Wondering which mapping app to guide you through your next journey? Google Maps is far and away the world's favorite, but savvy drivers also talk up Waze for its crowd-sourced traffic and alert features. Decisions, decisions.
Google Maps seen running on the left, while Waze is on the right. (Credit: Shaun Lucas/Tom's Guide)
Fortunately, both are available for free on iOS and Android. Both also happen to be owned by Google, though they're designed to suit different scenarios. And iPhone owners will be pleased to note that, beginning with iOS 12, Google Maps and Waze will be supported through Apple's CarPlay, as the infotainment system opens up to third-party mapping software.
Here's a primer on what both of Google's navigation apps do best, and why you should use them if you don't already.
|Best For...||Public transportation, exploration, walking, bicycling||Driving, commuting|
|Extensive feature set; Ride sharing integration; Public transit times; More information about locations; Offline maps; AR-enhanced navigation coming||Crowd-sourced traffic; hazard and police alerts, Aggressive re-routing can save time; Maps tuned by local experts; Spotify integration; Motorcycle Mode|
|Cons||Potentially overwhelming number of features; No user-reported alerts||Ads on phone screen; Few insights about locations; Only suitable for drivers|
What Google Maps does best
Google Maps has been around longer than Waze or Apple Maps, and in that time, it's built up quite a robust feature set that's versatile enough to support your preferred mode of travel — whether that's driving, public transportation, walking, bicycling — and probably one day, hyperloop, too.
Both Google Maps, shown here, and Waze display fuel prices next to listings for gas stations. (Credit: Adam Ismail/Tom's Guide)
In fact, you can switch between each of these modes with a single tap. Google Maps shows train lines and bus stops, integrates with ride-sharing platforms like Lyft and Uber, and even displays Subway station platforms with listed entrances and exits.
If you're about to set off and the streets are gridlocked, Google Maps will suggest a better time to embark on your journey. And with location sharing, you can broadcast your whereabouts to friends and family before you get there.
The sum of these features makes Google Maps a great all-purpose navigator, regardless of how you're getting from point A to point B. But for those who spend the bulk of their time driving, Waze offers a compelling alternative.
What Waze does best
Unlike Google Maps, Waze is designed for drivers first and foremost, and relies on a wealth of user-reported data. With a few easy taps, Waze users can alert each other to traffic, road hazards and even cop locations.
Speed traps, road closures, accidents and other items of note will dynamically pop up on the map as you're driving along, helping you save time as well as avoid getting the occasional speeding ticket.
But Waze doesn't merely show you this information — it acts upon it, by dynamically adjusting its recommendations in real time, based on where other drivers are getting held up. If a better route suddenly becomes available, you can trust Waze to let you know.
Reporting road conditions on Waze requires just a couple of taps.
As a matter of fact, Waze is so committed to getting you everywhere more quickly that it occasionally offers route suggestions that can be pretty adventurous, to say the least. A cursory search online reveals stories from many users of the app, saying that it sent them down unusual roads to circumvent traffic.
Nevertheless, some drivers swear by Waze's know-how. The app's recommendations have become so popular in certain communities that they've forced local officials to shut down roads receiving more congestion than they're built to support.
And just as it relies on its users to self-report road conditions, Waze enlists the aid of contributors to improve maps for their surroundings. The Waze Map Editor allows trusted local experts to edit street data, turn permissions, house numbers and more, which can yield more accurate guidance than Google Maps.
What about the ads?
The only catch? While Waze is free, it's still supported by ads, and there's no premium version. And while there's nothing wrong with responsible advertising, Waze's ads are particularly annoying, since they can pop up anytime your vehicle is stopped. Dismiss one ad and another may even replace it before you set off again.
That would be somewhat frustrating on foot, but in a car it's borderline dangerous and irresponsible. When a driver needs route guidance at a moment's notice, it should be there — not obscured behind a billboard for McDonald's.
Fortunately, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay forbid ads when Waze is projected through a car's display. However, users who don't have the luxury of either of those platforms in their ride will surely be prodded with ads if they use Waze directly on their smartphone, or have their device mounted on the dash or windshield.
When to use Google Maps
In most situations, Google Maps is the navigator you want by your side, simply because it can do so much more than Waze. Giving directions is only one of its many talents.
For example, if you're going out to grab a bite, Google Maps will list reviews and the busiest hours of operation. In certain locations, it'll even display the average wait time. You'll get to see pictures of the restaurant and a vague estimate of what you can expect to spend. Waze can do none of that, because it's only concerned with getting you there.
Google Maps' navigation summary is shown on the left, while Waze's is on the right. Note Waze's faster travel time.
Google Maps is also being updated with new features more frequently, and claims a few clever ones Waze doesn't. You can save certain maps for offline viewing, for example, and create your own maps with pins on points of interest — perfect for planning a getaway or a long day out. Google is also working on adding augmented-reality-enhanced directions for pedestrians that will superimpose arrows and other info on your phone's display to better guide you; it's unclear when that update will occur, though.
Ultimately, drivers wouldn't be wrong to stick with Google Maps for its breadth of features — but the app is especially necessary for anyone who travels about without their own car.
When to use Waze
Waze is an excellent resource for drivers, whether they're commuting to work or going on long road trips. In fact, it's even ideal for those who prefer two wheels to four, as Waze recently added a Motorcycle Mode that incorporates data specifically by and for riders.
If you like to carpool, Waze also factors HOV lanes into its guidance system, to potentially trim even more time. And music lovers will appreciate the app's Spotify integration, which adds controls for the streaming service right there above the map, to spare you the trouble of having to switch back and forth between apps.
Waze currently supports Android Auto, but will also work on CarPlay for iPhones beginning with iOS 12. (Credit: Adam Ismail/Tom's Guide)
Waze also tends to display shorter travel times than Google Maps, but not always because it's using different routes. For example, Waze showed an ETA that was 5 minutes sooner than Google Maps for the same 2-hour trip. During another journey that was about half as long, Waze said it would take 2 minutes less. These aren't major discrepancies, but anecdotally, I've found Google Maps predictions to be a little slow (though that may just say something about my own excessive speeding habits).
Because Google Maps and Waze are quite different, you might find that it actually helps to keep both on your phone, using one or the other, depending on the nature of your trip.
Waze might not have the wide scope of Google Maps, but that actually helps simplify the interface, so that only the information most critical to driving is presented. In fact, the app's only real drawback is those pesky ads. Many users have asked for a subscription or paid tier as an alternative, but Waze remains committed to its current model.
That said, if you can deal with those interruptions, Waze just might help you out on your next drive to work, or teach you a new route you never considered before. For everyone else who gets around in other ways, though, Google Maps remains your best companion.
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