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

The first feature of Apple's new Maps is perhaps its strongest: its presentation of 2D and 3D road maps and satellite images. This is a major leap over how the previous iOS 5 Maps work, although there are still reasons you might want to consult other iOS apps for map information.

Introducing iOS 6.0 Maps
Using Maps Offline
2: Maps and visualizations
3: Transit directions
4: Map labels & local search
5: Routing & traffic

Apple's technology vs alternative maps: Maps and visualizations

This series comparing Apple's new iOS 6 Maps with other alternatives was introduced last week. Feature check box comparisons aren't very meaningful without real world information backing up how well various products actually perform. So we pitted iOS 6 Maps against other apps and web services with challenges to test how well each actually worked in a series of real world scenarios:

Providing useful maps and visualizations (this initial segment), finding transit routes, correctly labeling useful landmarks and businesses, searching for locations and finding directions between them (and through traffic).

The challengers include iOS 5's old Maps powered by Google; existing web app map services by Google and Nokia (available for free to iOS 6 users); the TomTom GPS app; and alternative mapping apps from Microsoft's Bing, MapQuest, OpenMaps, and Waze.

Vector map features

Apple's new Maps are a huge leap over iOS 5 maps in pure technology: the use of vector maps (mathematically described, resolution independent map information rather than static bitmapped pictures of map tiles) enables fast, sophisticated navigation of 2D and 3D views with fluid panning, rotation and perspective, in stark contrast to the flat, static map images provided by Apple's previous version of the app.

Using vectors also results in much less data use (an estimated 80 percent less), as your iPhone can download large areas of maps faster (eating up less of your data plan and battery).

As noted earlier, this efficiency enables iOS 6 Maps users to go offline and remain navigating with usable maps over a much wider area than the old version of Maps in iOS 5. Google's own Maps for Android also uses vectors, but it doesn't support the same scope of "configuration free" offline use as Apple' new Maps app.

Dynamic 2D presentation

In addition to better handling of offline maps, Apple uses its new vector maps to progressively reveal detail on the map, keeping things simple until you zoom in. An example of this progressive, dynamic information display is how the Central Freeway is depicted in the middle of San Francisco. First, compare how the official AAA road map has rendered this area on paper for decades (below).

Zoomed out, iOS 6 Maps shows you the route of the freeway, but emphasizes the busy street grid of the thoroughfares Van Ness, Mission and Valencia, portraying their paths on top of the overhead freeway (below). It's also clearly apparent that there is a surface road (13th Street) running underneath the length of the freeway, something that isn't as clear in the traditional paper road map above. Apple also correctly depicts McCoppin Street as ending, rather than running underneath the freeway, as AAA's paper map does.

Zoom in and the freeway itself is highlighted, with clear routes for all of its ramps (below). Apple's Maps intelligently decide when to highlight the freeway and when to focus attention on the streets that run under it; other parts of the same freeway that run over less important side streets don't do this shifting of views.

This intelligent, dynamic shifting of how roads are portrayed at different zoom levels also makes the direction of one way streets clearer. Apple similarly doesn't show building outlines until you're zoomed in to the level of seeing about 6 blocks (below, buildings are just beginning to fade in at this 2D zoom level).

It's not clear if this design decision was aimed at delivering map clarity or faster performance. However, it also tends to make Apple's maps look less detailed than Google's maps, which show subtle building outlines and lot markings even when zoomed out far further.

Regardless of one's personal preferences for showing useful detail vs. distracting clutter in mapping depictions, there's clearly a lot of thought that went into Apple's dynamic new Maps that isn't seen in competing products. Contrast the depictions of other mobile map vendors on the next page.