iPhone Google Maps lags Android version, but Android saps juice

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

BLOOMSBURG — Every time my husband and I drive the 677 miles from New York to my parents' house in Michigan, we dread the long stretch of Interstate 80 through the hills of rural Pennsylvania. It's beautiful, but lonely, without a lot of places to stop.

On this trip, with a little help from Google and Apple, I was determined to stay caffeinated and maybe find somewhere else to eat besides McDonald's and truck stops.

We had two iPhones and two Android phones between us, allowing me to test Google Maps on the iPhone and Android and Apple's own mapping app for the iPhone. (There's no Apple app on Android.) These apps all have turn-by-turn voice navigation and will nag you with new directions if you make a wrong turn or try to go off-course.

We set off from New York with our easily bored 3-year-old daughter strapped in the back seat. I fired up the phones and set courses for my parents' home in Haslett, Mich.

The two versions of Google Maps and the Apple software pretty much gave me the same directions and time estimate — just over 10 hours, though we were planning on 12 with stops.

The Android version of Google Maps has the most toys and the most beautiful graphics. The bars and dry cleaners visible on its street maps of New York get replaced by the names of rivers and small-town roads in the distance.

By comparison, both iPhone apps seem bare bones, which isn't too surprising as the Android app had a head start of three years. Apple's fancy 3-D graphics largely melt away when you get out of the city.

The Android version allows me to select “layers” for my map showing things such as traffic and nearby businesses.

The restaurant layer proved very helpful when my daughter started getting cranky and we needed to make an unplanned stop.

The traffic layer — which lights up in red, yellow and green depending on the amount of traffic — was helpful on the way back to New York. It warned us of a backup on the George Washington Bridge and estimated how long an alternate route would delay us.

The iPhone version of Google Maps doesn't offer layers. And while the Apple software does offer some traffic information, you can't see it in the form of a layer when you're in navigation mode as you can with the Android version.

The Android version allows you to set a final destination and search for places along your route, such as a Starbucks, while Google's iPhone app doesn't. Apple lets me do this by using the Siri voice assistant on my iPhone. By hitting the home button and saying “Starbucks,” I got the closest locations.

When we finally caved to our daughter's demands to stop for more substantial fare, I used the restaurants layer on one of the Android phones to locate an Arby's.

I also used the feature on the trip back to New York to find a Mexican restaurant outside of Youngstown, Ohio. It had yet to open for the day, so I used the software to locate and read online reviews about another Mexican place nearby.

It's worth mentioning that this is one of those times that smartphones with larger screens help. The Samsung Galaxy Note II that I was using let me easily look at what businesses were available off exits far down the road. Even if my iPhone had been able to show me these things, it would have been tough to view them on its comparatively tiny screen (3.5 inches diagonally on my older Apple 4S, compared with the Note's 5.5 inches).

Another nice feature available on the Android, but not Google's iPhone app or Apple's software, is that the phone's screen enters a night mode when you're driving at night. The background turns dark, so it's not as distracting.

One drawback with Android phones: They have a hard time finding enough juice, even when plugged into the car's charger. In fact, the HTC Droid DNA I was using gave me two warnings that my energy usage was outpacing the power going into my phone. By contrast, the iPhone seems to stay fully charged if you plug it in.

Follow Bree Fowler on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/APBreeFowler.

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