Waze has proved that crowdsourced GPS navigation is viable – and it keeps getting better. At its core, Waze gives you voice-enabled GPS directions on your iOS or Android device, and best of all, it's free.
The app still isn’t perfect, mind, but if you're willing to trade a little routing efficiency for features you can't find on other navigation apps, like real-world travel times and up-to-the-minute, user-reported traffic jams, Waze is definitely worth checking out.
For this review, I tested Waze 3.5.1 on an Apple iPhone 5 running iOS 6.0.2. Here's how it works: Waze connects you to other drivers automatically (and anonymously) in the background. The app then pools data from everyone and channels it into more efficient, time-saving routing algorithms based on real-world trip data from other users, not just what the map data infers. This is essentially what TomTom does with its long-standing IQ Routes feature, but until Waze came along, we hadn't seen it on a free phone app before.
On the display, cute little icons show you where other Waze users are as you drive around. Do note, however, that crowdsourcing isn't a panacea, as the app's underlying routing algorithms need to be sound. Fortunately, just as promised, Waze has improved a lot over the past year since we last used it. This time around, it got all the routes I tried with it correct, displaying some impressive navigation knowledge.
Waze is capable of weighing up factors including not just the length of a route, and is pretty sharp at estimating travel time and knowing which way is best and not just technically the shortest route. I encountered several instances where Waze nailed the ETA in actuality, whereas Garmin's GPS guessed I'd arrive earlier, only to adjust itself as the trip went on to eventually match what Waze had said all along.
While en route, Waze still doesn't display the current road speed limit, and there's no 2D or 3D lane assistance. On the plus side, the colourful, animated traffic icons showing the current status and delay times looked sharp on the map. Real-time traffic alerts worked well, and gave me plenty of options throughout a given trip.
Tap the exclamation point on the bottom right, and it will pop up nine icons to report an accident, police activity, heavy traffic, and other road hazards. In landscape mode, it will only show six icons, though; you need to scroll to the right to see the other three. Still, this is where Waze really shines – the app popped up plenty of real-time traffic alerts during the review period.
And on one test route in particular, Waze popped up an alert that there was police activity coming up 400 feet ahead. And there was! There was a police car at the side of the road with its lights on. Waze prompted me to either give it a thumbs up (meaning the report was correct), tell it that it was close but not exact, or tell it that there was in fact no police presence.
Voice prompts were mostly understandable, but compared with Google Maps and Apple Maps, they were much too low in volume and also sounded overly compressed and a bit muddy. I didn't hear any pronunciation gaffes with Waze this time around. One other issue: Waze crashed a few times while I was using it, though the crashes were easy to recover from; I just started the app again and it remembered where I left off.
Overall, Waze offers a fine, free GPS navigation solution, and with its heavy emphasis on crowdsourcing, it even offers some features that top brand names in navigation currently lack. The app has a bit of a revolutionary feel to it, thanks to its enthusiastic community of users, and also thanks to the fact that it's free. If that appeals to you, by all means download Waze and give it a go. It gives Google Maps a good run for its money, so to speak, although Waze falls behind in terms of Google’s superior voice prompts and better overall stability.