Maps: Time to Veer Towards Apple Instead of Google?

It’s been a month with the new iPhone and I’m feeling really comfortable. Apple Maps has been my navigation app of choice for the most part in order to make a fair comparison against Google Maps.

Apple wins on integration with iOS simply because there is no option to set Google Maps as the default. Open a link from Calendar and it opens in Apple Maps. Open a link from Yelp and it opens in Apple Maps. Only Google’s own apps like Gmail and Chrome seem capable of opening locations directly in Google Maps. There’s a roundabout way to switch to Google Maps when you’re in Apple Maps, but it’s tedious: Share → Routing Apps → Google Maps → Route.

But the most important factor is getting where I need to go. Overall, the routes are typically the same with a few exceptions that fall within my margin of error. Apple Maps got the location wrong on two separate occasions, which alone should have been enough to give up, but I’m willing to forgive since Google Maps used to get it wrong in its early days as well.

The time estimates are similar enough and both apps support switching to faster routes in real-time. Apple Maps does a better job recognizing when you’re in a carpool lane, while Google Maps barely knows you’re even on the freeway in that case. However, Google Maps excels in recognizing lanes, telling me which lane should be used to turn left or to exit off a freeway. With Google Maps, it’s very rare that I have to cross five lanes of traffic in less than 500 feet.

Information at a glance is important while driving and visual elements make that possible. Even though Google Maps sacrifices screen real estate by displaying time and distance at the bottom, it’s more visible than the way Apple Maps sandwiches the arrival time between a bunch of text, requiring a bit more scanning. Google Maps also uses more colors so it’s easier to see if it’s going to take longer than usual to get to my destination.

Having grown up in Vancouver, it was always easy to find north: look to the mountains. After three years in LA, I still get confused about what direction I’m traveling at any given moment. Google Maps has an orientation option to always point north, helping me passively learn the lay of the land. Apple Maps has no such option.

The competition was really close. Google Maps and Apple Maps end in a stalemate on actual functionality. Apple Maps wins the user experience when starting up navigation thanks to its tight iOS integration. Google Maps wins the user experience once navigation actually starts. The tiebreaker came down to getting to know LA and so the winner, Google Maps, has me looking north.


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