Technology

First Impressions: Apple Maps

Apple Computer has been getting a lot of bad press lately due to the removal of Google Maps from iOS and it’s replacement of Apple’s own mapping application. Rumor has it that Apple wanted Google to do turn by turn directions but Google refused and limited that feature to the Android platform. Apple then teamed up with TomTom and others to deliver their own application.

As an initial release, the application is pretty good for what it does. Had they released on 2009, it would have been a flagship application. Now they have to catch up and the application didn’t go far enough. The problem Apple faced though is that the previous mapping application on the iPhone did so much more. The original application had:

  • Better use of the battery out of the box by not providing turn by turn directions
  • Mass transit directions
  • Pedestrian directions
  • Less bugs (though all these apps have at least some)
  • Better street view in my opinion.

Apple went as far to make a formal, public apology on the matter. I’d be curious to know if they anticipated this reaction or if they were completely blind sighted.

That being said, there is plenty to like about the program.

Aesthetically Beautiful

In Apple fashion, the application is visually superb. The maps are rendered with great detail and you can tell that Apple tried to ensure that the application was clearly polished.

Maps View

They tried to render road signs true to form. Most applications tend to punt on the state and county highways, but Apple renders them each in high fidelity both on the maps and the turn by turn directions. in each of the screen shots, you can see the crisp fonts, gentle gradients and shading, and beveling to make a very clean look.

Each of the interstate, federal, state, and county highway shields are rendered in very crisp detail. That detail shows up on the large turn by turn directions as well as the map and satellite view. Apple does a good job at localizing the state signs for each state as well as using green background signs here and blue in Europe where that color is more commonly used. The 2D and 3D map views are very well rendered. In the third image, it’s easy to see this famous decreasing radius turn when merging from highway 12o east into highway 120/99 north. The call outs above the road seem to be a nice touch. It makes the map clearer to read. The 3D buildings on what is traditionally a 2D view moves the aesthetics forward..

Apple also does a good job of noting points of interest like gas stations, restaurants, bars, hospitals, gas stations, etc. While Google did that as well, the Apple implementation seems less obtrusive than Google’s pervasiveness with ads.

Clicking on a point of interest brings up basic information about that point of interest as well as reviews and images by Yelp! Note the textured green background for Central Park. It’s this sort of detail that makes the experience that much better.

One minor nit…

The main navigational signs don’t follow the paradigm of how they are actually laid out in real life. The highway shield is usually on the left and the directional arrow is on the right or bottom. Apple seems to have reversed that for some unknown reason.

Satellite (Flyover) View

There are tons of images out on the web pointing out bugs in Apple’s data for the flyover view. Given that they are trying to map the entire world in high fidelity in the palm of your hand, there are bound to be bugs. I’ve found some on Google’s maps over the years (you couldn’t use street view to cross from Canada into Alaska). I’ve reported most of them and they have fixed them. Apple’s data is good for a first release. They don’t do near as well as Google polling their users for issues with the map data. The application is very performant (on the 4S) and the images render well. As you navigate from cities out to lesser populated areas, the images lose some fidelity, but that’s common with Google’s data as well.

You have to press the 3D icon to get the best experience. It’s the button highlighted in blue. All common gestures work. The new one here is moving two fingers up and down across the screen. That adjusts the vertical perspective on the picture.

Navigation

The new maps application fits somewhere between a traditional GPS device and the old Google Maps application for iOS. They solve the same problems but have different approaches to the limitations of the device and the application implementation.

Defining a traditional GPS.

A traditional GPS has a few key characteristics that often get overlooked when using a phone based mapping application.

  • The maps are on the device. You don’t need an internet connection to get them.
  • The application will give turn by turn directions real time as the user is changing location.
  • The application will reroute if the user goes off course
  • The application clearly shows the user on the map with some indication of the user’s direction
  • The ability to support way points or intermediate destinations.
  • The application reports ancillary data:
    • Speed,
    • Elevation
    • Distance (to next turn and remaining to destination)
    • Time to destination / Arrival time

Garmin’s Navigon is one app that does all of these and is a GPS application replacement for iPhone and Android devices.

Where the old app came up short:

Using the list above, there were a few major misses in the old application. The old application is missing:

  • The maps are on the device. You don’t need an internet connection to get them.
  • The application will give turn by turn directions real time as the user is changing location.
  • The ability to support way points or intermediate destinations.
  • The application will reroute if the user goes off course
  • The application reports ancillary data:
    • Speed,
    • Elevation
    • Arrival time

There was a lot in the Google implementation that was not fully there. Some of the items were less necessary, but when compared to a real GPS, a lot was to be desired.

The new app does better

Apple moved the bar much further forward. A number of items got knocked off the list, but the new application is missing

  • The maps are on the device. You don’t need an internet connection to get them.
  • The ability to support way points or intermediate destinations.
  • The application reports ancillary data:
    • Speed,
    • Elevation

The app appears to download enough data to handle some amount of going off course while it’s in network coverage to fill in some of the gaps. If you’re starting navigation out in the sticks, you’re going to be out of luck.

So what could be better?

  • Power: Turn by turn navigation consumes a LOT of power. The GPS chip needs to run full time to track your location. If you expect to use this feature for any duration of time, you’ll need to power the device while en route. I was able to travel about 2h and 30 mins with the application to drain a full battery. I also had on device music streaming via Bluetooth. I did not test how much power the music add on consumed.
  • Voice Navigation: The 4S and 5 do text to speech when in turn by turn mode. Unless you have the voice on normal volume or louder, it gets drowned out in the background music coming from the device. To make matters worse the maps application lowers the volume of the radio to play a voice you cannot hear. Also, the voice announces turns too many times for my taste. The maps app is no better than most others I’ve used in this category.
  • Directions: As with many GPS applications, the application needs to figure out how to read the map data and communicate it to you. Apple wasn’t exempt from the common bugs that these applications have:
    • When merging onto the freeway it will tell you to drive 25 miles on the ramp. The application doesn’t distinguish between the ramp and the actual road since one blends into the other.
    • The application doesn’t use the locally accepted name for a road. In Atlanta for instance, the locals refer to Georgia 400 rather than US 19. Apple’s app uses US 19 as it’s defaulting to interstates take priority over federal highways which take priority over state highways, which take priority over local roads.
    • When making a turn onto a road that forks quickly, the voice and visual navigation don’t always update too quickly. Apple has secondary call outs which are nice, but sometimes even these fall short.

The secondary call out is nice here.

Conclusion

Apple got a lot of bad press for this release. Much of it I do think is unwarranted though. The big frustration appears to be the removal of the old application and the resultant loss of functionality. That move I believe created a lot of ill will with its customer base. Both however are good apps. They just solve different problems in the space. The new application works well as an embedded component in other applications. Apple did their homework in a lot of areas they are not getting credit for.

I’m sure Apple thought about including the old and new mapping applications. I’m guessing there was a good reason they didn’t. A beta of this application with the old application might have been a better user experience while Apple’s implementation caught up to Google’s.

So where is my money? Neither app for the hard core stuff. I’m using Navigon. It’s inferior in a number of ways to both apps, but it’s a true GPS application. I can use it without cell signal and it supports way points. Both are deal breakers for me. For in town navigation, I’d go with the new application by Apple. It’s a much better experience.

Categories: Technology, Travel

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