Review: Apple's maps app lets you follow the voice

October 5, 2012 - 5:35 PM
Digital Life Tech Test Driving With Siri

These screenshots taken Monday, Oct. 1, 2012 show Apple’s maps app on an iPhone, left, and Google’s on an Android device during a drive in Dearborn, Mich. Both have voices guiding motorists to upcoming turns, in this case onto Southfield Road in about two miles. An AP review finds the Google app, on the right, having more features, though Apple’s app does a good job for the most part getting people to their destination. (AP Photo)

FREMONT, Ind. (AP) — Apple's new maps app came out the day I started a 2,243-mile road trip through four states. As complaints about it trickled in and Apple's CEO apologized, I was left wondering whether people were using the same app I was.

Although it's not flawless or as good as Google's maps app on Android phones, Apple's new offering on the iPhone got me where I needed to go — for the most part. I know many people will disagree with me, but I even find it an improvement over the old app on iPhones because I now get voice navigation and automatic re-routing.

I've used Google's Android app since it was released three years ago. I don't own a car, but I travel a lot. The app has proven crucial in getting me to unfamiliar territories in New England and various Southern states from Arizona to South Carolina.

Google brought to the phone the spoken-aloud, turn-by-turn directions once limited to GPS navigational devices from Garmin, TomTom and others. Make a wrong turn, and the app automatically updates with new directions. Best of all, it's always been free.

Until last month, Google was also behind the free, main maps app on iPhones.

But that one didn't have voice navigation or automatic re-routing. Driving with it meant swiping through pages of on-screen directions. A friend missed a train in May as we overlooked a step and went the wrong way on a highway, ending up back where we came from. A drive from Ann Arbor to Lansing, Mich., took 17 steps, each with its own page. After Step 9, I had to pull into a rest stop to memorize subsequent steps and avoid an accident.

Apple wanted voice directions, too, and figured the only way to get it was to build its own maps app and bump Google from its perch as the default offering. It partnered with TomTom and shipped the iPhone 5 with the new app. A software update out Sept. 19 made it available on the iPhone 4S and the cellular versions of the latest two iPad models.

I updated an iPhone 4S in a hotel room in Grand Rapids, Mich., that night and was immediately impressed. It was a nice touch to have turn-by-turn directions narrated by Siri, the familiar female voice from Apple's virtual-assistant feature.

Then I started hearing the complaints.

I agree with many of them. The Apple app didn't show as many businesses and landmarks as Google's. Some appeared in the wrong location or were mislabeled. The Apple app didn't offer public transit directions, something crucial for New Yorkers like me. A friend I was visiting toward the end of the two-week trip immediately complained that the app looked different as she pulled it out for the first time.

Head to head, the Google app for Android, which I used on a Samsung Galaxy Nexus and a Galaxy S III, outperformed Apple's version in many respects:

— Google's app typically told me about turns a second or two quicker. Sometimes, I didn't hear from Siri until I got to the intersection, two lanes away from where I needed to be to make a right turn.

— I got better navigation on private roads with Google. At a shopping mall, Google guided me along the right driveways to get to JC Penney, while Apple got me to the general vicinity. Google also got me to the front door of my hotel in Ann Arbor, while Apple got me to the entrance of a complex that included other hotels, a gas station and retail stores.

— In Akron, Ohio, Siri had me turn left to get on a highway, while Google's app properly instructed me to take a ramp on the left. In Indianapolis, Google knew about a service road alongside Michigan Road, while Siri assumed I was on the main road and would have had me crash into a Chinese restaurant. In Charleston, W.Va., Siri told me to head northeast, as if I had a compass, while Google just told me to turn left.

— Besides public transit directions, Google offered options for avoiding tolls or highways while driving. It allowed me to choose continuous satellite images instead of animated maps, while Apple's app offered them only for route overviews, not for live navigation.

— While Siri's voice sounds much more human than the one Google used in its early mapping apps, Google now has a voice that makes Siri sound robotic by comparison. Google also was more sparing with words, which was good as long as I didn't get lost for lack of detail.

That said, Apple's map offers 3-D views. That may sound like a gimmick, but it presents the map in a way that mirrors what you're seeing through the windshield. On Apple's map, the direction you're going is on top in the regular view or toward the back in 3-D. Outside of big cities, Google often has north on top, which can be confusing when driving east or south.

Apple's maps are also more pleasant to view. Instructions such as "turn right onto Pearl St." are in white against a green background, similar to the signs you see on highways. Street names at intersections are in a green rectangle, similar to actual street signs at corners. Unlike Google's, Apple's app showed me the distance and time remaining and an estimated time of arrival all at once, though I would have appreciated larger text.

Apple's app was mostly dead-on in getting me to my destination. The one big miss was when it had a winery I was looking for about a half-mile east of its actual location. I went to another instead.

But Google has made mistakes, too. It told me to turn left to get to a lighthouse along the Straits of Mackinac connecting two Great Lakes, even as the road sign in front of me pointed to the right. Then again, Apple's app didn't even find that lighthouse in a search.

Both apps gave me other questionable directions, even though they got me there, which was what mattered most. At one point, Google had me on a curvy one-lane residential street with little visibility, even though a faster, safer road ran parallel to it. Apple's directions to a roadside tourist trap had me take an exit four miles to the south, only to return four miles north on smaller roads.

Bottom line is no app is perfect. After all the complaints about Apple's app, I downloaded a 99-cent iPhone app called MotionX GPS Drive. It got good reviews and offered more features than either Apple or Google. But it tried to lead me off the wrong exit in Ohio. Plus, all the extra features diverted my eyes to the settings menu when I should've been paying attention to trucks and, ahem, police cars around me.

One of my favorite scenes from "The Office" television show is when clueless boss Michael Scott drives into Lake Scranton because he was blindly following GPS directions.

There will be mistakes, but it beats driving in a new place with nothing. You just need to use your common sense.

Apple's app is far better than the one Google had when it first came out in late 2009. In apologizing for an app he says "fell short" of Apple's own expectations, CEO Tim Cook says the company will keep working to improve it.

It's true Apple's app falls short of what Google now offers for Android, but if all you have is an iPhone or an iPad, Apple's new app will get you there just fine.

Clinging to the old, voiceless app is like hanging on to your cassette tapes while the world has moved on to CDs and digital downloads. I can't imagine driving without hearing voices.

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Anick Jesdanun, deputy technology and media editor for The Associated Press, can be reached at njesdanun(at)ap.org.