Free smartphone nav apps are nothing new, but Waze may be the first self-described "social navigation" app. It relies entirely on a community of users to build and confirm mapping based on U.S. government map databases, as well as report everything from traffic jams and accidents to the location of speed cams and police activity. And that's both the app's advantage and disadvantage.
While it crowd-sources among a group of engaged users to confirm routes and track traffic and road-speed patterns, the downside is that, until the app hits critical mass, there will be the inevitable gaps in the map data and other information. But the biggest difference between Waze and other free nav apps is that the developers approach building community -- and getting users where they're going -- with a sense of humor rather than an antiseptic just-the-facts approach.
In fact, the app's entire interface has a videogame-like quality. Waze's cartoon-like icon appears when a user drives a road that's previously uncharted by the app, for example. It goobles up dots Pac-Man style to earn "points," and the app features "Easter eggs" that can earn users bonus points. (During the World Cup, some were shaped like soccer balls.) A users can also change the mood of their driver ID to "cool," "happy" or "mad," and social types will be drawn to the fact that they can view icons of other nearby Waze users and use the app to find Facebook friends on the road.
That's all well and good, but how well does the app get you where you're going? When we tested the iPhone version (it's also available for Android, Windows Mobile and Symbian devices), we found the mapping database lacking compared to other free apps. But it did provide good voice-guided turn-by-turn directions and fast route recalculations, and it had a useful zooming feature and integrated with an iPhone's contacts.
When launching the app, users are presented with a map and multiple options, including confirming their location, entering a destination and the ability to check-in with the Waze community. The app also integrates with the social media site Foursquare, and users can earn a 4SQ "Road Warrior" badge. An exclamation point icon lists recently reported accidents and traffic events in an area.
Waze isn't the best free nav app available, but it's a cool concept and adds a social element to driving. And it also lets you find friends old and new out of the road while finding your way.
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