Google Maps, an excellent mapping and navigation service, has become almost a force of habit for over a billion users across the world. It ticks all the right boxes for a navigation app—with continuous updates to map data and enhance precision along the way, offering accurate ETA across all tiers of cities as well as highways.
It’s free, baked in on your Android smartphone, and is one of the top apps downloaded from the iPhone App Store. But Google Apps is also a local guide that ups the ante on what location-based searches can do—aided by, of course, Google’s vigour in search. You can book cab rides, read reviews of business establishments and restaurants, look up hotels and make a booking.
Sometimes, though, you don’t need all that clutter. You just need to navigate to your destination.
There are two first-party (developed by device manufacturers themselves) options outside the Android world: Bing Maps on Windows (and the Web) and Apple Maps, the default mapping service of iOS, iPadOS, macOS and watchOS.
Bing Maps, like Google, is aided by its search capabilities and offers a competitive mapping and navigation experience. It has a neat, intuitive experience, with comprehensive, layered maps and an extensive feature set, yet it isn’t widely popular. That’s because Bing Maps does not have a mobile app. Since Microsoft abandoned its Windows Phone platform a few years ago and there are no apps for Android or iOS, you can’t use Bing Maps when you are on the road, which is when you actually need maps. I use Bing Maps a lot for trip planning et al when I’m on my desk, but when I’m on the road for the same trip, I have to go for an alternative.
When it comes to Apple, you have Apple Maps. Unlike Google Apps and Bing Apps, Apple’s mapping service is exclusive to its devices.
Apart from these large tech companies and platform owners, several third-party (custom app) mapping services have tried to fill in the few areas Google Maps lacks. Here are a few slick alternatives to Google Maps.
Waze was a fun, community-driven take to mapping and navigation back in the day. It became so popular that Google bought the company in 2013. Thankfully, Waze still functions as a separate app.
Since then, however, Google has pinched several of the unique features of Waze for Google Maps, reducing the gap between the two (while offering all the Google Maps extras on top of it). That said, amidst last year’s economic crisis, Google merged the two divisions working on Google Maps and Waze, which could change things going forward.
Waze is still impressive at what it does. It shows alternative routes for a destination in a more organised and intuitive manner, offers sophisticated music controls compatible with apps like Spotify without leaving the map screen, and can give you the “best time to leave” for a destination so you can plan better.
It offers a great search-along feature to look up fuel stations or restaurants on your journey, giving you an idea of the deviation required from the route. Google Maps has caught up on this but the automatic rerouting when traffic conditions on the chosen route have changed is still superior on Waze.
That said, the crowdsourcing of road events – the marquee feature of Waze – is a mixed bag since the app isn’t as popular in India (and hence fewer reports) as in some other countries, like the United States. Also, the traffic information for highways isn’t much to write home about, so while the app works pretty well within the city, relying on it for ETA for a longer road trip isn’t ideal. Since the app is built around a social experience and real-time traffic conditions, it does not support offline navigation, which is a letdown.
Waze was built to minimize your time on the road and get you to your destination quickly. That’s all it cares about, and mostly delivers. It wants you to have fun while driving – it does not offer navigation support for walking or public transit – and opts for a lively colour scheme and UI elements. It even lets you record your own voice for turns and directions which is an enjoyable addition. That’s why I keep going back to Waze often.
Mappls, formerly MapMyIndia, offers everything a mapping and navigation service needs. That’s mostly thanks to its long experience in digital mapping – the company was founded much before Google Maps was launched – and its work in the enterprise segment that gives Google a run for its money, partnerships with startups such as ride-hailing service Ola and bike-sharing platform Yulu, as well as its heritage of portable navigation devices that has led it to become the top player in the automotive space.
A made-in-India service that is made for India, Mappls matches Google Maps feature-to-feature while claiming to be more comprehensive about POIs (points of interest) and street-level addresses, with better curated data for businesses. While it’s difficult to dissect that claim in urban areas, Mappls seems to be way ahead of Google Maps in rural areas.
On top of it, Mappls does offer a few additional nifty features over Google Maps. The “Junction View”, for example, which tackles a common problem. When you encounter a flyover during navigation, the view makes it much clearer whether you should take the flyover or not. Then there’s speed monitoring (via speed traps and information about designated speed limits), which nudges you to stay within the speed limit on the road you are driving on.
Mappls is also the only service in this list that offers a panoramic street view—called RealView—that is similar to Google Maps’ Street View. After a change in India’s geospatial policy, both debuted simultaneously last year.
Mappls is a well-rounded alternative to Google Maps. The company’s recent rebranding is aimed at shedding its legacy enterprise mapping solutions image to emerge as a modern, hyperlocal mapping and navigational service for consumers. It has also launched a series of GPS trackers, dash cams, smart helmets, et al to extend the connected location-based intelligence further and beyond just the smartphones or in-dash systems.
If Mappls is the most comprehensive mapping and navigation service in India, HERE WeGo would like to stake a similar claim globally. Originally developed by Nokia, HERE Maps (previously Nokia Maps) was the best and most feature-rich solution available on the Web and as the default mapping experience on Nokia/Microsoft devices.
The service was responsible for revolutionising app-based navigation in India, pioneering turn-by-turn navigation as well as being the first to offer offline maps functionality—even before Google Maps. On HERE WeGo, you can download territories and countries instead of choosing a particular region.
The app offers ETAs for recommended routes, additional route options, navigation support for both cars and public transit, and works as a perfect mapping and navigation tool. It’s minimalist in its approach, with fewer distractions, and offers easy-to-follow navigation controls, which is also why I prefer it as my default app for most rides. In my anecdotal usage, it’s also the fastest to plot a route and start navigating.
The maps coverage and depth are comprehensive, with extensive layers for classic, satellite, transit, and traffic view. In fact, several other location-based services use map data from HERE Technologies.
If there’s one app that can be recommended as a full-blown alternative to Google Maps globally, it’s HERE WeGo.
Intents Go is the least popular of the options but it’s unique in offering real-time data on potholes, roadworks, waterlogging, traffic, blockades and speed cameras as you drive across a city or on a highway. The navigation app is a product of Intents Mobi, a geospatial intelligence solutions company that offers this special data about road conditions to businesses like logistics and transportation services.
Intents Go, quite simply an app that detects potholes on roads, was started as a personal project by one of the company’s founders in 2017. To gather data for the project in its early days, truck drivers and cab drivers were incentivized to use the app in exchange for small values of Paytm vouchers. Since then, the company has been able to create a robust dataset with real-time updates with a huge network of users. Of course, the app also takes care of repaired potholes and after smooth movement of a few vehicles, a previously reported cavity at that spot is removed from the system.
While both Google Maps and Waze allow users to flag potholes manually, Intents Go does this more elegantly, relying on sensors on your smartphone—gyroscope and accelerometer—to automatically detect potholes and speed bumps because of the sudden dips in vehicle speed as well as the jumps.
The app offers a plain vanilla user experience but the navigation, based on mapping by HERE Technologies, is good enough. However, you don’t need to necessarily use the app for navigation since it works along with Google Maps or any other mapping service—Intents Go can run in the background and send you an audio alert for upcoming potholes. It’s an innovative way to tackle the ubiquitous problem in India and can help enhance road safety.
Your choice of mapping tool should depend on how you plan your trips, how you use mapping and navigation while on your journey, and what features you value the most.
All these options listed above are free, so don’t take my word, and try them to check out if their user experience fits your requirements or if the navigation works accurately in your area. Also, I’ll recommend you to not go for an either-or approach. Use a combination of apps and services to improve your mapping experience, minimize time spent on roads, and enhance your trip planning.
Do that exploration at home and on familiar routes, mind you, so as to not risk your safety while driving and not get lost failing to figure out a new app when you’re out and about.
Abhishek Baxi is a technology journalist and digital consultant.