Google Maps vs Apple Maps
13th Dec 2012 | 13:10
We compare Google's new iOS maps with Apple's own effort
With Apple's own mapping service still the butt of internet jokes and apparently trying to kill Australians, the arrival of Google Maps for iOS should be good news for anyone who needs to find somewhere fast. Is it?
There's only one way to find out...
Google Maps for iOS vs Apple Maps: accuracy
Let's start with what really matters: there's no point in having a pretty map engine if it directs you to Burkina Faso when you're trying to get to Birmingham. While we found that both apps performed perfectly when asked to take us to particular addresses,
Apple failed badly when it came to locating places such as businesses, shops or pubs: for example, Apple's mapping data includes outlets of Our Price, which went out of business in 2004, and our local M&S appears twice - both times in the wrong place.
As you can see here, most Apple errors affect businesses, unless someone's hiding TK Maxxes in suburban gardens.
In most cases the errors are relatively minor, such as large shops being pinned to housing estates rather than the retail parks those estates back on to, but such errors do appear to be the rule rather than the exception. With Apple, the chances of finding a particular business in the right place seems to be roughly 50/50; with Google, it's 100%.
Apple does accept map corrections, but it's taking its time fixing them: we notified Apple of several errors and omissions back in October, and they're still wrong or missing.
Google Maps for iOS vs Apple Maps: interface
Are you sitting down? In a complete reversal of how things are supposed to work, Google's interface is miles better than Apple's. It's much nicer to look at, and its beauty isn't just skin deep: start typing a business name or address and autocomplete kicks in, with superb results.
For example, we wanted to search for a nearby restaurant called Andiamo: Google had it as the first option by the time we'd typed "Andi". You then get a little panel at the bottom of the screen telling you how long it'll take to get there, with a little icon you can tap to get driving, walking or public transport directions; if you slide the panel up you get additional data such as Street View, contact details and any reviews.
Here's Apple's problem in a nutshell: Google autocompletes it, Apple doesn't know it exists. Google first here, Apple second.
There's another slider on the Google app, this time from the lower right side of the screen: pull that across and you can bring up traffic information, public transport routes, satellite view and even Google Earth (if you have the Google Earth app installed).
Traffic and transport information depend on where you live - your reviewer lives just outside Glasgow, and live traffic information stops a few miles out from the city centre; however, Google Maps does know where the nearest bus stops are and what services stop at them - but where it's available it's very useful.
Going back to iOS Maps after using Google's apps feels like travelling backwards, if not in time then at least in location awareness: searching for the same local restaurant, Apple decided that "Andi" was probably Andijan, which is in Uzbekistan.
Typing the whole name did find the restaurant, but unfortunately not the one half a mile from our house: Apple directed us to identically named sister restaurants, 15 and 21 miles away respectively: an old-data problem again, as our local restaurant is a few years newer than the others. Like Google there's traffic data for major routes, but unlike Google there's no public transport information.
One benefit Apple's Maps app does have over Google Maps is iOS integration, so for example you can bring up Siri and ask for directions or lock your phone and continue to see live mapping. With Google, Siri won't use it to navigate and you'll be left with banner notifications if you switch out of the app.
Google Maps for iOS vs Apple Maps: turn by turn directions
Both apps deliver driving directions in two ways: as a flat list of instructions, such as "go that way for ten miles then take the first left", and as real-time satellite navigation accompanied by Siri's voice. You can turn the voice off if you don't like it.
Apple's navigation is prettier than Google's, although things can get awfully cluttered sometimes as you can see here.
Where necessary both apps tell you about multiple changes of direction, which is useful when you're approaching complex junctions and roundabouts, and while they both do it in slightly different ways - Apple pretty and Google minimalist - it's always clear what's going on and where you should be going.
It's worth noting that both apps get their maps from the cloud, so if you veer off route they need a data signal to re-route you: if you plan to do lots of driving where there isn't a 3G/4G mobile signal or where using 3G/4G will cost you money, you'd be much better off with a stand-alone sat-nav app such as the superb TomTom app.
Google's turn by turn navigation is more minimalist but just as useful as Apple's prettier design:
Google Maps for iOS vs Apple Maps: performance
The original Google-powered Maps app was desperately slow, which was a real pain on poor mobile data connections. The new one, however, is a screamer: it uses vectors, not tiles, and as a result it delivers instant results when you swipe, search or zoom.
Apple's app is vector-powered too and feels slightly faster than Google's one, although that speed difference is negated by Google's superior autocomplete and location-aware searching.
Both apps also offer satellite views, and in Apple's case there are also 3D models of many urban areas. Where they aren't available, however, both apps use image tiles that take their time on anything other than the fastest 3G connections. We found Google's tiles often delivered more detail, especially in rural areas.
Google Maps for iOS vs Apple Maps: privacy
According to reports, the reason Apple wanted to give Google the boot from iOS was because Google wanted too much user data - so is it monitoring every step you take? Yes, sort of. With the app, Google gets your data in two ways: by connecting anonymised location data from your travels, something it lets you opt out of when you first run the app (you can also disable it by going into the app's settings menu), and by logging you into your Google Account.
You don't need to do this, although Google would of course prefer it if you did. The carrot for you is that Maps will share data, searches and favourites across the various devices you use instead of existing in a little world of its own.
Google Maps for iOS vs Apple Maps: early verdict
Google Maps and Apple Maps both offer excellent turn-by-turn navigation and won't cost you a penny, but when it comes to the crunch Google's app beats Apple's one hands down. Apple's app doesn't come close in the accuracy stakes, and the Google app is also nicer and faster to use.
The downside, of course, is that you're giving ever more data to Google, although you can opt out of the data sharing and Google Account integration if you're feeling a little tinfoil hat-y.
Despite the more excitable press reports, Apple's app isn't bad if you're using it to get to a particular address. The wheels only come off when you're trying to find specific businesses by name rather than the number on their doorbell. Whether that's a problem or not depends on what you tend to use mapping for: if you're using it because you're meeting friends in a restaurant, trying to find a specific shop or locate your nearest Nando's then Apple's app is often completely useless. If you know exactly where something is then Apple Maps will get you there, but for everything else we'd go with Google.