Apple Maps places Mildura miles from the Murray river.

Apple Maps places Mildura miles from the Murray river.

Will turn-by-turn sat-nav directions help restore Australia's confidence in Apple Maps?

It really was amazing that Apple let a half-finished product like Apple Maps out the door without at least dubbing it a "beta" version as a disclaimer. It somewhat spoiled the launch of iOS6 and the iPhone 5 although, to be honest, if it wasn't Apple Maps then people would have found something else to complain about. Looking for something wrong with the latest gadget, Apple or otherwise, is one of the new blood sports of the internet.

As Apple works hard to improve Apple Maps, this week Australians finally got a taste of its sat-nav features. The phone issues turn-by-turn directions on the screen, read aloud in a Siri-style voice. Turn-by-turn navigation is only available on the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5 and iPad 2 or later with cellular data capability. If you're using an iPhone 4 then Apple Maps will calculate routes and display turning information, but it won't update automatically as you drive. This is disappointing considering the iPhone 4 is clearly capable of running a full sat-nav app.

There was a time when I considered spoken directions essential so you can keep your eyes on the road, but I've changed my mind in recent years. Pictures of complicated intersections are easier to interpret than spoken instructions and it's much easier to take a wrong turn if you're only listening to the phone. Having the phone constantly interrupting can also cause a certain level of tension during long family drives (especially when you're testing some new gadget but supposed to be on a relaxing family holiday).

Tested on my iPhone 5 review unit, on loan from Telstra, Apple Maps' sat-nav features are spartan but functional. You're given a choice of several routes with estimated travel times, but no way to edit routes or add extra destinations. Once you're on the road you get big, green road sign-style notifications of turns, while Siri's pronunciation is pretty good. It's easy to see where you're going because, unlike some sat-nav apps, Apple doesn't try to cram too much information into the maps.

When you're weaving through the back streets, Apple Maps does a good job of explaining and displaying close turns. It also copes well when you take a wrong turn, quickly and quietly recalculating. You've got no advanced onscreen information such as your current speed, but you can tap the screen to see your ETA.

As a regular user of the TomTom app, one of my frustrations is that Apple Maps' 3D view isn't as close to eye level as TomTom. Apple Maps does grow on you after a while, especially with the taller iPhone 5 letting you see further into the distance. The phone can tell which direction you're facing and turn the view, which is good and bad. If you're waiting at an intersection but the road on the other side veers off on an angle, the road ahead runs off the screen you can't look ahead for the next turn.

The TomTom also does a better job of indicating lane changes and exits. I do like the fact that Apple Maps makes it easy to search for destinations by name when you don't have a street address, whereas TomTom is too reliant on Facebook data for these kinds of searches.

As for the accuracy of Apple's maps, so far I haven't encountered any problems navigating the street-level maps but I've only been playing with it for a short time. You hear plenty of horror stories but in my experience the problems with Apple Maps are more big picture than at street level. For example many country towns are marked in the wrong location, but once you get down to street level the roads are accurate.

If I ask Apple Maps to take me to Mildura I'll end up in a national park more than 50 kms to the south. It even gets the name of the park wrong, to add insult to injury. But if I search for "Walnut Avenue, Mildura" it takes me to the right spot. You can see what I mean in the image above. Apple Maps is supposedly powered by TomTom, but if I ask the TomTom app to take me to Mildura it takes me to the centre of town. Take a look at regional maps and Apple Maps places quite a few towns in the wrong spot. Many of the towns on the Murray aren't anywhere near the river according to Apple Maps. It's simply unacceptable.

Apple Maps' turn-by-turn features aren't too bad, considering that it's free, but the inaccuracies in the maps means it still needs to rate a fail compared to something like the TomTom or Navigon app. If you've been using a paid app you're very unlikely to abandon it for Apple Maps. Near enough just isn't good enough when it comes to satellite navigation and there's a long road ahead before you can have complete faith in Apple Maps.