iPhone Traveler Pt. 9 – Navigate with maps

mapsontheroadApple’s iPhone ships with Maps, a home-grown mapping application that you can use to find driving directions, public bus routes and walking directions for when you’re on foot.

A quick note.

The public has not been satisfied with the performance of Apple’s Maps, and in September, 2012, the company issued a public apology for the performance of its app.

Understand that the mapping application that ships with your iPhone, Maps, may not be the best solution for you. Fortunately, there are several fine alternatives in the App Store, many of which can be found by searching for the term “navigation” or “maps.”

Today, I’ll explain how to use Apple’s Maps app as well as an alternative that I trust. Let’s begin with Maps.

Driving Directions

mapsbakeryApple’s Maps is capable of providing driving directions from point A to point B. That includes locations you’ve bookmarked yourself. Maps also provides audible turn-by-turn driving directions via Siri. Here’s how to create and navigate a driving route with Maps.

First, find your destination either by browsing the bookmarks you created earlier or by using the search field. Conducting a search in Maps is very useful and flexible. I use it often, even in my own hometown. You can search for an address, town or keyword. If you know the address of your destination, simply type it in and then tap Done. Maps will find the address and highlight it with a red pin.

Keyword searches are also very useful. Enter almost anything you can think of, like “coffee,” “pizza,” “bus” or “library.” Maps will note your location and highlight any local results that meet the criteria. For example, I searched “bakery” and Maps found several bakeries around my location.

Once you’ve found your destination, it’s time to create a route of travel. Maps offers three options: driving, public transportation and walking. To begin creating a travel route, follow these steps:

  1. Tap the blue arrow next to your destination’s description.
  2. The info window appears. Tap “Directions To Here.”
  3. A new screen appears. You’ll find the Cancel button in the top left-hand corner and the Route button on the upper right. There are three buttons in the center: car, bus and walking. Tap the car (far left).
  4. Below that you’ll find the start and end fields. By default, the start field reads Current Location. Leave it be if you’re standing at your departure point, or tap it to enter an alternate.
  5. Tap Route.

Maps will determine the best route of travel and plot it out. It might find more than one. If so, it will present the lot labeled as “Route 1,” “Route 2,” etc. Tap the one you’re interested in to highlight it and change the summary information displayed just above the map accordingly. Once you’ve picked the route you’d like to use (if more than one was displayed, that is), tap Start and get moving. Maps zooms into the start point, and your iPhone appears as a pulsating blue ball.
[pullquote]A word about the “blue ball.” Observing its behavior and appearance will tell you a lot about the strength and reliability of your iPhone’s GPS signal. In short, watch the pulsating blue ring that surrounds the ball representing your iPhone. The larger it is, the less accurate the reading. If it pulsates and quickly fades, leaving no residual “blue,” you’ve got a solid signal. If the ball is encircled by a large blue circle that remains as the blue ring pulsates, you’ve got a poor signal. Give it a minute or two to orient itself. If the problem persists and your iPhone has a clear shot of the sky — meaning a lack of excessive tree cover, tall buildings or heavy storm clouds — hold your iPhone’s screen parallel to the ground and use it to draw several figure eights in the air. This often solves the problem. If not, you must fall back to plan B…wait.[/pullquote]

At this point you’ve got four options for how your travel directions are displayed. Tap the page curl button in the lower right-hand side to reveal those options. The map will appear to “curl” up towards from the corner. There are four buttons across the bottom: Standard, Satellite, Hybrid and List.
• Standard presents a map view.
• Satellite presents a satellite photo.
• Hybrid is a combination of the former and the latter, in that it places street names and location on the satellite map.
• List displays your directions as text as a legible list.

There are other buttons in here, too.

• Report a Problem: Tap this button to make Apple aware of a blatant error you’ve found in its Maps app. Apple takes those updates seriously, so don’t hesitate to submit a correction.
• Drop a Pin: place a movable pin anywhere on the map. This is a great way to create a marker for a point of interest that isn’t on the map, like a parking spot or a quiet spot you hope to revisit.
• Print: You can print the current map if your iPhone is on the same network as an AirPrint-compatible printer.
• Show Traffic: Tap once to get color-coded highlights indicating live traffic congestion. Read lines signify areas of high congestion, green areas represent traffic that’s flowing smoothly.

Public Bus Routes

Your iPhone will also let you find a travel route using public bus lines (sorry, no support for subways just yet…from Apple, at least). This option is more fickle, of course, as you’re subject to the availability of a public bus system wherever you happen to be. To find a bus route, follow the numbered steps above, tapping the bus icon when you get to step three. Any available bus route will appear. Tap the one you’re interested in for detailed information.

Find Walking Directions

You’re more likely to use walking directions while vacationing – you’re familiar with the territory at home, so you don’t typically need this, but while on vacation this is really useful.

I use this feature often while visiting big cities like Boston, New York City and San Francisco. I typically find the results reliable and speedy (not always, but usually). To find walking directions, follow the numbered steps above and tap on the icon of a person walking in step three. Zoom in close on your map by double-tapping so you can monitor your progress in real time. Again, I’ve been doing this for years and have never been led astray. It’s a great way to get around an unfamiliar city on foot.

Google Maps

Those of you who’ve used an iPhone previous to the iPhone 5 no doubt have fond memories of the Google-backed Maps app. Fortunately, Google has released its own maps app for the iPhone called, appropriately, Google Maps (free). It’s powered by the search giant’s huge cache of data and, in my experience, is quite reliable. It offers audible turn-by-turn directions at no extra charge, as well as other great features:

  1. Fantastic search options. You can find business, points of interest and more in your present area.
  2. Walking directions as well as public transportation options.
  3. Street view. Very nice 360º views of select locations around the planet. Hugely useful for when you’re in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
  4. An updated look that I believe is superior to what’s on the web at maps.google.com

Here’s how to create a set of turn-by-turn driving directions with Google Maps for iPhone.

  1. Type your destination’s address in the search field.
  2. Google Maps finds it and drops a pin over its location.
  3. In the lower right-hand corner, you’ll see an icon of a car and estimated travel time. Tap it.
  4. A new screen appears. If Google Maps suggested more than one route, they appear here in a list, sorted by estimated travel time. Tap the one that looks best.
  5. A new map appears showing the route overall. Once you’re ready to hit the road, tap Start in the lower right-hand corner.
  6. The map zoom’s in to your current location and the phone speaks the first instruction. A blue arrow travels on the map in real time as you drive.

One thing I really like about Google Maps for iPhone is how natural-sounding the voice over is. It’s quite easy to understand everything it says, which isn’t always the case with synthesized voices. When connected to your car stereo via an audio cable (if your car has an audio-in jack) or Bluetooth, it’s quite useful indeed.

You may have noticed there’s more to this app, and some of it is worth mentioning here. For example, you’ll notice a small “handle” on the lower right side of the map. Swipe it to the left to reveal several navigation options: traffic (for live traffic congestion information), public transit, satellite (to switch to satellite imagery) and finally Google Earth. If you don’t have Google Earth for iPhone installed, tapping that button will bring you out of Google Maps and open the Google Earth page in the App Store. If you do, it opens the app and zooms into whatever region you happened to be looking at in Google Maps.

pizzasearchSome people prefer a text-based, step-by-step set of driving instructions. If you’ve got someone in your navigator’s seat who doesn’t mind reading directions aloud, this is a good option. Here’s how to find that list in Google Maps for iPhone.

  1. Once you’ve mapped your route as previously described, you’ll see the estimated travel time in the lower left-hand corner.
  2. Tap it to reveal the text-based list on driving directions, complete with distance from your current location as well as arrows indicating a turn or a straightaway. Additional information like toll roads also appears. To hid the list, simply tap the time estimation again.

Search is also quite nice, as you’d expect from Google. Type a product in the search bar, for example, instead of an address. Here I’ve typed “pizza.” A pin was dropped on a nearby result. Tapping it produces the screen at right.

Now I can call the place or share it via text message with a tap. This is a great way to let other smartphone users in your party know where to meet you, as the text will send the destination’s name, address and Google map link.

If there’s a street view image available it appears here, as well as a link to the destination’s website, menu (in the case of a restaurant) and additional information like hours of operation. Finally, you can read reviews left by other Google users. Again, it’s very handy.

Finally, there’s an option to “star” a location. This works in a similar fashion to creating a bookmark in Apple’s Maps. Google Maps creates a list of all destinations that you’ve highlighted with a star for fast future reference. Note, however, that Google Maps for iPhone does not interact with the Contacts app on your phone, so starring a location does not add it to Contacts.

There are other mapping applications available and many more navigation apps. I’ve written about these two because Apps ships with the iPhone and Google Maps is probably the most popular competitor. If there’s one you love, let me know.