The State of Apple Maps on iOS 9

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Apple Maps iOS 9
As a big fan of Google Maps, it took me a while to warm to Apple’s own maps app. The service took a few years before I could really trust its directions or see a good representation of nearby points of interest in Toronto. Thankfully, Maps got a whole lot better in iOS 9 because Apple is listening. I’ve pointed a few Toronto locations out that weren’t showing up properly (unless you searched for them by name), and two weeks later, they were fixed. You don’t get the same email replies that you would if you report something on Google, but as long as the issues are fixed, I’m happy.
The iPad Pro has also had an influence on which maps app I want to use. I defaulted to Google Maps on the iPad Air 2, but iPad Pro support is still lacking. Apple Maps has the advantage here because it’s a system level app. It already looks great on the iPad Pro, and I can keep it open in Split View while I research parks and museums in Safari.

I’d ideally be able to use Apple Maps full time, but there are a few factors to consider.

Where The Streets Do Have Names

This is totally subjective, but I do find Apple Maps a bit easier to read than Google Maps. Apple’s streets are easy to follow because they’re outlined with a thin gray line, and the street names dynamically resize and tend to stay within those outlines. There are a few little glitches with how Apple resizes names, though, so you’ll occasionally need to scroll or zoom out before a particular street name will show up.

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Google Maps on the left, Apple Maps on the right

In contrast, Google allows street names to bulge out of the border and keeps major streets visible at all times. This difference does make it easier to read a street name at any given time, but it also looks busier, visually. I’d argue that this level of clarity was important in the age when maps were more static, but it’s less important when a quick swipe or pinch will dynamically resize the map to show me what I need.

Transit

One of the biggest surprises of iOS 9 was how good Maps suddenly got for transit in Toronto. With the transit layer activated within Maps, it’s really easy to check the departure times of nearby bus and streetcar stops. Each stop shows the routes you can catch from that location, and an extra tap shows me the next three arrival times, which is very useful if you know you’ll miss the very next bus.

What’s more, Apple Maps can show you the entirety of a given transit route. If you’re not sure where the 63 bus will take you, you can tap on it and view its whole path, including its terminus. I’m used to seeing these features in specialized apps like Transit or Rocket Man, but it’s even better to have the feature baked into a first-party app.

The big, gigantic caveat with transit in Apple Maps is that it still only supports 14 cities worldwide. Toronto happens to be one of them (which is really surprising), but if you’re not one of the lucky 14, you’re just out of luck with Apple Maps. Luckily, Google Maps has absolutely incredible support for other transit cities in hundreds of other cities around the world. Apple may have the superior experience, but Google has the cities.

Favourites Pinned to a Map

The other area where Google still beats Apple hands-down is the implementation of “Places” or “Favourites”. Saving a business or location to Google will place a star on the map, which is viewable at all times. You can zoom all the way out to a global view and see which cities you have starred.

This is fantastic for several reasons. You can use this to star favourite restaurants so that I’ve you’ve always got a quick, highly personalized list of places around your current location. However, my main use for starring locations on Google Maps has been to mark interesting spots in cities I’m travelling to.

I don’t like to make super-specific plans for each day when I’m on a trip. Instead, I run off of a list of specific sites to visit and focus on exploring one neighbourhood at a time. Having starred items on the maps helps narrow down which points of interest I can reach over the course of a day, and it’s a huge help with navigation.

Apple’s big oversight here is that Favourite places are only viewable one at a time. There is no option or toggle to show all of your Favourites right on the map. I’ve submitted a ticket to Apple to suggest this very feature, and I’m hoping we’ll see it some time before iOS 10. After all, the information and features are already in place: I just want to be able to see all of the Favourites at once, instead of one at a time.

Terminus

I really enjoy using Apple Maps in Toronto, and I’ll likely continue to use it as my own hometown navigation app. I think the service can only get better from here, and I’m a sucker for keeping things simple and using first party apps when I can.

However, for anything outside my comfort zone, Google Maps is still the only way to go in early 2016. Not only does Google display starred locations the way I expect, but Apple still has a long way to go before it can compete with Google’s killer worldwide support.


Thomas

My name is probably Thomas (yes, it is). I'll be able to help you figure out why Evernote isn't syncing, or recommend your favourite new RSS reader to you. That's partly because I am enamoured with the iOS ecosystem and hardware, but mostly because I'm Canadian.

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