Ask anyone what Websites they can't live without: After mentioning their e-mail service and Google, they'll invariably point to an online mapping service as a key to modern life.
But which of the big mapping services is best? We took a hard look at three of the most popular online mapping sites--Google Maps, MapQuest, and the up-and-coming Microsoft Bing Maps--to see which one got us from point A to point B (and points C and D, if necessary) the most smoothly. Here are our findings in six test categories.
The Test: Ease of Use, Interface, and Direction Clarity
As the unofficial industry standard, Google Maps is the service--and the interface--that people measure other mapping systems against. In keeping with the design of most Google properties, Google Maps is clean and simple, and the site's home page presents you with a single search box interface.
Bing starts you off with a bit of a puzzling choice: Search for a location in the easy-to-overlook search box, or input both a start address and a destination address in the more obvious sidebar.
MapQuest has the most complicated design of the bunch, requiring you to fill in a four-item form for your first address, and then providing a single box on the results page if you want to get directions from there.
Google Maps does a good job of handling incomplete addresses, business names, and other fuzzy or incomplete information that users may enter, but its directions are a bit Spartan.
Whereas MapQuest includes easy-to-scan icons for turning right or left or merging, Google Maps and Bing offer this information only in text form. Unfortunately, MapQuest's map consumes the entire screen, so you have to scroll down to get the directions--and you can't see both together. (See "MapQuest Expert Tips: How to Get Where You're Going--and Have Fun Along the Way.")
Though Bing is arguably the prettiest service of the three, it has one big failing here: You have to go back to the search page if you want to reverse your route; the other two services let you do reverse direction after results are shown.
(Note: A beta version of MapQuest improves its interface a bit by putting the map to the right and streamlining the address entry form.)
Scores: Out of 10
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 travelers 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
Next: Traffic Information, Alternate Transit