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Tech Lab

Google Maps puts iPhone back on track

Even in this season of peace, love, and happiness, it warms my heart to see one giant corporation trying to clobber another. Especially if it means better smartphone apps.

So thanks, Google, for serving up a fine new navigation app for Apple Inc.’s iPhone. The giant search company created the original map app for the iPhone, but was ousted when Apple decided to go it alone. Clearly Apple didn’t want to get its map software from the same company whose Android operating system has stolen millions of smartphone sales from the ­iPhone.

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Fair enough. But Apple’s own map software, built into its new iOS 6 operating system, proved something of an embarrassment, with errant driving directions and sometimes hideous satellite images of familiar landmarks. Apple publicly apologized and fired its top map guy. Google grinned and got to work on a replacement app.

To nobody’s surprise, the resulting software is very good. Google has had nearly eight years’ experience mapping the planet, giving it plenty of time to get the details right. Just as important, Google has learned what its users need to know, and the most efficient ways to give it to them. The result is an app with sophisticated features that Apple’s offering doesn’t even try to match.

In fairness, let it be said that Apple’s map service isn’t as bad as its press clippings might suggest. Yes, its aerial images frequently look dreadful, and its maps sometimes contain significant errors. Some screw-ups are merely silly, like the MIT building that Apple identifies as a gas station. Others are far worse — in Australia, several drivers who used their iPhones to locate the town of Mildura were instead directed to a desert wasteland 45 miles away.

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But in my tests in the Boston area, the app consistently delivered accurate turn-by-turn directions. It sometimes did a better job than Google at finding alternate routes. And even if it had blundered, I’ve gotten bad directions from Google Maps from time to time.

Apple’s map software also integrates nicely with the Siri voice-control system. Ask the iPhone how to get to Carnegie Hall, and it won’t tell you to practice; up pops an Apple map, along with the distance and estimated driving time. Google Maps isn’t directly accessible via Siri, though the blog Addictive Tips found a roundabout way to make it work. Just add the words “via transit” to your Siri query, and you get a list of possible travel apps. Tap Google Maps and you’re all set.

Even if it didn’t work with Siri at all, Google Maps is the better choice. The new app has a driver-friendly interface that’s even better than the one Google offers on Android phones. Most important, the app is controlled by swiping your fingers across the screen, rather than tapping at tiny icons.

Google Maps has a bunch of features unknown to Apple Maps. For instance, both apps can be set to show traffic jams. But even when this feature is turned off in Google Maps, it always alerts you to heavy traffic on your chosen route. You can also tell Google Maps to look for routes that bypass highways or toll roads.

The iOS version of Google Maps lacks a smart feature that’s available in Android — indoor maps of major venues such as Chicago’s O’Hare Airport or the Natick Mall. But the Apple version does contain Google’s Street View feature, which gives a ground-level 360-degree picture of the neighborhood you’re looking for. It also has public transportation mapping and schedules.

Given Apple’s deep pockets and addiction to innovation, it’s certain to catch up. In a year or so, Apple’s software will be roughly comparable to Google’s and we will barely remember this fuss. But if you’re an iPhone user who can’t wait that long for your next trip, Google Maps will keep you on the right track.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Bray@globe.com.
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