Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cartography Comparison: Google Maps & Apple Maps

Justin O’Beirne:

At its heart, this series of essays is a comparison of the current state of Google’s and Apple’s cartography. But it’s also something more: an exploration into all of the tradeoffs that go into designing and making maps such as these.


Apple is labeling more cities. And Apple is also showing more roads. But Google has more road labels.


That means that out of a combined total of 35 unique places on both maps, the two maps have only 5 places in common.


It’s clear that Google thinks transit is important, while Apple thinks that airports, hospitals, and landmarks are important.

He does not look at rural areas, on the grounds that “the things that are labeled are the area’s only things.” Nonetheless, I’ve still noticed major differences, with Apple Maps typically omitting smaller roads, in favor of showing nothing, unless you really zoom in. In urban areas, I like that Google always shows the transit stations.

Nick Heer:

As noted earlier, I find the most striking difference to be search. Google Maps is very good at it; Apple Maps isn’t. The latter is getting better, insomuch as it less-frequently shows me results in Delaware and Washington D.C. instead of Calgary, but Google is still leaps-and-bounds ahead.

Khoi Vinh:

O’Beirne refrains from calling one or the other superior, but for me, the clear difference is that Apple Maps is concerned with cartographic integrity where Google Maps is concerned with the experience of using the application. That is to say, at most given zoom levels, Apple Maps presents formally better maps, but holistically, Google Maps presents more of the right information at the right time. Which is consistent with what animates each company: Apple is focused on beauty and elegance, and Google is focused on information delivery.

I still greatly prefer Google Maps, both for its design and map data. However, Google has made some changes recently that seem like regressions.

Previously: Google Maps & Label Readability.

Update (2016-06-08): Lee Bennett:

Two huge reasons I prefer Google Maps: Street View and single handed (one finger) zooming.

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"I still greatly prefer Google Maps, both for its design and map data."


And I don't believe the article covers so far a common case: when there is no available tile/data at the time of the rendering.

Apple Maps deals with it with a f***ing B&W grid too often. Google Maps uses a blurred zoomed out tile (or, IIRC, a monochromatic tile) with better UX results.

I just plain hate the B&W grid from a user experience point of view.

Rural areas are dismally handled by both Google Maps and Apple Maps. At a minimum you should have an option to display secondary roads or even dirt roads when zoomed way out. As is unless you have an exact address (not common in rural areas) the maps require you to be zoomed in so close to see secondary roads that you can't use them for directions. It's ridiculous that a paper map is vastly better for driving in much of the country than either Google Maps or Apple Maps (or even many other map apps)

I should add that while there are other things beyond rural driving that annoy me with Apple Maps overall I prefer it to Google. I've had more bad directions with Google and there have been a done of UI regressions the past year or so. It's surprising as Google used to be head and shoulders better than Apple. Yet for basic usability in city areas much to my shock I find myself always going for Apple first.

@Clark Yes, both apps know about rural roads but are too reluctant to show them when zoomed out. What’s frustrating is that they do know the roads; you just can’t see them. There should be some sort of heuristic to have a lower threshold for showing details when there are fewer of them.

@Clark: One solution would be to make the staff on the maps teams go and live in rural areas. It's very very easy to become blinkered in your thinking of how maps should be interacted with, and most definitely the thinking behind styling maps at different zoom levels is still anchored in legacy cartography declaration systems that are based not on context but on scale threshold. Google do a great job, as is mentioned above, in providing relevant contextual overlay info, courtesy of knowing your search history and feeding that back into the POI selection criteria but for the underlying basemap content, both Apple and Google use essentially the same naive contextualization - they just have different scale thresholds for turning reference data categories on and off.

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