Review: Waze for the iPhone

Version 2.0

For those of you who read my Epic Follow-Up Review of Navigon MobileNavigator a couple of weeks ago, I will invoke a little Monte Python before I begin: “And now for something completely different.” For the sake of comparison, if MobileNavigator is considered to be a dependable, luxurious, but expensive high end model luxury car, then Waze is more like an old MG-Styled cloth top convertible kit car: customized, do-it-yourself, cheap (or in this case, free), and lots of fun.

However, like working on a kit car or restore project, there are some aspects of Waze that can bring the fun to a screeching halt. There are going to be glitches and breakdowns. That is inevitable. You should know a little bit about what you are doing, and you have to realize the limitations of what you are working with. It helps if you put in a little work of your own to make it better. If you aren’t willing to do these things, then the frustration you will undoubtedly encounter may outweigh the fun you will have. However, if you keep what Waze is in perspective, you also may find the whole experience quite rewarding. So, what exactly is Waze? Follow me after the link to find out.

In its own words, Waze is an app that provides “Driver Generated Live Maps and Real-Time Road Information. FREE.” It is this, and actually quite a bit more. As I mentioned before, I have reviewed Navigon MobileNavigator and have used it extensively. I have also tested many other navigation apps, and while many have included the ability to post to social networks, no one has gone as far as Waze. In fact, it is as much a gaming and social network as it is a GPS app. These elements are woven together into a seamless experience in a way that no one else has come close to. And did I mention, it’s free? So, putting all this together sounds pretty ambitious. How does it all shake out? Well, going back to the convertible kit car analogy, it’s great when you are in the driver’s seat with the top down on a warm sunny day when conditions are perfect. Maybe not so much when that thunderstorm comes up out of nowhere and soaks you. Waze can be just like that. Let’s get under the hood and take a look.

The Basics

Before you can do anything in Waze, you have to set up an account. This is necessary with the social and gaming elements of the app, so I didn’t see a problem with it. I like the fact that Waze offers detailed privacy settings in the app, so you can customize what data is displayed, and to whom. You can be completely anonymous to other users if you wish.

First and foremost, Waze is a GPS app, so let’s take that for a test drive. As you would expect from a free app, the map, routing, and POI information are all downloaded from the Internet. A little less expected for a free app is how well designed the map interface is and how comprehensive the settings are.

You have your choice of 2D or 3D map display, day or night mode, which can be toggled automatically based on the light sensor. You can set both the map controls and/or the top icon bar to be hidden and activated with a tap, or displayed all of the time.

The icon bar has a disable button, which shuts down the app’s backgrounding, a button for selecting your mood icon, which can be displayed to other users on their maps, a button that displays reports of road events, one for events in Groups you are a member of, and one for GPS status and server connection status. The map controls are translucent icons overlaid on the map that offer zoom in, zoom out, map orientation, and map update/edit functions. A Music notes icon is added any time the native iPod app is playing in the background, and gives you access to some limited music controls from within the app. You can choose whether to display these buttons all of the time, or bring them up with a tap on the map. The bottom toolbar has a button to return you to your current location on the map, buttons for routing, and reporting, and a button to call up a second toolbar with links to the Groups menu, the Scoreboard, and the app’s Settings.

Maps

As for the Map display itself, you can also choose from several map color schemes.

Different types of roads (Interstates, 2 or 4 lane roads, roads that haven’t been traveled yet) have different colors in each scheme, and areas with high traffic are denoted in on the map, as well. The maps themselves aren’t as refined looking graphically as Google Maps, or some of the other less expensive navigation offerings, but they are clear and certainly acceptable. This is especially true since Waze offers more customization options than most of the competition. There are many options that allow you to choose exactly what information will be displayed on the map while driving.

These include icons denoting other Wazers, the colored traffic layer, Speed Cams, Chit Chats, Police Traps, Accidents, Traffic Jams, Hazards, Road construction, and Road Goodies. You can also choose between 2 different types of arrows or several different car types for your map position indicator.

While there is a lot of information displayed on the screen, the interface doesn’t feel too cluttered, and the most used buttons and icons are large enough to get to while driving.

The green and black color scheme for the direction and street indicators may not be the prettiest choice, but it does provide good contrast and readability.

Another nice touch that is unique to Waze is the ability to record unmarked or new roads directly within the app for addition to the map.

Many other programs have various mechanisms for map error submissions or for corrections to be done via a web page on a desktop, but I haven’t seen another one that handles the process in-app like Waze. Waze also has a web interface for altering maps, and even takes that a step further. If you really want to be involved in the map update process, you can apply to be put in charge of maintaining a section of the map in your local area. These features add to the sense of contribution to the Waze community, which makes users more likely to take advantage of it.

Data

Since Waze relies on an Internet connection to get map and routing information, the Data Usage settings are a great addition for those on limited data plans.

You can refresh and cache the map of your area while at home on Wi-Fi. This feature is somewhat limited, as it only downloads the current screen data, but it is a step in the right direction. You can zoom out a bit and use this if you know you are heading into a weak signal area. When I asked the Waze team about this feature, I was told that it may be extended in the future. I would love to see downloadable maps added to Waze, even if they are just for individual cities or states. You have the option to enable data compression and bring up a network monitor if you want to finely manage your data usage. You can also turn off traffic info displayed on the map. I haven’t seen this level of data consumption control in any other Internet based navigation app, so kudos to Waze for adding these features.

Navigation

So, now we get to the part where there rubber really meets the road. How does Waze handle navigation? Well, there are a lot of really good ideas here, but this is also the area where Waze falls a bit short. On the good side, there are again, many very refined features and settings to customize your experience. You can set Waze to Auto-Learn your most driven routes, which is really handy, as Waze will often correctly guess where I am going and ping their server for routing information.

All of this happens without a single click. If Waze does not guess correctly, then one click will take you back to the map so you can choose you own route. Waze also provides some standard Routing settings, like the ability to request the Fastest or Shortest route, the ability to block or limit navigation over dirt roads or highways.

There is also a fun feature to prefer “cookie munching.” More on this feature in a sec.

The Drive To Menu is where you choose your destination.

The design is very simple, but very functional. Links to your top 3 favorites are at the top of the list, followed by Your full list of Favorites, Recent Searches, Saved Locations, and Contacts. While Waze doesn’t include a built-in POI database, it has a search interface at the very top of this screen. A search not only pulls up results from Waze, but from Google as well, which gives you access to just about the best POI list on the planet. You can search for specific names and locations, or general types of destinations.  The Google searches will default to your current location unless you specify otherwise.

Another nice touch to the navigation interface is the pop up control menu. It is launched from the small note icon in the lower left corner, under the distance remaining.

This menu offers easy access to some important functions- mute/unmute voice nav, a turn by turn breakdown of your route, and a stop navigation. I really like the fact that you can still see the map underneath when you pull this menu up, as these are features you are likely to use while driving. Taken all together, these features and settings put Waze on par with or above most of the free navigation apps out there.

A Little Rain Must Fall

Unfortunately, while the features and settings are there, the actual navigation piece leaves something to be desired. As with any other Internet based turn by turn navigation app, Waze has to get its maps and routes from a server somewhere out there on the Internet. Unfortunately, server timeout errors during routing information requests are pretty common, especially during rush hour periods or in areas of weak signal.

It actually seems to be getting better from when I first started using Waze, but I still get them and they are definitely a hassle. The folks at Waze have assured me that the server issues are being addressed, so hopefully this will become less and less of a problem. I would like to see a change to the app where routing requests can be automatically re-sent after a server timeout. This would be much safer for the driver, rather than having to make a few clicks to get back to your Favorites or Recent Searches to re-send the request.

The second issue is with the routes themselves. To their credit, the developers of Waze are very up front about what they app is and how it works. The maps and the routing are crowdsourced, and you are reminded of it at the program startup, in the help videos, and when you pull up a new route.

I do appreciate that they are open about building the app through the user community, so there is some qualification here. Despite the warnings, however, I don’t feel like Waze always learns fast enough. In my discussions with the Waze team, I was told that after the servers see you drive a route 3 or 4 times, they learn that route’s connections, and will offer it as an option, even if it is an alternative to their recommended route. Unfortunately, due to things like dropped server connections, GPS signal loss, or occasional app crashes, I have a couple of routes that I drive often that haven’t made it into the server’s good graces. The app developers have again been very helpful, manually connecting one of the routes on their end, and offering tips, but this is another legitimate issue and needs to be addressed. Now, in urban areas with a higher concentration of users than where I live and that have good 3G signal, this probably isn’t as much as a problem. Also, as more and more users join the network and drive different routes, the more data the Waze servers will have to go off of, and the more the situation should improve.

The next issue I had was with the voice navigation. The voice prompts are turn and direction only, which isn’t a problem for a free app. The Waze team did report that text to speech is “coming on some platforms in the very near future.” Stay tuned on whether that will include iOS. Anyway, the directions themselves were timely and accurate. When I put Waze in the background and listened to some tunes via my iPod app, Waze handled that with no problems. Now, I had read in the Waze forums that some users had some trouble with using Pandora streaming in the background with Waze. I fired up Pandora myself and did notice some stuttering and repeating of voice commands. I also had a couple of crashes. I happen to be a big user of the Podcaster app. I listen to my casts every day to and from the office or on trips. So, I tried it in the background with Waze up on the screen, and unfortunately, Waze crashed every time it tried to issue a voice prompt. That is certainly a concern and definitely needs to be addressed, but since Waze works perfectly with the native iPod app, I wonder what the issue with working in conjunction with streaming apps is? I don’t know, but again, the Waze team is on the case, and they assured me that this issue would be addressed soon.

There are also a few other minor annoyances with Waze’s routing. First, the app is currently limited to routes of 250 miles or less. It is easy enough to get around this by breaking up your route into smaller chunks, but that does require more work on the driver’s part. The error message that Waze generates if a route is too long states that the Waze team is already looking into expanding this range, so I would expect some changes in the no-too-distant future.

Next, Waze could do a better job of graphically depicting your entire route when it is first set, or when it re-routes you. Typically, the app will zoom out to a view that shows the entire route and highlight it in purple in day mode, and electric blue in night mode. This often ends up looking like a jumbled mess, however. Sometimes when the map zooms out for a longer trip, your route is shown in a sea of indistinguishable squiggly lines and Wazer icons.

It might be a good idea if Waze eliminates the clutter and just focuses on the route itself. The other problem is that the purple and electric blue used to highlight the routes sometimes blend in too well with certain map color schemes, making the route difficult to distinguish from the rest of the map.

Lastly, Waze’s Auto Zoom feature can be quite disorienting at times. It does an acceptable job if you are driving without a route, or if you are on a route and following all of the directions. However, if you deviate from the route, the auto zoom can go a little crazy while zooming out to show an overview of your new suggested routing. Today, I saw an instance where I took a different side road to my office, and Waze flipped the map orientation 180 degrees to face opposite of the direction I was driving. I had to push the Current Location button to quickly get back on course. I think Waze would have eventually brought the map back to the correct orientation on its own, but sometimes this takes too long. I would like to see the Waze team look at this behavior and tune it up a bit, as it could be quite confusing in an unfamiliar area.

Event Reporting

Now, after all of my complaining about navigation issues, I do want to give the Waze team credit for a couple of related items. First off, their Reporting feature acts as a bridge between the social aspects of the app, and its navigation functions, and is one of Waze’s strongest features.

In as few as two clicks, you can send a report indicating Police, a Traffic Jam, an Accident, a Hazard, or a Speed Cam in your current location. You can also indicate whether the report is for your current direction, or in the opposite direction.

There are also options to send a message out on the network as “Chit Chat,” enter a request to Update the Map, or Check in With Foursquare. In another nice touch, if you are stuck in traffic or standing still, you can enter a text description and even add a picture to your submission. The number of reports for your area, the size of which you can customize, are always shown on the top icon bar above the map. Reports for any Groups you may be associated with are also indicated there. When a new report comes in, you will be taken to its location on the map and see a dialogue box with a description of the report.

Afterwards, those report locations are marked with a red pushpin.

This unique feature really helps Waze to stand out from the pack of navigation apps. There are several apps out there with traffic reports or map indications, but none of them allow this level of personal interaction and instant customized feedback. There will be delays and levels of filtering in any standard traffic reporting service, but Waze allows for instant feedback from people on the road in your vicinity. I absolutely love this feature. In fact, I check my Waze reports as soon as I get in my car in the morning and in the evening, before I fire up Navigon MobileNavigator.

I find that the two compliment each other quite nicely, and I have never had issues with one app interfering with the other.

As much as I love Waze’s Reporting feature, I do have a couple of small suggestions for possible improvements. First, as easy as it is to add a report while driving, it isn’t always ideal. Also, it is certainly not advisable to attempt taking a picture or typing a message while heading down the highway. It would be nice to see a way to add a report after the fact, and determine the location on the map. This would allow for some more detailed reporting after coming to a stop. My other suggestion is tied to Waze’s automatic traffic reporting feature. If Waze detects that your speed is well below the speed limit for a given period of time, then Waze automatically tags the area as having a traffic slowdown and colors the map in your location. I have accidentally triggered these on two occasions. The first time was driving around in a parking lot waiting for my wife to come out of a store. The other happened while I was sitting in my driveway. I think this is a valuable feature, but I like for the Waze team to include a way to pause your navigation so you don’t have to shut the app down to prevent generating erroneous reports. A slightly longer delay before generating a report might help, as well. With these additions, I think Waze’s automatic traffic reporting feature becomes an even bigger draw, even for those who already use another navigation app.

Customer Support

To the Waze team’s credit, I really appreciated the good customer support and their responsiveness to questions and requests. I experienced this good service well before I started working on this review, so I know that is the norm, and not just because I am  reviewing their app. I also like the fact that the Waze app includes automatic uploading of crash logs for bug analysis. A dialogue box pops up as soon as the app comes back up after a crash, and it only takes a few seconds. I think this shows a company that is committed to making their product better by finding the problems. Waze also make it very easy to send crash logs in manually if you are working with tech support on a issue. Not all free app developers are so conscientious, so I have to give the Waze team credit for this.

Time for some fun

Now that the breakdowns have been addressed, it is time for some fun, and this is where Waze really kicks into high gear. The gaming and social networking aspects of Waze are where the app really shines and stands out from the crowd. I’ll start this off by saying that, while I use Facebook and Twitter, I am by no means addicted to them. That just isn’t a huge thing for me. Despite this, I have really gotten into the social aspect of Waze, which probably means that they are onto something.

The first thing you notice is the funny looking little icons depicting nearby Waze users, which can be customized according to your current mood.

These have been a part of Waze since the app was released. Now, there are just a whole lot more of them, as Waze currently boasts a membership of over 1.2 million people. When you come across one of these icons, you can tap on it and get a dialogue box showing whatever information that user has chosen to show.

You can also “ping” the user, if they have the feature enabled. I’ll be honest, I haven’t done much pinging in the past. That’s not really my style, but I like the fact that it is included, as the feature adds to the sense of community.

Social Networking

Like several other navigation apps, Waze also includes social network integrations. Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare are all included. You can send your road reports, your current destination, your road munching, or any combination of the above over Facebook or Twitter.

You can also check into locations on Foursquare from the app. I have tried many of the GPS apps out there, but none of them had as many options for automatically generating posts, or as many services offered as Waze. Considering Waze’s apparent target audience, I think it only stands to reason that it would excel at social networking.

Groups

With the latest update, the Waze team has really turbocharged their app by adding the new Groups feature. In my opinion, this is a game changing feature, and could really be a springboard to take the app to an even wider audience.

Anyone can create a Group, for any purpose. They can be used to group friends, family, carpoolers, people that drive similar routes, or just about anything else. I have even seen a couple for fans of particular sports teams. I started one for drivers in Memphis, TN right after the new version was released.

There are now 19 members the last time I checked. Now, whenever one of us makes a report of a traffic jam, accident, or anything else, we all have a way to shortcut to it. We can also see each other on the map, denoted with selectable group symbol next to our chosen Waze mood icon.

There were only a handful of groups when I created mine. Now there are over 1450 in less than a month. Obviously, this is a feature that Waze users are catching on to. For me, and others who don’t feel completely comfortable pinging random strangers, Groups is the perfect intermediate step. It brings people with something in common together where they can feel a little more at ease interacting. There are many directions that Waze can take this service, and I am very interested to see where it leads in the future.

Playing the Game

The other fun and unique feature found in Waze is the gaming aspect of the app. Even though I am a Navigon user, and a big fan, this is one of the features that keeps me coming back to Waze. There has been a points system in Waze since I have been using it. In the previous version, points were available for “cookie munching,” which consists of running over cupcake shaped icons randomly placed along the road, and for “road munching,” which happens when you are the first Wazer to drive a road on the map. In that version, there was simply a green scoreboard with your point and your rank that would drop down on request or whenever points were acquired. Any other point tracking had to be done online. The same scoreboard overview still drops down in the current version of Waze when points are acquired, but now there are many new gaming features built into the app to go with it. The Waze team has added online gaming staples like character level ups, bonuses, and multiple leaderboards.

Now, the new in-app Scoreboard page has a breakdown of your current points, level, rank, points needed to get to the next level, and available bonus opportunities on the Me tab. The Everyone tab let’s you see leaderboards with 4 selections.

You can look at the entire North American Waze community, or your State. You can sort either board by the current week, or for Waze’s entire history.

These new gaming features add a lot more interest to Waze, and foreshadow the kinds of things we expect to see in Apple’s coming GameCenter. It has definitely had an effect on how I use the app. Since I do a decent amount of travel for work, I tend to keep Waze open in the background behind Navigon MobileNavigator for my entire drive so I can rack up those points. I find myself using the app a lot more than I did before so I can drive those scores up, especially when I know I will be going somewhere I can road munch. I also find myself checking the scoreboard every day or two to see how I stack up. For someone who isn’t a hardcore online gamer, Waze has definitely gotten me interested. I would say that Waze has certainly accomplished something here and has an opportunity to draw a large casual gaming audience.

The Road Report

So, in the end, how does Waze stack up? It is an up and down affair, to be sure. The Reporting, Social Networking, and Gaming aspects of Waze are unique among all navigation apps, not just free ones, and are very well implemented. The maps are fairly accurate as far as I have been able to see and very easy to update, the map interface is clear and easy to read, and the settings are very sophisticated for a free app. Then we come to the routing and navigation. It is unfortunate that, with all of Waze’s great attributes, it is the main functions of the GPS where it suffers its problems. It isn’t that the routing and navigation are unusable. As I explained earlier, in certain places and for people with certain needs, Waze can be effective as a primary navigation tool. It’s just that these are still the core features of Waze and they fall short of the promise the rest of the app offers.

After looking over the software in detail and talking with the developers, I don’t think any of these issues arise from negligence or ignorance. I think any team that puts this much into a free product is certainly dedicated. The stronger features of Waze show that the development team definitely has talent. I think the issues partially stem from the fact that Waze is so ambitious, trying to do and be so very much.

Would I recommend Waze? As a free GPS app with tons of potential, yes. As a secondary navigation aid for community incident reporting, absolutely. As a location based social networking and gaming platform, most definitely. As a pure GPS app, well, there are conditions that I have already stated. Sure, you can excuse some of the issues by saying that Waze is free, but so is Skobbler (which I also reviewed a little over a week ago), and it absolutely wipes the floor with Waze when it comes to pure GPS navigation and routing. But of course, Skobbler is buttoned down, straight laced, and no fun. Waze definitely has them, and everyone else in the navigation category lapped when it comes to fun. As for my final recommendation, I definitely think anyone with a GPS-capable iOS device should give Waze a test drive and see how it works for them. After all, it’s free, it’s a lot of fun, and the reporting features are a solid addition to any other navigation app you might already use. The development team has accomplished a lot with Waze, despite its flaws. I think it is a solid bet that they will roll up their sleeves, get into the garage, and fix the current issues, as well as continuing to improve Waze at a drag racer’s pace.

Waze can be downloaded from the Apple App Store here.

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