The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
Google Maps has returned to iOS;
All’s right with the world!
- Robert Browning (slightly altered)
When Google Maps suddenly appeared in the Apple iTunes Store late Wednesday night, the online celebration was the cyberspace equivalent of the uproar following a Super Bowl victory in the winning team's hometown. It's a miracle no cars were overturned or set ablaze.
After only a couple hours of availability, Google's Maps was already the most downloaded app for iOS, and many iPhone owners had banished their Apple Maps apps into the folder that houses Reminders, Compass and all that other unused, un-deleteable Apple-made programs.
Is Google Maps really such a drastic improvement over Apple's home-cooked version, though? To find out, I ran a battery of side-by-side tests, performing the same tasks on the two mapping heavyweights at roughly the same time.
What I discovered was outright Google superiority -- in speed, in presentation and, most importantly, in accuracy. It's not that Apple's Maps is awful or hideous. Rather it's just that Google Maps is flawless and refined where Apple's default maps feel patchy and deficient.
There is a reason that Tim Cook apologized for iOS Maps, and the uniform excellence of Google's new mapping app makes it clear why: For a company (Apple) that prides itself on perfection and attention to detail, Google Maps puts Apple Maps' flaws and quirks into stark, uncomfortable relief.
GOOGLE MAPS IS --STRANGELY -- CLEANER AND EASIER TO READ THAN APPLE'S
Apple is renowned for, and has constructed its current empire on, its crisp design and clarity in its products. But look at these two standard-view maps, from Apple and Google:
Which one of these looks like it is from the company that values simplicity and ease-of-use?
A couple of questions for Apple:
1) Do we really need to know where the Dunkin' Donuts and Subway sandwich shop is at all times?
2) What are the shaded areas really doing for me?
3) Shouldn't it be most important that I am able to clearly make out the name of every street, rather than nearby landmarks and retail establishments?
Google's maps are, at this point, far cleaner and more detailed (where it counts) than Apple's. Part of that advantage is due to Google's enormous mapping team and decades-long head start (which you can read about in The Atlantic), but another part is in presentation.
With the usual caveats about personal tastes, I prefer Google's more austere, straightforward display over Apple's cartoon-y, crowded melange.
SEARCHING ON GOOGLE IS QUICKER AND WAY MORE ACCURATE
Google began as a search company and has accumulated mountains of data over the past several years, so it's no real surprise that Google Maps is generally more reliable than Apple Maps when you're searching for either the name of a location or a specific address. I plugged the names of several different establishments into both Google and Apple Maps, and found that in every case, Google was able to pull the exact location of my desired restaurant, bar or store, while on Apple I had to search.
For example, here's the difference between searching for Simone, a bar near The Huffington Post, on Apple Maps and Google Maps:
Google surfaces the exact destination immediately. Apple comes up with a suggested search term, which you then touch to find the many Simones in the area (It also asks if I'm looking for a location in Bergenfield, N.J., or Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Hint: I'm not.). I found that these inaccurate, crowded results -- which require extra, unnecessary touches and clicks and include extraneous, far-out suggestions -- are typical of Apple Maps' lackluster search.
It seems small, but this pinpoint accuracy is an important convenience when searching for a specific place. Google eliminates the characteristic funkiness we came to associate with querying Apple Maps for location information.
GETTING THERE IS A PUSH (UNLESS YOU NEED TO CATCH A BUS)
Apple actually did a solid, satisfactory job with its turn-by-turn directions for cars. I like the large signs directing your steering, and Siri's voice comes through crisp and loud, and at smart intervals. The voice navigation on Google Maps both looks and sounds similar to Apple's (and to Google's groundbreaking Android navigation). On the road, it's a push for who has better navigation: Once you have your destination mapped out, I found no advantage for either Google or Apple during a trip.
For public transit-takers, of course, the advantage goes to Google Maps. Quite simply: Google Maps has public transit, and Apple Maps does not. Google Maps can both show you nearby transit lines and map out directions for you; Apple Maps will shuttle you off to a totally different app, which you are forced to choose yourself (an unpleasantness I've complained about before).
ALL'S RIGHT WITH THE WORLD (OF iOS MAPPING APPS)
Google Maps also returns the popular Street View mode to iPhones, so that you can see real photos at street level of any location on the map. In side-by-side tests, I also found that Google's Satellite view showed more detail than Apple's, and that Google generally had more traffic information. While I prefer Apple's generic search for things like "restaurants" or "coffee" (cleaner search results, and Yelp over Zagat), these benefits do not come close to making up for Google's other numerous advantages.
In other words: Enjoy your new spot next to my Compass, Apple Maps app. I'm going Google.