How to choose an Apple Maps alternative

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Question: What do you suggest as an alternative to Apple's Maps app for iOS 6?

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By Rob Pegoraro  Like many of you, I've seen this new application repeatedly exhibit NFL-replacement-ref accuracy. In my testing, it couldn't put obvious D.C.-area landmarks like the Kennedy Center and Dulles International Airport at the correct addresses.

But it also suffers from a disconnect with transit routing. Instead of directly suggesting what bus or train to take to your destination, it hands off the job to a "routing app" that you've installed--which one can depend on your city and, in some cases, what transit system there you plan to use.

But you do have decent, free alternatives. Just ask Apple CEO Tim Cook, who named five in his open letter apologizing for the app's issues.

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Of those five, only two provide spoken-aloud, turn-by-turn directions like those Apple provides, and which Google apparently held back from its old Google-driven app: Waze and AOL's MapQuest.

Waze leavens its directions with information about traffic, construction and other sources of delay provided by other users of the app. Mapquest, meanwhile, also provides walking directions but suffers from a out-of-date database of local merchants.

The other three options Cook credited provide transit navigation but not turn-by-turn guidance: Microsoft's Bing app and the Web versions of Google Maps and Nokia Maps.

Microsoft's effort provides driving, walking and transit guidance (weirdly enough, the maps app in Microsoft's own Windows Phone 7 software only provides the first two features). It hasn't been updated since April and doesn't allow hands-free, eyes-on-the-road navigation, but otherwise it looks like your best all-purpose replacement for Apple.

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Google's iPhone-optimized site provides driving, walking transit and even bicycling directions, making it a somewhat obvious choice. But it sometimes requires more taps of the screen and can't read your iPhone's contacts list because it is, in fact, a Web site instead of an app running on your computer. (To "app-ify" it and other sites, tap the share button below the page and select "Add to Home Screen.")

And as I type this, the site has gotten stuck in some unresponsive loop on an iPhone 5, in which the map loads but searches and requests for directions don't.

Nokia's site, however, is worse. Its compact type is harder to read, it missed the same new bridge project in D.C. that Apple did but also gave the wrong routing for a drive on the earlier highway alignment, and its transit routing skips the second-busiest subway in America, Washington's Metro.

Multiplereports have suggested that Google is working on a standalone maps app that would restore the old one's function and add features previously confined to its Android program. But that may not appear for months. You could also give time for Apple to work this problem As more people tap the "Report a problem" button in the Maps app (you are remembering to do this, right?), we should see fewer errors. But that won't help the inconsistent, inefficient transit interface.
Tip: Google Now's one-track mind

Apple has no monopoly on providing an unnecessarily-fragmented navigation experience. Google Now, the personal-assistant app that debuted with the Jelly Bean version of its Android operating system in June, is smart enough to offer directions to places it thinks you might want to visit (based on your schedule and search history) but not smart enough to suggest the fastest mode of travel.

That's because it defaults to offering driving directions, even in locations where taking a car will be slower and more expensive than transit. You can switch it to transit-only advice (tap the menu button at its bottom-right corner, select "Settings," then "Google Now," then "Traffic," then "Transportation mode"), but then it may suggest tedious, multiple-transfer itineraries. Remember to reset this as you move from transit-friendly to driving-first areas.

With only 1.2% of active Android devices running Jelly Bean, thanks to manufacturers and carriers delaying software updates, this isn't a big problem at the moment. But -- somewhat like Apple Maps -- it will get there eventually.

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