(Photo : Google Play)
Earlier last week, Google announced that it was rolling out an update to its Maps app for Android smartphones and tablets. After testing the update, it's clear that the new Maps app is not just an update, but a whole new fluid interface for finding things around you.
In its announcement about the Maps update, Google's blog highlighted some features of the new app, which is out now in the Play Store for Android, and coming soon to iPhone and iPad. The most obvious updated features are the Explore function, the navigation, and Reviews. But the biggest and best change can be found in the user interface, transitions, and navigation through the app itself, which flows much more smoothly and logically than previous versions.
Tablet Specific Version
Google says it has designed Maps with a "dedicated tablet design," to enhance the Maps experience on both Android tablets and iPads.
Google added its "information card" system to the mobile Maps app. Information cards were first sneak-peaked by Google in late May for its new web browser-based Maps site. They're smaller, consolidated previews of places on the map, offering a snapshot of photos, street view, top Zagat reviews, keywords, and other information, as well as buttons to save or navigate to the location. On Android, the cards look similar, but are optimized for Google+ and, especially, mobile use. More on that later.
Directions and Traffic
Along with the green, yellow, and red traffic layer that you can overlay on Maps, Google Maps now has real-time incident reports, which you can tap on to get more details. Maps can also give you a notification if a better route is available to get you around bad traffic faster. Who wants to bet that Google will only be improving this feature in the future, now that they've acquired the crowdsourcing real-time traffic map company Waze?
Like the updated web-based Maps, Google is switching away from Zagat's somewhat confusing 30-point scale to a simpler five star rating system (if you're not familiar with Zagat and go to a 10-point restaurant expecting perfection, you're bound to be unpleasantly surprised). Zagat's "badge of excellence" icon can also appear if it's a highly recommended place. Curated lists have also been integrated into the search, so you can just look for "Best restaurants" in a city, and you'll get a list to choose from, though this seems limited only to large metropolitan areas so far.
You can rate places right from the mobile Maps card, and Google is also adding in discounts and other offers as advertisements, attempting to entice users to check certain places out.
When Google first announced the new Maps app, it said that offline maps were no longer available, except if you entered "OK Maps" into the search box when looking at the area you wanted to look at. For such an intuitive interface in this update, that was an incredibly random and clunky way to go about having offline maps, and Android users appropriately lashed out. Since then, Google announced on its Google+ page that it was reversing its decision:
"We've been happy to hear so many of you enjoying the interface and features of the new Google Maps app for Android, but we know some of you are missing an easy way to access maps offline. That's why our engineering team has been working around the clock to add a "Make this map area available offline" card below the search box for easier access."
One change that no one seemed to care about was Google's retirement its oft-neglected "Latitude" location service on Aug. 9. Latitude was a check-in app, like FourSquare, but far less popular and easy to use. Often, Latitude would just sit unopened on Android systems, only occasionally annoying users with updates or prompts. Instead of Latitude, check-ins that are integrated into Google+ will be available.
The best part of the new Google Maps - the user interface and gestures - can only be experienced, though there's Google's new Maps video below to provide a taste of what it provides. For the first time, Maps is fast and intuitive, using swipes of cards and well-placed buttons to bring up navigation, information, and other options without using "back buttons" or complicated gestures.
To bring up information on a place from a search or a location tapped on the map, just click on the information card. It swoops up from the bottom of the screen, keeping the part of the map visible with the location of the place of interest. To bring up more information like reviews, just swipe up again and the information card fills the screen - but you can easily swipe that back down if you're trying to find out where to go. Finally, there's one-touch directions from the side of the card, and directions load with automobile navigation as a default, which is good if you're trying to bring up a map while driving (but, of course, you should never use your smartphone while driving). But anyway, with these gestures and common sense information display, Google Maps just got about 75 percent easier to use at a glance, which makes it about 300 percent better than Apple's maps now.
Right now the new Google Maps is out for Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) through Jelly Bean (4.2), and is coming out for iOS 6.0 and up soon.