Google Maps, born in 2005, has been the premier mobile mapping service for both iOS and Android devices since the dawn of the smartphone. Then, in 2012 Apple decided to join the party with Apple Maps, its own mapper for iPhone and iPad. For years, Apple Maps struggled with technical issues — wrong directions, no public transportation support, and many glitches and bugs that made the service nearly unusable. Throughout that time, Google Maps continued to reign supreme.
With iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, Apple has released an updated Maps app that promises to fix some of the persistent problems found in previous versions, stemming from the original third-party navigation data in Maps that it is now replacing with first-party data gathered directly by Apple from cars and users. The updated maps are far more detailed and accurate, based on millions of miles driving in camera- and lidar-equipped cars, new high-resolution satellite images, and tons of aerial photography.
Visually, both apps are similar, both are free, and both offer basic mapping features including driving directions with turn-by-turn navigation, walking, and public transit directions. Still, key differences might influence which mapping service you choose.
Apple Maps was designed exclusively for Apple hardware — iPhones and iPads. Google Maps is cross-platform, but Apple Maps is not. Apple Maps is built into all branded mobile devices, so if you want to use Google Maps, you’ll have to download it from the App Store. Thereafter, Apple users can use Google Maps the same way they do other third-party apps. And many are continuing to do that despite the many valuable Apple Maps improvements in iOS 12 and 13.
At first glance, you’ll notice some subtle differences in the way maps on the two platforms are visually presented, though they have become noticeably more similar over time. With Apple Maps, the map rendition looks a bit flatter and shows more default locations, but the text and icons are smaller. Google Maps also highlights many default locations, but they don’t always match those of Apple Maps and the icons tend to be larger, more brightly colored, and more eye-catching. If your vision is less than stellar, Apple maps locations can be harder to distinguish at first glance.
With Apple Maps, you can search for specific locations using the search bar at the bottom of the screen and change the map settings (map, satellite, or transit) by tapping the information button in the upper right, which takes you to a second screen to make adjustments. Apple also has custom icons for landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, and you can see the current weather at your screen location at the lower right. The new Look Around feature (tap the binoculars icon) gives you a street-level view, reminiscent of Google Street View.
With Google Maps, while there may be fewer map icons at launch, the design is brighter, with more color and contrast, so it looks a little busier than Apple Maps. Like Apple Maps, Google Maps has a search box and different types of views and more options to change your map: Explore, driving, transit, satellite, terrain, traffic, and biking. Both apps have a current location button on the screen. Google has 3D models of most buildings, quick access to input addresses, and settings for your Google account and map. Apple has similar functions built into the OS.
When it comes to the actual navigation screen, both are simple but with distinctive artistic styles. Driving mode is straightforward for both. If you zoom in or choose the walking option, more locations pop up on the street level for Apple. But Google presents immediate sidebar information about nearby locations, while for Apple, you need to tap the info button, where you get more details and even Yelp ratings. Because Apple Maps uses vector graphics, Apple’s satellite view has a more photographic, conceptual look, while Google’s satellite view looks more realistic.
Both map apps base their arrival estimations on current traffic conditions. Red markings along your route indicate heavy traffic, yellow is moderate traffic, and blue is no or little traffic. You may also see various alerts, from accidents to road closures. Google is a bit clearer when it comes to how traffic will impact your commute by showing the travel time in red to denote heavy traffic. Google has a few more options on the main screen, such as sound, compass, and quick search, making it easier to tweak settings on the fly. Supplementary information is available on Apple Maps, but you have to pull up from the bottom portion of the screen and tap the category.
Siri’s integration with Apple Maps is a unique feature for iOS. Invoke Siri and tell her where you want to go, and Apple Maps will launch and send you on your way. You can make other voice adjustments en route. It also incorporates Siri Natural Language Guidance for easier directions. Instead of saying “in 1,000 feet, turn left,” Siri says “turn left at the next traffic light.” Apple Maps vector graphics uses slightly less data than Google Maps, which is convenient if you are on a limited data plan.
One of the flashiest features for Apple Maps is Flyover Mode, a feature that lets you explore densely populated urban centers in 3D landscapes of models of buildings and structures. Flyover also has a City Tours feature that automatically guides you to various city landmarks. Where Apple has Flyover Mode, Google has Street View, a separate app, provides panoramic views of many streets around the world and lets you photograph and upload them to add to the database.
Two other popular Google Maps features are bicycle maps and offline accessibility. In a bike-friendly city, this is really handy, a function Apple Maps does not offer. Apple Maps recently added bike-sharing stations to its list of places, and that is helpful, but not the same as a bike route mapper. Google also facilitates offline planning for those with limited access to Wi-Fi or data. While Apple Maps uses slightly less data than Google Maps, Google compensates by allowing you to download entire maps for offline use.
Because Apple and Google are different companies with different philosophies on data and privacy, you will want to take that into consideration when deciding which to use as your default mapper. It’s far more convenient to have all your saved destinations and customized mapping details on a single service. Apple tends to concentrate more on privacy than Google and most of the app’s functions are accessible without signing in to a user account. Most data, navigation, and directions reside on your device, not in the cloud. Google Maps, too, has numerous customization and control options, such as incognito mode, that can keep your location and searches private.
Even more than Apple Maps, Google Maps concentrates on places as much as navigation. Because of its long history and head start, Google offers more than just driving directions, it’s a tour guide for many communities. Google tends to have better small-city mapping data than Apple, but for many small locales, it looks like Apple is catching up fast in terms of detail and walking directions. Both Apple and Google offer information regarding opening times of businesses, descriptions, photos, and user-generated star ratings. Apple also includes Yelp and other third-party app ratings, while Google shows you average restaurant wait times and reviews, and helps you discover and navigate to new places.
Apple Maps has evolved over the last seven years, and works fairly well in major cities with plenty of eye-catching features, but it is still catching up to Google Maps. Right now, it is scouring various sections of the country to update and add details to regional maps across the U.S. For now, just in terms of interface, accuracy, and ease of use, Google Maps remains our map of choice. Check out our Apple Maps tips and tricks and Google Maps tips and tricks to get even more ways to bring it all back home.
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