Countries, regions, and streets change slowly over time, but the mobile apps charting them are constantly evolving, both in competition with each other and in seeking to provide the most comprehensive and easiest to use service designed to anticipate your every navigational need. Google Maps and Apple Maps, the most popular mappers on the planet, have both recently released upgrades to their interfaces and databases.
Google Maps celebrated its 15th birthday with interface updates and new features. Increasingly, Google is positioning Maps as a lifestyle app in addition to a navigation app. A new icon bar at the bottom of the interface with five major menu items underscores a redoubled effort to pinpoint both social and database features. The previous tabs were Explore, Commute, and For You, while the new tab scheme breaks up the For You section into Saved, Contribute, and Updates. All of this brings mostly existing information out of nested menus on to the surface of the app.
Just one week earlier, Apple announced it had completed the rollout of its comprehensive Maps upgrade to all users in the U.S., though observers noted that as of January 30, 2020, Apple’s map still does not include U.S. territories or Puerto Rico, which combined, account for 1.1% of the population. Apple also announced its intention to do for maps in Europe what it had accomplished in the mainland U.S., with a special emphasis on delivering the new Look Around and Collections features that give Apple Maps a refined, elegant, and distinctive aura while maintaining its core promise of user privacy.
Maps vs. Maps historical contest
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, lack of support for public transportation, and many glitches and bugs that made the service nearly unusable. Throughout that time, Google Maps continued to improve and reign supreme.
With iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, Apple released an updated Maps app that promises to fix the most persistent problems found in previous iOS versions, stemming from the original third-party navigation data in Maps. That is now getting replaced with fresh data gathered directly by Apple. The new, 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, Apple employees canvassing neighborhoods on foot with radar modules strapped to their backs, 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, iPads, and Apple Watches. 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 decipher 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 brighter and busier than Apple Maps. Like Apple Maps, Google Maps has a search box and different view modes 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 to find more details about a particular spot 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 little or no 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 more options on the main screen, such as a compass, directions, and quick search, making it easier to find what you’re looking for 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 use 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 made parts of its Street View, a separate app for user-contributed panoramic views of many places around the world, available for viewing in the main Maps app.
Two other popular Google Maps features are bicycle maps and offline access. 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 makes more of a point of concentrating 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 live on your device, not in the cloud and mapping info you seek does not reference your Apple ID. Data collected by Maps — search terms, navigation routing, and traffic information — is associated with “random identifiers” that continually reset. A process Apple calls “fuzzing” converts specific locations where you initiate a search to imprecise locations after 24 hours. The app will not record a history of what you search for or where you went. Google is also aware of users’ privacy concerns and offers numerous customization and control options, such as Incognito mode, that keep your location and searches private.
Even more than Apple Maps, Google Maps concentrates on landmarks as much as navigation. Because of its long history and head start, Google offers more than just driving directions: It aims increasingly to be 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 an increasing number of locations and offers plenty of eye-catching features, but it is still catching up to Google Maps. For now, just in terms of interface, accuracy, and ease of use, Google Maps remains our map of choice — but maybe not for too much longer. Check out our Apple Maps tips and tricks and Google Maps tips and tricks to find even more ways to bring it all back home.
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