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Monday, October 08, 2012, 05:45 pm PT (08:45 pm ET)

In-depth Review: Apple's iOS 6 Maps & the alternatives 2: Maps and visualizations


Google (in iOS 5 Maps, or via the web) also depicts streets differently as you zoom in, but at fixed zoom layers of bitmaps that sometimes show roadways as a jumble of tube segments that appear to randomly turn or end, when they do no such thing.



Google draws lot outlines within blocks at much lower zoom levels, resulting in a more detailed looking map. Even when at a zoom level that properly renders the paths of streets, however, Google's Maps often gloss over lots of street detail, with depictions that can appear less articulate than a classic paper map, rather than clearer and more informative.



Zooming in further, Google's bitmaps on the web and iOS 5 Maps also show simple 2D building outlines earlier than Apple's iOS 6 Maps. If you're accustomed to Google's Maps (as nearly all iOS users are), Apple's refusal to show building detail until zoomed in very close can be both annoying and give the impression that Apple's maps are too simple and bereft of detail.



It's arguable whether it's more important to see building detail or clear road detail. Apple appears to be focused on road clarity, while Google tilts toward showing more in the way of detailed building outlines and the lot boundaries within blocks.

Google's native Maps+Navigation app for Android (photographed here running on a 7 inch tablet) also uses vector images, but still doesn't seem do as good of a job of representing complex intersections as Apple's new maps.




The vector maps visible from Google's Android app are virtually identical to Google's experimental vector-based WebGL maps (currently viewable only on the desktop). It's hard to argue that these are in the same league as Apple's new 2D vector maps in iOS 6.



AOL's MapQuest maps (via its iOS app) also zoom through layers of bitmaps, but they seem to do a much better job of scaling detail up and down compared to Google. Like Google, MapQuest shows lot and building outlines sooner than Apple, but it also shows good road detail.

The app is optimized to search for local listings from a series of sources (local search will be discussed later), but its ad-driven user interface also takes up a lot of the available screen on an iPhone. It also doesn't take advantage of Apple's two year old Retina Display, nor does the app support iPhone 5's larger screen yet.




Nokia's web app shows a very simplified set of paths with limited detail that appears suited to use on a feature phone. Details such as whether McCoppin Street goes under the freeway are left rather ambiguous.

As a web app, it can automatically take advantage of Apple's full screen mode in Safari and support the iPhone 5's larger screen. Nokia's servers don't take advantage of high resolution Retina Displays, however.

The web app isn't very useful for browsing around to navigate, and isn't really very appealing to look at, but Nokia's web site can be useful for finding locations and getting intelligent routing instructions, as we address later.




Microsoft's Bing maps are also pretty basic. While it partners with Nokia for its maps, Microsoft presents Bing maps slightly differently. Here, similarly zoomed in, Bing shows oddly confusing simplifications so drastic it appears the Erie alleyway connects to the freeway onramp (below). Like AOL's app, there's no support for Retina Display or iPhone 5.




OpenMaps are so awful we won't waste too much time detailing how bad the app is (below). Yahoo's search app doesn't have its own maps; as noted earlier, it uses Apple's maps to present its Local search results but otherwise uses Nokia's map images, albeit not as well as Nokia itself does.




Web maps from Google and Nokia are useful for some tasks where they excel, but can't hold a candle to Apple's overall native app experience. Other iOS mapping apps provide specialized features suited to location searches (like MapQuest), driving directions (GPS apps) or the "social GPS" features of Waze, all of which we'll examine in greater detail later.

2D alternatives for iOS 6 users



In terms of visual 2D representations and technology, Apple's new iOS 6 Maps (below) comes across as a clear winner. The clarity of Apple's new maps demonstrate a significant leap over the existing state of the art in mobile maps, something that most reviews seemed unable to observe as they focused exclusively upon areas where Apple doesn't provide useful maps coverage (Google currently returns over 2.5 million search results for "falkland island iOS 6," for example).



At the same time, Apple's list of 181 countries supported with 2D Maps and satellite images is simply not accurate.

For example, Albania and Serbia are listed, but both countries lack even the most basic street maps in even their major cities (despite having detailed satellite images down to the street level). On the other hand, Côte d'Ivoire and North Korea are not listed, even though the former shows many primary roads and both have detailed satellite images.

Google claims maps for 209 countries (although 22 are noted "major roads only"), and Nokia says it has "superior maps for nearly 200". Both vendors supply fairly detailed road maps across Africa and remote islands where Apple's fall down completely.

If you're navigating in an area where Apple doesn't supply useful maps, there are a number of options, ranging from native apps to web sites. But most of these (including the web apps of Google and Nokia) depend on data service, which is likely to be missing or expensive in those areas. That makes a dedicated GPS app with pre-loaded maps a more likely solution for travelers. The App Store has a variety of other apps that also provide offline road maps for specific areas.

"Standard" 2D maps aren't the only useful way to peruse locations. There are also 2D maps in perspective, 2D aerial and street view images and 3D model and photorealistic satellite views, each of which presents Apple's iOS 6 Maps with a different set of competition.