Vector or raster maps: which one is best for you?

Vector map tiles and raster map tiles comparison

If you’re working with geographical data, you have two main choices for the type of map you use: vector or raster. Both have their own advantages and disadvantages, so how do you know which one to choose? Here’s a rundown of the differences between vector and raster maps, and when you should use each one.

What are vector map tiles?

A vector map is a map that uses vector graphics to represent geographic features. Vector graphics are made up of points, lines, and polygons, which can be used to represent any kind of geographic feature. Vector maps are made up of tiny building blocks that can be combined to create an image at any level of detail, no matter how much you zoom in. That makes them perfect for use on small screens like those on phones and watches.

Benefits of choosing Vector maps

  1. Vector tiles offer higher resolution 
    • If you’ve ever tried to use a map on your phone, you know the frustration of trying to zoom in far enough to see the details you need, only to have the image become pixelated and unusable. Vector maps are made up of instructions instead of pixels, so they can be enlarged without losing resolution. 
  2. Vector maps can be easily edited
    • Vector maps are also editable so you can easily add, remove, or move features. You can change the way data is displayed on a vector map, without having to redraw the entire map. This can be incredibly useful when you want to focus on a specific area, or when you want to change the way data is displayed to better understand it.
  3. Vector tiles are fast
    • Vector tiles are better for server-side performance because they use fewer resources. The footprint of data transferred is smaller for vector map tiles when compared against raster for the same map, meaning lesser bandwidth use and fewer bytes used.

What are Raster Map tiles?

Raster map tiles are a type of map that is made up of small, square images that are placed together to create a larger image. Map tiles are typically 256 pixels square, and can be assembled into a complete map by stitching together adjacent tiles.

Benefits of choosing raster maps

  1. Raster maps offer a better user experience
    • Raster map tiles are a great way to improve the performance of your web mapping applications. Raster map tiles are less demanding on the end users’ hardware – you can improve the speed and responsiveness of your web maps, and make them more user-friendly.
  2. Raster maps are easier to use
    • Raster map tiles are easier to use than vector maps, because they are already in the correct format for use in mapping platforms. This means that you don’t have to worry about converting your data into the right format, or about losing any information in the process.
  3. Raster maps have better integration
    • Raster maps do a much better job of integrating with multiple data sources and displaying over web/mobile any lesser-known platforms. That’s because raster map tiles are just images – they don’t have any computational component in them.

Now that we know the differences, let’s do a quick comparison of how vector vs raster maps look like at various zoom levels. We’ll compare maps at 3 different zoom levels.

1. Let’s start off at a higher zoom level as this is usually how you’ll usually see maps implemented. Vector tiles are on the top and raster on the bottom.

LocationIQ Vector vs Raster map tiles
Vector map tiles on top and Raster maps below it

2. Let’s zoom in a bit further to see how things change

LocationIQ Vector vs Raster map tiles
Vector map tiles on top and Raster maps below it

3. A little more zoom so we’re able to contrast the two

LocationIQ Vector vs Raster map tiles
Vector map tiles on top and Raster maps below it

So, what’s the best map tile?

Well, just like ice cream flavours, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether vector or raster maps are better. The type of map that is best for you depends on the specific needs of your project. If you need a map that is highly detailed and precise, then a vector map is likely the better choice. If, on the other hand, you need a map that is less detailed and more flexible, then a raster map may be the better option.

If you’re unsure, reach out to us with a description of your solution and we’ll figure it out together.