By Teresa Hanafin
By: Waze Mobile
Available for: iPhone
Should you get it? Yes, if you appreciate crowdsourcing
But none have what I have found to be an indispensable part of my daily commute: The wisdom of crowds.
Waze does. It's what makes this app stand out. It's a superior GPS navigator with the added bonus of real-time reports about traffic tie-ups, accidents, construction slowdowns, police, and speed traps -- all from fellow drivers.
As I sit here at Boston.com on Morrissey Boulevard on a summer Friday, for example, I can see in my Waze app that traffic heading south on the Expressway is traveling at just 31 mph, and there's been a minor accident on Columbia Road near the JFK T stop. Oh, wait -- I reported that minor accident on my way in this morning. Never mind.
Here's a look at Waze's best features and a couple of minor annoyances.
First, don't be scared off by all of the icons on the image above - a screenshot from my iPhone. I chose to have all of the possible displays activated so you could see the range of items that Waze offers. You don't have to show those cute little icons for all of the other Wazers on the road, for example.
The basic feature of Waze is as a GPS navigator. It locates you quickly and has good, accurate maps. In fact, when I first started using Waze several months ago, I would come across "goodies" on the road that awarded you points if you drove over them. I assume it was Waze's way of improving its mapping accuracy.
Waze presents you with what it believes is the best route, but you have the option to look over and choose an alternative. You also can look over all traffic and hazard reports ahead of time, as well as choose an icon to reflect your mood: Cool, frustrated, happy, in love, sleepy (yikes! Find me another route!).
You can store routes you regularly take, just like a traditional GPS unit, and see your previous destinations.
But the star of this app is the crowdsourcing and social sharing, and this app is loaded with features.
First, it displays the average speed of traffic on a given road, which the app calculates based on the speed of all Wazers driving on that road without any direct input from the drivers. It's helpful to know if traffic ahead of you has slowed, for example. It color-codes roads depending on how slow traffic is: Purple for slow, red for really heavy traffic.
Other features are based on manual reports of drivers (or preferably, their passengers). Report a traffic jam (moderate, heavy, or standstill), a hazard (object on road, construction, a pothole, roadkill), police presence (visible or hidden), or an accident (minor or major), and the appropriate icon appears on the map at your location for all other Wazers to see.
You also can report if the event is your lane or the oncoming lane, and even take a photo to add to your report.
Now, if all of this sounds too dangerous to be doing while driving, you're right -- it can be. It's also illegal to be texting while driving in Massachusetts. But if you're reporting a traffic jam or hazard, chances are you're driving slowly because of it. And you quickly get used to Waze's buttons - you can report a traffic jam with just 4 taps on the screen. And Waze won't let you type words unless you lie and say you're a passenger.
You can report a map issue - one-way streets, missing bridges (tap fast as you're plunging toward the water), incorrect driving directions, etc. Waze recently introduced gas-price reporting, and in your Settings you can choose to have gas stations displayed on or near your route so you can find the cheapest option.
Commuters can set up Groups for those who use the same route every day -- I belong to "Northwest of Boston wazers" and a couple of others. You then can choose to get special popup reports specifically from your groups. There's also an option to post your reports on Facebook and Twitter, and check-in on Foursquare.
You earn points for driving, making friends, reporting map problems, etc.; as you accumulate points, your icon changes from a Baby sucking a pacifier to a Grown-Up to a Warrior with a shield, etc. You can see how you stack up against all Wazers or just your Facebook friends who are Wazers.
Some annoyances: Waze says it will learn your favorite route, but it still tries to get me to take the Mass. Pike home when I prefer to take I-93 and avoid the toll. And at the end of my route home, even after several weeks, it keeps telling me to go left-right-right to get to my house when I prefer to go straight then left, even if it's 5 yards longer.
Hess and ZipCar must have some sort of ad deals with Waze, because no matter what I do in my Settings, I see their icons on my maps - even when I don't want to. Get off my screen!
Waze loses you when you go into tunnels, and if you're in there for a moderate amount of time -- say, the length of time it takes you to drive at normal speed through the O'Neill Tunnel on 93 downtown -- it will assume you are on nearby surface roads, and start telling you to turn on Atlantic Ave. But it finds you again quickly when you emerge.
The company also says the app will re-route you if there is heavy traffic or a blocked road ahead, but since I don't drive to work during rush hour, I haven't encountered that feature yet.
I do wish the volume of the voices -- you can choose Samantha or Tom -- was louder. And if you have voice commands activated (you can tell Waze you want to drive home, for example), it gets throw off by the radio.
But as I said, those are minor compared to the benefits you reap from the real-time crowdsourcing. Waze is a cool and valuable app.