Review: Maps App Turn-by-turn Navigation for the IPhone

Road-testing the Apple Maps App Turn-by-turn Directions for IPhone

IPhone Maps App
Apple's Maps App in IOS 10. Image © Apple, Inc.

Free turn-by-turn directions for the iPhone have been available with Apple's mobile operating system since the release of iOS 6. This operating system commonly runs on the iPhone 5 and some older iPhone models, as well as on the iPod Touch and the iPad.

Apple got off to a rough start with its Maps app. The app's problems were well documented, including many map errors. Many of these issues have been remedied with iPhone 6 and iPhone 7.

If you're still using an older phone – some of us get pretty attached to our devices and are reluctant to part with them – this review focuses on the functionality and performance of the turn-by-turn navigation aspect of the iOS 6 app.  

Apple's Free Turn-by-turn Directions App

When you bought your iPhone 5 or upgraded your Apple mobile device to the iOS 6 operating system, you got Apple's Maps app. It includes spoken street names, turn-by-turn directions, traffic detection and avoidance, and integration with Apple's Siri voice recognition. Beyond Apple's well-documented Maps accuracy and completeness woes, how do the turn-by-turn directions work?

One improvement you'll find is the switch to vector-based graphics instead of the slower and jerkier-loading image files that used to populate the first version of Maps. This is a definite win for users. And while the Maps app doesn't have Google's iconic and useful street view feature, it does offer detailed 3D flyover images of many major metropolitan areas and landmarks, as well as the familiar hybrid and satellite views.

Turn-by-turn Navigation

You can initiate your trip with spoken voice commands to Siri when you're ready to get underway. You can do this while the Maps app is open, or simply invoke Siri from anywhere and begin your trip setup. Of course, you can also set up your trip manually from the Maps app or tap in an address from most apps, emails and other sources of addresses.

Voice initiation of a trip via Siri is a significant plus for this navigation package. Voice is notoriously difficult to integrate into GPS, often relying on cumbersome set commands, and Siri is significantly more adept than any previous voice input for GPS. Ask Siri for a restaurant or any other destination in a clear voice and there's a good chance you'll locate what you want. Next, simply ask Siri for "directions" and she will open the Maps app turn-by-turn directions feature for you.

On-the-road Functionality, Traffic and More

This brings us to the turn-by-turn interface itself. The turn-by-turn map automatically adopts a portrait or landscape mode, depending on how you orient the iPhone. I prefer landscape mode for driving, and I strongly recommend using a charging car mount when using an iPhone for driving directions.

The driving interface can best be described as simple and stripped-down. There are positives and negatives to that. The iPhone 5 screen is on the small side compared to the larger-screen GPS devices now on the market, so there's little room for multi-mode information widgets you can see from behind the wheel. Directions are presented to you via a large green area that looks like a road sign, including the name of the street of your next turn and the distance.

You'll also hear the spoken-street-name directions. Voice guidance is another reason to use the iPhone with a car mount because it amplifies the phone's sound so you can hear it clearly.

Once you're underway, the instructions should seem familiar if you have any experience with using a GPS for driving. What you might miss with this older Maps app's simplified interface are conveniences like your current speed compared to the speed limit, an estimated time of arrival, and time-to-destination display areas. You can check your ETA and time and distance remaining by tapping the screen while in directions mode, however.

The information will appear at the top of the screen, although it will be too small to be visible from behind the wheel. You can also select the complete route overview from the top-screen bar, or the turn-by-turn street list from an icon at the bottom left of the screen. This Maps app lacks detailed lane guidance, which shows you which lane you should be in as much as a mile before your turn. 

Traffic, Construction and Accident Warnings

Traffic detection and avoidance has evolved from a pricey extra in GPS systems to an expected perk. With a completely connected device such as the iPhone and technical help from TomTom, which pioneered real-time traffic avoidance, Apple had the opportunity to provide top-quality traffic features with the iPhone 5. Apple delivered in a limited way, accurately showing delays on the map and within route overviews with a dotted red line. It shows construction areas, complete with a description of what's going on if you tap on the icon, as well as accident delays and important information such as road and ramp closures.

Maps App and Other Apps

One advantage to using Apple's Maps app for turn-by-turn directions is its relatively good inter-app operability. You can exit to any other app on the phone while you're in turn-by-turn mode and a green "touch to return to navigation" bar will appear at the top of the screen. When you're in Apple's Contacts app, tap on an address to see the destination on the map, then simply touch a little car icon to switch to turn-by-turn driving directions mode. It's also easy to clear a current session to start over or to move on to other tasks, something that's not always easy with all GPS devices. 

On the Road

The Maps app issues clear, spoken directions, and the next-turn information is relatively easy to see when the iPhone is mounted on a windshield mount. It gives adequate advance notice for turns and off-ramps. You might get some brief, odd directions during re-routing that refer to the last turn, even if you're well past the road described. The app will eventually correct itself.