Google Maps might’ve been the first big navigation app, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be king of the map apps forever. Eight years after launch, Apple Maps has come close to reaching parity with Google’s offering, backed by Apple’s considerable resources. Heading into 2021, Apple Maps has improved its maps and satellite imagery, cycling navigation, and city-based Guides, and offers a new Look Around feature that rivals Google’s Street View. Overall, Apple Maps still trails Google Maps, the PCMag Editors’ Choice pick for navigation apps, due to a few missing features, but it’s clear that Cupertino is all-in on catching up to and surpassing Google.
Where to Find Apple Maps
Apple was once content to let Google Maps be its primary mapping service, but that changed in 2012 when the company launched Maps. In fact, Apple Maps comes pre-installed on every iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac. If for some reason you decide to uninstall Apple Maps, you can reinstall it for free from the App Store. Apple Maps is an Apple-exclusive app, so Android users can’t experience what it has to offer. Conversely, Google Maps is available on both the Android and Apple platforms.
Unlike Google Maps and the driver-focused Waze, Apple Maps lacks a browser-based version. That said, Apple has released its MapKit JS code that lets web developers add Apple Maps services to websites. For example, the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo recently switched to using it for map-related searches and route planning.
I tested the app on an iPhone 12 Pro. Apple Maps has a basic skeleton map that’s similar Google Maps, with clearly labeled street names, interstates, and local businesses. There’s a search bar, a widget with the temperature and air quality in your search area (very nice!), a button to reorient to your current location, and another button that lets you explore the Settings options. In Settings, you can toggle between map, public transit, and satellite views, and turn real-time traffic indicators on and off. Like Google Maps, Apple Maps has voiced, turn-by-turn directions.
Apple Maps syncs with your region’s day/night cycle, presenting a “Light” mode during the daytime and a “Dark” mode at night. Google Maps has this as an option, too. However, I was unable to find a way to toggle this on or off within Apple Maps. That’s a bit annoying if you prefer one mode over the other.
Apple Maps does a slightly better job than Google Maps of highlighting major stores and businesses in your area. Google Maps can be iffy in this regard. I have Wegmans, Best Buy, Walmart, Home Depot, and Giant Food all clustered nearby, for example, but Google only shows the first three unless I zoom into the map. I’d hazard the app is prioritizing sponsored businesses, as they come complete with special logos and nameplates. Apple Maps shows all the local, major businesses at a glance, something that was clear in multiple test searches. I wish Apple’s icons were a bit brighter, though, especially in the daytime view. Google’s icon colors are a bit brighter, overall, making them a bit easier to read.
The Street Life
When you search for a specific address or business in Apple Maps, the app takes you to the location, gives you the distance from your current location, pulls reviews from Yelp, and offers directions. Location cards also highlight business hours, phone numbers, relevant Yelp photos, and other useful information, such as places that offer free Wi-Fi or businesses that accept credit cards.
For certain cities, Apple Maps displays Guides, a curated list that highlights a city’s recommended destinations. For example, Guides showed me Los Angeles’ best local beaches and flea markets after I made a search within the city. These guides are spotty, though, as they’re from third-party sources. Unfortunately, not every city has accompanying Guides; Cincinnati and Detroit lacked adjoining Guides options during my test period.
Apple Maps has directions for when you’re traveling by car, foot, public transportation, bicycle, or ride-sharing services. The app displays multiple route options, and its traffic is color-coded by severity. Although Apple Maps defaults to finding directions based on your current location, it’s easy to search for a different starting point. You just tap the current starting location and a search bar appears. It’s a far more intuitive search solution than what Waze offers. That app makes you jump through hoops to select a different starting point.
While Apple has committed to its own fleet of camera-equipped cars to scan the world, it’s clear that Google still has more robust maps. Using Google Maps, I viewed my local Best Buy’s internal layout; this type of internal mapping is something that Apple Map lacks. In a more useful illustration, Google Maps let me switch between multiple floors within the Washington State Convention Center. Likewise, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has internal maps with multiple floors, that highlight bathrooms, escalators, and phones.
Apple Maps does put up a good fight in some smaller towns, which used to be a much bigger issue in past years. A search of the tiny Gorham, New Hampshire gave me a clear, concise look at the local businesses. Google Maps knows where the businesses are when you search for them, but they’re not as clearly listed as Apple Maps. It requires you to zoom in a bit.
Apple recently added Look Around, an option that’s similar to Google’s Street View. I enjoy its implementation, as it gives you 360-degree location views and a side-by-side map for additional context. Google Maps’ Street View, on the other hand, is a full-screen affair that’s somewhat cumbersome to use.
That said, Google is working with more data. As previously mentioned, Google Maps’ Street View has internal looks at some of the locations. Plus, in my Gorham search, Street View covered most of the town, while Apple Maps’ Look Around offered nothing. International travelers will find even less information: Look Around is available in five countries—Canada, Ireland, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom—with only a few coverage areas in each nation. Google Maps tops it by offering Street View in 23 countries. The tale of the tape is the same: Apple is working with a clearer user interface, but Google has more data about the world to bring to bear.
Flying Over the World
Apple Maps has full Siri integration, which lets you ask Apple’s personal assistant for directions. The voice commands work well, though I found that asking for directions to a location wouldn’t immediately present me with a route. Instead, it gave me a series of route buttons, including one based on my current location and other recent searches. I wish it would just automatically create a route, as Google Maps does.
The app’s satellite view is a little odd, adding a more intense angle to its terrain photographs. This makes sense, however, when you see Apple Maps’ absolutely stunning 3D Flyover view. Akin to Microsoft Flight Simulator, Apple Maps combines satellite imagery with 3D models to create a truly impressive view of major cities. These flyover maps look like tiny dioramas, and I could spend days looking at them.
Apple Maps lets you set home and work locations for frequent commutes. You can also save locations as favorites, making it easy to find directions at the press of a button. Apple’s app caches routes when you look them up, but there’s no way to save maps for offline use as you can with Google Maps. That said, it’s worth noting that Apple’s maps are vector based, requiring less data.
Apple’s commitment to privacy carries over to this app. Apple Maps keeps most of its data, such as like recent searches and directions, on your device. The app also ties data to random identifiers that reset over time, leaving no history of your travels—an excellent touch. Google is much worse, in this regard. Google Maps has options to delete its collected data, but it tends to hide those options.
A Strong Second
Apple Maps has improved a lot since its disastrous launch. Apple has filled its digital world with satisfying directions, additional travel types, and even temperature and air quality information. The Look Around feature brings Apple Maps one step closer to parity with Google Maps, and 3D Flyover is a stunning technology display.
Still, Google works with far more expansive mapping data. Apple Maps can get you to your local museum or mall, but Google Maps can show you what’s inside. That data gap that will likely lessen over time, but it’s a gap that still exists. Because of this, Google Maps is our Editors’ Choice for navigation apps.
For more on Apple Maps, check out 10 Reasons to Give Apple Maps a Try.
Apple Maps Specs