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Finding Your Way: The Best Navigation Apps for Apple Watch

As smartwatches have grown more sophisticated, they‘ve become powerful tools for navigation and exploring the world around you. And when it comes to smartwatches, the Apple Watch remains the gold standard, with over 100 million units sold as of 2020.^1 For Apple Watch users looking for robust navigation apps, there are several excellent options available as alternatives to popular choices like Google‘s Waze.

The Limitations of Using Waze on Apple Watch

Waze, which was acquired by Google in 2013 for $966 million^2, has become a go-to navigation app for many drivers thanks to its unique system of crowdsourced traffic data. Waze collects real-time information from its user base of over 140 million monthly active users^3 to surface helpful alerts about accidents, speed traps and road closures that might impact your drive. It also uses this data to dynamically reroute you when faster alternatives become available.

However, Waze in its current form is not available as a native app for the Apple Watch. There is no way to access Waze‘s core navigation features directly from your wrist. Users can receive Waze alerts on the Apple Watch, but step-by-step directions are not available.^4 Waze also can‘t provide directions for travel by foot, bike or public transit–it‘s exclusively designed for use by drivers.

Luckily, for Apple Watch users, there are several excellent alternatives that bring full-featured navigation to your wrist. Let‘s take a closer look at some of the best options.

Apple Maps: Native Navigation, Tightly Integrated

Apple‘s own Maps app comes preinstalled on every Apple Watch and offers a robust set of navigation features that are tightly integrated with the company‘s ecosystem of devices and services. Thanks to a multi-year effort to rebuild Apple‘s mapping data from the ground up, the current version of Apple Maps has made significant strides in terms of accuracy, detail and features.^5

For starters, Apple Maps provides all the baseline features you‘d expect from a modern navigation tool–turn-by-turn directions for driving, walking and public transit, with clear instructions displayed right on your wrist. Real-time traffic information, sourced from anonymized data collected from millions of iPhones, helps route you around delays and congestion. Siri integration allows you to request directions and get ETAs with simple voice commands, which is especially useful when navigating on the go.

One unique strength of Apple Maps is its tight integration with other Apple services and devices. Your favorite locations and navigation history are synced seamlessly between your iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch via iCloud. Directions started on one device can be easily picked up on another. And privacy-conscious users will appreciate that Apple anonymizes and encrypts all the navigation data it collects, and never uses it to build marketing profiles or track your location over time.^6

Despite its many strengths, Apple Maps still lags behind Google in some areas, most notably the sheer breadth and depth of its mapping data. Google‘s decades-long head start in maps give it an advantage in global coverage, points of interest, user photos and reviews. But for Apple Watch users who want a native, privacy-centric navigation experience, Apple Maps is a compelling choice.

Google Maps: The Heavyweight Champ

For many users, Google Maps remains the navigation app to beat. With over 1 billion monthly active users^7 and 15+ years of continuous improvements to its mapping data and feature set, Google Maps is an incredibly powerful tool for navigating and discovering the world around you.

Like Apple Maps, Google Maps on the Apple Watch provides a full set of step-by-step navigation features for virtually any mode of transportation. Whether you‘re driving, walking, biking or hopping on public transit, Google Maps will get you where you‘re going and alert you to any delays or faster routes along the way. Real-time traffic data, sourced from the millions of Android phones running the Google Maps app with location services enabled, provides an accurate picture of current road conditions.

Where Google Maps really shines is in its vast database of points of interest, businesses, reviews and user photos. Looking for a coffee shop on your way to a meeting downtown? A few quick taps on the Apple Watch and Google Maps will not only show you the nearest options, but provide user reviews and ratings, hours of operation and even let you know how busy they are in real-time. This rich dataset makes Google Maps an excellent companion for exploring unfamiliar places.

The primary downside to Google Maps is privacy. Unlike Apple, which makes privacy a core part of its business model, Google collects a substantial amount of identifiable location data from Google Maps users. This data powers many of the services that make Google Maps so useful, like real-time busy indicators for businesses, but privacy-conscious users may bristle at the amount of information being collected.^8

Magic Earth: Beauty and Brains

Users looking for a full-featured navigation app not tied to one of the tech giants should give serious consideration to Magic Earth. This app, available for free on iOS and Android, takes a unique approach by building its maps with data from OpenStreetMap, a collaborative open-source mapping project.^9

The result is a stunningly beautiful map that looks fantastic on the Apple Watch‘s high-resolution display. But the real magic is under the hood. Magic Earth provides a full slate of navigation features, including driving, cycling and walking directions with turn-by-turn instructions that incorporate real-time traffic data when available. Offline maps allow you to download your routes for navigation even when you don‘t have a cell signal.

While Magic Earth can‘t quite match the granularity of Google‘s traffic data or the place data in Apple and Google‘s maps, it still provides an excellent navigation experience. And users who value privacy will appreciate Magic Earth‘s pledge never to collect or sell any personal data.^10 For a free app not bankrolled by one of the big tech companies, that‘s an admirable stance.

Navigating the Future

The world of navigation apps on smartwatches remains an exciting space, with new developments emerging all the time. At its 2021 Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple unveiled a substantial update to Apple Maps, including an augmented reality feature that overlays walking directions in the real world using the iPhone‘s camera.^11 It‘s not hard to imagine this technology making its way to the Apple Watch in the near future.

Google continues to add new features and data to Google Maps at a steady clip, like the new "busyness" trends it added for neighborhoods and cities in 2021.^12 And the open source community around Magic Earth and OpenStreetMaps ensures a continuous stream of improvements and new capabilities not tied to any one company‘s bottom line.

As capable as navigation apps on the Apple Watch have become, it‘s clear there‘s still plenty of room for improvement and innovation. With additional sensors like compasses and always-on altimeters included in newer Apple Watch models^13, the potential for even more powerful navigation features is immense. Imagine an Apple Watch app that could provide contextual information about the elevation changes on your hiking route, or alert you to a magnetic interference interfering with the compass.

For now, Apple Watch users have several excellent options for meeting their navigation needs, each with its own unique strengths. Whether you prioritize the deep data and global coverage of Google Maps, the privacy-minded ecosystem integration of Apple Maps, or the open source ethos of Magic Earth, you‘ll be well-equipped to find your way. Just raise your wrist, speak or tap, and begin exploring.

Comparison of Key Features

Feature Apple Maps Google Maps Magic Earth
Driving directions
Walking directions
Cycling directions
Transit directions
Real-time traffic
Offline maps
User reviews/photos
Privacy focus
Open source data

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What technical capabilities does the Apple Watch have that enable navigation features?

A: Modern Apple Watch models include a variety of sensors and technical capabilities that enable sophisticated navigation features, like:

  • Built-in GPS and GLONASS for determining precise location
  • Compass for determining direction
  • Barometer for measuring elevation
  • Haptic feedback for turn-by-turn guidance
  • Siri integration for voice control
  • Cellular connectivity for navigation without a phone (on GPS + Cellular models)

Q: How does the real-time traffic data used by navigation apps work?

A: Most navigation apps collect anonymized data from smartphones actively running their app with location services enabled. By analyzing the speed and location data from these millions of devices, the apps can infer areas of heavy traffic and congestion. Some apps like Waze also allow users to manually report accidents, closures and other delays, which are incorporated into the traffic data after being validated.

Q: Can I use my smartwatch for navigation without my phone?

A: If you have an Apple Watch with GPS + Cellular capabilities and an active cellular plan, you can use navigation apps on your watch without needing your iPhone nearby. The built-in GPS and cellular connection allow the watch to determine your location and download map data on its own. If you have a GPS-only Apple Watch, you‘ll need to have your iPhone with you in order for most navigation features to work.

Q: What is the future outlook for navigation apps on smartwatches?

A: The space is poised for continued innovation as the underlying hardware and software capabilities of smartwatches evolve. Features like augmented reality walking directions, detailed elevation and topographic data for outdoor activities, and more granular traffic and place data are all areas ripe for development. As smartwatches add more advanced sensors and processors with each generation, the potential for powerful new navigation experiences will only grow.

With the right app and a capable smartwatch like the Apple Watch, you already have an incredible navigation tool right on your wrist. Whether you‘re driving, walking, cycling or exploring new places, you can chart your course with confidence. And as the navigation app landscape continues to evolve and improve, that tool will only get more powerful with time.