Apple's homegrown Maps app debuts (First Take)

As expected, Apple just announced its new Maps app today at WWDC. Here's our First Take on Apple's cartography skills.

(Credit: James Martin/CNET)

It's WWDC week, and one of the big announcements from today's keynote was Apple's new, homegrown Maps app, which will come baked into iOS 6 this fall. Here, we take a look at Apple's new offering and how it compares to the Google-powered app that it's replacing.

Built by Apple from the ground up, Maps uses a vector-based engine that maintains a crisp appearance and seamless rendering, even as you zoom in and out. For context, Google Maps has been using vector-based graphics since late 2010, so while the technology is worth mentioning, it isn't exactly groundbreaking. That said, let's skip the underlying technology and get right to the noteworthy features of the new Maps app on iOS 6.

Turn-by-turn navigation
As Android users will attest, navigation is one of the most useful and basic features that a mobile maps program can offer, and until now Apple users had to rely mostly on subscription-based third-party apps to get it. Well, with iOS 6, that ends, as Apple's Maps app will offer native turn-by-turn navigation, very much like that available on Android. And from the looks of it, iPhone users should be pleased with the finished product.

Similar to Android's built-in Google Maps-powered navigation, Apple's Maps lets you type out your destination or simply speak it aloud. From there, the app responds by speaking your directions aloud and displaying your position along the route line on your map. Siri, of course, is the star of navigation as it is her (its?) voice that guides you.

One small, though incredibly thoughtful detail is evident when a route includes two quick, back-to-back turns. In this scenario, Maps displays both directions, so you won't be caught off guard. Google Maps should definitely take this page out of Apple's book.

What we didn't see in Apple's Maps was public transit navigation. For now, you can get transit directions, but no turn-by-turn (or stop-by-stop) navigation like Google offers across hundreds of cities around the world.

(Credit: Apple)

Traffic
Also available will be crowd-sourced traffic data and accident reports, which you can overlay on your map at will. This feature looks very much like the traffic layer that iPhone users have already been enjoying for some time, though its not clear whether the quality of the traffic data is remarkably different from before.

One thing worth noting is, if you get stuck in a traffic jam while navigating, Apple Maps will automatically offer you an alternative route and tell you how much time it could save you. Meanwhile, on Google Maps, you can easily switch routes as well, but it must be done through a menu.


(Credit: Apple)

Info cards
In what appears to be an outright challenge to Google and its Zagat ratings, Apple's built-in Info cards will offer local search info courtesy of Yelp. When you tap a point of interest, Maps brings up an Info card with vitals like address and phone number, as well as the ever popular Yelp ratings, reviews, and photos. In my opinion, this is a huge boon for Apple, as I can't tell you how many times I've wished Google had integrated Yelp instead of Zagat. The Yelp community is rich with user-generated content, and to many (including me) it is the go-to source for local reviews.


(Credit: Apple)

Flyover (3D maps)
Finally, to no one's surprise, Apple's Maps will also include a 3D imaging component. Hot on the heels of Google's announcement of the very same feature last week, Apple is touting its Flyover feature as "photo-realistic and interactive."

Based on the demo, Flyover looks pretty much like we all expected. The 3D imaging is crisp, and it lets you zoom, pan, tilt, and rotate around landmarks. One thing it can't do, though, is swoop all the way down into a ground-level street view mode the way Google's product can. For some, this may qualify as a deal-breaking omission, as Google's Street View is a wildly popular and useful feature.

Also worth noting is that Google's full 3D functionality was actually announced for Google Earth and not Google Maps, meaning you have to switch apps to get the full experience. This, of course, means that Apple's 3D Maps experience is just a bit more seamless.


(Credit: Apple)

So far, Apple's new Maps app is impressive. It has some stunning 3D visuals, easy-to-use turn-by-turn navigation, integrated Yelp data, Siri powers, and more. While it may not have quite as many features as Google Maps for Android, it is still a huge upgrade over the inadequate Google-powered iOS app that it's replacing. Users of the iPhone and iPad should be jumping for joy.

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