One map to rule them all.
Maps. They’re freakin’ awesome. Many moons ago (well a few years ago really) I worked in ambulance communications, taking calls from the sick and the dying and trying to translate their vague directions into an actual place that someone could drive to. In 2008 Google Maps had only just tossed out Street View, and the maps were decent but still had large gaps of nothing. We also had some weird custom mapping system built into the dispatch software, which is complete bullshit. It couldn’t find streets, it just friggin’ couldn’t. Your search string had to be very specific or it’d fail to find it. Hell, sometimes it just didn’t work period. There was also a third option for us, which hardly anybody used – a ridiculously detailed and insanely slow system that was ridiculously powerful but took about 20 minutes to zoom in to a small region. Despite its slow speed it was my favourite map – I could search by business name or vague street names and find most things fairly easily. At least when it loaded properly.
Today Google Maps is the de-facto god of all services, the one to which all others are compared, and although I no longer work in ambulance dispatch, I do work in paramedic services, so mobile maps are kind of a big deal for me. To see how well the various mapping solutions are, I’ve picked out the Big Three – Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Nokia’s HERE service. Why those three? They’re found on the major mobile devices – Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Well HERE is on WP at least, there’s never going to be an official Google Maps app for that, and nobody even wants Apple’s mapping solution. I decided to compare the three of them by checking out a few local areas, as well as looking at how they operate on my Apple iPhone 5… and my Lumia 920 because there’s something odd going on with HERE.
Good at: Street View! Finding things!
Bad at: Playing nice with WP8, downloading maps
Google Maps is the standard – it sets the benchmark that all other services have to meet. It’s a tall order since Google have been at this for a real long time. When Google Maps first came out it was pretty damn cool – mostly because of the satellite imagery which was remarkably out of date for Australia, but I digress. Over time it’s evolved into a really powerful service, which not only has a powerful search function but also acts as a good turn-by-turn navigation system on iOS and Android. But not Windows Phone, because Google haaate WP and go out of their way to block it. Really, guys? You’re arseholes. Whether it’s Gmail or Youtube or Google Maps, Google just will not play nice with Windows Phone. Maybe because it makes Android look like a slideshow, I don’t know. Anyway, back to the maps. Google Maps has a nice, clean interface that works remarkably well. The colours are nice and fit together very well – it’s easy on the eyes. In terms of finding directions and things like that, it’s pretty good. In my tests it picked a route that I’d actually use, as opposed to something that looks good but is absolute rubbish to take. It also offers a traffic overlay which, in my experience, generally gets it right in a timely manner. Its maps are accurate for my local region although there are quite a few businesses missing, and sometimes weird things happen like the local hospital just disappearing for a few months (no, really). Satellite maps tend to be the most recent out of the three with a good resolution, although my local government has a Google Earth overlay which is even more recent. Google Maps can also display 3D models of buildings if they’ve been created by Google or the community.
Google’s two draw-card features are Street View and building interiors. Street View is fantastic. Nothing compares to Street View… although it’s also incredibly out of date in many places. But that’s because it relies on a fleet of cars taking photos of each section of road. It’s incredible how much of the world is mapped with Street View, and as a dispatcher it was practically invaluable. I use it a lot to look at lane markings when planning a route or looking for access points to a new or unfamiliar location. Street View is awesome. Building interiors are inconsistent. Strangely, the new Google Maps doesn’t load building interiors, but the classic one does. For some reason that nobody really understands, my local area has two shopping centres (malls for my American readers) which are right next door to each other. You can walk across the road to go between them. One of them has a fully mapped interior (no images, just layout) while the other is a big, blank square. The one that is done doesn’t have all the stores populated but it is all there. Why this one and not the other (larger) one? Go figure.
While Google Maps has a few glitches, it’s still the best service out there, if only for Street View. But it’s also a little slow at times, even the new beta version. The old tile system is laughably slow, but the new method doesn’t seem much faster sometimes. For satellite view there is no other option, but for the standard street maps surely this stuff should just be vector-rendered by now? Despite a few flaws and data issues, it’s still the most complete service. Just not if you’re on Windows Phone.
Good at: Looking good, being hipster, having nice colours.
Bad at: Being a map.
Apple Maps looks nice. And… well, yeah, that’s it. Restricted to iOS at the moment, Maps is Apple’s answer to Google, and really I don’t know why they bothered. Firstly it’s worth noting two things – the colour scheme is nice and calm, and it uses a different renderer for the street map which makes it a lot faster. This is all good, but there are also lots of blank spaces of nothing in my local area. The aforementioned twin shopping centres aren’t even on these maps – they’re just big, blank spaces. And I don’t mean “there’s a big grey box where they are”, I mean there’s literally nothing there. No demarcation of land parcels, just an inconspicuous spot saying “Here be a shopping centre.” And that’s it. Guys, seriously? In terms of directions Maps seems to be about as good as Google Maps but sometimes it seems to pick weird routes or it gets confused about place names and completely screws things up. Its density of known businesses is also remarkably low, and sometimes flat out wrong. Again my local central business district has a load of random places which aren’t even in my city, let alone in the general area. It’s rubbish! The satellite maps are laughably out of date for the modern era – there’s a small shopping village which has been operating for the last few years near my house, but Apple’s maps show it still under construction. Maps supports a traffic overlay, and it does do one thing right – it only highlights areas that have a problem, unlike Google which draws green lines over everything because colour all the roads is apparently a maxim over there. But sometimes it’s out of date or has no relation to reality. I don’t know where the data comes from, but it isn’t usually correct.
One note however – flat bridges or flat buildings is not a bug, that’s what happens when you paste a 2D texture over a 3D plane. Everyone delighted in pointing out these “problems” with Maps when it first came out, but they’re the same in Google Maps, or any mapping program. If you take an overhead image and paste it onto a 3D surface, it’s going to look weird. Really guys, what did you expect?
Apple’s answer to Street View is its 3D mode, and the tech behind it is actually kinda cool. Instead of taking pictures, the vehicles use laser scanning technology to geospatially map each area they pass through. This builds up a 3D image, over which a 3D texture is pasted. In terms of exploration this is much more free-form that the static images from Street View, and potentially much more detailed since it’s an actual 3D environment. It’s in this realm that Maps really shines – it’s a cool bit of tech and when it works, it actually looks pretty cool. I can easily rotate my way around the map, and with improvements in tech I could effective ‘stand’ in the street and explore it more fully than Street View. But the technology still has quite a ways to go, and some areas are distorted, and the texture resolution isn’t good enough in some places. Street View still has the edge for utility. Also it’s only available in a few places (and my city, let alone my local area, isn’t one of them). So while it’s fun to look at Sydney in 3D, it’s not very useful.
Is Apple Maps as bad as people say it is? Not really, but it’s definitely not good either. It’s immature, just like Google Maps was back when it first came out. But it’s not getting any better, and that’s a problem. Google got to where it is with continual improvements. Unless Apple pick up their game, it’s going to be stuck in second place forever.
Good at: Windows Phone, recently good data, downloads maps effortlessly!
Bad at: Looking good, useless 3D mode, user interface
Nokia are basically a one-man army when it comes to Windows Phone. I don’t think anybody invests as much time into making Windows Phone useable as they do (not even Microsoft). HERE Maps (also sometimes known as NAVTEQ) are Nokia’s answer to the other two, and they’re actually not that bad. Firstly, you can access them on pretty much any device (yeah, even Android phones!) and it powers a number of other GPS units too. HERE was easily the slowest of the three systems, using a tile-based renderer similar to Google Maps, but the site also just feels sluggish too. The colour scheme is also pretty ugly – it’s a bit hard on the eyes. The local shopping centres are properly marked, and even part of the interior is shown, but most of it is just a blank space. Also one of the shopping centres apparently declared war on the car yards across the road and annexed them, at least according to HERE. Curiously, the desktop website version won’t display local businesses… unless you select a point on the map and ask what’s nearby, then it’ll show them within a small radius. Why? What’s the point of that? Traffic is supported although it seemed to be missing a number of incidents that Google Maps displayed – whether that’s because Google is wrong or because HERE is wrong isn’t clear to me. The satellite maps are more recent and are at least valid for within the last year in my local area. The density for local places (when you wrap your head around whatever loopy system they have for displaying them) is lower than both Apple and Google, but unlike Apple what does display are actual places that really exist… not things inexplicably translocated from nearly 25km away.
HERE doesn’t have street view but it does use a similar 3D system to what Apple have… except the resolution is lower. While Apple Maps resembles scribble-vision with wobbly lines every so often, HERE looks like it took a ‘best guess’ approach with its point-cloud data. Quite a number of buildings are deformed, and smaller objects (like cars, which actually resolve into something resembling a car in Apple Maps) are absent or ridiculously deformed. On the plus side, it is faster, but it’s even more useless. Public transport information is available but for my local area all it does is point out the local train line,
Here’s something I find incredibly curious – the Windows Phone experience is different, and it’s better in terms of mapping. The colours are much easier on the eyes, and both the local shopping centres have their interiors fully mapped. It still thinks that the annexation of the Car Yard Alliance is something that happened, but it’s still better than both Google Maps and Apple Maps (who won’t even display friggin’ land parcels!). But here’s another weird thing – the satellite maps are even worse than Apple’s! That local shopping village is just a vacant lot in Nokia’s maps, which means it’s pre-I-don’t-even-remember, something like before 2009? I mean that thing’s been there long enough for me to forget when they first built it. So the map is better but the rest isn’t. Nokia also link Drive+ to HERE, which is a highly competent satellite navigation system which is superior to either Apple or Google, with much better routing (and speed limits!). It even sometimes has 3D landmarks… and occasionally crashes for some reason. But that aside it works very well, better than anything the others have. There’s also an augmented reality thing which is supposed to display local places, but either due to a lack of map data or because it’s buggy, it never seems to work properly for me.
HERE has some major issues with its UI, and the inconsistency between the Windows Phone and other versions is odd, but it shows way more promise than Apple’s attempt. While it can’t beat Google in most things, and it lacks a lot of data for points of interest, it doesn’t commit Apple’s cardinal sin of having blatantly incorrect information. I hope HERE develops even more as time goes by, because on Windows Phone it’s basically your only option. It’s not bad like Apple Maps are bad – it’s competent, but there’s room for improvement.