On the smart-phone battleground, much attention has been paid recently to the quality of the free navigation app--Apple Maps--that comes with the new iPhone 5 (also part of the iOS 6 upgrade available for some other Apple devices). But there has been little focus on how well the app actually helps you get from Point A to Point B. Sure, there are lots of images of melted bridges circulating online, but how well does the app navigate?
We decided to find out by putting the iPhone 5 through our complete navigation tests, along with one of the latest Android phones with Google Maps navigation for comparison. (See our cell phone buying advice and Ratings.)
Last week we wrote that based on our first impressions of Apple Maps, we were disappointed. While it does offer Apple users built-in navigation with true turn-by-turn directions for the first time, it lacks some of the features and integration found in dedicated portable navigators and other navigation apps from Garmin, Navigon, and TomTom, such as reality view, lane assistance, exit guide, and multi-destination routing. Frankly, we expected the app to match the state of the art, and perhaps even advance it. But, it didn't.
Having put it through the paces we subject each portable navigator to in our test program, our original criticisms remain. But having more thoroughly tested Apple Maps alongside a Samsung Galaxy S3 running Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) with Google Maps, we have a more favorable opinion--certainly more favorable than comments and articles that we've been reading online.
Our evaluations were performed in the greater New York City area using two phones per platform, each on a different carrier. We found that both Apple Maps and Google Maps route effectively, providing clear guidance and great points-of-interest integration.
Overall, Apple impressed our staff with the graphic presentation for the interface, results, signage, and points of interest info. However, there is less customization throughout than Google--a mixed blessing when driving, where distractions can be dangerous. Google comes across as more business like and less fun.
Apple Maps is relatively streamlined, providing basic navigation guidance and limited travel information. The large display for next-turn information (which looks like a familiar green-and-white highway-sign) is easy to read at a glance, and it compensates for a map design that is harder to interpret than that on Android. We like the estimated time of arrival, remaining distance, and travel time countdown, although the text is so small, it is a greater aid for a passenger than the driver.
In terms of traffic reporting, Google gets the nod. The iPhone doesn't highlight roads where traffic is flowing well, and the red dashes and yellow overlays of roads meant to indicate stopped or slow traffic aren't nearly as vivid and readily interpreted as those in the Google app. Because Google shows freely-flowing traffic with bold green lines, it gives the impression that Google has more information, although in reality, it may often be a presentation choice rather than a data difference. That said, in the greater NYC area, Google seems to have more coverage, or at least provide more information.
Voice-recognition seemed comparable between the platforms, with each occasionally tripping over spoken commands. For both, the voiced instructions are clear and easily understood.
Both phones will accept calls while navigating, and they each require interaction with the screen while on call to return to full-screen navigation--a dangerous distraction. Both return to navigation automatically when a call ends. As with many facets, Google offers more customization here, for instance providing the ability for voice directions at varying volume levels while talking on the phone.
There has been much online grumbling about the iPhone app focused on weird 3D images, misplaced points of interest, and an absence of a Google-type "street view." As shown on our previous post, we certainly have found instances of melting images in 3D mode, but more often than not, we found rather intriguing 3D representations that bring a map to life. The reality is, this is a novelty feature, not a component of navigation.
As for points of interest (POI), we programmed and traveled to numerous destinations. Almost all were found and successfully routed. Both platforms provided comparable information about restaurants and other attractions, with Apple using Yelp and Google partnering with Zagat. Each app provides contact information, reviews, and even user-submitted photos.
Where we did run into trouble on the iPhone was searching for a nearby train station. The system couldn't identify the location by "train," instead requiring a search for "Metro North"--a name that a visitor to the region may not be familiar with. This seems to be an issue with the search algorithm, rather than a map inaccuracy.
Apple uses maps from TomTom, a leading navigation company. We suspect many criticisms pointing to the map quality are misguided, as we have found TomTom to provide quality maps and guidance across multiple platforms. Instead, the fault may be Apple's software applied to the TomTom data. (Apple agrees. Read: "Tim Cook Apologizes for Apple's Maps.")
Either way, in our experience thus far, this is a minor concern.
Both the free Apple and Google navigation apps provide clear routing directions. Apple feels like a less-mature product. But as seen with the initial competing applications for the iPhone, we would expect updates to this new app over time--and Apple has promised as much. When getting down to the nitty gritty, Google provides a better overall package, but we feel that both provide a good solution for standard software. We expect the competition between the companies will benefit customers with ongoing improvements.