How Apple’s Maps are Better

One place Google cannot top Apple is in the elegance of design. Design has always been the trump card in Apple’s back pocket, and it’s every bit as true with Apple Maps. And I’ll prove it.

A Reddit user posted this funny image (above) earlier today, and it got me thinking… Aren’t Apple’s maps designed better than Google’s? I think it’s an interesting question, because with all the flap about the problems with Apple Maps‘ accuracy, the visual quality of what Apple has created is being completely ignored.

So… Is the image above accurate? Are Apple’s road markers — and more to the point, Apple’s standard vector maps in general — more interesting to look at than Google’s? Apple has always put a huge emphasis on design, beauty, and aesthetics. Do Apple’s maps provide more of a feast for the eyes than the competition?

To find out, I decided to do a side-by-side comparison of my own, using the standard, aka non-satellite view of each mapping system, with a major city. I picked Los Angeles as my test subject because it’s a diverse area with many different kinds of roads and terrain and points of interest. Here’s a look at how the two mapping systems render L.A. (Apple is on the left, Google on the right.)

This is obviously an enormous image, and you’ll want to click on it to get the full-sized version for the best comparison. What strikes me is that yes, Apple’s rendering of Los Angeles is a lot more pleasing to the eyes than Google’s completely utilitarian approach. For starters, Apple’s is more colorful. Airports are shown in purple, wooded areas and forests are in green, and yep, different kinds of roads are shown with different shapes (and colors) of road signs.

To be fair, Google does use different sizes and colors of road signs as well, though not with as much variety. Google also colors its wooded areas green, but it’s a less noticeable shade than Apple’s, which really pops off the screen. That seems to be descriptive of almost every element of Google’s maps: everything is rendered in muted colors. There’s not a high level of contrast between the various shades of blue, yellow, white, and green. Apple, on the other hand, put a lot more thought into its color choices, not shying away from bright, vivid colors that both contrast and compliment one another.

Look closely, and you’ll see that Apple’s graphics are sharper, its lines crisper. Even the font Apple uses looks as if it was chosen because it’s clearer and easier to read. Another little touch you won’t notice unless you look at it at its full size are the drop shadows in Apple’s maps. Check those road signs again: each one has a tiny drop shadow underneath, giving it the effect of looking like it’s floating just over the map. All of the road signs show subtle gradients as well, giving them a softer, more stylized, almost 3D kind of look.

Now look at the edge of the land mass. That same drop shadow shows up here, too. Again, it’s a very understated graphic effect — the kind of thing that most people would probably never be conscious of — but it’s a trigger for the eyes that conveys something to your brain, almost on a subconscious level. It shows the difference between land and sea in a way that’s crystal clear, yet doesn’t draw attention to itself. This is precisely the kind of thing that Apple has always excelled at, and all of these minor effects add up to something beautiful that works together as a complete design scheme.

There’s no question that Apple’s rendering is more simplified, more pared-down; Google’s map shows loads more detail. But as with all things Apple, simplicity is key — and it’s never simplicity for simplicity’s sake. It’s about providing the optimal user experience. I have no doubt that a great deal of thought went into what level of detail Apple’s maps would show, so as not to overwhelm users with too much data.

But I can already hear the haters… “So what, man? Yeah, Apple’s maps are pretty, but looks aren’t as important as whether or not the thing works!”

I don’t disagree. Form does not trump function. But all Google has is function. It’s bland, it’s busy, and it looks like it was created by a computer rather than a person. Apple’s philosophy has always been to balance form and function, making each one better by virtue of a perfect symbiosis between them. I’ll grant that Google has the more functional mapping system. But that’s a very temporary situation. Apple never stops upgrading and improving its wares, and I have no doubt that very soon, Apple’s maps will offer every bit as much usefulness as Google’s — with a little something called design to go along with it.

About Robin Parrish

Unathletic, uncoordinated tall man with endless creativity stampeding through his overactive brain. Comes with beard, wife, and two miniature humans. Novelist. General blogger and main Gaming Geek for ForeverGeek. Lead Blogger, Apple Gazette.

Comments

  1. michaelturbo says:

    Um,gauging from the overhead map above? The Google image looks more saturated, vibrant, and pleasing to the eye. Contrary to a more washed out competitor. But, sorry, I can’t “prove” it. At least not if respecting the meaning and fundamental differentiation between fact and opinion.

  2. Defensive much? You’ve labeled people who would point out that form is the single most important function for a map as “haters”. You could have used a more appropriate description: “People who are right”.

    “…the visual quality of what Apple has created is being completely ignored.”
    No one’s ignoring it; it’s just not important. Function doesn’t just trump form in a map. It destroys it, smites it, lays it to waste. A hand-drawn, smeared ink, back-of-a-damp-cocktail-napkin map to my house given to a woman at a bar wins if it gets her there and Apple Maps can’t. You can label me a hater for believing that, but at the end of the night, I’d rather get laid than look at pretty maps and hope the woman still remembers me when they get my address right in Maps 7.

    Save us a little time when you’re feeling irked by Apple criticism and just write something like “Apple Maps doesn’t work as a map should now, but you have to admit it looks better than Google’s offering and that’s enough for me as an Apple fan”. Or link to Daring Fireball. Either one works.

    • ViewRoyal says:

      I’ve used the new Apple Maps app, and so have others I know who have upgraded to iOS 6. And I can tell you unequivocally that it has worked flawlessly.

      Yes, there may be errors in the new Maps app (which have not shown up in my experience), but then again there are lots of errors and missing data in Google Maps too.

      If you are under the impression that Google Maps are “perfect”, you are delusional.

      The difference is that Apple Maps has just come out with the release of iOS 6 less than a month ago, while Google Maps has been in existence for about 10 years now, and it still has lots of errors in it.

  3. You’re kidding yourself. Elegance is one thing – and I won’t even give you that Apple’s maps are better looking than Google’s – but accuracy and useful is far more important. Here’s something missing from Apple maps: exit numbers off interstates. Kind of useful information if you ask me – but if you prefer to obsess over type fonts, so be it. In my relatively small town, Apple’s maps have businesses listed and placed on the map that are actually in a neighboring town. Guess that’s not a problem if you don’t care about actually using them to find a location.

    These new Apple maps are an abomination. They’re everything you do not expect to get from Apple – a company that has long prided, marketed and sold its products as the best. They’re a disaster and it’s not just me saying it. Apple’s capitalization is off $30 billion following the release of iOS 6 and the discovery that a key ingredient in their mobile mix is… a sub-par product.

  4. This article is bunk! Apple maps sacrificed functionality for the sake of design. There are many labels that the google maps show for locations that don’t show up in the apple maps. Say I wanted to know where viewpark/windsor hills was? Google shows it. But Apple doesn’t.

  5. ViewRoyal says:

    Like the old joke about what the fat person when he was insulted by someone:
    “I can lose weight, but you will always be ugly.”

    To paraphrase with Apple telling Google:
    “I can correct any errors, but you will always be ugly.”

    ;-)

    • Miss Call says:

      I guess that is why we have beauty queens like Miss South Carolina. She might not be smart, but you will always be ugly.

      ;-)

  6. Wow. I thought this one might get a few responses, but I never imagined it would strike such a nerve.

    Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Mine is that the Apple Maps hoo-hah is being blown way out of proportion. For every “Apple Maps sucks!” I’ve seen, I’ve seen another “It works perfectly fine for me. What’s the big deal?”

    I’m not here to be Apple’s apologist. Of course I like their products. What I like most is the extraordinary amount of thought and care Apple puts into what they make — always with the user experience in mind.

    Doesn’t mean I think Apple’s perfect. I have my own list of grievances against Apple (among them: the Foxconn workers’ situation, their heavy-handed oversight of third-party developers, how their paranoid secret-keeping frequently screws over their business partners, I fear for how long they’ll be successful the further away we get from the Jobs era, etc.).

    Look more closely at the article. I never argued the point that Apple’s maps aren’t as useful as Google’s. There’s no question that Google’s are superior in almost every way. The point of this article was to highlight the “almost.”

    What’s so bad about that?

    • I’d say take your own advice and look at your post most closely. There’s nothing wrong with having your opinion, of course, it’s just that the post is pure defensiveness. You’ve labeled those that bring up a valid point as “haters” and you elevate the importance of trivial differences like drop shadows. It feels like you’re reaching for something, anything to excuse the fail that is Maps. Put another way: if a manufacturer released a good-looking car that would just stop at random times, would you write about how great it looks in your driveway?

      “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Mine is that the Apple Maps hoo-hah is being blown way out of proportion.”

      Saying that a complaint on functionality is being blown out of proportion and bringing elegant design into the mix as evidence is just silly. By the way, I’d say Apple disagrees with you, otherwise there wouldn’t be a mea culpa from Tim Cook on their site.

      • it’s just that the post is pure defensiveness

        We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. I think your replies have been pure attack.

        You’ve labeled those that bring up a valid point as “haters”

        That’s the second time you’ve mentioned that word. You really seem to have a problem with it, like it’s some kind of insult or slur. It never occurred to me that it could be taken that way. I hate lots of things; why would I mind being called a hater of them? I will gladly tell the whole world that I am an American Idol hater. For life!

        you elevate the importance of trivial differences like drop shadows

        Taken completely out of context, of course drop shadows are unimportant. My point was, these numerous little visual flourishes add up to an experience that’s more aesthetically pleasing than Google’s.

        I will say it again: the point of the article was to point out one aspect of Apple Maps that’s better than Google Maps. That one thing is design, something that Apple has always excelled at. You’re acting like I’m trying to convince people that Apple Maps are the be-all, end-all of mapping software for all time. As if design is the only thing in the world that matters. As I said in the article, design does not trump usefulness. That doesn’t mean, however, that design should be completely ignored.

        Look around the web, at tech sites and other Apple blogs. Everybody’s regurgitating the same “Apple Maps suck!” stuff over and over again. I wrote this article to offer a counterpoint, to point out one — say it with me, now: ONE — area where they most certainly do not suck.

        I’m not trying to make you forget about the shortcomings of Apple Maps. That would be foolish. I don’t discount the claims of everybody that says Apple’s maps don’t work for them. But I do think “MapGate” (and I can’t believe someone thought the issue worthy of deserving a “-gate” name) has turned into a ridiculously sensationalized news story, awarded with far more media coverage than it deserves.

        It would be one thing if you were being forced to use Apple Maps, but there are plenty of other options available. Enough with the griping. Pick something else and move on.

    • On the area of design, the smaller roads are only a shade darker than the background. I can’t read it. I love Apple, but this is nuts. And unreadable map speaks clearly to a design flaw which to me, makes form just as awful as function. I would love to ha e been in the meeting where this went from Alpha to Beta, and then from Beta to release. Didn’t anybody point out that you can’t see the smaller roads?

  7. I probably would be considered an Apple fanboy, but even I don’t agree with you. A map’s purpose is to impart information. The shadow streets inside the street grids, the airplane symbols for airports, named places that are missing in your Apple comparison are all both functional and graphic enhancements. The “blankness” of the Apple map is not pleasing or useful. Yeah, I like the drop shadows. How long do you think that simple thing will be adopted by Google?

  8. The cake is a lie.

  9. Anyone remember a one month old Google maps? Compare like with like and you will see Apples maps, although a work in progress, has made an excellent start. They load many times quicker than the old Google maps and they make Gmaps look last century when swiping along the map. I use Yell to find a location and get to maps from there. It’s a free product, if they charged for it then you have a right to get your money back, due to your high expectations of an obvious beta product. It will take a lot less than ten years to outstrip Gmaps and the above article highlights the foundation’s Apple have set to get there. Be patient or alternatively, actually pay for one of the great apps developers have invested time in or even just use Gmaps via a browser. Trolling Apple sites to be non-constructive is a waste of all your talents.

  10. So according to you, when it’s about maps, elegance is more important than accuracy?

    What an idiot.

    • So according to you, when it’s about maps, elegance is more important than accuracy?

      Can you quote the exact line or lines in the article where I said that? No, you can’t. Because it’s not there!

      Seriously, is anybody actually reading the article before commenting on it?? (Harvey and Andrew notwithstanding. Thanks, guys.)

      What an idiot.

      What a brilliant way to win me over to your way of thinking. You genius, you.

  11. Hi Robin,

    I come from a small town in a small country, and the maps app has reduced my thousand dollar device (that’s how much they cost here) to about half of its usefulness (a lot of my battery time is spent on navigation and maps). I bought this device to replace my GPS, iPod and phone, with iOS6, it now can only do two of those things. Which means another device and another data plan, suitably I’m annoyed, my pet greavances aside;

    Your argument that, for every “it’s broken” post there’s an equal “It’s fine” to follow it up, is not a good one. If an app works half the time, I put in the “it doesn’t work” bin, if it works 80% of the time, I still put it in that same bin. I have no doubt that Apple maps will get better, but by the time it does catch up to Google maps (if it does, it’s not like Google isn’t working on their navigation/maps) I’d wager that the iPhone 5 (and probably the 5S) will be obsolete – which isn’t good enough. The real ‘screw-the-user moment’ is that you actually can’t replace it as the default, and you can’t hide it in a folder so now all of my apps that rely on an accurate mapping function now perform abysmally as well. So the whole “use another map program” doesn’t work that well either.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is this; your articles point is moot, Apple have effectively polished a turd. Having something with a nice UI and design interface is completely pointless if the underlying function doesn’t work – it’s not a redeeming feature in the slightest, and if you try an argue that it does work then see all comments your readers have outlined above (and all over the inter-space-web-thing). It’s like having a golden toilet bowl that doesn’t flush. Even though it’s pretty, you’re gonna stop using it.

    • I understand what you’re saying, but if everything you say is true, why do people keep buying and using Apple products? I’m sorry to hear that you feel you’ve wasted your money, but we’ll have to agree to disagree about the value of iOS 6 and Apple Maps.

  12. Jason T Read says:

    Hamish.
    The reason the author would be dismissive of your concerns would be because he does not rely on his phone on multiple occasions per day for accurate mapping data. As you pointed out, previous to the ios6 release, google maps worked perfectly. With the release of iOS6, the the iPhone gas suffered a massive downgrade. For user such as yourself and me, 30% of the phones functionality has been removed. The mapping integration is lost if you consider apple maps unusable. The reason again for stating apple maps is unusable is because it is unreliable.

    If I lived in the SF Bay Area, I’m sure apple maps is amazin, but in the bigger wider world, apple maps is a pig with lipstick as the author points out.

    Personally, much prefer the look and feel of google maps. The lack of detail in apple maps is not functional for me. The lack of street numbers seems like a very strange omission. The only thing positive about them is the fave they are vector based.

    For reference, I’ve used google maps on iPhone for a few years in Indonesia, singapore and Australia. Google maps was part of the reason I thought the iPhone was by far the best electronic consumer device ever made. The apple maps factor has taken away 30% of its functionality. Because mapping is integrated into the OS, there is no way to regain the integration

    The iPhone will remain an ok product and will have an ever lagging functionality factor. Google has way too big a head start and apple can only ever be playing catch up.

    After 13 years of apple love, I feel like I’ve discovered my lover is a tranny.

  13. Imaps works perfectly fine for me. I’m enamoured by the design of the turn by turn directions, the green’s superb and the blue path, and it worked perfectly even to pelverata. Fine article.

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