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Yesterday, Apple released iOS 6 and along with it, their new mapping and directions application: Maps. The hype was that this would finally bring iOS devices on par with Android for finding your way.
Here’s a rundown of the data and visualizations that each application uses. This comparison focuses on the maps themselves. I didn’t test any of the functionality for finding directions, getting navigation instructions, or any of the features that aren’t focused on visualization. The phones used were an HTC EVO 4G running Android 2.3.3, and an iPhone 4S running iOS 6.0. To start, here’s a quick overview of the major map features that each one has:
But the actual execution of these features holds many more details. One of the smallest elements on the map is actually the most important; the You Are Here symbol. Google Maps uses a triangle showing direction, while Apple Maps uses their shiny blue ball. Here, Google clearly wins, having directional information encoded in that marker is a key feature.
The 3D buildings in both apps only appear after zooming in to a certain level. This makes sense, because that information isn’t relevant until you start looking at a smaller scale. Apple provides views of 3D buildings in both their satellite view and their standard road map view, while Google’s 3D buildings are only viewable in the roadmap view, not in the satellite view.
This is a win for Apple, however Google displays the buildings with consideration for what actually matters; the transportation paths. Apple’s buildings are opaque, hiding the roads below, while Google’s buildings are partially transparent, showing the roads clearly. This can be especially important in instances where roads transition, like in the screenshots below. The Google view makes it possible to see the transition where Greenwich turns into footpath, while the Apple version hides this transition point, making it difficult to tell what is going on.
Another important piece of information is terrain. Google and Apple have taken two drastically different routes with this data. Google provides a 2D shaded view (with an unfortunately limited resolution), while Apple shows terrain in their 3D satellite view. Apple’s view definitely wins cool points, and is really fun to fly around in. Unfortunately, it is absolutely useless for helping to plan a route that avoids hills. Google’s view is far more useful for route planning, and if they would only increase the resolution of their data, the terrain map would be a killer feature.
The standard road map views also differ slightly between the two. Google has a bigger distinction between large and small streets, as well as a distinction for freeways. Apple’s distinction between large and small streets is more subtle, while they still have a large distinction for freeways. There are also major differences in the greenspace. Google comparatively downplays parks and natural areas, while Apple highlights them. They also appear to take have fairly different philosophies on labeling. Google’s highway icons are closely matched to actual street signs, while Apples smaller highways are green instead. At this zoom level, Google labels more districts than roads, while Apple focuses on streets.
The last thing that both Google and Apple provide seems to be traffic data. On this front, Google most definitely wins. They seem to have much more robust data for more streets, and they display it much better, giving dark red, red, yellow, and green zones to indicate flow.
Beyond that, it comes down to data that Apple just doesn’t have. Google provides bicycling and transit maps, and even a Wikipedia layer. Google also lets you display maps that you created online and saved for later. On this front, if you cycle, or travel using transit frequently, Apple’s solution is not for you.
Apple has made quite a showing with Maps. It covers the basic functionality you would need, and it efficiently shows 90% of the data you would want. The app also has a few cool extras like the 3D flyover view that would be fun for some armchair exploring Google Earth style. Overall though, if you are a serious map user and really care about the details, Google still has Apple beat. Google has had much more time to give attention to detail in the data presentation, and they have brute power when it comes to the data they have access to.
Drew Skau is Visualization Architect at Visual.ly, and a PhD Computer Science Visualization student at UNCC with an undergraduate degree in Architecture. You can follow him on twitter @SeeingStructure