Apple Maps has lagged behind its competitors for a few years — in part because Apple was late to the game. But over the last year, it's become a more stable, usable service. iOS 10 continues that trend, bringing huge (and much-needed) software and server-side improvements to Apple's mapping application.

No, it's still not perfect: In driving mode, it continues to struggle with traffic estimations and offering up the best alternate routes. But for local driving, it's gotten leaps and bounds better.

The new look

Apple Maps has embraced the San Francisco bold look head-on, with clear, readable maps labels, bright colors, and crisp text. The top and bottom navigational bars have disappeared entirely, replaced by contextual cards and a small overlay for further information, GPS location, and the weather. Though you get more visual overhead as you use more complicated Maps options, the general focus seems to have been on keeping it light, clean, and understandable.

On launch, the bottom card will display a search bar along with predictive locations (based on your routine or Calendar appointments) and favorite or recent locations. As will soon become custom, you can scroll up on this card to get an expanded list, as well as full access to your Favorites list.

Tap on an address or pin, and that contextual card changes, offering you an address, estimated mileage and driving time, and — if it's a public business — Yelp-sourced information on the business's hours, photos, website, menu, and the like. (You can tap any of these to go directly to Yelp for more information.) You can even tap on yourself to either mark your current location with a pin, or share it with your friends.

Search improvements

Where Apple Maps has really branched out is in its search: Though it still pulls primarily from Yelp's database, it's become a lot easier to find and narrow down options for food, entertainment, travel, gas, and more. When you tap on the search bar, eight brightly-colored bubbles appear to whisk you off to the business of your choosing: Food, Drinks, Shopping, Travel, Services, Fun, Health, or Transport.

Tap on one bubble, and you go further down the rabbit hole into a sub-genre of options: Food, for example, offers up a Popular section, along with Restaurants, Groceries, Fast Food, Coffee Shops, Bakeries, and Desserts.

Once you pick a category, you can browse through a listing of suggested eateries or drill down further — a sliding menu along the bottom of the screen lets you select specific brands or options. (For example, tapping Bakeries in the Northeast will give you sub-options that include all nearby Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread, Au Bon Pain, and the like.)

Adventures in directions

Let's get this out of the way: Maps's server-side directions still need some work. Over the past few months, I've been running it on all my short- and long-haul trips simultaneously with Google Maps, and while it generally keeps up quite well, there are still some holes in its computations. (Notably when traffic is involved, or trying to branch off the well-worn path through slightly more obscure street routes.) It's miles better than Maps's initial server woes, and largely only when driving routes are involved: I actually quite prefer Apple's transit data to Google Maps. But the caveat needs to be stated, and so it has been.

That aside, Maps now has one of the best interfaces for directions out there. The new bold, bright look is great for quick-glance information when in the car, and both Siri and large buttons help keep your attention on the road as much as possible rather than yelling at your directions-providing device. Outside the interface, Maps fixes a niggle I've had since version 1.0: It now lets you zoom to any point on the map with a multitouch pinch gesture, as well as view a full overview of the route.

When turn-by-turn is enabled, you can also search along your route for local food, gas, or coffee options by tapping a few big buttons; you can also just ask Siri "Is there a coffee place nearby?" and Maps will present options and automatically add a stop to your route if you so desire. It works just as well (if not better) than Google's implementation — having Yelp data and rankings to draw on is a welcome addition to the sometimes-stressful job of picking road trip stops.

When you're planning your routes, Maps offers multiple options, like most major mapping services; Apple has also now incorporated switches that let you avoid tolls or highways — a big deal for metropolitan folk — and transit options that let you exclude certain methods of transportation in favor of others (turning off bus routes, for example, if all you want to see are train schedules).

Hello, car

Hands down, my favorite Maps feature in iOS 10 is Apple's new "Parked Car" marker. If your vehicle has either CarPlay or Bluetooth connectivity, your iPhone will recognize where it last chatted with your car, and mark it in the Maps app. Not only that: It'll tell you when you last parked (so that you can accurately monitor meters), and offers a notes field where you can add a photo (of your parking garage number) or different notes. I have used this feature pretty much daily since installing iOS 10, and my forgetful parking lot self can't really imagine life without it.

Beyond the Maps app

Maps is one of Apple's test-case apps that supports third-party embedded extensions: Though not as expansive as, say, Messages, Maps will let you book reservations and rideshares directly through the app — even from the directions screen. It's clearly a very limited concept at launch (there aren't that many rideshare services, period), but as with Apple's other embedded app experiments, this could snowball very quickly if it proves successful. I'd love to be able to embed Carrot Weather in place of the fixed weather widget, for example.


We'll have a lot more information and how-tos about Maps in the days to come, but let me know if you have any questions about these features; I'm happy to answer.

Maps for iPhone and iPad