Apple iOS 6: Maps mars otherwise solid update

Apple sent its latest version of iOS to users Wednesday, and while there was a lot to like in the update, there was one thing that reviewers have almost universally hated: Apple’s new Maps app.

The app, which pulls its mapping results from TomTom and other listings from places such as Yelp, is good-looking but — quite frankly — riddled with problems.

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For example, my Post colleague Michael Rosenwald let me know that a search for “The Washington Post” last night pulled up almost every newsstand in downtown D.C., but the marker at The Post’s offices served up the name of someone who’s worked with our newspaper. Subsequent searches showed results from different people — and different times. Searching for The Post’s address, I once got a result for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. That partnership ended in 2009.

Also, according to Maps, I live in a parking garage.

Across the globe, users are reporting that the app doesn’t properly place landmarks or misplaces smaller towns. As Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land wrote, Ireland’s Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, wrote to Apple to remove an airplane symbol from the middle of Dublin’s Airfield farm, garden and cafe.

It’s too bad, really, because the rest of iOS 6 is very solid. The small tweaks that Apple’s made to the user interface are attractive and sensible. Features they’ve added such as the ability to add photos or video to e-mails, set up different e-mail signatures, send Facebook updates or set a “do not disturb” period make the phone genuinely more useful.

I particularly like the ability to ignore a call with a preset message — “I’ll call you back in an hour!” — or set a reminder to call someone that you had to screen. And the fact that Siri can open apps means that Apple’s addressed one of my biggest gripes about the personal assistant. If it gets the ability to answer calls on speaker and control call volume, I’ll consider it a much better daily tool.

The camera software, too, gets a big bump that lets you take panoramic phots on the iPhone 4S (and upcoming iPhone 5) with a sweep. I couldn’t take anything that breathtaking from my apartment, but those extra degrees are sure to come in handy on my next trip.

I’m not as big a fan of the redesigned App Store, which changes app lists to a grid-like outline. The change makes it easier to look deeper at a few apps, but difficult to scroll though a lot of apps quickly. I find it more difficult to use.

I didn’t get the chance to fully explore Passbook, which is supposed to be your digital wallet for loyalty cards, movie tickets and plane tickets. It seems most other reviewers are also reserving judgement on Passbook for now.

Another good addition to the iPhone is a new privacy menu in the settings, which lets you see exactly which apps are looking at your contacts, calendar, reminders, photos, location and Twitter or Facebook accounts.

Okay, but back to Maps.

The program is, undoubtedly, a work in progress. As evidence of that, a search this afternoon for The Post pulled up The Washington Post’s Yelp review — a much better result.

But it’s hard to deny that the Maps app still lacks the depth and polish of the Google app that it replaced. The app’s mocked-up street signs that let you know your next direction are pretty, but with a small font that’s hard to read at a glance. So even if you have the directions read out to you, it’ll be hard to get back on track if you miss it.

And the maps themselves, not just the place listings, aren’t that logical. In New York, PC Mag’s Jamie Lendino lamented that the names of the neighborhoods seem oddly chosen and oddly placed. Lendino also notes that the traffic overlay in Apple maps isn’t nearly as clear as Google’s shades of red, yellow and green.

“That’s gone with Apple Maps,” he writes. “Instead, you get some red dotted lines showing … something. I’m assuming congestion.”

The Google Maps app is widely considered to be a casualty of the “thermonuclear war” between Apple and Google over the Android operating system. Late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs made no effort to hide his belief that Google had stolen Apple’s ideas when it launched its own operating system. The after-effects of that belief are echoing today, with Apple fighting Android-based smartphone makers Samsung, HTC and Google-owned Motorola in courts around the world over intellectual property.

In this case, that conflict has gotten in the way of Apple’s greatest selling point: It just works. Maps doesn’t.

Apple will make Maps better, but it will take time. Google, after all, didn’t build its service in a day and is relentlessly adding layers and details to its maps. You can even go inside buildings now in Google Maps for Android.

Speaking of Google Maps, Google isn’t currently offering a standalone Maps application to iPhone users. Those iPhone users that need to can use the maps service through their Internet browser. You can even set up a home screen bookmark for your Apple device through the sharing menu in the browser.

So should you download iOS 6? The answer depends solely on how much you use Maps. Upgraders get a lot of features in exchange for one app. But if that app is all you use, you may want to hold off until you find a replacement maps app that you like.

Related stories:

Apple’s iOS 6: What you should know

Apple’s iPhone 5: What does it cost to make?

Apple’s iPhone 5: Review Roundup

 
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