Within a week of release Google Maps for iOS shot to the top of the App Store charts as iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch owners rushed to get Google’s free mapping solution back on their devices. Despite the rush, the numbers don’t signal clear cut victory for Google, especially with Apple Maps deeply integrated into the OS and challenger Nokia bringing up the rear with HERE.
So which is the better solution? Is there a truly superior navigation app, or are iOS users better off keeping a combination of all three on their devices, just in case? It’s time to examine the pros and cons of each and hopefully determine the best navigation, discovery, and public transport solution for the average user’s needs.
Note: This is a comparison of how the mapping solutions perform outside of the US. As if the screenshots don’t give it away, the region is Melbourne, Victoria which is Australia’s second-largest city and thus (in theory) should be fairly well covered.
Amenities, Accuracy, & Public Transport
The very first thing I (and many other people) noticed after upgrading to iOS 6 was that there were suddenly a lot less businesses, attractions, and points of interest on the map compared to Google’s service. While Apple Maps pulls its data from Yelp, Google uses its own data from a huge directory it has built up over a longer period, which it is now integrating into its social layer.
In the three months Apple has had to improve Maps, a lot of businesses in my area have since been added though there’s still no catching Google. Nokia’s HERE falls down in this department, with each point of interest appearing as a vague icon requiring a tap in order to reveal even its name. This is not exactly a quick and easy way to find a specific location or browse for points of interest.
Google and Apple aren’t hot on public transport in this area. Google’s marked tram stops do at least indicate relevant routes whereas Apple maps returns the relevant Yelp entry which at the moment is useless. My efforts to route Public Transport directions on Apple Maps asked me to choose an app capable of doing so, something not even Google Maps can do in Melbourne.
Nokia’s HERE was the only service able to find me a tram to the city center. The app also comes with the promising Public Transport view visible in the screenshot below which quickly helps visualize train lines and tram routes, something Apple Maps does very poorly.
Overall accuracy has to go to Google from experience, Apple has definitely improved known issues (like the drivers getting lost upstate) but it would be unreasonable to expect the many problems with Apple’s solution to be fixed in only a matter of months, many of which are still being found.
Winner: Google, with a smattering of Nokia HERE. Google lists all the amenities you’re used to on the full fat desktop version, with tram routes marked on tram stops. Nokia was the only solution capable of using public transport routing to find me a route into the city via tram.
Navigation & Integration within iOS
Both Apple and Google Maps have voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation, and both are comparable from the limited experience I’ve had with each. If you’re a serial Siri user you’ll find Google’s spoken directions a little disconcerting at first, but this doesn’t take long to get used to. Due to the fact that Apple developed their own Maps app and integrated it deeply into the OS, their solution somewhat steals the show here. Directions will keep on appearing on-screen even if you minimize the app, with a “Touch to return to Navigation” bar displayed at the top of the screen. This means you can take calls (hands-free, of course) and still know where you’re going, without having to touch your phone too much and juggle apps.
Google’s alternative navigation options are great too, using the ever-reliable Google Maps as a base though lacking in deep OS integration. This is something that Google Maps users are going to have to put up with, at least until Apple decide they want to beef-up the multitasking abilities of iOS and let other non-core apps behave in the same way.
Both Apple and Google Maps can make use of Siri for navigation, though asking Siri to find you a nearby location will always default to iOS 6 Maps. Nokia HERE provided directions and a route, but doesn’t come with voice-guided navigation which means you’ll either need a co-driver or to look at your phone constantly and I can’t really recommend you do that.
Winner: Apple Maps due to deep integration with the OS, a battle that Apple was always going to win. Google comes in a close second, with solid instructions and reliable data. You may feel differently if Apple’s data is especially bad in your area.
Graphics & Appearance
Nokia HERE must be penalized for its graphically poor solution which refreshes the screen even when zooming in or out by minute amounts. Unlike Apple or Google’s apps there are no vectors even in standard non-satellite view. This results in blurry maps that take ages to load, can’t be tilted or twisted using common two-finger gestures and generally aren’t much fun to use.
I was really looking forward to Nokia HERE, but that soon turned to disappointment once I’d seen it. Even if it was the most useful and accurate solution here, it doesn’t change the fact that it looks grey and blurry and is entirely dependent on raster images. You really wouldn’t want to look at it for too long.
Google and Apple’s solutions are far more elegant, each using 3D elements and vectors to draw smooth, crisp lines and maps that don’t disappear each time you pinch-to-zoom. Both use a pleasing palette, with Apple Maps looking a bit more sedate compared to Google’s bright orange roads and yellow public transport routes.
Flyover mode, one of Apple’s flagship iOS 6 features looks stunning but only works in satellite view, while Google Maps only draws 3D vectors in standard views. Flyover has only been introduced in certain areas, and while it’s not as useful as Street View it’s definitely a lot of fun if you’re into virtual sightseeing.
Google’s 3D vectors look lovely in Standard mode, but switch to satellite and maps return to being flat with a somewhat skewed perspective (as you can see from the screenshot below). Street View makes a return to iOS with Google Maps for iPhone, and that can’t be a bad thing. It’s well implemented and works as you’d expect, though for me it’s not a game changer.
Winner: It’s a tie between Google and Apple, with Google offering a superior standard view though Flyover mode in Apple Maps is hard to beat if you use hybrid mode.
Both Apple and Google have formidable products compared to Nokia’s simpler solution. HERE isn’t a terrible mapping app, the fact that it lets you download maps is a pretty great feature and public transport view and routing is solid. The overall look and feel however is outdated, grey, and usability suffers. It’s not easy to find points of interest at all, especially when the map refreshes after every zoom-level adjustment.
The in-built iOS 6 Maps from Apple is improving, with the excellent Flyover mode, vector maps and navigation that’s unbeatable thanks to its integration with the rest of the OS. And then there’s Google – ever reliable with voice-guided navigation and Street View. The same Google Maps you’re used to, which now integrates with your Google Account, though at present it’s only optimized for the iPhone.
The bottom line: You would be a fool not to download Google Maps, because it’s free and it works consistently. Then again for driving instructions I’d stick with Apple Maps thanks to its excellent integration with iOS. If I was late for a job interview and couldn’t afford any mistakes, my gut reaction would be to open Google Maps.
Make of that what you will while I delete Nokia HERE from my iPhone.
Which would you choose? Apple or Google? Are you a fan of Nokia HERE? Have your say in the comments, below.