It’s been a long time since most of us carried a stand-alone GPS device around with us. The smartphone gets us where we need to go, thanks to built-in mapping and navigation.
Google has long dominated the smartphone map race. But Apple Maps, its primary competitor, at least in the United States, has made great strides in the last couple of years, recovering nicely from the disastrous introduction of Maps in 2012. Both now give accurate directions, for the most part, and keep adding features to beat the other.
Even in recent months, both Google Maps and Apple Maps have undergone significant changes. Apple’s service, for example, now comes with some new useful information about businesses, like operating hours and contact information. Google Maps now includes lane guidance while driving, among other new features.
Apple’s software got some major updates with the latest iOS released this year, mainly around improving its database of locations and accurate listings.
Its interface is attractive and uncluttered, with nice big turn directions and subtle colors.
But frustrations remain. Apple Maps still lacks public transit directions – it offers just driving and walking navigation. There is, however, a new option called Apps. If you select that option, Apple Maps can open up a second transportation app that you have installed, like a subway app, Google Maps or MapQuest, which does have transit information. The second app opens when you tap a Route button.
But that extra step seems unnecessary. It’s a hack, not an actual fix for the missing transit maps.
And Apple Maps isn’t quite as car-friendly as Google Maps. For example, when using voice control to ask Google Maps to navigate to a grocery store, it just picks the closest one and starts navigating. Siri, Apple’s voice control service, will ask me which one I mean and ask me to tap the selection.
In addition, you must tap on the maps display to reveal useful menu items like End, the maps overview, the list of steps and audio options. The latter is important because Maps insists on routing directions to the Bluetooth system in my car. If I haven’t enabled Bluetooth audio, I can’t hear the spoken navigation. And no matter how many times I tap the option to send audio through the phone instead, Apple Maps won’t remember my choice.
Apple Maps does a nice job of alerting you to things like the distance before your next turn. But I wish it did a better job of showing traffic conditions.
Google Maps, meanwhile, is still the gold standard for maps. It also has improvements – some made as recently as the past month – that keep it well ahead of Apple in terms of features.
Adding lane guidance is probably the best new feature. This tells you what lane you need to be in when you’re taking an exit or even making a left turn on a big street. For example, it will say, “use the left two lanes to turn left,” or “use the middle lane to turn left and then stay in the right lane.” It’s extremely helpful.
More recently, Maps got the ability to make a restaurant reservation from the map interface, using the Open Table service. And when you are comparing travel options like car or transit, Google Maps also can show you the price and estimated travel time if you just give up on the subway and take an Uber car (as long as you have the Uber app installed).
It’s also the only option of the three to include bike directions.
However, Google Maps is not perfect. While it is available for Android and Apple devices, it works much better on Android. On Apple devices, it doesn’t always behave. It’s slow to determine my location and even slower to find new locations.
I still use it more often than Apple Maps, but if I need to map something quickly using Siri, Apple Maps generally gets me there (which couldn’t always be said).
I wish I could mix transportation types, for example. If you map with transit, you must map the entire trip with transit. But what if I drive to the subway and then take a train? There is no way to check that travel time, except one leg at a time.
And sometimes Google Maps can give too much information, too often. In its efforts to be helpful, it overcommunicates directions and coming turns.
Still, between Google Maps and Apple Maps, Google is the easy winner.