Waze: Doing GPS navigation, location-based services and social networking right

As a rule, I don’t shill products, and I’m not a fan of having too many apps running on my phone or tablet. So why am I recommending a GPS app that runs on my phone and tablet? Mainly because I do like to pass along information I think friends may find helpful. And I think Waze is — in some ways — a better way to get around.

Another factor is that I’ve been openly critical of the ways companies, apps and (most of all) users of social media have used various gizmos available to us. This has especially been the case with location-based checkins, which have rarely been useful (unless you have a compelling need to know whether your boyfriend is in the same bar where you’re cooing in the corner with somebody else). I mean, seriously — no disrespect to the mayor of the Iron Horse Bar, but all it really tells me is that you sit around drinking more than anybody else there. Congrats, and big deal!

In looking at GPS apps, I started off with a bias against using a phone- or tablet-based app (I’m an Android guy, but it runs on IOS too), especially since my son Todd managed to total his car while trying to check his location on his phone in Memphis traffic a couple of years ago. Still, when my Garmin started getting flaky after only a year or so, I started considering my options as opposed to shelling out $200 for a new gadget to go on my dash.

In the last few weeks, I’d noticed several friends posting from Waze, which ingeniously combines navigation and social networking in a way that actually makes sense (something FourSquare had never done). The idea is to allow users to contribute reports, while at the same time collecting real-time data on traffic from actual users. For example, on a recent trip, Waze told me that traffic was moving at 25 miles per hour on two major nearby streets, and the data was 15 seconds old. I don’t know about you, but I find that more useful than your average traffic copter report.

I did a few screen captures before I found this nifty video, which does an excellent and accurate job of showing how it works.

The challenge with any gadgets you use in your car is figuring out how to use them without distracting your attention from the road. While it might seem best to have the GPS screen sitting on the dash where you can quickly glance at it, I’ve found that in heavy traffic in strange cities, I rely almost entirely on voice instructions. As long as those are easy to understand, there’s little need to look at anything but the road.

I addressed that problem by simply plugging my phone’s audio jack into that of my radio, using a standard 3.5 mm jack. If your radio was installed in the modern ages, this won’t be a problem. By pushing the sound through my stereo speakers, I can hear the directions far more clearly than I could on the flimsy speakers on my phone, tablet or dedicated GPS unit. (And I can easily increase or decrease the volume by turning the radio down.)

Because I rely on the audio, I especially appreciated the feature that lets me select the level of detail I want in in the audio guidance:

Of course, it’s always good to know where nearby accidents are. This capture shows reports from other users, allowing me to steer around I-65 in this case.

You probably already know that running GPS on your phone or tablet tends to use a lot of battery. But when I’m on a trip, I keep my phone plugged in anyway.

While Waze — like everything else — looks better on my 10.1-inch tablet, I probably will just use my phone unless I have a passenger. Since I’m not relying on visuals anyway, that won’t matter much, and it saves turning on my hotspot service, which is necessary to get the reports from other drivers. Otherwise, it’s just an ordinary — though good — GPS, and what’s the fun of that?

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