It's hard to believe that it was just under 3 months between the release of Apple's new Maps app with iOS 6 in Septmember 2012, and Google's own new Maps app for iOS becoming available in the App Store on December 13th. It feels like we've endured far more than 3 months worth of articles about how Apple Maps has almost killed thousands of people or relocated major cities to the center of the ocean.
It's certainly a measure of the poor reputation Apple Maps suffers from that within 48 hours of Google Maps being released in the App Store, it had already been downloaded 10 million times. I saw some comments online by people who were relieved that they could “FINALLY!” update their devices to iOS 6, and Wired tweeted a request for people who were now considering purchasing an iPhone 5 because of Google Maps to please contact them.
I'll admit that I've felt like the backlash against Apple Maps has been a bit of a perception based event rather than an accurate indication of the quality of Maps itself. Many things about Apple Maps are superior to the version of the app that preceded it. I've enjoyed the turn-by-turn navigation greatly. The map data has been accurate everywhere I've tested it so far, although where I live in the US, it would be a major failure if it weren't. My main complaint about Apple Maps has been the lack of POI data. We noticed this clearly driving home from Thanksgiving at a relative's house when searching for gas stations. It was completely useless without knowing the exact name of a specific gas station. Similarly, I tried to find a nearby aquarium recently and it was unable to find it, even with the correct name. But for navigating to locations with turn-by-turn driving instructions, it's been flawless for me. I'm not claiming that Apple's map data doesn't have major issues depending on the location. I just think that a lot of people who would never have had any issues with it gave up on it without giving it a fair chance.
Of course, like everyone else with Intarwebs on December 13th, I downloaded the Google Maps app to try it out, fully expecting not to like it. It's not that I don't think Google has the best mapping data, because they do. It's just that I was so irritated with what I feel is bandwagon jumping with regards to Apple Maps that I let it annoy me with Google's app before I'd even seen it. I also traditionally have not been a fan of Google iOS apps UI.
The reality has been different than I expected. Google has really come a long way with their user interface design for their iOS apps. I never thought I'd say this about any Google app, but their recent apps have been very clean and elegant looking, and generally nice to use. Maps, Gmail, YouTube Capture, and Google+ apps are all examples of Google's newly discovered ability to appeal to the type of people who buy Apple products. In short, they are nice apps.
In addition, Google Maps works really well for locating places, using turn-by-turn navigation, and getting transit information. It feels clean, lightweight, and feels like something that belongs on the iPhone. In some ways, it makes Apple's Maps feel slightly last-generation. In other ways, it feels a little behind the times itself.
User Interface and Map Options
My first impressions of Google Maps were that it's a very simple app. Opening the app, you see a very Google-looking map, a search bar at the top, a little location button at the lower left, and a tiny little tab with three dots on it at the lower right. The UI elements such as the search bar are very flat and clean looking, especially compared to their equivalents in Apple Maps, which look more 3D and have a more metallic or chrome looking appearance. Going back and forth between them, there are positives and negatives of both. Initially I felt the Google app looked to flat and plain; now the Apple Maps app feels slightly dated to me.
In reality, there's a little bit more to this app than initially meets the eye. Tapping the little person icon to the right of the search bar allows you to log in to your Google account. The benefit to this is that you can save locations that you've searched for or shared. The downside is that Google gets a lot more location-based information about you and the places you've been. This is actually a win for Google – Apple didn't want to give them this kind of information, but by having their own app now that's not a built-in app, Google can collect all the user location data they want. Plus one for Google.
Being able to save locations is a pretty standard feature in navigation apps. Unfortunately, Google's implementation falls a little bit short. While Apple's maps lets you search contacts, recents, or bookmarked locations, your options with Google are simply for those locations you've saved or shared. And because you can't rename them, they aren't as useful as they should be. Saved addresses get listed by street address only, with no state or zip code information shown. Personally, I find save locations very near useless without being able to tag the locations with meaningful names like “Dad's house”, “Mac Store”, and “Parole Officer”. In fairness, public locations with business names do show those names when you save them. It's still useless for saving the addresses of people for quick access later though.
While viewing a map, you can access the map options by either touching the tiny little tab with three dots on it located at the bottom right of the map, or by swiping the map left with two fingers. The two-fingered swipe felt a little fiddly to me, as a two-finger touch is also the traditional maps gesture for zooming out. I found much of the time, the app did the opposite of what I wanted when trying to use the swipe gesture to bring out the option list.
The map options include the ability to view traffic, public transit, satellite, or to launch Google Earth to view the location. The nice thing about the traffic, transit, and satellite views are that you can use them in whatever combination you like.
The Google Earth feature feels like a response to Apple's 3D flyover view. If you tap the Google Earth option but don't have that app installed, the App Store is launched and the Google Earth app is shown for you to download. If it is installed, it launches and navigates to the location you were viewing in Google Maps. Considering how much nicer Google Earth views are than Apple's 3D flyover views, this actually works pretty well in practice. Google is playing to its core strengths with both its map data and use of Google Earth to augment the experience, and it shows.
Another key feature of Google Maps is, of course, street view. While Scott Forstall was grinning manically on stage about Apple Maps flyover view during the iOS 6 introduction keynote, I'll bet there were thousands of other people besides myself wondering about a street view feature. I think it's fair to say that, while I don't need it a lot, I find street view quite useful and flyover view not useful at all. I know that Andy Ihnatko likes flyover view and finds it to be more than a gimmick, but in truth, I don't see anything it has that Google Earth doesn't do better. It really is nice to have street view back on iOS with the Google Maps app.
Street View is easily invoked. Search for a place, slide the information pane about that place up from the bottom of the map, and touch the option for Street View.
In Street View, there is also an option to use the gyroscope and compass to correctly orient the view with respect to the direction your iPhone is facing. A nice touch. To exit Street View, tap the screen once and then tap the back arrow that appears at the top to get back to your search results.
One of the sticking points between Apple and Google's negotiations over Maps was reportedly the turn-by-turn navigation feature that Google put in its Android Maps but was keeping from Apple. Plenty of people accused Apple of dumping Google and going with their own in-house app for political and customer control reasons, but the fact is that without turn-by-turn, the Maps solution in iOS was feeling extremely dated and inconvenient by the time iOS 6 was released. With Google Maps for iOS and Apple Maps, iOS users now have two free options for high quality turn-by-turn navigation.
As I've already stated, I like the turn-by-turn navigation in Apple Maps. I like the UI, and I like the routing that it chooses. I own the TomTom app US navigation app, but the Apple UI is much simpler in terms of just finding locations and operation. How does Google Maps compare for navigating?
Beginning the routing process is simple. Search for a location. Once you've found it, click the Route icon on the right side of the information tab for the location that appears at the bottom of the map. Now a routing option view appears, with the ability to choose between driving, transit, and walking routes. For the selected mode of transportation, different available route options appear for you to choose between. Selecting one brings the map back, with the chosen route highlighted in blue. A nice feature is that any alternate routes are also shown, in gray, for you to tap and select if you change your mind. Once you've chosen your route, just click the start button at the lower right of the map to start turn-by-turn directions.
Once you're off and going, Google Maps provides the basic turn-by-turn functionality and UI you need. You won't find niceties such as travelling speed, road speed limits, or the ability to display specific POI data like you'll find in apps like TomTom, but those are things Apple Maps also doesn't do. What you get is a standard GPS display of where you are, where you're going, and street information.
The competing view in Apple Maps wins in my opinion by showing more information about upcoming turns. However, Google Maps does show what direction your next turn will be. And it also has a great feature that Apple Maps doesn't, indeed that no other GPS navigation app I've used does, and that's the ability to swipe back and forth on the road banner at the top of the map to preview upcoming turns and directions. That is a nice feature. Getting the list of directions to get an overview of where you're going is a multi-tap chore in every GPS app on iOS. Being able to swipe ahead and quickly get a sense of what's upcoming is a very powerful and driver friendly feature. When you're swiping ahead, you can resume navigation at any point by tapping Resume.
I did find some differences in routing between Google Maps, Apple Maps, and TomTom. As you might expect, Apple Maps and TomTom have given me the same routing options in all my testing so far. Not really a surprise, since Apple uses TomTom data in many locations, presumably mine being one of them. I found Google Maps also gave similar routes, but the real difference was in how it handled re-routing during my testing. I found that Apple Maps and TomTom handle re-routing gracefully without making major changes to the overall route on longer trips. Google Maps, on the other hand, responded to my taking a different local road by re-routing the entire trip instead of just re-routing me to the point where I could have continued on with the original route. As a result, I wound up with a route that had the worst points of any route I could have chosen, and none of the good ones. It was abysmal.
For short trips, Google Maps seems to handle re-routing similarly to Apple Maps and TomTom. I don't know if the incident on the longer trip of completely re-routing me many miles out of the way because of a short quarter mile detour on my part is normal Google Maps behavior, or if I was just really unlucky. It's definitely something I'll be keeping my eye on, and it's something I've never had a problem with on Apple Maps or TomTom. If this kind of experience proves to be the norm, I will have to give the nod to Apple Maps and TomTom over Google Maps on re-routing.
Google Maps is a very solid turn-by-turn GPS navigation app. It's better than Apple Maps for POI data by a long shot. It's presumably more accurate than Apple Maps in many areas, although I personally haven't seen any difference in map data accuracy. Bear in mind, it's not perfect – after the media uproar about Apple Maps in Australia, Yahoo! posted a news item
that hardly anyone seemed to notice about Google Maps having similar problems in the area as well.
I am disappointed in how it handles saved locations compared to Apple Maps bookmarks. Apple Maps also wins hands down when it comes to navigating to a contact. In Apple Maps, it's a one step operation. In Google Maps, it's a ridiculous copy and paste affair. I wonder if Google is aware that iOS has a handy little app called Contacts? Maybe no one from Google ever leaves the Googleplex and has never tried to go over to a friend's house before.
In general, Google Maps has become my default mapping app of choice on iOS. I believe it will remain so unless Apple greatly improves the POI data in their own maps. I like the turn-by-turn functionality Google provides as well as that in Apple Maps with the possible exception of how it handles re-routing. It's quick and easy to get a quick view of upcoming turns and road changes, much more so than any other iOS GPS app that I have used. In short, it does what you need, it does it well, and it just works.
Considering my attitude towards Google Maps before I tried it, this is good news for Google and bad news for Apple. Google has had many years to get their map data to the quality it is now through people reporting problems (as well as Google cars putting in many miles to get street view data). While Apple maps has already started improving based on feedback, one has to assume that they will be getting a lot less feedback to correct existing problems now if enough people are like me and start using Google Maps as their primary Maps application. As well, Google wins by getting access to user data that they could not get from Apple. By having people log in to their Google accounts to save locations, Google gets even more data about you and your life than they already have.
I'm not writing off Apple Maps completely. Nor will I abandon TomTom, which comes in handy for trips way out in the boonies where you can drive for hours with no cellular signal. But for now, Google Maps has become my default mapping app, especially for search and local POI data.