Apple's new Maps app is at the centre of what has turned out to be quite a kerfuffle in the mobile world. Now that Google Maps is back on iOS and better than ever, with its superior feature set, we can evaluate Apple Maps on its own more easily.
If you're wondering whether Apple Maps is safe to use regularly for driving, the answer is a qualified yes – but both Google Maps and Waze are better free GPS navigation apps at the moment, and Apple Maps continues to have serious POI-related (Point of Interest) inaccuracies. Still, it's worth a look, if only for its beautiful graphics and interface. And while Apple CEO Tim Cook has publicly apologised for Apple Maps, you can bet the company is working hard on improving it.
For this review, I tested Apple Maps with an iPhone 5 running iOS 6.0.2. I was hoping that by this time, three months after the launch of iOS 6, Apple would have incorporated some serious improvements. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The basic user interface is familiar enough. Tap the lower left button to bring up your current location and compass direction. Tap the bottom right corner, and the map will curl up to the left, showing buttons for dropping a pin, displaying traffic, or activating hybrid and satellite views. The satellite view is weird; it animates smoothly, but everything looks a little crunched and distorted. The standard road display is better, but even then, the app has a curious way of highlighting strange neighbourhood names and landmarks, rather than the major ones you'd expect it to flag up.
The tiny Search bar is difficult to activate, but once you do, you can input a street address or type in search terms. Typing "pizza" brought up 10 places scattered across town; I zoomed into the map and ran the search again, with much more localised results. It always missed my favourite pizza place just around the corner, however, and it’s not like it just sprung up – it has been there for over 20 years. This type of missing data was par for the course, sadly.
On the other hand, POI data pages look great, with slowly panning, Ken Burns-style photo display and access to Yelp reviews. And with a single tap, you can navigate to any POI you searched for – something that Google Maps actually gets wrong, as it requires shifting to a different mode (Directions) and takes several extra taps.
Built-in Siri integration lets you speak destinations into the phone. But while Siri tends to be more accurate than Google Now on Android phones in terms of voice recognition, Google Maps still beats Siri for its ability to parse complex sentences.
Once en route, the app really shows its stuff. The 3D buildings look gorgeous, and map animation is super-smooth. I really like the way the camera panned around to follow what I was doing – this single trick makes other GPS apps look dated. During navigation, Apple Maps presents the next one or two steps using giant green road signs – it's easy to read at a glance. That said, the font in the top bar is really small, so it's tough to read your ETA or distance remaining for the whole trip. You can also tap a button to open a list of step-by-step directions.
I didn't run into any actual navigation issues during testing – once on the road, the app seemed to work well. On the audio side, voice prompts were exceptional: Loud, clear, and well-timed. I couldn't believe how loud the iPhone 5's speaker sounded with this app. Text-to-speech also worked perfectly, and I didn't hear any weird pronunciations during testing.
Lots of stuff is missing, though. There are no road speed limit signs or current speed indicator. There's no lane assistance for exiting or entering motorways, either in 2D or 3D. You can't tap the display to repeat a voice command in case you didn't hear it. And as has been widely reported, there are no photorealistic street views like there are with Google Maps, and there's no public transit information for pedestrian navigation. The much-touted, photo-realistic flyovers are fun, but you can only get them in a few major UK cities currently, and at any rate, I'd gladly trade any such fanciness for some of the more useful missing features I just listed.
Traffic reporting, while present, is sporadic and lacks detail; all you get are dotted lines on the map representing areas of congestion. While Apple Maps has real-time traffic data with the ability to reroute around jams, you can't see it at a glance across your whole trip during actual 3D navigation, so you can't plan ahead the way you can with, say, TomTom for iPhone.
All told, Apple Maps still feels more like a tech demo rather than a navigation application that's meant to be used often. The inaccurate POIs and missing features only reinforce that impression. Simply put, this is a gorgeous app that needs better data – the sad fact being that if this issue wasn’t so bad, Apple Maps could have hit a 7 or 8 out of 10 score, based on its other features. However, the POI and address inaccuracies are so serious, and so hamper your ability to use this app, that we're going to have to give it a 5.
For now, Google Maps is the app to beat when it comes to free, accurate driving and pedestrian directions for your iPhone, and Google's own vector-based mapping engine also looks great, even if it lacks the visual pizazz of Apple Maps. The bare truth of it is that Apple Maps still needs a lot of work.