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Google Maps for iPhone

Google Maps for iPhone

published by Chand Bellur
December 16, 2012 at 4:44 p.m. PST

iPhone users longing for an app with Google Map data can now rejoice. The Google Maps app has launched for the iPhone. The new app features turn-by-turn, spoken navigation. It is a suitable GPS navigation unit for most people. If you live in an area with great coverage, smart-phone based navigation is a viable option. However, with the lack of offline functionality, you may run into problems if you are in a remote area with no coverage. This is often when you need a map the most. Google Maps is free, and definitely worth using.

Don’t throw out your GPS Nav unit or Thomas Guide just yet. In the wake of half a dozen people being stranded in Australia by iOS 6 Maps’ inaccurate data, the media and authorities have advised travellers to keep printed, published maps on hand, especially when travelling in remote locations. Such mishaps occur quite often, however, the notoriety of Apple Maps and blogosphere hype have raised an important point — don’t rely solely on GPS navigation.


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Google Maps for the iPhone offers many of the features you would expect. The app can find your current location, search for locations, and generate turn-by-turn, spoken directions. You can browse the map by dragging your finger and zoom/pivot by pinching/rotating. Optional layers, such as satellite view, traffic, and public transportation can be added to the map. One can also report problems with Google Maps directly within the app.

There are some features that go beyond other mapping applications. Google Maps has Zagat reviews, although just the rating and a blurb. While most mobile apps don’t have this, the GPS nav system in my automobile has had this for some time. Google Maps features Street View, which allows the user to see locations from the perspective of the street. This is a convenient way to look for landmarks in unfamiliar territory. If you have a Google account, your web and smart phone searches will be synchronized.

Google Maps is missing a few features offered by other mapping apps. Voice recognition is absent from this version. I would expect this to be available soon, as it is a convenient way to interface with a mapping app. It would be a smart move to integrate the Google Search with Voice app, such that asking for directions will launch this app, if installed. However, built-in voice recognition would be much easier to use. Siri will not work with Google Maps. Any request for directions will open Apple’s Maps app. I don’t expect Apple to change this.

Google Maps doesn’t have an offline mode for the iPhone. There is no way to cache maps and use them when you don’t have coverage. This is unfortunate, as it could create problems in remote locations, often when people need maps the most. The Android version offers the capability to cache maps, if the user chooses to do so. Apple Maps for iOS 6 automatically caches map data for offline usage. In fact, it stores a whole continent of map data, available offline, due to its efficient vector-based maps. Google Maps is also vector based, but apparently Apple has a more efficient format, allowing more data on the device.

There is no iPad version of this app yet. I expect it to be released soon. One can use the iPhone version on the iPad, but it is not the best user experience. Mapping apps are used mainly on smart phones, due to their portability.

The Google Maps app does seem a bit sluggish. I find it to be slow when dragging, tilting and zooming. When I compare this to Apple’s iOS 6 Maps app, the difference is obvious. iOS 6 Maps is fluid and responsive. I am hoping these performance issues can be ameliorated in future releases. Google’s app is quite usable. Most people will be searching for destinations, not dragging through the interface. However, the UI performance of Apple’s Maps app is far superior. This is surprising, because Apple doesn’t always make the best iOS apps. Some are amazing, such as GarageBand. Many are appalling, such as Music and Reminders, although the latter has improved.

With all of the map apps available for iOS, one may be wondering which one to use. I agree with the NY Times — Apple and Google are not the best mapping platforms for navigation. Most people are using these apps for driving directions, but there are better options. While fanboys and the techbloid media have been beating up Apple Maps, most mapping applications have deficiencies. When I started the Google Maps app, I was presented with this screen:

Google Maps for iPhone disclaimer

Furthermore, if you search for “Google Maps errors“, you will find myriad shortcomings, including a recommendation to swim across the Atlantic Ocean to reach Europe. They’re just trying to be cute, of course. An error in Google Maps back in 2010 caused Nicaragua to invade Costa Rica!

Controversy and hype, much like antennagate, gets eyeballs on websites and advertisements. Many blogs and content sites are no better than tabloids. It’s a sad truth that hype and distortion are quite profitable. The tremendous success of the iPhone 5 has many competitors anxious to take the wind out of Apple’s sails. Both Motorola and Samsung have launched ad campaigns specifically targeting deficiencies in Apple Maps. This has created a perfect storm of the new “antennagate”, now called “mapocalypse”.

The recent news of half-a-dozen iPhone users being stranded in Australia has augmented this furor. The reality is that in Death Valley, California, there are signs informing drivers not to rely on their GPS navigation unit. This seems like common sense. In 2009, a boy died in Death Valley due to reliance on GPS navigation. According to NPR, this information was incorrect in TomTom and Google Earth.

Sinking to the level of the techbloid writer is not appropriate or useful. In fact, anyone claiming one app is completely reliable is doing great harm to the public. If you are headed to a remote location, don’t rely solely on GPS navigation. Buy a Thomas Guide or other printed, published map from a reliable source.

For most people, using Google or Apple Maps will work out well. A small survey of Apple customers revealed that 90% were satisfied with Apple Maps. I have found Apple Maps to be reliable and accurate, but not perfect. In fact, I was in Palo Alto recently, and found Apple’s Maps to have more accurate data about businesses on El Camino Real. Palo Alto is adjacent to Mountain View, the location of Google headquarters. See for yourself:

Apple Maps (left) and Google Maps (right) displaying a stretch of El Camino Real in Palo Alto, California. Google’s satellite image looks better, but Apple’s Maps has more businesses and doesn’t have the Starbucks on the sidewalk (which doesn’t exist)…

All mapping apps have flaws. Distorting the flaws of one and ignoring the flaws of another is an endeavor best left to tech pundits, techbloid writers and fanboys. Even quantitative analysis yields differing results. I can find quantitive evidence that Apple Maps has 25% more business listings than Google Maps. It’s an exercise in futility. Use the best application for your location. If you repeatedly find mistakes and are misled by one, try another. Beyond Apple and Google, MapQuest, Waze, TomTom and Navigon are other popular mapping apps. Apple users have so many options! If you venture into an area with poor coverage, iOS 6 Maps may be a better option, due to its extensive offline caching. If you take public transportation or rely on Street View, Google Maps is a better option.

New cars have GPS Nav systems far superior to any mobile device. The nav system in my car can turn the stereo down when announcing a direction and automatically change the display’s color and contrast for safer night-time driving. It had Zagat reviews years ago. All of the map data works offline and is updatable by DVD.

The bottom line is — be smart. If you are venturing off to a remote location, make sure to purchase an up-to-date printed map from a reliable publisher, such as Rand McNally. Despite the Australian-mapocalypse hype, many people have been lost, and even died due to over-reliance on GPS. These incidents occurred before Apple Maps for iOS 6 was launched. Don’t believe the hype and smear tactics.

Google Maps for iOS is a great app and worth using. Just don’t be lulled into a false sense of security that you will never be lost because you think Google’s map data is superior. This is a difficult and contentious issue that can’t be quantified and compared. It depends on where you are located. Google’s Maps app is just another tool in the toolbox, and particularly useful for navigating public transportation and its innovative Street View feature.

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