When voice instructions are needed, it will pause the playback, give the instructions, and then resume your music. The face in/fade out needs a little work, especially if you’re listening to something that is heavy with spoken words, like a podcast or an audio book, but it is fine for music.

Waze is built with a bit of a whimsical mindset. As you’re driving, if you come near to another Waze user, their icon will show up on your map. If you tap the icon, you can find some information about that Waze user, depending on how their privacy settings are set. This is part of the social nature of Waze. If you’re willing to let other users ping you, they can send short messages to you through Waze.

The other major social aspect of Waze is the ability to report traffic incidents and hazards. Waze cleverly allows you to do this with only a few finger taps, allowing a driver to report an issue quickly and without diverting his attention from the road. If you are moving, Waze automatically locks out the keyboard, so a driver cannot ping another unless you are stopped. There is an override if you have a passenger using Waze, but for the most part, it isn’t needed. Tap the report button and Waze drops a pin on your location. Then tap the type of event, and select the appropriate level of information. You can add a description if you’re a passenger, or if traffic is completely stopped, but you don’t have to. Just tap Send and the message goes on its way.

Another whimsical aspect of Waze is they fact that it encourages users to participate in the system by awarding points for reporting issues. As you accumulate points, you move up in rank, which presumably unlocks new features. Waze gives you lots of opportunites to earn additional points, including adding “treats” to the map which you can pick up by driving over them, making your commute a little more like a video game and a little less of a chore, hopefully. But please keep your eyes on the road.

The last interesting feature of Waze that we’d like to point out is the ability to create groups. These are collections of users bound together by a common interest or a common geographical area. When you report an incident, you can also select which groups will be alerted to it. This allows you to warn those who will be the most likely to be effected by whatever incident you’re reporting. When you’re stopped, Waze will show you reports from the surrounding area which may effect your trip. If any of these reports are useful to you, just tap the thumb’s up icon to send your thanks to the person who reported it.

Waze does have some of the same issues that other GPS systems suffer from. Maps aren’t always accurate, and sometimes the GPS will instruct you to try and make impossible turns, like mistaking an overpass for an intersection. Waze does let you report these errors, although it may take a while for them to correct them. Corrections through Waze are done as free downloads as soon as the corrections are processed, unlike other services that will charge users for updated maps.

Given the social nature of Waze, best results will take place in areas with a large number of Waze users. If you’re a city driver, and you’ve got a tough commute but good data connectivity, Waze just might be what you’re looking for.

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