Driving around with Maps for iOS 6

Much of the excitement in iOS6 centers on the new Maps app. It replaces the Google Maps-powered version that's been part of iOS since the beginning

The revamped Maps adds Flyover (3D aerial perspectives) for some cities; it also offers spoken turn-by-turn navigation, a feature that the old Maps never offered for iOS but that Google baked into Android phones. Maps in iOS 6 also integrates Siri for search on supported devices. Unfortunately, only newer devices get the snazzy features; turn-by-turn requires an iPhone 4S or an iPad (2 or new), for example, and obviously Siri is only available on the 4S & soon the new iPad.

I made quite a few trips using the beta iOS 6 Maps app, and have lots of impressions. Keep in mind, the app really is beta. Some of the data is flaky; for example I was looking for a location in southern Utah by zip code and was directed to the east coast of the US. Never fear, these little glitches will get fixed by the time iOS 6 is released to the public in the fall.

OK, let's get driving. The first really big advantage of this app is the direct integration with Siri. Say "take me to the nearest Home Depot" and you'll see a map with a pin on it. Touch the pin, press the start button and off you go. The map works in landscape or portrait mode, and that familiar Siri voice will guide you through each turn. When you arrive it will tell you if your destination is on the right or to the left. You can also say "Take me home" and if your home address is notated in your contacts, you'll be ready to navigate.

The maps themselves look pretty similar to the Google variety, and you get a choice of a flat map, 3D or satellite. If you are in a big city, you'll see Flyover's beautiful 3D renderings of buildings. I did a brief check and saw that feature work in Chicago and Seattle. Flyover is very pretty, but not much use when driving. Viewing all that detail or playing with the map is not something you should do when your attention should be on the road.

If your destination includes reviews from Yelp, you'll see the reviews when you ask for the destination, as well as photos if there are any. If you are in 3D mode, you can rotate around a location by rotating 2 fingers on the screen, and zoom in or out in the usual way by pinching or dragging.

Of course you can bookmark any location, add it to contacts, or share the location with someone else. If you are properly equipped, you can print the information to a local printer.

Overall, the app is similar to the older Maps app, but the iOS 5 app doesn't provide Siri voice integration or turn-by-turn directions. Like the older Maps app, map data is downloaded over the air, so a data connection is required. Without one, you'll see a dot representing your location, but the map will be blank. You can contrast that with apps like the Navigon family, where the map data is permanently resident on your device, and a cellular connection is not required.

Still, for most people, the Apple app will be more than enough. The integration with Siri, Yelp, and the ease of use is a real plus. Just telling Siri where you want to go is really great, and a very compelling reason to use this app over other navigation solutions that involve some fiddling to set up. There is traffic data built in, and the app will offer alternate directions if conditions warrant it. Traffic was working in my city, and was color coded and superimposed over my route. Note that at this point, there are no public transit directions or pedestrian directions. For some urban users, this is a big missing item. Apple has said it will rely on 3rd party apps for this, but they are unlikely to be integrated into the Apple Maps app. [Cocoanetics has an interesting perspective on why this is the right move for Apple to make. –Ed.]

Clearly, Apple was motivated to meet Google and Android head on, and they are well on the way. Google has had years of collecting data and getting the map experience to be very friendly. Apple has started from scratch, with a few key purchases of mapping companies, and come very close. There are no street level views with the Apple app. Google has that feature pretty wrapped up for itself, but for getting easily from point A to point B, Apple is offering an excellent solution that I think will become the first choice for many users. It's unfortunate that turn-by-turn navigation isn't supported on the iPhone 4, but Apple wants to sell you the latest phone and this is a not-so-gentle nudge to get you back to an Apple store.

Even with some obvious bugs, and a few crashes, I was impressed with the new Maps. It will be a challenge for Google. Will it offer turn-by-turn voice navigation for the iPhone, or just concede? For older devices, will this be an opportunity for vendors like Navigon, Motion X and TomTom to sell up -- or for free turn-by-turn apps like AOL's Mapquest or Waze to get more traction?

Competition is good, and Apple has thrown down the gauntlet. I think the other nav app companies with iOS products are going to feel uncomfortable with Apple in this business, but it's likely they will aggressively compete and we will all benefit.

Check the gallery for screenshots of Maps in action.


Editor's Note: Mel is not personally subject to the iOS 6 NDA.