Apple is taking some flak for ditching Google's Map data in its latest iOS 6 update, with its own-brand replacement quickly becoming a hilarious Internet meme. But exactly how does Maps in iOS 6 compare to Maps in iOS 5? Should you upgrade? And how do both compare to Android's map app? Read on to find out in this ultimate cartography clash.
For testing, I used an iPhone 4S running iOS 6 and an iPhone 4S running iOS 5, plus a rooted Samsung Galaxy S3 to test the Android app. If you don't see Android visually compared in one of these categories, that's because it was very similar to the results achieved with iOS 5 (as you'd expect, seeing as they both use Google data), but rest assured Android's efforts were tested in every section.
A fairly basic test to start with -- how richly populated are the maps? iOS 5 (on the left throughout this article) is a clear winner when we look at Aston university in Birmingham. Look how many building names are detailed compared to the sparse cartography of iOS 6 (on the right).
The tooth-achingly kitsch Brighton Lanes are also looking sparse on iOS 6, with many more shop and cafe names appearing on the iOS 5 app. This lack of detail and local colour was evident wherever I checked on iOS 6.
An outrageous fail for iOS 6. While the Google-powered iOS 5 found me the right underground route to travel from our London office to Tufnell Park (it can do buses, too), iOS 6 has the sheer audacity to provide a public transport icon that, upon being pressed, pulls up a list of Transport Apps that are available in the App Store. Disgraceful.
iOS 5 performed wonderfully in this test, but Android did it even better -- it's easier to see multiple travel options, and there's route planning for cyclists, too.
I'm hungry and thirsty!
Finding food and drink is one of the few areas in which iOS 6's Map app performed better than iOS 5, apparently thanks to data provided by Yelp. It wasn't consistently helpful, but a search for coffee shops in Leamington Spa yielded many more results with iOS 6, as you can see below.
iOS 6 deserves a fail in this test too, however, because according to its map data Leamington Spa is called 'Royal Spa'. Rubbish.
Once you've found somewhere to eat, that Yelp data comes in handy once more. I used The Diner restaurant in London (try the boozy milkshakes) as a test case -- iOS 5 provided me with an address and phone number, but iOS 6's Yelp integration pulled up all that information plus reviews.
Don't expect iOS 6 to be consistently superior when it comes to feeding and watering you, but it didn't actually do too badly in the places I tested. Both apps were put to shame by Android's effort however, which found a Zagat rating, rough cost and even the kind of food you can expect.
iOS 5 has a tendency to search close to your location as much as possible, hence why the search for 'Edinburgh Castle' shown below found me an 'Edinboro Castle' in Camden. iOS 6 found Scotland's most famous stately pile with no trouble, though I don't remember it looking so... lumpy.
iOS 6 has a tendency to stray a little further than you're probably looking to go. A search for the Cornish town of Truro saw the new maps app jumping me across the Atlantic to Truro, Nova Scotia -- an unlikely preference, seeing as I was searching from within the UK. Android found the right town with no trouble.
Satellite image quality
While we're observing Cornwall from the sky, let's take a moment to compare the satellite image quality of both mapping systems. As you can see, iOS 5's Maps app is a clear winner, offering a much crisper view from above compared with iOS 6's blurry efforts.
"Maybe the rubbish satellite images are confined to more rural regions," you might be thinking. But London's Regents Park also looks a bit ropey on the new app compared to the now-defunct iOS 5 software.
Android's images were totally on par with iOS 5's -- again, as you'd expect.
The random obscurity test
My colleague Nick Hide recommended seeing which apps could locate Thomson & Dunbar, a "wonderful old electrical shop" in Kirkcudbright, south-west Scotland. I have no idea what made him think of this location, but as you can see, iOS 5 managed it, iOS 6 did not. Android found it wi' nae bother.
One thing iOS 6 has over iOS 5 is the ability to examine maps in 3D. Head to central London and turn on 3D mode, and you can swivel and fly your virtual way through our fair capital, taking in the sights.
iOS 5 has no equivalent feature, so loses out automatically. We'd note, however, that this feature is far from complete in iOS 6.
Scroll beyond the confines of central London and everything suddenly becomes very flat indeed, because not much of the UK has been given this glitzy 3D treatment just yet. You'll definitely find a few structures that have gone hilariously wrong, too -- weep at iOS 6's rendering of the magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge:
Android, meanwhile, gets a pseudo 3D-effect in some areas, and you can tilt your point-of-view to get a better idea of your surroundings. There's no satellite imagery in this mode, however.
Because Google is out of the picture, you lose Street View, which was one of Maps' finest features. The Big Cup coffee house in Leamington Spa that popped up above is easily visible using Street View (though I had to rotate the landscape image to fit on this page), whereas the closest I could get using iOS 6 was the muddy puddle you see below.
Android wins this fight too, because as well as getting Street View, you also get Street View with your phone in portrait mode, eliminating the need to keep spinning your mobile around in your hands.
iOS 6 brings turn-by-turn navigation, a great feature for drivers, to the iPhone. I don't own a car, but I mapped a route to Buckingham Palace and hopped in a taxi to test this feature, and was impressed with how well it worked.
The route was efficient -- with a selection of alternative paths to follow also provided -- and everything on screen moved very smoothly once we started driving. Siri handles the driving instructions, with big blue pop-up icons telling you where to head next. The journey took 15 minutes, which is what the app predicted.
At one point Siri complained of losing connection, but it didn't seem to affect the instructions much. I can't make any claims about how well the app would fare over a long journey with signal black-spots, or what effect long-term navigation would have on battery life, however.
Android offers a navigation service too, though I wasn't able to test this alongside iOS 6 due to not being able to get GPS. Pressing the blue arrow in the image below brings up a sat-nav like 3D interface. Let me know how you've found this service in the comments below.
Neither iOS 5 or iOS 6 offer offline maps, which is a real shame as it's a great feature on Android, and will be an appealing feature on upcoming Windows Phone 8 devices too.
Android lets you save large swathes of map to your phone -- which should be very handy if you're travelling abroad.
Winners and losers
iOS 6 impressed me in the driving test, though without access to a car and a free day in which to hoon it up to Edinburgh, I wouldn't want to make too many claims about its reliability on long journeys.
That's pretty much the only area in which Apple's new service did make a good impression, though. Rubbish satellite images, some laughably inaccurate listings and maps that feel extremely sparse make this app a disappointment.
It's not terrible per se, but we've been spoiled by the excellent service offered by Google. iOS 6 has some tasty non-map features, but if you ask me it's worth sticking with iOS 5 just to keep the better Maps app.
Android, meanwhile, proved excellent in pretty much every category, with my only minor complaints being that sometimes its wealth of features felt a tad overpowering, and its many lists of options were sometimes tricky to navigate.
Android and iOS 5's Map app are tied then, with both proving excellent services for finding your way around. iOS 6 isn't good enough yet -- here's hoping Apple can update it, and quick. In the meantime, if you've upgraded to iOS 6 and desperately want Google Maps back, just go to maps.google.co.uk in your browser and it'll prompt you to add the page to your home screen, just like an app.
Update 21 September: Corrected navigation section, which previously incorrectly described the image of the Android route directions as navigation. Also clarified why we couldn't test the navigation mode.