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Review: Maps App Turn-by-Turn Navigation for the iPhone

Road-Testing the Maps App Turn-by-Turn Directions

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating

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iPhone Maps App Review

Reviewing and rating the spoken-street-name, turn-by-turn directions capability of Apple's Maps app.

Apple
We've been waiting for the addition of free turn-by-turn directions for the iPhone, and we got it with the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system, iOS 6. The operating system runs on the new iPhone 5, some older iPhone models, the iPod Touch, as well as the iPad. Apple's woes with its new Maps app are now well-documented, including many map errors. I'm confident Apple will work urgently to resolve map accuracy issues. This review won't dwell on mapping errors, but focuses on the functionality and performance of the turn-by-turn navigation aspect of the app.

Apple's Free Turn-by-Turn Directions App

When you buy the iPhone 5, or upgrade your Apple mobile device to the iOS 6 operating system, you get Apple's Maps app including spoken-street-name, turn-by-turn directions, traffic detection & avoidance, and integration with Apple's Siri voice recognition. Beyond Apple's well-documented Maps accuracy and completeness woes, how do the turn-by-turn directions work?

One improvement you'll find in the Maps app is the switch to vector-based graphics, instead of the slower and jerkier-loading image files that used to populate Maps. This is a definite win for users. And while the Maps app doesn't have Google's iconic and useful Street View feature, it does have detailed, 3D flyover images of many major metro areas and major landmarks, as well as the familiar hybrid and satellite views.

Turn-by-Turn Navigation
When you're ready to get underway, you may initiate your trip with spoken voice commands to Siri. You may do this while the Maps app is open, or simply invoke Siri from anywhere, and begin your trip setup. You may also of course set up your trip manually from the Maps app, or tap an address from most apps, e-mails, and other sources of addresses.

Voice initiation of a trip (via Siri) is a significant plus for this navigation package. Voice is notoriously difficult to integrate into GPS, often relying on cumbersome set commands, and Siri, despite its faults, is significantly more adept than any previous voice input for GPS. Ask Siri for a restaurant, or any other destination in a clear voice, and there's a good chance you'll locate what you want. Next, simply ask Siri for "directions" and she will open the Maps app turn-by-turn directions feature for you.

On-the-Road Functionality, Traffic, and More

That brings us to the turn-by-turn interface itself. The turn-by-turn map automatically adopts a portrait or landscape mode, depending on how you orient the iPhone. I prefer landscape mode for driving, and I strongly recommend the use of a charging car mount when using an iPhone for driving directions.

The driving interface can best be described as simple and stripped-down. There are positives and negatives to that. Even the new iPhone 5 screen is on the small side, compared to the larger-screen dedicated GPS devices now on the market, so there's little room for multi-mode information widgets that can be seen from behind the wheel. In the Maps app, directions are presented to you via a large green area that looks like a road sign, and includes the name of the street of your next turn, and the distance. You will also hear the spoken-street-name directions. Voice guidance is another reason to use the iPhone with a car mount, which amplifies the phone's sound so you can hear it clearly.

Once underway, the instructions should seem familiar to you if you have any experience with using a GPS for driving. What you might miss in the Maps app's simplified interface are conveniences such as your current speed compared to the speed limit, an estimated time of arrival, and time-to-destination display areas. You may, however, check your ETA, and time and distance remaining, by tapping the screen while in directions mode. The information will appear at the top of the screen, but too small to be visible from behind the wheel. You may also select the complete route overview from the top-screen bar, or the turn-by-turn street list from an icon at the bottom left of the screen. The Maps app lacks detailed lane guidance, which shows you which lane to be in as much as a mile before your turn and gets you set up to make your turn.

Traffic, Construction, Accident Warnings, Apps Compatibility

Traffic detection and avoidance has evolved from a pricey extra in GPS systems, to an expected perk. With a completely connected device such as the iPhone and technical help from TomTom, which pioneered real-time traffic avoidance, Apple had the opportunity to provide top-quality traffic features. Apple delivers in a limited way, accurately showing delays on the map and within route overviews with a dotted red line, construction areas (complete with a description of what's going on if you tap on the icon), accident delays, and important information such as road and ramp closures.

Maps App and Other Apps
One advantage of using Apple's Maps app for turn-by-turn directions is its relatively good inter-app operability. While in turn-by-turn mode, you may exit to any other app on the phone, and a green "touch to return to navigation" bar appears at the top of the screen. When you are in Apple's Contacts app, tap on an address to see the destination on the map, and then simply touch a little car icon to switch to turn-by-turn driving directions mode. I also found it easy to clear a current session (not always easy with GPS devices) and start over or move on to other tasks.

On the Road
The Maps app issues clear, spoken directions, and the next-turn information is relatively easy to see when the iPhone is mounted on a windshield mount. I received adequate advance notice for turns and off-ramps, etc. During re-routing, I encountered some brief, odd directions that referred to the last turn, even as I was well past the road described. The app would correct itself, but this glitch needs to be corrected.

Last but not least, I will join the chorus of those disappointed with iOS 6 Maps app search results. In just one example, a quick search for restaurants in my region found many favorites missing. Multiply this type of omission by every metro area in the nation (world?) and you have a big performance gap that will be hard to fill.

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