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Initially pronounced the best mobile mapping solution on the planet, the reimagined iOS 6 Maps has become a PR disaster for Apple, leading CEO Tim Cook to publicly apologize for the debacle. Google heard the frustrated cries of iOS users and, like a knight in shining armor, now comes riding back onto the iPhone with its own Google Maps app, a mere three months after being banished from the castle.
The free Google Maps isn’t exactly the same app iOS users have loved since its debut in 2007. This version has to be manually installed from the App Store, and because Apple saved its UI spit and polish for its own offering, this one has an entirely new look and feel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Rather than simply port its cluttered Maps app from Android, Google has followed design cues from recent updates to its Gmail and Google Search apps for iOS. It takes a few moments to adjust to, but overall, the new UI works well and it’s a big step in the right direction (pun intended).
I still prefer the more classic Maps UI present in iOS 6, and despite problems with its map data, Apple’s offering actually feels like the more mature of the two. Content-wise, Google Maps looks largely the same as it always has – only the user interface has changed. Rather than tap on a familiar page curl to access map settings, Google gets a little swipe-crazy here. Traffic, public transit, and satellite views are tucked into a tray that slides from the right edge, accessible by tapping three tiny vertical dots or a less-than-intuitive two-finger swipe.
The biggest news is the inclusion of voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions – a feature sorely lacking in the original Apple-Google mashup. It works well and looks great, with a large green banner up top that users can swipe across to see upcoming turns while waiting at traffic lights. When arriving at the destination, a card slides up offering Street View (where available) and other details, which is a nice touch. However, we noticed a couple of quirks while using navigation with a SYNC-enabled Ford. Occasionally, voice prompts would completely pause music playing from our iPhone 5 instead of lowering the volume; the guidance would sometimes pause in mid-sentence, almost as if the female voice were trying to decide what to say next.
Google may be the gold standard of mobile map data, but it’s still not perfect: A trip to the nearby post office routed me to a location that’s been abandoned for almost a decade, instead of the bigger, swankier digs up the street. The app also found its way to the local Chase branch, but incorrectly claimed it was on the opposite side of the street. Not quite as dangerous as being lost in the Australian wilderness, but annoying nonetheless. Our biggest gripe is the app’s inability to look up addresses from the iOS address book, a task it also fails to perform with Google Contacts. Thankfully, signing in with a Google account at least remembers home and work addresses, as well as saved destinations synced from the cloud, which can then be called up by typing the first few letters of their names.
The bottom line. So is Google Maps the savior everyone was hoping for? For city dwellers, public transit and walking directions alone will be enough to give a resounding yes. For everyone else, Google’s more extensive database and Street View make it worthy of a space on your home screen – at least until presumably Apple comes back for round two with iOS 7.
iPhone or iPod touch running iOS 5.1 or later
Fast, fluid, swipe-loving user interface. Built-in voice navigation with turn-by-turn directions. Recent destinations can be saved and synced to Google account.
No access to device contacts. No native iPad support. Occasional quirks with voice navigation while playing music at the same time.