Yesterday I gave my initial impressions of Google Maps. Overall I’m quite happy and I think it’ll put that much more pressure on Apple to improve their own maps. As many have pointed out it’s a win-win situation for iOS users. Today I had to run some errands out of town and I thought it the perfect place to compare the two maps in a more real world situation.
I had to make a loan payment that somehow hadn’t got put in the mailbox so it wouldn’t be late. Unfortunately there were no branches in my city. So into Google I typed “Bank of the West” and immediately it found all the branches. I typed it into Apple maps and it unfortunately found the nearest branch as the crow flies, but not in terms of driving time. That branch was up a windy canyon road on the other side of the mountain range I live beside.1 I scrolled the other direction and it had pins for every branch except the one I was looking for. Yes, after bragging how Apple had fixed all the missing poi sites in my area for about a month in my first comparison I found one Apple hadn’t fixed.
My initial search via Google quickly picked up all the branches in the north including the one by the freeway that I was looking for. Oddly, when I conducted this search again tonight to get a screenshot Google only showed that branch and not any of the surrounding branches. To see the other branches I could click on the pull down search window. However I couldn’t find any way to see all the pins the way I did originally this morning. While it was nice to have Google remember the branch I’d driven to and pick that as the first hit, I think I’d like to see all the surrounding branches as well. I spent quite some time trying to figure out how to get that information. But while the information was there, Google was bound and determined to only show it in list view and not in the geographic view.
Which is better? Well I was quite annoyed that Apple didn’t find the location. However I’m sure that’ll be fixed soon — and honestly that’s the first missed search I’ve had with Apple maps in about a month.2 I was very annoyed with Google Maps that I couldn’t get a visual list of the branches. In that regard Apple’s UI was much better. I do wish Apple had the option to get a text listing to hits though the way Google did. Overall I preferred Apple’s UI but it was close. Both services definitely could use some improvement here.
I wanted to copy the address out of Google and put it into Apple maps so I could test both their route-finding. Unfortunately I hit an other snag. Google brought up a very attractive and informative screen with a mini-map, ability to make a call, save the location, see a street view, or go to the website. However there wasn’t an obvious way to copy the address. I finally clicked on the share button (see below) rather than the address itself. Sure enough I could copy it to the clipboard. However the first two times I tried nothing happened.3 The UI isn’t entirely obvious although it would be quibbling to gripe too much about how they set up their clipboard. One nice thing is that the clipboard’s address format includes a link at the end you can use to access Google Map on the web. Very nice if you are sharing via IM or email. Apple doesn’t even offer this as an option since, as of yet, it has no web app for accessing Apple Maps. That means for all intents and purposes you’re much more limited sharing locations from Apple Maps. You can copy the address, but that’s it.
In any case I now had the address in Apple’s map program. They also had an attractive display but with far fewer features than Google did. Part of that was simply that Apple didn’t have this branch in its database. When I clicked on a nearby poi Apple map also had the ability to dial the business phone number. As a plus Apple could add the location to the system contacts. Google doesn’t offer that as an option. It has a save button but from what I could tell that saves it to some internal cache and not to your contacts.4
I should probably say something about street view here. I know I’m in the minority but I rarely use it. It’s nice that its very accessible now. I can see how others would like it and use it a lot. To me though the satellite imagery Apple uses gives me pretty much as much information in terms of finding the location. If you want to know what it looks like from street level so you can remember it or otherwise get visual information then clearly Google is better.
Using street view brings me to a gripe about Google Maps though. I’m never sure when my clicks will register. For instance normally you click on the pin to get more information. Yet sometimes I could click on the pin non-stop and nothing would happen. Sometimes when I’d end up in street view I couldn’t get out no matter what I did. In one case I finally had to kill Google Maps and restart. I don’t know what’s going on. I assume this is just a bug, but it’s a highly annoying one. There were similar bugs in various places within the interface. However street view and selecting pins seems to be where most of the problems were. Eventually I found that the pins were just too unreliable in Google Maps. You’re almost always better off canceling your directions and doing a new search for your location, then accessing info there, and then create a new direction to get turn by turn back. I hope Google fixes this as honestly you have no idea how much this annoyed me.
With regards to the directions there’s no comparison. Apple was better. Google had me drive about a mile to the east, do a U-turn, and then come back. Apple correctly saw that I could make a left-hand turn in front of the bank. I’ve only run a few other tests, but as with my tests with Apple maps way back in October Apple gave the best directions. I’m actually quite surprised Apple consistently does so well here considering how many problems there have been with their maps. For all their flaws the algorithm for giving directions seems quite good. Once again one has to be careful since I’ve done comparisons only with a few dozen trips and only in the western US. But thus far Apple’s won every direction test.
There were a few other gripes I had. When providing alternate routes Apple will display them visually as different paths on the map you click on. Google gives you two buttons you select. It does helpfully list the different times and some idea of the highways you’d be on. Apple map gives you the time and distance, albeit in small print at the top of the screen. Having the routes displayed graphically though is simply much more useful in my opinion — especially when you are doing long interstate routes.5 Oddly Google is very inconsistent in this. Sometimes, especially with short routes around town, it will give a graphical representation like Apple does. I can’t figure out when it offers this. There was no rhyme or reason to it that I could see and most of the time it didn’t give a graphical representation.
I was really hoping that Google would give us my favorite feature of MotionX that I enjoyed in my review. MotionX has the ability to do a search for a gas station while on your route and then add it as a waypoint to your route. It would even give you distance to the upcoming waypoint. I tried and I tried but there was no way to do a search without stopping your current route guidance. Of course Apple doesn’t do this either. It’s a killer feature I hope both add in eventually.
In the interests of fairness I wanted to revisit my poi searching with both. Apple’s been advancing quite a bit. Their maps went from finding few of my searches in October to finding all of my searches in late November. However I also have found their services since Thanksgiving have been two steps forward, one step back. Siri in particular seems to work fantastic for a few days and then suddenly regress and be nearly unusable for several days more. I can’t quite figure out why this is. It is highly annoying. Part of me almost wants to just say not to trust Apple for a month or two more. As I said I was shocked to find Apple unable to find a location today. So the results I list might be a little inconsistent at the time of writing (in December). Hopefully it’ll become more consistent by Christmas.
I tried finding different types of common searches where I had a good idea where the search hits should be. Apple found all the McDonalds I knew of within about 30 miles.6 When I typed in a general query like “grocery” not only did Apple find most of them all but most of the grocery stores appeared in its auto-complete suggestions. In fact suggestions within Apple’s maps have improved significantly even over November. Before it would find things but not suggest things accurately. I do have to ding Apple a bit though. There was one grocery store that it didn’t find that it should have found. Fresh Market on Center Street. That said as recently as early November Apple was completely hopeless with searches. I do have one complaint with its suggestions where Google does much better. The general query suggestion should appear before specific queries. Apple often is suggesting particular grocery stores before the general query of grocery store. Oddly though many of Google’s suggestions were in other states. Google found all the same grocery stores but also suggested, with tiny red dots, businesses somewhat related to grocery stores. I’m not sure what I think of this since most were gas stations, cupcake stores, or the like. It did get small Asian and Mexican specialty stores that Apple didn’t list, labeling them with large red dots. I’m not sure whether to consider that a plus or a minus since they weren’t really grocery stores in the sense I was looking for. However Google did find everything even if it did include a lot of things I didn’t care about. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you appreciate Google listing anything vaguely related or Apple listing exactly what I was looking for. Each has its pluses or minuses. Had all the non-grocery stores been tiny dots I’d probably have not minded Google’s results. However they listed a lot of things I just didn’t want with big dots. Still Apple missing a grocery store is unacceptable. Especially after a spent a month praising them for improved search.7
I also did specific searches for restaurants that weren’t chain restaurants. Google would find them although it continued to add small dots for secondary finds. They were never what I was looking for. I’m still not sure what I think of these. I suppose there’s a chance it would help if you misspelt a restaurant. To test this I misspelt by one letter some of the restaurants. Rather than trying to find the closest hit in my area I instead got restaurants in Houston, Seattle and elsewhere. Given that type of result I’m not sure this is useful at all in its current incarnation. Honestly after doing a lot of queries I came to find it rather annoying. But you may judge things differently.
When I did misspellings in Apple maps it always found what I was looking for. The only annoyance I had with Apple maps was that if a restaurant I was looking for was related to a major word then it would list all the related hits. For example I looked for Communal, a local restaurant I quite like. Apple found Communal and selected the pin for me. However it also found all poi near by related to the word “community.” Interestingly Google only found the restaurant and for once offered no other suggestions. Overall though I rarely got more results from Apple than I expected.
I did many of the queries I’d used back when I reviewed Google Voice Search a few weeks ago. Google Maps was much better than Google Voice Search. With both Apple maps and Google Maps looking at the suggestions while you search is quite helpful. The one advantage I’d have to give to Google is that it appears to list not just businesses, government buildings, parks, resorts and so forth but also named scenic drives and the like. I’m surprised it does that. I think it might be drawing upon an index of wikipedia for this. However the iOS Google Maps, unlike the Android one, doesn’t offer wikipedia information. So I’m not sure what is going on. While Google does appear to be slightly more expansive with its searches I actually prefer the Apple one. Apple uses slightly less white space in its results thereby displaying more hits. While typing Google will display the first four hits on an iPhone 5 while Apple displays six hits. While I criticized Apple for not putting the general term “grocery” above specific suggestions, it does seem to do an overall better job offering those general terms. Once again your milage may vary depending upon where and how you use the tools.
I tried quite a few odd general queries. Surprisingly even vague ones were successful with Google. For instance “football stadium” found most of the football stadiums in the state. Oddly it selected our cross-state rivals football stadium with the selected pin rather than our own college football stadium only about two miles away. Apple got it right off but didn’t display all the other football stadiums in the state. (I couldn’t try it up 50 miles away near the other stadium, but I assume it’s finding the closest one nearby) Overall though both seem to do quite well with general queries although I have to give the tip to Google for not missing any poi data. Apple got nearly everything but missing even one is too many if that’s the place you’re looking for.
As I said yesterday, the biggest advantage Google has over Apple maps is better building data. While Apple has 3D building models for many metropolitan areas, it’s still a small segment of all the places people use maps. However even in a relatively minor city like Provo Google has full building outlines including my own house. Go to the local college campus and it not only has building outlines but they are all named with the sidewalks displayed. Go to the college campus with Apple and you get a great big tan area. I’m sure Apple will improve here. They are purportedly flying airplanes all over America collecting this data. I’d be shocked if they get to smaller cities before next summer. I’d be amazed if they catch up to Google’s data by next Christmas.
If you are lucky to be in a city like Los Angeles or Seattle where Apple does have 3D data then it’s a killer feature. While driving in those cities I was quite surprised just how useful they were for driving around — especially at night oddly enough. Google is bringing 3D mapping as well but it’s not part of Google Maps beyond switching to Google Earth via an included button. But Google Earth really doesn’t offer the same experience. Further you can’t use it while using turn by turn directions. Whereas that’s one of the defaults for Apple maps. And it’s extremely useful while trying to figure out what exit to access in an unfamiliar city. In fact it was the problem of directions and exit ramps that makes me really appreciate Apple’s 3D mode above all the other map programs I’ve used. Particularly in Seattle and Los Angeles it was extremely nice to have.
Google’s voice synthesis simply is far superior to Apple. It’s not quite as good as MotionX’s — which offers downloadable custom voices. However Siri’s use of the default system voice synthesis is definitely noticeable.
I couldn’t test Google’s equivalent of Siri, Google Voice Search, since it hasn’t yet been updated to send directions to the Google Map app yet. Right now it still sends people to the web site. I’m sure that’ll be updated in the next few weeks. I also couldn’t test the iPad since Google hasn’t released an iPad version yet. I should note that if you are traveling to an unfamiliar place an iPad is very nice to use instead of your phone. It’s simply much easier to see the 10″ screen as opposed to the 3.5″ or 4″ screen. The extra screen real estate also opens up a lot of UI options. Apple hasn’t really made use of that. It’ll be interesting to see if Google does.
One big problem in Apple maps that is rumored to be fixed in the iOS 6.1 update is its problem with small roads. First off even within cities it simply doesn’t display minor roads well. the tan color it uses doesn’t offer enough contrast to the small roads. Google uses a similar tan color in many places but in cities it often uses a very light grey. That’s not ideal but Google does simply use thicker white lines for its roads. Apple’s lines are very thin. When you are driving they are quite hard to see. Apple needs to improve this by thickening the lines it draws or darkening the black it draws between them and the tan background.
Google also tends to mark important roads a little better than Apple does. As you can see in the screen captures below Apple basically has two sizes of road whereas Google has several sizes. Google also drew in, even at this scale, several buildings, water features, and even train tracks. I’m not sure how useful that is at this scale, but it’s definitely something Google does better. On the other hand Google missed one park that Apple got and also mislabeled where a school was (Provost). Google did manage to get some “roadside parks” which Apple didn’t. Although those parks consisted of a couple of trees and a bench. They were very tiny and I can’t quite blame Apple for not including them. Apple screwed up displaying one park, Bicentennial park, going across the neighborhood beside it. While it’s right on the edge of the screen you can barely see where it is correctly shown on Google. It also missed a major new road that was built this summer. (In grey on the upper right of Google) and one minor park. Given that both maps had minor mistakes like these, I’m not sure I’d give the edge to either in terns of correctness. In terms of that annoying street size and contrast issue I definitely give Google the win. However as I said that should be fixed in the forthcoming iOS 6.1 update.
The most annoying feature of Apple maps isn’t just roads being too smally displayed within cities. It’s Apple not displaying important rural roads. If it does display them the roads are so small as to be unusable. Believe it or not but Apple is actually displaying a road between Oakly and Kamas in the map below. You have to really squint to see it though.
I really, really wanted Google to impress here. But unexpectedly Google Maps was even worse than Apple. It does display Park City which Apple doesnt but it doesn’t doesn’t display much else at all. The best I can say about the Google Map is that it gives some contour information about the mountains and lists a few major peaks. However it doesn’t distinguish National Forest from parks or ski resorts as well as Apple does. Apple definitely gets the win here and if they can improve the road contrast will be much better than Google.
The one problem the Apple map has is showing a road going between Springville to Strawberry Reservoir. However about 2/3rds of that road is unpaved and part of it requires a 4wd vehicle. It shouldn’t show up as a significant road. Especially not when real, heavily used paved roads around Kamas are barely legible at all.
The two maps disagreed upon where the National Forest boundaries were. I’m not sure who is correct here. I’ll do a followup post there as they differed fairly significantly as you can see. I couldn’t find my forestry maps to compare them with though. I’d bet Apple has bad data here since the entire town of Kamas is shown as in forestry land. I’m pretty sure that’s not correct. However when I looked on Bing to get a tie breaker it had yet different boundaries again. Apple might be including other federal land like the Kamas Wildlife Management area. Honestly though it looks like Apple just plain has bad data or is drawing something I’m unclear about. I’d say Google would be more likely to be correct but they have my house as being in a National Forest whereas Apple seems to have the forestry boundary beside my house correct.
When I zoom in just a little more Apple is still somewhat superior to Google. Google shows their roads in fairly legible yellow. However they miss most of the cities and ski areas. Apple has the roads but they are so tiny as to be worthless. As I said I was pretty surprised by Google being so poor here as I’ve been grumbling about Apple’s rural support quite a bit. While I give the win to Apple here, let’s be honest. It’s not very good either. The best I can say is that if you ask for directions to a rural area you get a big blue line. However if you want to see all the important roads in 50 miles you really are going to be largely out of luck with both programs.
In conclusion it’s probably very good that Google has finally released its own map program. As many have noted it’s a situation where all iOS users win. However Google Maps is hardly the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for. It has a lot of limits still and a lot of glitches. I’m sure if you live outside of the US where Apple’s maps still haven’t improved much that you’re ecstatic. If you live in the US, especially the western US, then it’s a very different situation. Apple’s database of poi simply isn’t as good as Google’s. But it’s getting darn close. If Apple just tweaks a few minor things and gets more 3D data out for larger parts of the US then I think Apple will be in the lead. As of right now I have to give the crown to Google, despite some qualms.
- Weirdly I just tried it again to get a screen shot and it went to the branches in the north. I’m not sure why that is. I suspect it’s because after I searched for it this morning the area I went to was to the north rather than its original suggestion. I noticed Google also uses your past behavior in searches as you see when I discuss their maps. ↩
- Yes I did submit the address to Apple. Although there were complications getting the address out of Google as you’ll see. ↩
- I would have said it failed entirely, but oddly trying it here at home tonight to write this it worked fine. Go figure. Still this was but one example of odd things that didn’t work or worked inconsistently in Google Map’s UI. ↩
- Google’s refusal to use either Google Contacts, Google Calendar or the system calendar or contacts is very weird to me. This was true of Google Voice Search as well. I assume this is Google wanting to get their products out now. However honestly Apple’s contact and calendar APIs are extremely easy to use. I just can’t quite fathom why Google limits all their apps in this way. Hopefully this changes in the future. ↩
- I made use of this a lot in my trip back in October to Seattle. ↩
- Searching for McDonald’s might sound gross but if you travel with small kids you know it’s the one thing they’ll all agree upon in a pinch. ↩
- If you’re counting at home that’s two missed queries thus far. ↩