Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tech Column: Best Smartphone GPS (And It's Free!)

by Bill Adler

I'm happy. It took years, and when it finally happened, I was unprepared for the moment. I had been swimming along with my feature-rich, subscription-based GPS app when I read about Waze, a free, GPS app with turn-by-turn voice navigation. I thought, as you are probably thinking now: "How can a free GPS be as good as or better than a paid GPS app?"

Waze,, does all the things you expect a GPS app to do. It's also spot-on simple to use. One of my previous paid GPS apps required that I select the state before entering in the address, which is a pain when you drive around a three-state region like the DC metro area. Another of my previous GPS apps had its "favorites" menu buried under a submenu I could never uncover. Still another GPS navigation app never wanted to turn off, causing my iPhone's battery to run down well before I reached my destination.

The main thing that sets Waze apart from other GPS apps (other than being free) is that it provides a wealth of real-time information about the road ahead. Waze is available for iPhones and Androids.

Waze's reports aren't limited to highways, either: There's traffic information for area roads, too, such as Connecticut Avenue, Beach Drive, Massachusetts Avenue -- everywhere. Just by driving, you --and all other Waze users who have the app running-- are providing information on traffic speed. Waze knows your car's speed and adds that to its real-time traffic information database of all drivers who are using Waze. It's great to know that traffic isn't moving on Chain Bridge *before* you get there. Even if you don't need to use Waze's map because you've finally memorized where Glebe Road starts and ends, you're contributing to the Waze community's traffic information just by keeping the app on while you drive.

Waze is a social GPS app: Users are encouraged to report traffic jams, accidents, traffic cameras, hazards, where the police are, low gas prices and more. Here's where Waze gets a little tricky: For safety's sake, Waze's keyboard is disabled when you are in motion, so you report via taps on the screen. Any time you take your eye off the road is a danger, so it's best to let your passenger play with Waze's social features.

Users are encouraged to report map problems, too, which helps keep Waze's map data fresh and current. Waze gets better all the time.

You can join Waze groups: There's one for Cleveland Park. People who drive in and around Cleveland Park often share the same challenges, and with a group you can easily communicate useful information to others in the group. A report about the Cathedral Avenue entrance to Rock Creek Park being blocked, or an accident at Wisconsin and Macomb, for instance, is instantly pushed to members of the Cleveland Park group. To join the Cleveland Park Waze group, search for "Cleveland Park" on your Waze smartphone app or on Waze's website.

Waze makes money from location-based advertisements. Now I happen to hate ads on my smartphone as much as the next person, but travel-related advertisements may actually be useful. I wouldn't mind seeing an ad for "Next exit: free hash browns with every triple pancake stack" while driving along I-95.

Waze is good, very good. Those paid GPS apps are definitely going to have to try a lot harder to compete.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," . He tweets at @billadler.

1 comment:

  1. Have you tried the hands-free option? You can set it up in the Settings menu, and then you can just wave your hand over the screen and say "drive home" or "report traffic"- It's pretty great!