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Transit directions field test: Apple Maps vs. Google Maps

The loss of transit directions in Apple Maps is a blow to iOS users. In our last mapping field test, CNET shows just how bad the user experience is.

It's been almost a week since iOS 6 deleted Google Maps from Apple devices around the world and replaced it with Apple's homegrown application. Yet, the outrage from iOS users continues to grow, as does the schadenfreude from Android fans.

As CNET has told you, the complaints center on just about every feature of Apple Maps, from poor location searches, to missing, misplaced, and misnamed landmarks. Even the 3D Flyover maps haven't escaped scorn. For as pretty as they can be, there are plenty of examples where you'd rather avert your eyes.

See that button with the bus icon? Well, it doesn't really do much. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Setting the scene
Late last week, Jaymar Cabebe and Jason Parker pitted Apple Maps and Google Maps for Android against each other in two field tests. With its new voice turn-by-turn directions, Apple Maps performed reasonably well, but for location search, Google blew its rival out of the water. And now for our final field test, I'm going see how the two apps fare in delivering transit directions.

Now if you've been following the Apple Maps story, you'll know that this contest is stacked against Apple from the start. Unlike Google's solution, Apple Maps doesn't offer integrated transit directions. It does point you to other solutions, though, so I wanted to evaluate that full experience from start to finish. Eventually it can work, but as you'll see here, it's not enough by a mile. I use public transit daily, and even though I know my way around San Francisco after 20 years, I still need help from time to time. That's why out of all the problems with Apple Maps, losing this feature bothers me the most.

But, before I begin there are a few points to consider. Yes, it's true that a lack of transit directions only affects people who use public transit -- growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, I took the bus no more than twice until was 18 -- but that's not the point. Even if you don't take transit at home, you probably take it when you visit another city without a car. So for this field test I conducted three tests, each of which involves a different mix of transit options. All of the tests use CNET's offices near downtown San Francisco as the departure point.

Test 1 - Back to school
Destination: University of San Francisco

Hail to thee, alma mater. I wanted to see the old place and really be nostalgic by taking the bus to get there. When entering my destination, Apple Maps confused the University of San Francisco with the University of California, San Francisco (something that bedevils any USF grad), but it understood me eventually. Both apps include a button with a tiny bus icon, but that's where the similarities end.

Google Maps gives specific instructions for getting to your transit stop. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Google Maps allows you to search by the type of transit (bus, subway, train, etc.) and the route (fewest transfers, less, walking, etc.). After making my selection, I got a list of all the available routes with each option listing the kind of transit, the departure and arrival times, the total trip time, and the cost. Clicking each route shows the exact instructions including how to get to the transit stop (with the distance and walking time) and the number of stops. I can take one of three bus lines to USF, and Google displayed each one accurately.

Apple Maps, on the other hand, fell short immediately. Clicking the bus icon takes you only to a list of third-party apps from the App Store that offer transit directions. If you've already downloaded one of the suggestions, it will display it at the top of the list. Yet, it's not clear if that title will give correct directions. For example, though Apple Maps showed that I already owned a BART-related app, BART won't get me anywhere near campus. To find a free app that would help, I had to scroll down to the seventh option on the list, a title I had never used called (appropriately enough) The Transit App. But again, making your choice will be a trial and error process. An app may cover your route, but it may not. And the preview page may not give enough information.

I then had to go to the App Store, download the app, and open it before I could get the help I needed. On the upside, my selection delivered correct results straightaway (so I didn't have to enter my route again), but the process involved far too many steps. What's more, while the app's instructions were accurate, it doesn't deliver the "full picture" I got from Google Maps. I knew how to take the bus, but I had no idea how to get to the stop.

On the iPhone I had to download a relevant app. Screenshots by Kent German/CNET
Google's complete directions are integrated.

Test 2 - I'm hungry
Destination: 4214 Park Blvd., Oakland, Calif.

Dinnertime, and I wanted to visit my friend in Oakland at a neighborhood Italian restaurant, Marzano (check it out if you're local). I don't need a car to get there, but I will need to take BART across the bay and then transfer to a bus in downtown Oakland.

Here again, Google Maps delivered the results I needed with a choice of routes and all relevant information. And this time, things were a little easier on the iPhone because I had already installed a relevant app. Now, I just clicked on The Transit App from the list and the right instructions loaded. On the downside, I still missed out on a lot of information that Google delivers and I had to go through an extra step.

Apple's app list puts the titles you already own at the top, whether they can help you or not. Screenshots by Kent German/CNET
Google Maps gives thorough directions.

Test 3 - Weekend escape
Destination: Larkspur Ferry Terminal, Larkspur, Calif.

I wanted to meet another friend in Marin Country for a hike and some time in the sun (I just got through another foggy San Francisco summer). Also, I thought I'd take the ferry over to the Larkspur Ferry Terminal rather than sitting in Golden Gate Bridge on a bus.

As you'd expect, Google Maps came through yet again. I got the same complete directions and a handy map. Apple's solution didn't cut it, though it did deliver one surprise. This time, it must have recognized that BART doesn't go to Marin because it didn't offer the BART app at the top of my list. That's great, but The Transit App didn't recognize the direct route to Larkspur. It got me halfway with a ferry to Tiburon, Calif., but then I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with the dotted line covering the rest of the route. Other apps may deliver better results, but there's no way for me to know that unless I download it.

Unfortunately, my iPhone app didn't have great directions. Screenshots by Kent German/CNET
Google Maps did much better.

So, yes, Apple Maps fails when it comes to public transit. It tries to give you some options, but the user experience is poor. Even when you manage to find an title that's helpful (and hopefully, free), switching to a third-party app for transit directions takes you out of the mapping feature. That means a lot of switching back and forth between the two. And as I said above, Google Maps gives the whole picture by getting you to the transit stop and then on to your final destination.

Apple has promised that its cloud-based maps will get better as more people use them. I'm sure that will happen, but transit information can come only from the relevant operators. Users won't be able to provide complicated data like bus schedules and routes.

In the end, there's really no excuse for removing a free and useful feature and replacing it with a poor substitute. And depending on the app, it's a substitute that may cost you. In fact, I can't help but wonder if this is all part of an effort to get us to buy more apps. Yes, you can get Google's transit directions by pointing your iPhone's browser to maps.google.com, but that experience isn't as refined as what you enjoyed before and it won't be as fast. Google isn't yet working on its own iOS app, but it should.

So go ahead and tell all the bus horror stories you want (I have plenty), but iOS 6 leaves transit riders at the stop.

Admittedly, sometimes Google gives you too many choices. Going through Oakland isn't the most direct route from San Francisco to Marin County. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET