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Online mapping services put to the test

We find out which is best

Bing, Google Maps, and MapQuest all have their charms, but which one will get you where you need to go with the least hesitation and the most accuracy? We examine all three and pick a winner.

The test: Direction accuracy

None of these services offered perfect directions in every search, and sometimes - no matter which one you pick - you'll get strange routes as a result. Most of the time, the three services agree on the basics of a route, but occasionally one of them varies wildly.

Except when we asked for directions over routes we drive daily, it was impossible to be certain about which map's routes were best, but subjectively Google's results seemed the quickest and most direct, followed by Bing's, and then MapQuest's; in a few cases we tested, MapQuest offered some unmistakably quirky driving suggestions.

We did appreciate the Avoid button that MapQuest places next to every turn, giving you the opportunity to bypass problem intersections that the service may not know about, without your having to specify an alternate route. (All three services let you do this by dragging a point on the suggested route to another street, at which point the service recalculates the route in real time.)

We also appreciated the helpful hints that Bing embeds in its route instructions, including construction notices and advice along the lines of 'If you reach Main Street, you've gone too far'. For travellers driving in an utterly foreign area, Bing provides the best hand-holding.

But nothing beats Google's biggest advantage here: It almost always gives you choices in the form of a collection of two or three different ways you can go, each involving a similar amount of time spent on the road.

Scores: out of 10

Google: 8

Bing: 7

MapQuest: 6

The test: traffic information

All three services use the same colour scheme when you activate the traffic overlay -ranging from green for no problems to black for 'you're not going anywhere today'. Nevertheless, we noticed some stark differences in how well the three services' traffic outlooks work.

The clear leader here is Google. It has the most comprehensive traffic data (based on number of streets covered) and the clearest presentation of information. Google Maps makes it easy to get a quick look at traffic before you head out of the office for home -and its unique ability to change the overlay from live traffic to projected future traffic based on historical data can be a lifesaver when you have a congested route ahead of you.

The overlay lines showing MapQuest traffic data are difficult to interpret. MapQuest's street coverage is nearly as comprehensive as Google's, but its information is extremely difficult to read: The overlay lines are so wide that you may not be able to tell what street is being highlighted. And since red and green lines can sit side by side, the resulting confusion can pose a serious problem. Even more troublingly, MapQuest's traffic data is sometimes clearly wrong.

Compared to the comprehensive traffic on Google and MapQuest, Bing has a very limited traffic system, which doesn't currently apply to UK maps. In the US, it is restricted to Motorways where traffic data wouldn't show up at all on certain sections of road unless we zoomed in or out - and because Bing's lines are drawn so thinly, traffic can be hard to make out without squinting at the map. (Even figuring out how to turn on the traffic overlay in Bing is tricky; you need to click the traffic light icon in the bottom left corner.) The biggest positive that Bing can claim is its coverage of accident and construction issues: These are clearly noted on the map and are more comprehensive than those of any other service.

Scores: out of 10

Google: 9

Bing: 5

MapQuest: 5

NEXT PAGE: Alternate transport methods

  1. Three popular services put to the test
  2. Direction accuracy
  3. Alternate transport methods
  4. The bonus round


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