Google beats iOS 6 to the 3D maps punch with Google Earth update

Apple's all new iOS 6 Maps app is still in beta and won't be released publicly until the fall, but if you want 3D maps on your iPhone or iPad now, you can get them courtesy of Google Earth's latest update. Google announced 3D was coming to their maps products following rumors Apple would be adding them to iOS, and is currently offering the virtual models in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Geneva, and Rome, with more to follow in the "coming weeks". So how do they compare?

Apple's iOS 6 Maps currently include "flyover" mode for Chicago, Copenhagen, Las Vegas, LA, Melbourne, Miami, Montreal (home town of Poly9), Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco (and nearby Apple hometown, Cupertino), Seattle, and Sydney. These may or may not change by release day.

So in this case is getting on iOS first, best? Yes and no. I encountered low-memory warnings on the iPhone 4S (with no other large apps running or paused in the background). The 3D models themselves look decidedly low-res on Google Earth compared to what we've seen of Apple Maps to date. (Google Earth, left, iOS 6 Maps, right.)

Google Earth is also more twitchy. Often a small gesture would cause a massive zoom, pan, or otherwise cause the current position to be completely lost. Since there's no "back button" to go to the last location view point, you have to start over from scratch which is incredibly annoying.

On the plus side, Google Earth includes several features not announced for iOS 6 Maps, including a "tour guide" that provides cinematic pans over local attractions complete with information from Wikipedia.

Google also does a good job animating transitions between locations -- zooming out, flying over, and zooming back in -- to keep the user spatially oriented. You can also search for businesses and other points of interest. Google Earth not a full-on Maps replacement, however, as it doesn't currently include even basic directions, let alone Street View, turn-by-turn directions, or other Google experiences.

Even without all those features, the Google Earth UI is bitsy, with icons in each of the four corners and a drawer that slides up containing the tours. (Apple's isn't much better, with similar controls in similar places, but with a page curl instead of a drawer slider.) The Text labels on Google Earth, however, are white with no real background, unlike the the transparent black glossy capsule backgrounds on iOS 6 maps, which provide better contrast.

When iOS 6 ships this fall, and Google is no longer the default map data provider on the iPhone and iPad, it'll be interesting to see if they turn Google Earth into a full on, Android-level Google Maps app in its own right.

For now, 3D in Google Earth needs better models and better memory handling, but it's still an interesting demo and a way to play around with the basic concept ahead of iOS 6.

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