Why the new Maps app is better than the old one

The Maps app in iOS 6 has taken a lot of heat, and the narrative has become that it's a huge blunder that would never have happened had Steve Jobs been around. Yet some of the latest, in-depth reviews are pointing to specific ways in which the new Maps app is superior to the iOS 5 version. Also, MacRumors is reporting that users are already seeing improvements in the app, such as a fixed Flyover image of the Statue of Liberty.

So what makes the new app better? Three things: 1) spoken turn-by-turn directions, 2) rerouting if you take a wrong turn, and 3) the greater efficiency of vector graphics, which allows you to use the app offline. An Associated Press review highlights the first two features. The writer used the app to navigate a 2,243-mile road trip starting the day iOS 6 came out. The writer describes how difficult it was using the old app to navigate by swiping through many screens of directions. And rerouting is crucial, since one often faces situations where you make a wrong turn or have some similar circumstance. However, he also used the Android maps app on the trip and found that it was better in a number of situations. Yet he also found that he liked some features of the iOS Maps app better. His conclusion is that different apps have different strengths, no one app is perfect -- and that the iOS 6 Maps app is superior to the voiceless iOS 5 app.

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Another great feature of iOS 6 Maps is vector graphics. There are many reasons, but one very important one that has been overlooked is caching. That is, when you load a map you'll still be able to use the navigation features if you're offline or out of range of a cell phone tower. This summer when I was traveling in South Dakota I was happily using the iOS 5 Maps app to guide me. But was surprised that large portions of the rural area that I traveled into didn't have a data signal, even though my iPad still showed a cell phone signal. It was very frustrating having intermittent access to Maps. As soon as I got back to my hotel room, I paid $50 and downloaded Tom Tom. I didn't ever want to be caught without a map again. And I found the turn-by-turn voice guidance to be invaluable -- and a heck of a lot safer.

So the good news with iOS 6 maps, as explained in a great article on AppleInsider, is that when you access the Maps app, you're loading map info for a large area -- info that is still available even if you're offline. This is because the mathematically defined vector graphics use 80% less data than the bit-mapped graphics of the previous Maps app in iOS 5. The article says that once one accesses the Maps app, an outline view of the continental U.S. remains in cache while you're offline. By contrast, the old app would cache approximately a 10-mile radius. The article describes how the author accessed the Maps app in San Francisco and then when offline could see a detailed highway map for most of California and as far away as Salt Lake City -- a distance of 740 miles.

I had my own interesting experience with iOS 6 Maps. I wanted to catch an antique car show at the fairgrounds in a nearby county. I tried a couple different maps apps, including Tom Tom, yet neither knew where it was. I ended up using the web to find out what town the fairgrounds was located in, and then using Tom Tom's voice navigation to get to that town. And once there I resorted to stopping at a gas station to ask for directions to the fairgrounds. How low tech. Then later in the day, after I had finished my outing, I tried the iOS 6 Maps app, which I hadn't used because of the criticism and because I assumed that I'd get better results with Tom Tom. In fact I had immediate success typing in Wapello County Fairgrounds using iOS 6 Maps. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't offer voice-guided turn-by-turn directions on my iPad 2. 

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Jim Karpen holds a Ph.D. in literature and writing, and has a love of gizmos. His doctoral dissertation focused on the revolutionary consequences of digital technologies and anticipated some of the developments taking place in the industry today. Jim has been writing about the Internet and technology since 1994 and has been using Apple's visionary products for decades.