Now that Google Maps for iOS is out after a brief 3-month hiatus, millions have downloaded it with anticipation. But is it better than the built-in Apple Maps app that every iPhone 5 and now all iOS 6 devices come paired with? And if so, how?

You might think “absolutely, without a doubt”, but you could be wrong. There are a number of features that make Apple Maps more compelling than Google Maps, at least when it comes to comparing the two on the iPhone. So let’s take a look.

General Maps

When it comes to mapping information, there are three main categories that people are interested in today: basic street layout, traffic details, and speed. In other words, the map has to be easy to read, digest, and understand; it has to have plenty of traffic information so that the user can decide for themselves whether a trip is worthwhile and, if so, what the best route is to take if they don’t need or want directions; and it has to do all of that quickly over any sort of data network.

Street Layout

Thankfully, the streets appear on both Apple Maps and Google Maps about the same. Google Maps is far more traditional in terms of street layout. It looks almost like it would on a paper map (for those of you who remember what those look like). In many ways this makes it easier to read and understand, assuming you’ve actually used a real map before.

Apple Maps uses a more emboldened, colorful design. Major streets aren’t shown specifically like on Google Maps; instead only freeways are highlighted. Major landmarks appear highly stylized, such as hospitals or airports, in sharper colors than on Google Maps. This makes them both easier to find and more distracting when they aren’t your target destination. In that way it’s both better and worse. You don’t need to know where those places are and they shouldn’t distract you…unless that’s actually where you need to go.

The real difference between the two is more stylistic than anything else. Google Maps is rigid, like a map is expected to be. This is how things are, period. Apple Maps is slightly artistic, which is a nicety, not necessity. Bing Maps, from Microsoft, is similar in that regard, although it actually fares more closely to between the two by offering higher-contrast imagery to make street names and streets easily visible on small displays. But in the case of a map, you want things to be perfect, not slightly off for the sake of better looks.

Winner: Google Maps

Traffic Details

Traffic details is almost too easy in favor of Google Maps. At times, you could swear that Google is tapped directly into local speed cameras because of how quickly it picks up the latest traffic trends. Nearly anywhere in the US (and often in major cities around the world) traffic details are spot on, often to the extreme. I can’t count the number of times that Google Maps has said traffic got bad in a particular spot and, lo and behold, as soon as I arrived there it was just as GMaps predicted. Because they aren’t predictions, they’re accurate based on tons of data.

Apple Maps is very similar in that regard, but on a much smaller scale. Google Maps has tons of areas, both major metropolitan and smaller suburbs, mapped with traffic details. When I’m driving around LA during rush hour I can use Google Maps to navigate on side streets when the freeway and all major streets are red. Apple Maps only shows some major streets and freeways.

Worse yet, just like Google Maps used to do, Apple Maps blocks street information when it shows traffic information. If you need to know where traffic is, and Apple Maps actually has data to show, it is all too often blocking the actual street name, forcing users to zoom in just to see the text. But the real problem is just the lack of traffic data. Except for major cities, it is practically missing.

Winner: Google Maps

Speed

When it comes to how fast both applications work, they are practically identical. It’s impossible to really tell the difference between the two because they really rely on only one thing: your data connection (and of course GPS information, but that’s not a necessity). Since they both really only require a basic search for directions and then use GPS (assuming it’s active) to make sure you’re on the right track, actual speed of the applications is minimally different. Most users would have trouble noticing any difference.

From my tests, Apple Maps is slightly faster, but again, that difference is practically imperceptible.

Winner: Tie

Power Consumption

I used both Apple Maps and Google Maps heavily for the past week, testing out how well they last and how much of a power drain they both have. From my testing, I’ve found that they’re practically identical for two reasons: first, the main power hogs are the GPS and the screen (if you leave it on). Everything else is so minimal that it pales in comparison to just how much of a power draw the GPS is.

On that note, it is fair to say that if you are looking for a smartphone and plan on using GPS tracking a lot, the iPhone 5 is not the best choice. Every day I’ve had to charge my iPhone 5 twice after an hour of driving. With push email, streaming music, and the GPS, the small battery just disappears instantly. As I write this I’m charging the phone again. It was at 30% by 11:30 this morning after plenty of email reading and using a few apps, plus 30 minutes of GPS navigation.

Winner: Tie

Ease of Use on iOS

While so many people are absolutely ready to switch to Google Maps, there are two major iPhone features that may make you take a step back and reevaluate that desire. The first is Siri functionality: only Apple Maps has it, which means that only Apple Maps will work when you are driving and voice search, “Directions to the nearest public toilet.” In fact, if you’re looking for directions anywhere from any app, Apple Maps is what will open. So even if you’re dead set on using Google Maps, there’s only one way to do it: copy the address, open Google Maps, and paste.

Compared to Apple Maps, that’s a ridiculous amount of work. And we all know that while Apple users aren’t necessarily as tech savvy as Android users, nobody wants to do all of that work just for a specific navigation app. Plenty will, but that doesn’t make it any easier to use. And every app on iOS that jumps over to maps or navigation will access Apple Maps.

At least for the time being, anyways. Google has an SDK available for app developers so that their apps will open Google Maps for navigation instead of Apple Maps, so it’s safe to say that plenty of apps will start making use of Google Maps, or at least offering users the option to select your preferred nav app of choice.

Winner: Apple Maps

Non-Driving Features

Of course, both map applications aren’t just for driving and directions. They’re also for general map use and other types of navigation. Both offer topographical and satellite maps, and while Google Maps has excellent and regularly updated satellite cartography, Apple Maps offers far better (albeit very buggy) topographical mapping, which includes not only hills and mountains but buildings as well.

However, as great as all of those features are, the most critical and important one is public transportation, something that Apple Maps simply doesn’t offer. In fact, different types of navigation is something that Apple doesn’t offer at all. If you don’t own a car, Apple Maps is not going to be very helpful to you. Google Maps, alternatively, offers public transportation and walking directions. The only thing it’s missing is biking directions, which is still in beta (like walking directions) but available on Android.

Still, Apple Maps doesn’t even offer the public transportation, instead telling users to download a number of different 3rd party apps for such information, assuming it’s available in the first place. For major metropolitan cities that’s only okay. It should all work in one app, though Google’s current solution isn’t as significant a step forward as its original iOS maps app was. And if you’re huffing it on foot, forget about Apple Maps.

Winner: Google Maps

Voiced Turn-by-Turn Directions

It may seem silly to rate the actual voice of directions, but there are a number of critical reasons for it, and a number of reasons why Google Maps is so much better. First, Google in general is a better voice search provider than anyone else, because they’ve spent years refining their voice recognition system. It is far better than Siri, no matter how horrible your data connection may be. In fact, Google just hired Ray Kurzweil — the father of voice-to-text — to help them further improve the application.

So when it comes to the actual voiced navigation Google’s latest update sounds practically human. Siri may have sounded a bit wonky but humanistic a year back, but we all recognize its strangeness today. This is Apple’s own doing; our culture has familiarized itself with the voice through advertisements and use. Google Maps’ voice, however, is far more fluid and it sounds like an actual person saying sentences, not occasionally broken contractions formulating simple sentences.

Furthermore, I’ve found that Apple Maps is fairly good at alerting drivers for upcoming turns and direction changes (turn left in 200 feet, stay on this road for another mile, etc.), but Google Maps is better. In the past it was wretched, only telling drivers to do something moments in advance, far too late to do anything. Both navigation apps do this well, but Google Maps is better. It alerts drivers sooner, faster, and in a more pleasant voice.

But perhaps more importantly it does a better job of lowering the volume of music playing through the iPhone as well. Apple Maps nearly cuts the sound off completely; Google Maps lowers it just enough to hear the voice clearly, but doesn’t lower the volume so much that the song is completely muted.

Winner: Google Maps

Additional Features

Aside from basic mapping and navigation, there’s little else for a map app to do, right? For Apple, right. For Google…? There’s always a little extra. Google offers a few helpful items, including an app link to open Google Earth on the location you’re searching for, as well as cloud-based storage of searched addresses, just like Google Now for Android. It isn’t quite as robust as Google Now; it won’t show locations that you’ve searched for on another device or that are in your Google Calendar (yet), but it will show all recent searches in a simple drop-down (instead of requiring users to input the address directly, like on Apple Maps).

Furthermore, Google Maps has a simple feature to change between where you’re coming from and going to with a simple button press, so you can search the best way back. It also allows users to store two main locations for instant navigation, home and work.

However, Apple Maps has full access to all of your contacts, so while you can instantly find your way home or to the office with Google Maps, Apple Maps will lead you to anyone you have an address for nearly instantly. No such feature exists yet on Google Maps, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it were planned for the next release (should it be possible). Apple Maps also has a nifty feature of overlaying on top of any app you may be using while navigating so that you know of any changes visually. That means if you’re driving and have, say, Pandora open, a notification will appear and stay in place while you drive. Google Maps will alert drivers to turn, but Apple Maps will say it and have it in writing.

Winner: Apple Maps

Design

The design of both applications is very similar and very minimalist. They are both perfectly aligned to make sure users know where all of the buttons are while maximizing screen space for the map itself. Both apps block off the top and bottom corners for inputting addresses, starting navigation, finding location, and opening settings. However, they are surprisingly different after that.

Apple Maps has the basic text bar, a link to contacts, and an instant navigate-to button, while Google Maps offers the text bar, the type of navigation (car, public transit, or walking), personalized locations (home or work), and a map-to-north redirect on top, along with settings. Apple Maps lists the find-me and 3D buttons on the bottom left and settings on the bottom right. Google Maps uses the same find-me button on the bottom left, then a swipe menu on the bottom right for different layers (traffic, public transportation, satellite, and Google Earth).

Menu manipulation is also slightly different. Apple Maps uses one finger to move the map and two for pinch to zoom or 3D view. I specify or because the function only works one way or the other. If you zoom in or out, you have to take your fingers off the screen and then press again to change the camera angle. This can lead to some frustration, as we’ve seen with plenty of apps in the past that have multiple functions for very similar gestures. Google Maps has the same issue, and it isn’t any better at the function, but it does have a secret better method: either three-finger swipes to change the camera angle, or a double tap plus swipe up or down to zoom in or out.

Both apps are very well designed, but Google Maps looks cleaner and, because of how often we all use Google Maps, far more familiar than Apple Maps. And that familiarity goes a long way to attribute comfort and trust with something like getting users to their desired destinations.

Winner: Google Maps

Conclusion

The difference between Google Maps and Apple Maps isn’t really all that much, at least on the surface level. In fact, when it comes to general navigation tools I recommend an Android smartphone; the batteries on those phones last much longer for GPS and the software is more formidable and offers more options. It also updates much more often than anything on iOS. However, for iPhone owners, the choice is between these two major applications, a handful of minor ones, and a few expensive professional navigation apps like TomTom.

And when it comes to these two, we can safely say that there’s a reason why Apple Maps head Scott Forstall was forced out of the company, and why Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly apologized for the app. In reality it is quite good, but it doesn’t stand up to Google Maps in nearly every way.

In fact, the few areas where Apple Maps is better than Google Maps revolves around iOS functions in general. Siri functionality, utilizing the phone’s contact list, and getting to navigation directly from another app make Apple Maps the default navigation app for the iPhone, no matter what iPhone owners do. Unless, like I suggested in the iPhone 5 review, you decide not to upgrade your pre-iPhone 5 iPhone to iOS 6.

Yet Google is still the king of mapping, and that isn’t going to change. What will change is how apps and how Apple makes use of Google Maps, and what concessions the company will make to Google to keep their customers happy. It won’t be long before plenty of apps that open a maps app will open to Google Maps. And while we may never see Apple giving the option to search for directions directly to Google Maps, they may just allow Google to interface with the contact list so those directions can be opened in an instant.

In effect, Google Maps may never be perfect on iOS like it once was, which is not a good sign for both Apple and for iPhone users as a whole, unless Cupertino decides to kill Apple Maps altogether and revert to Google Maps as their default navigation application. I don’t see that happening anytime soon, but with how Apple is changing, who knows?

You can download Google Maps for iOS here










James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.