Monday, July 3, 2017

Navigation Wars: Google Maps vs Waze vs Apple Maps

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If we look back to the dawn of the smartphone, one of the main draws was their GPS chips and ability to offer on-the-go navigation. No longer were we beholden to sites like MapQuest (which still exists as a mobile app, by the way) and printing directions on actual, physical paper. Instead, we could open up our maps app, input a destination, and receive live, turn-by-turn directions.

It was like a pocket-sized Marco Polo, Chris Columbus, or Ferdinand Magellan had become your permanent wingman and was surely a death-dealing blow to paper maps. But it didn’t stop there.

After we gained the ability to navigate via our smartphones, it became a question of which software does it better. Obviously, Google Maps is the most well-known map app, being that it’s basically synonymous with mobile navigation; in fact, Google Maps was the default navigation software that came preinstalled on the first iterations of the iPhone, until Apple launched its own Apple Maps. Meanwhile, an app called Waze emerged as a third-party alternative to Google and Apple Maps, and it gained quite a following even before the company was bought by Google.

We at Android Authority decided it was time to settle this once and for all. The team has put yours truly on the task of conducting a brief analysis of all three apps, identifying their weaknesses and differentiating them based on their respective strengths. This is the Navigation Wars, Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps. Who will reign supreme?

Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps

Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps – Looking at Google Maps

Putting all jokes and theatrics aside, and before taking a deep-dive into these three apps, one might expect Google Maps to take the gold. It’s Google, after all, an incredibly forward-thinking, revolutionary software company.

This particular software company has put incomprehensible amounts of money and resources into mapping the world. And beyond simply mapping the streets, the search giant sent out a fleet of Street View cars — which, according to a report from a few years ago, have collectively driven an estimated seven million miles — to take 360-degree photos along 99 percent of all public roads in the US, giving users the ability to actually preview their route from a first-person perspective. And let’s not forget that this process has been and continues to be repeated in countries all over the world. In other words, not only can Google Maps give you directions when you take your next Florida vacation but also when you finally take that trip to Greece.

More recently, Google has invested into complex software that provides detailed 3D imaging in lots of highly-populated and tourist-heavy areas. So in addition to getting a first-person street view of your route, you can zoom outward to seeing a computer-rendered model of the surrounding area for contextual information such as the shapes and sizes of buildings. Plus, algorithms built into Google Maps can account for things like traffic jams. Basically, the software can reference users’ locations and movements to see how they’re moving through certain areas, comparing that to historical data so that, when drivers start to slow in those areas, Google Maps can put our a traffic alert. It may sound simple, but making it all work surely requires some finesse.

Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps

Google has invested into complex software that provides detailed 3D imaging in lots of highly-populated and tourist-heavy areas.

Notice how we’ve hardly talked about the actual app yet? That’s because a lot of the value of Google Maps is beneath the surface, the cogs and springs that make the app work.

When you open Google Apps, you get a very clean interface. At the top, you’re invited to either search for your destination — which obviously employs Google’s popular search engine — or input an address. Whether you’re selected a destination from search results or an address, the map shows you the destination on the map as well as reviews (if it’s a business), the amount of time it would take you to travel there, the ability to learn more about the destination, and a big blue button that says “DIRECTIONS” that will begin plotting your route. Or routes, rather, since it will typically give you the choice of a few routes from which you can choose, depending on how many different ways there are for you to get to your destination.

Arguably the biggest selling feature of those standalone GPS units that we used to buy for our vehicles was spoken turn-by-turn directions. Google Maps rolled out turn-by-turn directions a couple years back and currently offers three options: Spoken directions for each step of your route, no spoken directions, or an alert mode, which means that Google Apps will only speak to you about things like travel alerts and missed turns.

Google Maps allows you to program multiple stops into a trip or conduct a search for an additional stop while still enroute.

In operation, Google Maps maintains its clean UI. Your location is denoted by an arrow that points in the direction you’re facing. From what I can tell, the uses the direction in which you were last moving to determine the direction to point the arrow since the arrow will change direction if you begin to reverse.

On occasion, though, the app seems to get confused about which direction you’re facing. This tends to happen when you’re sitting still for a few minutes (i.e., at a stoplight), or if you initiate a trip while you’re sitting still, at which time the app may think you’re diverting from the route and begin needlessly amending it. I occasionally experience a similar quirk; if I start a trip while sitting at a stoplight, for instance, the app can’t seem to remember the direction in which I had just been traveling and may tell me I need to turn around when I’m actually facing the right way. For the most part, these hiccups are the sorts of things that are easy to deal with and aren’t going to cause any catastrophes, but it’s worth making note of them.

There are a number of features built into Google Maps that can be particularly useful in certain scenarios. For instance, you can program multiple stops into a trip or conduct a search for an additional stop while still enroute. If you tap the vertical ellipses button to open up the options menu from the top-right corner, you’ll see toggles for different map views, including satellite (replaces the standard map appearance with satellite images), terrain (overlays a topographical map over the existing roadmap), and traffic (adds color-coded traffic details to all roads instead of just the ones you’re traveling). Even something as simply as being able to choose different modes of travel — via car, bus/public transport, walking, and biking — is a thoughtful addition that really expands that potential use cases for Google Maps.

On top of directions, Google Maps contains tons of useful information about nearby businesses, restaurants, and points of interest, with plenty of filters to find what you’re looking for.

Due to the bevy of information that Google Maps contains, there are a variety of unconventional use cases for it. One of my favorite is using Google Maps to find restaurants. When you open Google Maps, open the menu bar on the lefthand side and select “Explore”, which is exactly as it sounds: It essentially provides a directory of restaurants and other venues nearby.

Along the top, you have a toggle with which you can filter the results by meal (“Breakfast”, “Lunch”, “Dinner”), find a place where you can get your next caffeine fix (“Coffee”), or plan for your evening social hour (“Drinks”). And of course, you have the full power of the Google search engine in the search bar at the top of the screen when you first open the app.

Naturally, Google continues to improve the app and roll out new features. For instance, it’s gained some pretty robust offline functionality, asking you for your permission to download a chunk of the map (amounting to your general vicinity) or to save trips to local storage so you can pull them up without a data connection; the idea is to prevent Google Maps from being completely crippled when you don’t have an internet connection, a problem inherent with all navigation apps. There are also a number of voice commands you can use with Google Maps to do things like mute or unmute the voice guidance, inquire about your next turn, avoid highways or tolls, and find a gas station.

It goes without saying that Google Maps is a really strong contender among navigation apps. In fact, it may sound like Google already has it in the bag, but you’ll have to continue to find out whether or not that’s actually the case. (Insert devilish grin here.)

Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps – Looking at Waze

As someone who appreciates and uses both Android and iOS devices, I’m pretty familiar with both Apple’s and Google’s navigation apps. Aside from a handful of times over the past few years, though, I’d never really used Waze much. Before I started writing this comparison, I took a good ten or so days to use Waze so that I’d have a solid base for comparing it to Google and Apple Maps.

Did you know that Google has owned Waze since 2013? If we’re splitting hairs, Waze is technically owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and is alleged to operate mostly independently from Google, but there has definitely been some crossing of the streams. For instance, it was the acquisition of Waze that brought traffic alerts to Google Maps later that year while Waze has incorporated some of Google’s data, including Street View. But you wouldn’t know Waze was owned by Google by looking at it due to Waze’s completely different aesthetic. Personally, there’s something about the style of Waze reminds me of emojis, perhaps being that it’s almost cartoonish in appearance. Everything looks very bubbly, but Waze manages to maintain elements of the minimalist map look, which keeps it from being too much.

But the differences between Google Maps and Waze are more than skin deep. When you open the app, you’re prompted to login or create an account, both of which are done by either connecting your Facebook account or using your mobile phone number. Once you make it to the main screen, you’re greeting with the map as well as a notification toward the bottom of the screen of how many “Wazers” there are in your proximity. Off the bat, there’s an inherently social element to using Waze that remains throughout much of the user experience.

Unlike other navigation apps, Waze suggests logging in to make the most of its social features.

While Google Maps is more sparse and almost utilitarian, Waze feels a little more “dressed-up” and definitely has more bells and whistles. On the main screen, there’s a Spotify icon at the top-righthand corner that allows you to connect Waze to your Spotify account. Doing this allows you to manage your music directly from the Waze app by adding a bar along the top of the screen with which you can select from your playlists and preferred stations. Toward the bottom of the screen on the righthand side, you’ll see an orange button with a map-marker symbol; this is report menu from which you can report traffic, car accidents, speed traps, road closures, and other such things to your fellow Wazers. As you might have guessed, that orange button plays a significant role in Waze’s ability to keep users abreast of their local traffic conditions in addition to things like speed traps. Beneath that orange button is a toggle for turning sound on, off, or to an alerts-only mode.

You can now record your own voice for Waze navigation

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Waze almost goes overboard on extra features, ranging from Spotify integration, to petrol station prices, and a huge range of novelty turn-by-turn navigation voices.

To access the main menu, you must click the magnifying glass icon in the bottom-lefthand corner. The main menu is where you can do things like manage your account details (i.e., set a profile picture, view your friends list, read your messages) as well as manage your favorite places and check your planned drives.

The planned drive feature is really interesting. In essence, you’re setting a destination for a future date so that, when the time comes, you can start navigating to that destination with just one or two clicks. It’s really easy to do, too; when you search for a destination, you can either click “Go” or “Later” with the latter allowing you to choose the date and time for your trip. Alternately, it can glean information from your Facebook calendar, scheduling tips to specific destinations based on the events to which you’ve R.S.V.P.-ed. If that’s not impressive enough, Waze adjusts how long the trip will take by accounting for changes in traffic at different times of day, so a trip that would take 15 minutes in the morning may take 30 minutes during rush hour. Oh, and Waze is courteous enough to remind you when it’s time to leave so that you’ll arrive on time.

There’s another really nifty feature that’s accessible when you search for and select your destination. In addition to being able to either schedule or initiate a trip to that destination, it may offer to guide you to the parking lot that’s closest to your destination. For example, if your destination happens to be a mall or retail outlet, it’ll give you the option to set your destination as the closest parking lot or allow you to choose from other parking options nearby. I didn’t have the chance to really take advantage of this feature, but I can see it really being a godsend when you’re traveling or in unfamiliar places.

If you like customization options, Waze offers a bunch of different voices for turn-by-turn instructions. Many of the most populated countries get at least two options, but English-speakers have arguably the most options from which to choose. And each voice is given its own name, such as Jane, Nathan, or ‘Boy Band’ for Americans, and Kate, Thomas, or Simon for those in the U.K. In the past, there have even been celebrity voices available on Waze, including Morgan Freeman.

Waze relies on data collected and posted by its real-time users and has a much more inherently social feel than your standard map app.

As you get deeper and deeper into Waze, you find all these nifty little surprises. In the settings menu, you can go into “Gas stations & prices” to choose your preferred gas station chain (if you happen to have one). You can set the speedometer to only show up if you happen to go X miles per hour over the speed limit.

With a toggle, you can turn on or off the ability to see when Wazers on your friends list are nearby. Under the map display options, there are a whole host of options you can toggle, including speed cameras, other Wazers, and road hazards. And there are many other features that I’ve not even mentioned.
Waze may sound bloated with needless features, but I want to emphasize that most of them are tucked out of the way and accessible only from the menus. None of Waze’s additional features feel imposing or like they’re coming between you and the purpose for using the app, which is to get directions from one place to another. There are tons of bells and whistles available for if or when you choose to use them, or you can simply ignore them. As mentioned previously, there’s something inherently social about using Waze, an interesting but not totally surprising concept in 2017. Overall, my experience using Waze was extremely pleasant. I should also note that, despite having so much going on, the app is very snappy and responsive, although I may not have used it for a long enough period to detect the hiccups that are surely in there somewhere.

Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps – Looking at Apple Maps

Prior to iOS 6, Apple smartphones had Google Maps preinstalled as the default navigation app. In hindsight, it was inevitable that Apple would create their own alternative to Google’s popular trip-mapping app, if for no other reason than to boot the competition’s software off the Apple iPhone.

As it usually happens with newborn software, Apple Maps was plagued with bugs and map inaccuracies for the first couple years. Fortunately, the app has since been mostly smoothed out as Apple continues to make improvements and enhancements to it. Like I said before, I’m neither an Apple nor Android fanboy, but rather a lover of both, so I’m nearly as familiar with Apple Maps as I am with Google Maps (although having access to the latter with any desktop browser basically ensures some disparity between the two). In certain ways, I may even like Apple Maps best of all.

Compared to both Google Maps and Waze, Apple Maps has arguably the most pleasing look and has exemplary integrations with other iOS apps.

Ever since that rough first year, Apple has invested lots of time and energy (and money) into improving Maps, and it shows. Compared to both Google Maps and Waze, Apple Maps has arguably the most pleasing look. Of course, appearance is subjective, but there’s something very polished and contemporary about Apple Maps, particularly since the slight redesign from earlier this year. It manages to achieve modern feel without looking either sparse like Google Maps or borderline-cartoonish like Waze. I might even use the word “elegant” to describe the look of Apple Maps. It’s very Apple.

Perhaps taking a cue from Google Maps, Apple Maps has much better integrations with other iOS apps. Sprinkled throughout Apple Maps, you’ll find suggestions for scheduling and upcoming events to which you may need to travel. It’s reminiscent of how clicking addresses will take you into Google Maps from Gmail or Inbox as well as Google’s numerous other services. But Apple Maps integrations extend even outside the Apple apps family, including things like OpenTable for making restaurant reservations, ride-sharing apps, and, of course, Apple Pay to pay for it all.

Similar to Google’s app, Apple Maps has a very clean and straightforward interface. Opening Apple Maps brings up the map with an overlap toward the bottom, giving you a place to input an address or search for a destination. It may also give you suggestions and the ability to click a single button to begin navigating home; if you were already home, it may offer you navigation to your workplace or to a destination that pertains to an upcoming event in your calendar. It sounds like a lot, and while everything is big and readable, it’s also not totally in the way.

One of the updates to Apple Maps brought something called “Flyover Mode”, which brings a Google Earth-esque feature into the mix. In essence, it creates a 3D render of the map, allowing you to essentially fly over it like you’re in a helicopter over the city. The feature itself isn’t groundbreaking or anything we’ve not already seen, but it’s fun and certainly a welcome feature.

The layout and UI of Apple Maps has gotten a lot better over the years. Anything that’s not already shown to you is usually accessible with an upward or downward swipe, appearing neatly and organized on overlaying cards. For instance, you can swipe upward on an upcoming trip to view alternate route options, which is a nice feature to have if, for instance, you happen to see that there’s traffic on your would-be route. And yes, the app can give you traffic information, too.

Apple has tried to make Maps as informative as possible and, in doing so, includes some really thoughtful details. If you click on a landmark, it usually brings up a card that shows a picture, offers you directions, reviews (via Yelp, of course), and a link to Wikipedia to learn more about it. As well, if you zoom into a part of the map that’s a sufficient distance away from your actual location, it’ll show you that location’s local weather in the bottom-righthand corner.

Apple Maps is focused on providing navigation. By comparison, Google is much more focused on places, which means that it’s able to provide both navigation as well as allowing you to simply use Google Maps like tourists would use paper maps as they explored their surroundings.

When it comes to the actual map, though, there’s both good and bad news. The bad news is that Apple Maps just isn’t as robust as Google Maps (or Waze, for that matter, since it incorporates Google data). If you zoom into the same section of a large city on both Google and Apple Maps, Google’s map contains much better and more accurate data, particularly when it comes to the names and locations of businesses.

In fact, someone decided to track changes to both maps over a year and found that for any given section of the map, Apple Maps averaged fewer businesses than Google. The good news is that, as long as you search for and bring up the address of the business, Apple Maps can get you there, even if the business isn’t on shown on the map. But that brings us to another key difference between Google and Apple Maps.

Clearly, Apple Maps is focused on providing navigation, and that’s a good thing since navigation is the point of these types of apps. By comparison, Google is much more focused on places, which means that it’s able to provide both navigation as well as allowing you to simply use Google Maps like tourists would use paper maps as they explored their surroundings. In fact, many of us no longer use Google Maps solely for driving directions, and that’s largely because of Google Maps (and its web access). Again, Google simply has more data with which to build a more robust map containing a wealth of information, so it’s almost an unfair comparison, but it’s a difference that’s worth mentioning.

It seems that Apple Maps is mostly reliant on map information licensed from TomTom as well as from acquiring a handful of smaller companies over the years. Some of those companies are WifiSlam for interior maps, HopStop and Embark for public transportation, Locationary for improving mapping abilities, and BroadMap for managing and analyzing map data.

Apple Maps has come a really long way since the early days when Tim Cook actually apologized for how… “difficult” the Google Maps replacement was. In fact, it’s become quite serviceable in its own right. Some of its biggest strengths include its very attractive design language, very intuitive UI, and at this point, accurate, too. But is that enough?

waze vs google maps

Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps – And the winner is…

So who wins in the Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps war? Google Maps. Now let me explain why.

Obviously, I don’t speak for everyone. There are going to be a lot of people who are on Team Waze while there are undoubtedly many people who like Apple Maps. The reason I chose Google Maps as the winner of the navigation wars is because I feel like Google Maps is the navigation app that can meet the most users’ needs.

To break it down a little further, we must start out by giving mad respect to Google for all the legwork the company has put into improving and fine-tuning Google Maps. I think we can safely say that no other navigation app has more than 20 petabytes of map data that was obtained by having a fleet of cars physically drive more than 99 percent of all public American roads. Plus, Google Maps has the power of the Google search engine behind it, and as I said before, that’s hard for anyone to compete with.

No other navigation app has more than 20 petabytes of map data that was obtained by having a fleet of cars physically drive more than 99 percent of all public American roads.

Google Maps is a great example of how the evolution and growth of technology can change our lives because we can use Google Maps for far more than just navigation. In large part, this is because Google Maps is a place-oriented navigation map; in other words, Google’s map has become a catalyst for exploration of new places. Rather than solely giving us driving directions, we can use Google Maps for learning and discovery, and that’s pretty darn cool.

That’s not to say that Waze and Apple Maps are bad navigation apps. Waze definitely has more features to offer, some of which could actually be quite useful; however, I doubt there are many people who would find them necessary or vital to their use of Waze. That being said, many have made the argument that Waze is the best map app for the very fact that it offers so many extra features. But just because an app has the most bells and whistles doesn’t mean that it’s right for most people.

Google Maps is being used to track air pollution in Oakland and other cities

4 weeks ago

And then there’s Apple Maps. If I were giving a “Most Improved” award, or perhaps a “Best Dressed” award, it would probably go to Apple Maps. Due to the improvements it’s made, many iOS users don’t feel the need to immediately download Google Maps or Waze from the App Store, and that certainly says something. At the same time, even considering how you can access Apple Maps via the desktop app for MacOS, it’s difficult to recommend it over Google Maps (or even Waze) for all but a very limited number of use cases.

As a side note, you should know that all but Apple Maps are available for both Android and iOS devices; at least for the time being, Apple Maps is only available for Apple devices.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Waze vs Google Maps vs Apple Maps – which of these map apps have you been using? Why do you use it instead of the others? Or if you use an app for navigation that I didn’t review here, which one do you use and why? Have these reviews tempted you to try other options? As always, sound off in the comments below.

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