Google Maps, Apple Maps or Nokia HERE? Which is the best navigation app for your smartphone?
Google Maps is the most popular smartphone navigation app, but does it really deserve all the praise it gets? We wanted to pit it against two of its fiercest competitors, Apple Maps and Nokia HERE, and see which app really deserves the top spot.
We decided to leave the comfort of our newsroom to test them out, using them to complete a fun-filled course under real-world conditions in Barcelona, Spain. Our mission? To prove which is the most effective in everyday life. Recommendations, offline mode, and public transport timetables– we tested the functions you use most often in order to determine whether Google Maps, Apple Maps, or Nokia HERE truly deserves the prize for the best mobile navigation app.
The Great Softonic Maps Challenge
The rules of the Great Softonic Maps Challenge were simple. Each competitor had to perform three navigation tests with only the help of their default smartphone navigation app, in the shortest time possible.
For the first test, we had to walk to a pre-selected location without using an internet connection. For the second task, we had to use public transport to find the headquarters of an organization without knowing the address. For the ultimate challenge, we had to use our navigation apps to find a shop selling cupcakes!
Baptiste and Apple Maps, the new kid on the block
So, I got stuck with Apple Maps and its teething problems. At least this was the first thought that came to mind a few days before this test, designed to compare Google Maps, Apple Maps and Nokia HERE. Some of my colleagues tried to reassure me by telling me that Apple Maps uses Barcelona as a test city, but I wasn’t totally convinced. At least it kept things interesting.
Before starting the first test – reaching a point on the map without using an internet connection – I decided to frantically take screen shots of the route, just in case. Fortunately, none of this was necessary. Just like Google Maps, Apple Maps keeps the data you’ve accessed in the cache, which allowed me to easily find my way to the first checkpoint. Using GPS and the route stored in the cache, all I needed to do was enlarge or reduce the map to know exactly where I was headed.
Apple Maps keeps the data you’ve accessed in the cache
30 minutes after the start, I completed the first mission. The next, it turns out, would be a little more complicated…
30 minutes after I left, I completed the first task
The control point for the second test was on the other side of the city. I was determined to overtake Samuel and Markus, so I began looking for the fastest route to reach my goal. The first plus point: Apple Maps knew where I had to go. But to my surprise, the service didn’t know of any bus routes or subway lines, let alone their timetables!
Apple Maps didn’t know any bus routes or metro lines
I resigned myself to following what little information my iPhone did give me. Along the way, I came across a bus stop. After a quick glance at the map, I made my decision. Aside from a traffic jam that made me lose a few precious minutes, the rest of the journey took place without incident and 50 minutes later, I arrived safely.
Gah! Rush hour traffic!
Time for the 3rd challenge: quickly find a bakery where you can buy cupcakes. Confident, I began a search for nearby cupcakes with Apple Maps. The application suggested an address that was only a few meters away. The shopkeeper’s answer to my question? “Cupcakes? No… we sell pancakes.”
There were no cupcakes in this shop window…
First fail. I then went along to the second store indicated by the application. Still no cupcakes. Disappointed, I was about to go to the 3rd address offered by Apple Maps when I came across a shop that wasn’t indexed by the application. To my delight, the window was full of beautiful cupcakes! Mission accomplished, no thanks to Apple Maps.
Markus and Nokia HERE, the strong, silent contender…
The first to set off on this challenge, I left pretty confident. In fact, Nokia HERE was the only one of the 3 tested to offer a method of offline navigation worthy of the name, and the application had performed well when I used it on several car trips. I felt pretty happy just looking up the addresses for the challenges and following the instructions on the screen.
I didn’t encounter any real difficulties with Nokia HERE. The service works well and provides clear directions that are enhanced by a simple interface that’s worthy of the best professional navigation solutions. Even the satellite view continued to display in offline mode, which helped me to work out where I was, even when the GPS was running slow.
Nokia HERE provides clear directions
Once at the first meeting point, my joy was short-lived: Baptiste was hot on my heels and it only took a few minutes for him to catch me up! The reason why? Along the way, HERE had taken me down a dead end and I had to double back to carry on with my journey. In the end, I only lost 5 minutes, but without this mishap, I would’ve definitely been in first place!
For the next challenge, I followed the recommendations provided by HERE Transit, the app that’s part of the Nokia HERE suite dedicated to public transport. It’s a simple and effective strategy that really paid off.
HERE Transit showed me a simple and effective route to take
However, it wasn’t always easy to juggle between screens and I would have preferred to use a single application. However, once I mastered the digital gymnastics involved in this operation, I was able to continue on my journey very easily. A plus point is that Nokia HERE distinguished between the different parts of the journey really well. It made it clear which parts were on foot, and which were on the subway – it’s this precision that allowed me to arrive first for the second stage.
Nokia HERE showed which parts of the journey were on foot
I got a nasty surprise with the last mission, however: find a cupcake based on the recommendations on HERE. The Nokia application draws its recommendations from the Tripadvisor database, a solution that works pretty well for hotels or restaurants, but shows its limitations when you get to more sophisticated queries!
I decided to join forces with Samuel and Google…
Basically, there was no information about cupcakes in the area where I needed to look. Unable to complete the final test, I decided to join Samuel and Google. The surprise came when Google Maps showed him a famous bakery specializing in cupcakes just around the corner! The cupcakes from the Amelia bakery in the Gracia district were so good that I forgot the race and the final standings. After all, all’s well that ends well, right?
Samuel and Google Maps, a sure bet
For me, Google Maps is the ideal navigation app. As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfect and I was really confident when I took on the first stage. Google Maps has a dedicated offline mode, at least in theory…unfortunately for me, Barcelona is one of the few places it doesn’t actually work! Just minutes from the start of the competition, I decided to search for my route and leave the app open on my smartphone.
The application continued to work as if nothing had happened
To my surprise, when I lost the data connection, the application continued to operate as if nothing had happened. Better still, my progress was even shown in real time using the GPS. It’s a pretty nifty feature that allowed me to complete the first stage of the challenge in less than 30 minutes and catch Baptiste!
I was even able to catch up with Baptiste!
After taking a quick souvenir photo, I looked at my route for the second part of the challenge. I had to leave the hills above Barcelona to go to an address located in the city center as quickly as possible. Once I’d reactivated my connection, I used the search engine in Google Maps to find the fastest route to my destination, meaning I had to walk to the nearest metro station.
I was just climbing a steep hill when I saw Markus’ red jacket ahead of me. With a little effort I could catch him too! But rather than listen to my senses, I decided to blindly trust Google Maps … So I end up taking the wrong road! I’d lost Markus… and some precious minutes.
A bakery specializing in cupcakes was waiting for us nearby
A handful of metro stops and a short walk got me to the second stage of the challenge. The time had come to join the meeting point for the ultimate test: the quest for the legendary cupcake. By the greatest of coincidences, a small company specializing in cupcakes was waiting just around the corner.
The owners gave us a warm welcome
10 minutes later, I arrived at the Amelia bakery in the company of Markus. After a well deserved cupcake, I used Google Maps to leave a recommendation and thank the owners for their warm welcome!
Google Maps is our overall champion with only 1h 15m on the clock for the 3 tests, as compared to 1h 35m for Nokia Here and 1h 45m for Apple Maps. The Google navigation app was particularly effective in offline mode and the formidable power of its search engine proved itself over the last two events. It receives a final ranking that reflects its nine years of innovation and confirms the dominance of Google in the field of mobile navigation.