Back in June of 2012, Apple made the announcement that it would no longer use Google’s services as its default Maps application starting with the release of iOS 6. Opting to end its partnership with the Google, the company behind the mobile operating system that has been cutting into its market share, Apple decided to go it alone and make its own Maps. When iOS 6 launched, we discovered maybe Tim Cook and the creators at Apple might not be great cartographers. With little alternative option, especially with no Google-powered app available, iOS device owners were lost - literally.

December 13 brought the return of Google Maps to iOS. An app that has been built from the ground up, redesigned for the iOS user in mind. It seems promising. Everyone wants Google Maps to be successful, but Google-made apps for iOS have disappointed before. Even Google can be guilty of rushing a final product or skimping on details, promising to fix them later, just to hit the market at an opportune time. With holiday travel sure to be on peoples’ minds over the coming weeks, how could Google possibly resist a release right now? If it works like it should, it will be the red nose of Rudolph guiding Santa’s sleigh. If it falls short, Apple and Google will be responsible for a lot of displaced families, ruined holiday parties, and unexpected snowbank collisions. 

The only way to see just how well Google Maps fairs in comparison to Apple’s own Maps app is to take a look at the tale of the tape, so we put them in the ring to duke it out on a variety of important categories. Check out our comparison, and make sure to take both options on a test drive of your own.

User interface

Usability is everything. If worse came to worse while searching for a location, you could pull into a local gas station or diner and ask for directions or pull out a paper map to act as a guide. It’s just that none of that feels as cool as a well-timed swipe on your touch screen. This is especially true for Google Maps, where swipes dictate the majority of your actions. These gestures are simple and smoother than Apple’s offering. It’s also significantly quicker. With the new interface on Google Maps, you can tap on a location and then swipe up on the lower-third bar to see more details.

It’s clear that Google put a very intentional emphasis on quickness into Google Maps. In comparison to Apple’s Maps app, you can accomplish tasks like getting directions or finding details about a location in about half as many taps. By keeping menus accessible with a swipe motion and simplifying on-screen items to only what you need, Google keeps a very clean look that still allows users to navigate and complete actions easier than Apple. Both apps use vectors as opposed to tiles so both are notably quick when browsing the maps. Apple seems to go a little faster, but Google just has so much information and still moves at an impressive pace.

Apple does have the benefit from being the default mapping tool built into Apple’s iOS operating system so when it comes to overall integration, Apple has an advantage. If you’re a Siri search user, you might end up sticking with Apple simply for that feature. If total immersion into Apple is less important to you than the rest of the UI, though, Google has an edge.

Winner: Google Maps

Viewing modes

Most of your map viewing will probably be done on the standard map view. It’s the easiest to process and it simplifies things so you can focus on pertinent information like not missing the street you need to turn on. In this mode, Apple’s design looks a little better. It’s sharper and draws a better contrast between different areas, with parks in a vibrant green textured color or airports in purple. Google Maps has a fairly flat, bland tone to all of the colors. That said, when you’re looking at an area where streets run together or there are extra paths and byways, you’re more likely to see it on Google Maps than Apple. Looking at a street-dense city like New York, you’ll notice considerably more detail in the grid on Google, even if it doesn’t look as nice.

Both apps offer a traffic layover option that will display backups and traffic density in certain areas so you can avoid major traffic jams and find alternate routes. This is another area where Google just has more information, providing a more detailed map with traffic updates in areas that Apple misses. Neither have moved this feature out of major metropolitan areas, but Google has a clear advantage in cities that have the feature available.

Apple’s Satellite and Flyover view appeared like it would be a major selling point to the app when it was introduced. It’s definitely cool as a way to find some landmarks worth noting and to take a look at the graphically recreated layout of an area. It’s still limited to pretty populated areas at this point, so if you’re visiting your family in Middle of Nowhere, Kansas, you’re probably not going to see the local truck stop getting a 3D modeled makeover. Compare that to the unmatchable Street View, which has managed to pick up nooks and crannies of cities and towns across the U.S. and other countries around the world, and it’s really no contest. When you can see panoramic photos of a place, including the previously mentioned truck stop, there’s no real need for a 3D re-imagining. Street View remains Google’s ultimate trump card.

Winner: Google Maps

Search

Navigation apps exist to help us find stuff, which is really a process that starts at the search. Using the search bar on Google Maps for the first time will provide you with one of those moments where you didn’t realize what you were missing until it was right in front of you.

In comparison to some of the other mapping apps that we’ve looked at in the past, Apple Maps didn’t do too bad. It found pretty much everything we threw at it and its search results were adequate. Compared with Google Maps, though, Apple is left in the dust. Google does have the distinct advantage of being a search engine first, so one would expect its results to be better. Searching for the same destinations on both apps, Google usually displayed the expected destination as the top result – often before we even finished typing. Apple landed most of them in the top four or five results, but rarely did it make a correct guess until typing was completed.

Once you finished your search by selecting the result you wanted, Google marked the specific location and shows the area around it. Apple does the same, but it also keeps pins from the search on the map as well, presumably in case you accidentally selected the wrong result. It really clutters the screen more than anything and, while this is totally personifying an application, it doesn’t really show much confidence in the search results. Bonus point to Google because you can link your Google account and access your search history, so if you were searching for a bar to go to after work on your work computer (because who uses it for actual work?), Google will remember that and pull up the bar’s name when you begin typing it. It’s one of the perks of being an actual search engine and then expanding.

Winner: Google Maps

Navigation and directions

Both Google and Apple offer multiple ways to receive your directions as you travel. You can get the straight list with every step laid out to completion right away or you can take the step-by-step, voice guided option. Regardless of your choice for direction delivery, you’ll notice some fairly stark differences.

Apple clearly takes an advantage in looks, with a nice thematic street sign kind of feel for displaying turns and route information. The problem with it is it gets cluttered at times and can become difficult to read. Google has a very minimalistic approach, opting to have the default view zoomed in a bit more than apple and keeping the necessary information available without obscuring the map. If you want to see what your next steps will be and check your trip progress with a swipe on Google, a feature that isn’t available in Apple’s Maps.

There’s the little issue of accuracy that Apple Maps seems to have, and we’re sure that there may be little problems like this that pop up with Google as well. The difference seems to be that Google has a real inclination to make sure it is getting everything right. If there’s an issue that you notice, simply shake your device and you’ll have the ability to provide feedback. Google Maps even takes a screenshot of where you are to send along to the developers so they can get the problem fixed. Apple has a feedback option as well, but it doesn’t appear that it has been in any hurry to make corrections. Maybe with some real competition out now, it will have a bit more urgency.

Winner: Google Maps

Public Transit

This one feels a little unfair, but it’s a major part of transportation and we’d be remise to just exclude it completely. One of the biggest sore spots for Apple Maps users is the exclusion of real public transit options. When you attempt to map out your path using bus lines or subways and the like in Apple Maps, it will simply bring up a selection of other apps that can do this for you. Apple immediately punts away the option to other choices. Funny enough, if you have Google Maps installed, Apple will suggest you plug in your public transit requests over there.

We’re with Apple on this one. Google Maps has public transit options down pretty well. An impressively detailed listing of bus routes, tram and train navigation, and other options that includes details like fees for each option makes Google the clear choice, even if it would be by default anyway. Google goes so far as to even suggest walking or taking nearby public transportation options rather than drive when you’re heading to a close destination. 

Winner: Google Maps

Destination information

It’s great to have an app that will lead you to a restaurant of your choice, but it won’t really matter how right the directions were if the place is closed when you get there or it turns out the place kind of sucks. These issues can be remedied with accurate information about a given location, and both Apple and Google do a pretty good job of this.

Apple draws its information from Yelp, laying out reviews and basic information as provided from that service. It also has some images that rotate atop the menu, giving you a slight glimpse into the location. For whatever reason, this doesn’t always translate to the icons on the actual map when it comes to marking open businesses and providing accurate addresses. You’ll probably find yourself Googling the actual address and plugging that in rather than let Apple guide you to where it thinks a location is.

Instead of that, you could just use Google Maps. Google has even the smallest and most local destinations represented with accurate information, thanks in part to the Google+ Local integration. User submitted reviews and photos are displayed, as are business-provided hours of operation and contact information. There’s just more information than Apple can match, including a direct link to menus when available. Yelp is nice, but it’s not quite as comprehensive as Google’s local take integrated with information from Zagat. 

Winner: Google Maps

Conclusion

Obviously just counting up the wins by category, Google Maps is the clear victor. There is a very real difference in using these apps. You don’t just notice it in the directions or the fact that Google won’t try to make you drive through a lake, but even the user interface on Google’s offering is better. Google is a company that is built off information, so it’s really no surprise that nearly every area that revolves around data and detail is dominated by Google in this showdown. It has comprehensive information about businesses and destinations, a more fully developed grid of streets and pathways, better directions, functioning public transit maps, and more traffic data. If the conclusion isn’t clear to you, go download Google Maps. Even if you’ve been getting around just fine with Apple, and it’s definitely doable, Google Maps will be a wake up call to how good a navigation app can be – and even Google admits it’s not as complete as it wants it to be.

You can download Google Maps for iPhone for free from the iTunes App Store. Be sure to read our full hands on with Google Maps for a detailed look at it on its own.