Google Maps (Android, iOS) has been widely regarded as the go-to mapping software. But after a rocky start three years ago, Apple has worked steadily to bring Apple Maps up to speed. Earlier this year at its developer conference, Apple announced that Apple Maps usage on iOS is "3.5 times higher than the next leading mapping app," and iOS 9 has brought an improved version. It seemed like a good time to give Apple Maps another go-round to see how it compares with longtime favorite Google Maps.
Cliff relies on Google Maps on his Samsung G6, and Josh uses Apple Maps on his iPhone 6s. We decided to test the two apps on quintessential autumn errands: a day trip to an apple orchard and pumpkin patch; a walk across the streets of San Francisco in search of a spooky Halloween costume; and a bumpy bus ride back to work. We didn't want to do a tightly controlled mapping experiment: our goal was to take a few everyday trips and see how each mapping app behaved.
Our first destination was Hale's Apple Farm in sleepy Sebastopol, 65 miles north of our San Francisco base.
Finding our destination
Google Maps: Typing "apple orchard" in Google Maps' search gave me a false start -- confusingly, it suggested a nearby live performance venue, plus a few out-of-state locations. Then I tried "apple orchard Bay Area" and got several results north and south of our San Francisco starting point.
Apple Maps: Searching "apple orchard" brought up a slew of Best Matches results that ranged from completely irrelevant to quite relevant. There was Apple Orchard Way in Half Moon Bay, plus many parks, inns, and golf courses across the country. I then Googled "apple orchard picking Bay Area" (see below) to discover three relevant results near me. I settled on Hale's Apple Farm because it was closest.
Outcome: Both apps returned questionable results with our first, broad query and did better when we used a more detailed query.
Google Maps: I entered "Hale's Apple Farm" in Google Maps (see below) and got an estimated travel time and a preview of our trip, taking us over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, up along the East Bay shoreline, and crossing into the North Bay on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The suggested route was about 7 miles farther than taking the more direct Golden Gate Bridge but 12 minutes quicker, Google Maps estimated.
Apple Maps: Apple also instructed me to take a route that seemed less direct. Instead of heading straight north over the Golden Gate Bridge, we'd cross the Bay Bridge toward the East Bay, only to go back west to the North Bay via the Richmond Bridge (see below). But this route actually spared us a lot of San Francisco street traffic.
Google Maps and Apple Maps often served the same instructions. Apple's were broader, like "on the right," as opposed to Google's "right two lanes." Heading back, I was disappointed that Apple Maps initially instructed me to go back via the Bay Bridge, rather than over the more direct Golden Gate. However, as we neared the turnoff to the Richmond Bridge, Apple Maps wised up and suggested that the Golden Gate Bridge would be the faster route. Back in the city, Apple Maps recommended a route very similar to Google Maps', though at one point it took us down a street riddled with construction.
Outcome: Both maps gave us almost identical driving instructions and similar traffic conditions and travel times. Google Maps offered more traffic detail, such as distinguishing between accidents and road maintenance, and displayed more alternate routes. Google Maps gave us the option of going over the Golden Gate Bridge on the way out, for example, while Apple Maps didn't.
Google Maps: I like that Google Maps uses color-coded roads to indicate traffic conditions. A green road represents an unobstructed flow of traffic; yellow, moderate traffic; and red, heavy. The darker the red, the worse the snarl.
The time-remaining estimate at the bottom of the window also changes color to reflect traffic. Obviously, as a safe driver, I'm not studying my phone's screen but paying attention to the road ahead, so the color-coded maps are probably more useful for copilots than for drivers.
What is helpful is the turn-by-turn navigation. I love how Google Maps starts with verbal assurance that you are on the fastest route and gives your estimated arrival time. Google Maps did a good job of alerting me to upcoming turns and which lanes to be in. One detail that delighted me way too much: when moving through a tunnel, Google Maps switched to night mode, returning to day mode when we exited.
Apple Maps: Apple's 3D Maps view was breathtaking -- I loved seeing our journey in almost lifelike dimensions, as if I was looking out the car window. I also appreciated that when I switched apps, Maps stayed open at the top of the screen and continued to direct me. Like Google, Apple includes color-coded maps to highlight high-traffic areas. Also, to its credit, Maps provided a forceful warning before we approached any obstacles. I preferred Siri's voice and appreciated how she'd lower the volume of music playing in Spotify to get her message across without interfering with our music-listening experience.
Outcome: Both map apps succeeded in navigating us to our destination and back again, without leading us astray. We liked how Apple Maps displayed a small navigation view when we were using another app. Google Maps offered a bit more detail. On the return trip, at the start of rush hour, Google Maps told us the faster route home was over the Golden Gate Bridge. Apple Maps, on the other hand, had us retracing our route through the East Bay, which was puzzling, since we knew how bad traffic is there in late afternoon. As we neared the turnoff to the East Bay, however, Apple Maps alerted us that a faster route was available over the Golden Gate Bridge, saving us 14 minutes. We were puzzled by Apple Maps' lag in detecting heavy traffic in the East Bay, but the app alerted us in time about the faster route.
Google Maps: I was kind of puzzled here. Google Maps does a nice job letting you explore your area, finding restaurants and bars near you. But when I searched for a specific business, Taco Bell, the results were oddly sorted with the closest location near the bottom of the list. The map also displayed a location that we discovered was closed for repairs. Likewise, when searching for a gas station, Google Maps listed four locations ahead of the closest one. I could force Google Maps to list closest locations first but found the sort order frustrating.
Apple Maps: I was pleased by the indicators for gas stations and other nearby businesses. When I searched for Taco Bell, I was impressed by the speed and accuracy of the results. When I clicked the top result -- the closest location -- Apple gave excellent directions.
Outcome: Both maps returned relevant search results when looking for nearby services, but Apple Maps did a better job of displaying which business was closest.
The following day, we took our next trip, to SF Party in downtown San Francisco. This time we walked.
Finding our destination
Google Maps: I typed "costume store" in Google Maps' search field and got a list of nearby relevant results, with SF Party second on the list.
Apple Maps: Searching for a local business in a major city was much easier than finding an apple orchard. I searched for "costume store," and SF Party came up at the top of the list, which was appropriate since it was the closest and most relevant business.
Google Maps: Again Google Maps did a nice job previewing our route and offering a travel-time estimate. It also offered two alternate routes, one walking and another via Uber.
Apple Maps: The route to SF Party was logical and timed perfectly for someone who walks at a good clip. The only thing that bugged me was that at the last moment it told me that the location was on my left when it was actually across the street on my left. I wish Maps had directed me to cross the street half a block before.
Outcome: Both maps offered identical routes to the costume store. Google offered two alternate routes as well.
Google Maps: I liked how dynamic the walking map was, with the map reorienting to the direction I was headed. I couldn't hear most of the voiced turn-by-turn instructions on the busy downtown streets. The phone did vibrate to notify me when to turn, which was more useful than voice directions.
Apple Maps: The regular map view was readable, and Siri told me about every twist and turn.
Outcome: Each map successfully directed us to our destination. The experience of monitoring a phone screen while walking on crowded streets was a bit disconcerting -- at times we found it challenging to pay attention to our surroundings.
Google Maps: It seems almost mean-spirited to make an app look for coffee shops in San Francisco. Google Maps returned pages of results, listing iconic coffee shops a mile away in North Beach before the one across the street. Again, I could get Google Maps to list closest locations first but found the behavior odd.
Apple Maps: I searched for a nearby coffee shop and received several relevant results and directions.
Outcome: Apple Maps showed us the closest businesses. Google Maps showed us coffee shops a mile away before those closest to us.
Later that day, costumes in hand, we took the bus back to our office.
Finding our destination
Google Maps: It located my destination with no trouble.
Apple Maps: When searching for our office, I was pleased by how instantaneously it came up. Apple Maps has public transit info for the Bay Area, as well as for Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. If you live elsewhere in the US, you'll have to wait for Apple to get public transit data.
Outcome: Both maps nailed our public-transit destination.
Google Maps: Google Maps presents a set of mass transit options, if available, and lets you decide if you want to walk less, be on the bus more, or even use Uber. For my journey, it showed bus number, fare, and estimates of when the buses would show up and travel time to my destination. It also let me set departure and arrival times, in case I wanted to leave later in the day.
Apple Maps: When I clicked the Public Transit tab, Maps provided the most appropriate instructions for finding the nearest bus back to the office. I received the bus line number, location, and travel time. Clicking the bus number on the map gave me the line schedule.
Outcome: Each map did a good job of showing us mass-transit options.
Google Maps: After all the activity in Google's driving and walking maps, its transit maps felt a bit lifeless. After you choose your transit, the app displays a set of instructions for reaching your destination and a map for tracking your progress, but it has no turn-by-turn directions or even rerouting guidance if you wander off your path. The experience felt somewhat like referring to a physical map. And when our bus got stuck in traffic and our driver let us off before our stop, the map didn't reroute us based on our new location.
Apple Maps: It was cool to watch the map in action in 3D view. As the bus slowly made its way, it was comforting to see our progress highlighted on the map. However, the route had heavy traffic -- so bad, in fact, that the bus driver recommended that passengers get off and walk. Once on foot, I didn't get the same level of verbal or onscreen instruction as I had when walking to the costume store, although the route was highlighted on the map. When I purposely walked off the route, Maps did not warn or reroute me.
Outcome: Both maps accurately showed our intended route. Neither, however, accounted for traffic or adjusted well when our journey changed. We reached our destination without much trouble, but the maps -- locked into our initial transit plan -- didn't adapt to our change of route.
Google Maps: A branch of my bank is a seven-minute walk away, but on one search, Google Maps showed 10 other branches before listing the closest. On another search, it did list the closest one first. Operator error? Location confusion? I have no idea.
Apple Maps: With quick searches, I found a nearby bank and a jewelry store.
Outcome: Apple Maps again did a better job of locating services near our current location.
Over three outings, we found Apple and Google Maps comparable. Both accurately navigated us to our destinations and provided lots of contextual guidance during the trips. And for people in the handful of US cities where Apple Maps provides public transit info, each mapping app offers similar transit guidance. It was clear to us that the work that Apple has put into Apple Maps is paying off and puts the two mapping apps on more even footing.
That's not to say, however, that they are identical. We thought Apple Maps was more visually appealing, especially its 3D map view. And we very much liked how you could view a small map window when in another app. Google Maps, using color-coded roads to indicate traffic conditions, offered more real-time data when driving.
By the conclusion of our trips, we thought both maps held their own, and for driving, walking, and (if you live in one of the handful of cities with Apple Maps mass-transit info) public transport, we feel sure either Apple or Google Maps app could successfully get us where we wanted to go.
Joshua Rotter also contributed to this article.