Apple’s mapping system didn’t exactly work out as the company had hoped. After years of rumors and high hopes for the alternative to Google’s solution, Maps in iOS 6 was far from a success. It had so many bugs that all users could do was complain about the app rather than use it. In the end, they transitioned to alternatives like Waze and Maps+, or even Google’s own Web app, which was recently improved for iOS users. None of these really solved the problems for those who enjoyed the old ways. Now there is a fix.
Google worked hard on its own Maps app for iOS, bringing all the old features in a new and modern user interface. It’s won over a lot of users so far and since Google is more reliable when it comes to this sort of thing, there’s no reason not to use the free app. Or is there?
Setup and Sign-In
When you first launch Google Maps, you’ll be asked whether or not you’d like to help Google make its products better by sharing usage information. If you value your privacy, uncheck that box and move on. (Google uses your location information “anonymous[ly],” though that still may be a concern to some people. If you like to help out the developers, tap “Accept & continue.”
You’ll now be asked whether or not you want to sign in with your Google account. It’s a good idea to use your account because all your search history and saved locations from other devices will be synchronized with your phone if you do. If you don’t want to, tap Skip. Tapping the “Sign in” button will open an in-app browser window that asks you for your email and password. When you’re done, the main mapping screen appears and you can begin using the app.
What a Beautiful User Interface
The first thing you’ll notice about this app is its fantastic aesthetics. It’s almost like Android’s minimal design has come to the iPhone, but it doesn’t look like it’s out of place. For instance, the status bar is transparent to give you an extra few pixels of mapping space. You can’t swipe it to navigate or anything, but that extra touch does feel natural. As for Android-like design, the search bar, buttons, location indicator and menus all have a flat, yet modern look to them. It’s a pleasant surprise after using Apple’s boring version of Google Maps for so long.
When you swipe the view menu (that little … button in the bottom right of the screen) to the left, it transitions nicely and uses a 3D animation to bring up four menu options. These aren’t the size you’d expect them to be, but rather spaced out nicely across the screen as large buttons. This touch is definitely nice if you’re driving down the road and want to turn on the Traffic or Satellite mode.
Elsewhere, when navigating the map, things can get a bit sluggish. Lag is present throughout map navigation, regardless of whether you’re zoomed in or out or using Satellite mode. The developers somehow left out smoothness in navigation and you’re stuck with a slower frame-rate. It can hurt your eyes if you use it for too long. Strangely, there’s no lag to be found when switching orientations. It does pop up again when you pan through the app’s voice navigation, though.
Not Feature-Packed, But Nicely Balanced
It’s hard to say that this app is “powerful,” because it actually doesn’t have that many features. I’m not saying that it needs more — it’s quite nicely balanced — but if you’re looking for an app full of all the features you ever wanted, try something like MotionX GPS. Google’s app is focused on being simple and user-friendly, and it succeeds in both aspects.
Take the nice menus you get when tapping a landmark or dropping a pin. They both are expandable by swiping from the bottom of the screen. You then get photos of the location, its address and phone number, its operating hours, reviews, and even an estimate of how long it will take you to get there from your current location. If you want to get directions, tap the car in the top right corner. There’s a lot more than that in the expansive menus too, though it doesn’t let you write your own review. When you’re done, swipe down to close the menu and tap anywhere on the screen to remove the location.
Searching is Quick and Easy
Apple’s Maps have the worst search suggestions I’ve ever seen. Not only do they take a long time to load, they also don’t list actual locations as Google’s do. For example, The Chart House is a nice restaurant near me and I searched for it with Apple Maps but the app suggested the name rather than the location. The search then yielded a few different restaurants nearby when there is really just one named that. Google Maps, on the other hand, was much better.
Start typing and the app predicts what you’re looking for without delay. You can also search for something like “haircut” and multiple results will appear. You can swipe the info pane up to look at each of them and swipe left and right to navigate between them. When you’re done, tap the X beside the search field or start a new query.
Navigation, While in Beta, Is Great
The worst part about Apple’s version of Google Maps was that it didn’t have turn-by-turn directions. Instead, you had to read the list that the app provided you with. That wasn’t the safest or most efficient thing to do when driving, so Apple brought in its own solution, which is beautiful. Google didn’t stop short of great with its alternative, either.
This app has voice-guided directions, just as you’d expect from the Navigation app on an Android phone, and it works extremely well. The voice is more pleasant and the user interface just as nice to look at. The best part, of course, is that the directions are much, much more reliable than Apple’s. However, there is a problem: it does not, and cannot, work in the background as Apple’s app does because of the permission limits.
No Access to Contacts
Save for the lag, Google Maps falls short in its access to your contacts. Since the app doesn’t ask you for your permission to use their names and addresses, it’s clear that there’s no integration present. So, if you want to look up someone’s address and get directions to it, you must copy and paste things. It’d be easy for Google to integrate its own contacts system, but that didn’t happen either and users who need this kind of functionality are left out in the cold.
Honestly, I would never use such a feature. Most “contacts” are people that you know, which means you don’t need directions to their house. Realistically, this makes sense and copying and pasting an address isn’t actually that hard. It’s not like you’ll be going to “friend’s” houses every day.
A Beautiful, Functional Alternative to Apple Maps
It’s hard to say that this is an “alternative” so much as a “solution to the problem.” Apple Maps failed and that’s the sad truth. Google’s new app, however, succeeds at being everything Apple’s isn’t. It’s new, fresh, clean and beautiful. The only problem is lag when navigating the map, but I’m sure that’ll be fixed in the future. In light of that, I’d still highly recommend this to anyone who has been plagued by Apple’s mapping problems.
Before you switch, though, remember that there’s quite a bit you’ll be losing. Since the app isn’t integrated with the system, you can’t open addresses with it, turn-by-turn navigation will not be available in the background and Siri integration is not available (though Apple may add an API for it one day). Such restrictions make this app hard to use for daily guidance. It’s definitely nice to keep on your home screen for double-checking information, but that might be where its handiness ends for some users. This app is not a replacement for Apple Maps, it’s just an alternative.