Justin O'Beirne

Justin O'Beirne of San Francisco, California. Essays, projects, and contact information.



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Which Map is More Detailed?

For the longest time, the magnifying glass was the icon for zooming in on maps:

And it makes perfect sense: when you zoom in to an area, you’re taking a closer look at it…

…and the closest, most detailed look we can get of any area is at each map’s final zoom. We can’t get any closer than that:

So perhaps the best way to assess the overall detail of any digital map is look at how detailed it is on its final zoom.

So let’s do just that…

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If you remember from the Introduction, each of our map pairs is centered on a landmark.

For New York, it’s the Empire State Building:

📷 The Empire State Building | Photo by Faisal Yaqub

*   *   *

For San Francisco, it’s Patricia’s Green, a popular park near the city’s center:

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

*   *   *

And for London, it’s Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square:

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

The last zoom on each map will be a close-up of each of these landmarks.

*   *   *

First, let’s look at the final zoom on our New York map pairs—which is a close-up of the Empire State Building:

Comparing the maps, the level of detail between the two is night-and-day. On Google, we see every detail of the Empire State Building—every indent, every nook and cranny. On Apple, we see a grey box denoting the building’s footprint and not much else.

Google is more detailed here.

*   *   *

San Francisco is Google’s and Apple’s backyard, so both maps should be really detailed here. Let’s take a look at the final zoom on our San Francisco map pairs—which is a close-up of Patricia’s Green:

The pattern continues. 

Here, Google has park paths and even some buildings and structures that Apple doesn’t have. And on Apple’s map, Patricia’s Green isn’t green.

I took the screenshots above before Part 1 was published (before I had announced online that we’d be comparing the maps at Patricia’s Green). And in the time since Part 1 was published, Google has added even more detail to the park:

A coincidence?

*   *   *

Nelson’s Column is the oldest of our three landmarks. It was completed in 1843, back when San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena and still belonged to Mexico. And it even predates the Empire State Building by nearly 90 years.

Given that it’s really old (almost 175 years, in fact), it’s likely to have been extensively mapped.

Let’s take a look:

The difference between the two maps is striking.

Apple has a gray square marking the location of the column, while Google has a much more detailed model. And Google also has the paths around the column and the fountains behind it.

Google even has the four lion statues at the column’s base:

📷 Lion Statues at the Base of Nelson’s Column | Photo by David Castor

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Some would argue that this is an unfair comparison — that Google’s map has been publicly available for three times longer than Apple’s, and that Google has had more time to develop its map:

The world is huge, after all; it takes a long time to gather enough data for the last zoom to be so detailed.

So let’s do the opposite: instead of looking at the final zooms, let’s compare the first zooms. We’ll look at our San Francisco map pairs:

Here again, Google seems to be the more detailed map. Notice that it shows a richer variety of landcover, denoting the forests, the tundra, and many other types of terrain:

And looking closely at Québec and northern Canada, there are lakes on Google’s map that are missing on Apple’s:

Google also displays dashed lines for the Equator and the International Date Line. And you can even (albeit, faintly) see the boundaries of the U.S. states and Canadian provinces:

The maps speak for themselves: Google is more detailed on the first and last zooms.

*   *   *

Browsing our map pairs, it was also interesting to see how often Google and Apple use icons to add even more detail to their maps.

For instance, we saw many times earlier that Google uses Underground logos as icons for London’s subway stations:

Apple, meanwhile, gives custom icons to many of its landmarks:

The icons are one of the largest differences between the two maps, and it’s interesting to see where each map uses custom artwork and what it says about each map.

We saw in Part 1 that Google prioritizes transit stations, while Apple prioritizes landmarks:

Is it a coincidence that Google’s transit stations have custom icons? And that many of Apple’s landmarks also have special, one-of-a-kind icons?

We’re only scratching the surface here…

But it’ll have to wait until Part 3.


*   *   *


In Parts 1 and 2, we looked at what’s on each map.

In Part 3, we’ll look at how all of those things are styled: color, icons, typography, and more. How does each map use color and typography to organize its information? And is one map’s style more usable than the other?

We’ll look at that and much more in Part 3.

But first, let's take a brief Interlude...


Introduction · Part 1 · 📍 · Interlude · Part 3


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