Justin O’Beirne

Justin O’Beirne of San Francisco, California: essays and contact information.

Cartography comparison
Google Maps & Apple Maps

Google Maps and Apple Maps.

Both are the default mapping apps on their respective operating systems (Android and iOS).

And both are racing to become the world’s first universal map  – that is, the first map used by a majority of the global population. In many ways, this makes Google Maps and Apple Maps two of the most important maps ever made.

Who will get there first?

And will design be a factor?

In this series of essays, we’ll compare and contrast the cartographic designs of Google Maps and Apple Maps. We’ll take a look at what’s on each map and how each map is styled, and we’ll try to uncover the biggest differences between the two.


⚠️ This is an in-depth exploration, inspired by the styles of Anandtech and John Siracusa.

TL;DR: Though they look similar, Google Maps and Apple Maps present surprisingly different views of the world. (To skip to the Summary, click here.)


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   · Two Very Different Maps
   · The Setup
Part 1: Content - Parts of the Map
   · Cities
· Roads
· Places
Part 2: Content - The Map as a Whole
   · Two Halves of the Map
   · Labels
· Detail
Part 3 – Coming Soon




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⚠️ Tap or click any image to enlarge


Four years ago, Google announced that Google Maps had reached one billion unique monthly users. Today, that number is even larger.1

One billion is an astounding number – it’s one out of every seven people on Earth:

It’s also far larger than the United States:

One billion is so large that even 1% of one billion is huge. It’s larger than America’s largest city:

Put another way, just 1% of Google Maps’s user base is larger than all of this:

📷 New York City | Photo by Faisal Yaqub

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But Apple Maps is also huge.2

At the end of last year, Nielsen reported the top mobile apps in the U.S., and Google Maps and Apple Maps both made the Top 10:

📊 Source: Nielsen

For all of the hype and press surrounding them, notice what’s not in the Top 10: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, Yelp, Foursquare, Twitter, Periscope, and Amazon – among others.

Isn’t it interesting that none of these apps made the Top 10 while Apple Maps did?

But then again, Google Maps and Apple Maps aren’t just apps – they’re also platforms. And as platforms, they’re actually inside many of these other apps. You can’t use Uber, for instance, without also using Google Maps, and the same goes for many other apps:

📱 Google Maps in Uber's iOS app

📲 Google’s & Apple’s maps in Instagram, Twitter, Periscope, Lyft, Foursquare, Yelp, and Shazam.

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So both Google Maps and Apple Maps have really large user bases, and they’re not only two of the world’s most used apps—they’re also inside of many other widely-used apps.

Yet given how important they’ve become, we know relatively little about them. (One of them might become our Universal Map, after all.)

It’s interesting: I can easily find hundreds of articles that’ll tell me the differences between an Apple iPad and a Microsoft Surface, or even the differences between iOS and Android. But I can’t find anything comparing Google Maps and Apple Maps, despite how important they’ve become.

And that’s a shame, because there are so many questions.

For instance:

  • How often do the two maps label the same things?
  • Does one map emphasize things that the other doesn’t?
  • And is one map better than the other at something in particular?

We know the exact color gamut of the Apple iPad – but surprising little about our future Universal Map.

Well, that ends today...



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Google Maps and Apple Maps:

The columns above look very similar – but would you believe that the maps are actually very different?


From icons:


To colors:


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To even what’s labeled on the maps themselves:


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As you can see, the maps are more different than they appear at first glance. And each map shows a surprisingly different view of the world.

We’ll be examining these differences, and many others, as we continue on.



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At its heart, this series of essays is a comparison of the current state of Google’s and Apple’s cartography. But it’s also something more: an exploration into all of the tradeoffs that go into designing and making maps such as these.

These tradeoffs are the joy of modern cartography  – the thousands of tiny, seemingly isolated decisions that coalesce into a larger, greater whole.

Our purpose here is not to crown a winner, but to observe the paths taken  – and not taken.


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We’ll look at 54 pairs of maps of three different cities: New York, San Francisco, and London.

Each pair shows an identical area, pixel for pixel, on Google Maps and Apple Maps — at the exact same zoom:


To give you a better idea of what these map pairs look like, here’s a few higher-resolution versions:



The three pairs above are all from our New York set:

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Speaking of New York, we’ll center all of the New York map pairs on the Empire State Building:

📷 The Empire State Building | Photo by Faisal Yaqub

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For San Francisco, we’ll center the map pairs on Patricia’s Green, a park in the center of the Hayes Valley neighborhood:

📷 Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley, San Francisco | Photo by Justin O’Beirne

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And for London, we’ll center the map pairs on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square:

📷 Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London | Photo by David Castor

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Why are we looking at New York, San Francisco, and London—and not some other cities or areas?

  • First, we want to look at areas where the maps are most likely to be finished (i.e., areas where the maps are most likely to be complete and up-to-date.) San Francisco is Google’s and Apple’s backyard, so the maps should be really good there. And New York and London are two of the world’s largest, most important cities—so they should’ve also gotten a lot of attention.

  • We also want to look at very dense cities, cities where there’d be an enormous number of candidates for things to label. New York and San Francisco are the U.S.’s two densest major cities. And London is the E.U.’s largest city.

  • Because of this density requirement, rural areas won’t work for our purposes. In a typical rural area, the things that are labeled are the area’s only things—and Google and Apple are likely to label the same things. For this study, we want to see what Google and Apple label when they have thousands of things to choose from.

  • We’ll choose the Empire State Building, Patricia’s Green, and Nelson’s Column because they are all close to the centers of their respective cities, and they’re all likely to have a variety of different things around them.

  • Finally (and not coincidentally), San Francisco, New York, and London were the three cities where my recent essay, What Happened to Google Maps?, received the most views. (Thank you to everyone who enjoyed and shared that essay! 😀)

A few other notes before we begin:

  • We’re only looking at the maps themselves. (Search results, Turn-by-Turn navigation, Street View, Aerial / Satellite imagery, and Traffic displays are all out-of-scope.)

  • We want to see what a map designed for a billion people looks like, so we’re only looking at the default maps. (We’ll look at map personalization in a later essay. Google offers it; Apple doesn’t.) The map screenshots reflect the default, out-of-the-box experience that someone would have upon using them for the very first time. (The screenshots were taken on fresh installs, with clear browser caches — and no accounts were signed into, nor were any searches performed.)

  • Unless otherwise noted, all maps, data, and screenshots for Parts 1 and 2 reflect Google Maps and Apple Maps as they appeared on Saturday, May 14th, 2016.



📍 · Part 1 · Part 2


Thank you to Faisal Yaqub and David Castor for contributing original photography.



1  Whatever number of Google Maps’s users were lost when Apple Maps was released in 2012, Google Maps was back at one billion users by 2014. ↩︎

2  While Google has disclosed the global number of Google Maps users, Apple hasn’t done the same for Apple Maps. So a direct, global user-base comparison isn’t possible at this time.

That said, Comscore’s data provides a view of U.S. marketshare, and Comcast’s numbers suggest that both maps have very large user-bases. ↩︎

© 2016 Justin O’Beirne · Contact