Ask anyone what websites they can't live without: After mentioning their email 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.
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.
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.)