There might be some hope with Apple Maps after all

Taking iOS 6 Maps for a road test

It’s not a secret that the promising Google Maps replacement for iOS 6 has disappointed. Whether you’re missing your street name, shown irrelevant points of interest or the wrong things in the wrong places, the public outcry is just a sign of the how much people rely on this tool that we took for granted. With the promised improvements — apology from Tim Cook included — there’s nothing we could do other than report an issue or go for one of the alternatives.

For those iPhone users who cannot be asked to install other apps or bookmark mobile websites on their home screen, the only way ahead is to use the app with all its shortcomings. Even if at Apple they admit the app sucks (see this article on ArsTechnica), the common folk is simply going to use it and not bother with fixes. That's, perhaps, the reason behind launching a half-baked app not ready for the market: polish the app getting people to use it.

Before I continue, let me state my position here. I also think the first version of Apple Maps lacks in many areas. I was particularly gutted to see the low quality satellite images used in a city like London. I don't think there's an excuse for accepting this low resolution imagery clearly not taken at the brightest hours of the day. My second concern is the amount of irrelevant markers or points of interest included. As a nation of drinkers, it's fair to see pubs on the map, but I'd rather see tube stations. There isn't any way to disable or filter irrelevant POIs either.

The differences between flyover rendering and the poor aerial photography can't go unnoticed

If you ask me, the new Apple Maps has let me down a couple of times already. I was looking for a shoe store in central London the other Saturday and, fool me, tried my luck typing 'Clarks Oxford Street'. The app quickly dropped a pin in what I recall is a well-known department store called John Lewis and quickly made the connection: there must be a small Clarks section within the department store. My theory was spot on but I'm not sure Maps meant to send the there in the first place. The shopping assistant told me later that I could try to find my size — which they didn't have there — at a bigger Clarks shop on Oxford Street (incidentally the one that Yelp review on Maps referred to).

There must be some good things about it

It's only with this type of disappointments that you realise what Maps is for. The database and information provided is terrible as a Google search in Safari could have given me more useful details to buy a pair of shoes. There are, however, some touches that make me believe this app has a future.

The vector-based rendering in standard view is a great choice. This doesn't only make the maps resize and rotate smoothly but also displays more or less data without cluttering too much the view. Some of the names chosen for places aren't the most usual, but naming conventions aside, I like it. And the font chosen and colour palette gives it a lot of personality. It's clear we are not dealing with a Google Maps clone.

I might be wrong here, but I'll say the vector graphics allow the information to load quickly and stay on the device, meaning you can access it even if you don't have data connection. I haven't tested this extensively, just trying to check some areas on airplane mode, and the result wasn't as bad as expected.

At least you get turn-by-turn navigation

Apple has been in denial over the years about the lack of a native navigation system. The previous implementation was poor and could not be used as a GPS system for driving.

While I use a lot Google Maps to look up addresses, see how an building looks like in Street View and get walking directions, I never had the need for a navigator. As a Londoner I use public transport every day and don’t have the opportunity to drive so often. Without a car of my own, the new update with driving directions seemed pointless for me. Little I knew this would come in handy when I drove to a friend's house in the French countryside.

The 3D rendering is missing a massive residential block altogether

For someone like me who’s never owned a GPS, the prospect of being able to drive test it in my recent trip to France was very exciting. I borrowed what looked like a very cheap navigator so I was able to compare the results and the information provided in real time (and on roaming). My comments about this are pointless as I don't have enough experience to compare Apple's against the household names in turn-by-turn navigation. What I've noticed though, is the refinement in the interface, the implementation of the driving instructions and the lack of some features that the basic GPS navigator had — like swathing to a dark theme automatically when you enter a tunnel.

Something like a disastrous Sim City on acid

Staying on the standard view on the 3D mode brings some representation of the buildings in the are so you get an idea of the volumes and sizes. I know you'll tell me that Google does this so much better, but I've learned to appreciate the good work done here. There are reports of users noticing some landmarks being tweaked (see this one mentioning incremental improvements over at MacRumours) so this shows that somebody must be working on it.

Maps isn't convinced that I'm on the motorway in France

Finally, the flyover feature is rather impressive at first. I must admit it takes the app some time to download and display all the assets neatly, showing a disastrous jazzy world of Sim City on acid as it loads. When all he images are rendered properly, the result is delightful. After suffering with the pictures of London areas taken on a very dark evening, seeing the Thames so crisp and bright is a treat.

Of course you can complain this 3D view is limited to certain areas, which is perfectly understandable. Let's remember this is a first edition and works more like a technical demo with the general public. If this feature is liked, they'll add more. Don't forget when Street View launched it was limited to a number of roads. If bridges and elevated motorways look bad, deal with it. The engine isn't ready for this kind of renderings, so wait for the next version.

I really liked the concept and love toying with it. You get a video game feel and it's a great way to show off people your iPad. I think we've all reacted negatively about the implementation of Apple Maps because it has been a dramatic change and a let down. When we are on the go we need our Maps app to work. But lets be honest. If there was a web-based version you would spend some time at work playing with it, wouldn't you?