Your smartphone knows where it’s at. Hopefully, you’re at the same place.
The phone’s position-finding ability means it’s capable of directing you to any place you want to go, as long as you (or someone else) can accurately tell it “where to go.”
Last fall, at least some iPhone and iPad users who updated their mobile devices to Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 6, discovered that one of their favorite location-based apps, Google Maps, had been replaced by Apple’s “not-quite-ready-for-prime-time” app called “Maps.”
But before the year was out, Google Maps made a “Second Coming” on “iDevices” and I compared it the iPhone/iPad native “Maps” and MapQuest mobile apps.
Last week, Google announced a Google Maps update for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. I installed the update on both of my Apple gizmos on Wednesday, and took the new “GM” app for a “test drive” to see if it was both new and improved.
Here’s what I discovered.
“Explore” Everything, Everywhere (Almost)
Here’s how it works.
Tap the little arrow icon so your mobile device will home in on your current location.
You’ll now see a screen with an “Explore” graphic labeled “Eat, Drink, Shop, Play, Sleep.” Tap on any category to get a more extensive directory. Pick any subcategory to get an initial list of three recommendations, and “View All” to see all listings within a subcategory.
Tap any listing to get a “star rating,” reviews (if available), hours, address, phone number, Website, menus (for eateries) and additional information. You can “Save” or “Share” the listing via e-mail or text message, or clipboard copy.
Below “Explore” you’ll find a “Services” heading with icons for other categories like “groceries, pharmacies, convenience stores, libraries, parking” and other businesses or government offices.
Google Maps Menu
On the left side of the Google Maps app you’ll find a little box with three lines. That’s the app’s menu. Clicking on it gives you these choices for viewing maps:
- Public transit
- Google Earth
How to Get from “A” to “B”
The Google Maps App can calculate your travel time and provide directions for driving, public transit, bicycling, and walking. Just tap the arrow button to enter your current location, then type in your destination.
As you type, the app uses an “auto-fill” search function to provide you with a list that will include the name of the place where you’re headed, if it’s in the app’s database. For example, if you were to type “Maj” the app might suggest “Majestic Theater” and “Major Appliance Warehouse.” Simply select the correct option to fill in the “Destination” box so you can search for directions.
Tap the up/down arrows to reverse the direction of travel and be sent from “Point B” to “Point A” instead from “A” to “B.”
Getting Back on Track
The Google Maps app can provide more than one route to a destination. If you ignore the app’s routing (perhaps because you already know a better way to get there) and head off in a different direction, it will note your route deviation, and get you back on track to where you’re headed.
If you’re in a major metropolitan area, knowing how to get from “Point A to Point B” is only half the information battle. The other half is knowing if and when you will actually arrive, given current traffic conditions.
Google Maps uses color-codes, from green to black, to indicate whether traffic is moving fast, slow, really slow, or is “dead in the water.” Clickable triangles show details about accidents, construction, or other incidents that could delay arrival at your destination. Alternate routes around traffic jams may be shown, if available.
Google purchased “Waze,” a traffic app that displays traffic incidents. Presumably, data from that app will eventually be accessible by via Google Maps.
Talk to Me, Baby
The Google Maps app gives verbal, turn-by-turn directions in a soft-spoken female voice. There doesn’t appear to be a way to change the voice from female to male.
You can make the Google Maps app direct you in a language other than English, but you can’t make that change from within the app. Instead, go to “Settings,” “General,” “International,” “Language,” on the iPhone/iPad and select the desired language. Note that this changes the language settings for all iPhone apps and functions, not just the Google Maps app.
If you don’t want to listen to turn-by-turn directions, tap “Start” on the map you created in Google Maps, tap the three little black buttons at the bottom right of the screen, and then tap on “Mute voice guidance.” (That three-dot submenu also provides “Route preview,” a “Step-by-step list” of directions, and a “Satellite view” option.)
Take the Bus, Leave the Driving to Them
The Google Maps “Public Transit View” is integrated with local public transportation agency route and schedule information. You can tell the app to display these modes of transportation:
- Any transit mode (the default)
- Tram/light rail
In addition, you can request:
- Best route (the default)
- Fewer transfers
- Less walking
Here’s how the‘Google Maps app works for those taking the bus.
If you type in a destination and tap the bus icon at the top of the screen, the app displays the schedule for the next four buses headed there along bus routes nearest your current location. Tapping on the date/time shown lets you choose from “Now,” “Depart,” or “Arrive” and set a specific date and time (to the minute).
If you tap on a specific bus departure, you’ll get a map with walking directions to the nearest bus stop, the route the bus will follow, the number and list of stops it will make, and finally a map with walking directions to your destination from the stop where you’ll get off the bus.
Tapping on “Agency info” at the bottom of the screen displays the name, Website, and phone number of the transit agency.
Unfortunately, Google Maps doesn’t furnish fare information.
I compared the bus schedules produced by the Google Maps app with those on my local transit agency’s Website. They were identical.
Although that agency has a “trip planner” built into its Website, it doesn’t have an app for mobile devices. However, the “511 Transit” app that covers the San Francisco Bay Area where I live can provide me with the same bus schedules as the Google Maps app, along with the adult fare.
Street View, Street View, Where Art Thou?
In the Web-based version of Google Maps, you’ll find “Street View” right under the box with information about your destination. But that doesn’t show up in the Google Maps app on either my iPhone or iPad.
The Google Maps app is supposed to let you find your way around indoor facilities such as shopping malls, transit stations and airports. But I haven’t as yet tried out the app in any of those locations.
Such A Deal
The Google Maps app supposedly has a “deals” feature that displays special offers from national brand stores like Macy’s and Toys “R” us. But when I entered the location of Macy’s stores near me, no such “deals” popped up. (Perhaps I must be quite close to or actually inside of a store to be shown such offers.)
Using online mapping apps requires an Internet connection and, unless you are using a Wi-Fi hot spot, eats up some of the bytes of information your cellular carrier allows you to consume each month under a capped data plan.
The Google Maps apps has a “secret” way to save a map for off-line reading. Just use your mobile device’s voice control (“Siri” on the iPhone and iPad), or keypad, to enter “Ok Maps” into the search box above the map you want to save.
But there are two questions about off-line maps unanswered by any of the reviews of the Google Maps app update that I’ve read, or through my own use of the app:
- Can you save more than one map?
- How do you find and retrieve an “saved” map for off-line viewing?
Did Google Build a Better Maps App”?
Google has updated its popular Google Maps app for mobile devices. But is it a “new and improved” app?
Although I think that the app has some nice features, comments to the recent review of the app by David Pogue of The New York Times clearly indicates that at least some Google Maps app users are not at all happy with the update.
What About Other Mapping Apps?
Seven months ago, I compared the Google Maps app with Apple’s “Maps” app that comes already installed on iPhones, and the MapQuest mobile app.
Apple’s “Maps” app doesn’t give bicycling directions, and if you indicate you want to travel by public transit, it will tell you to use another app, such as MapQuest, 511 Transit (for the San Francisco Bay Area), Uber (the car service), or, ironically, Google Maps.
Curiously enough, the MapQuest app only provides directions for driving or walking, not public transit.
Unlike, the Google Maps app, neither the “Maps” nor MapQuest apps use an “auto-fill” search function to produce a list of destinations to choose from as you begin typing in the app’s search box.
So, at least for now, the Google Maps app map seems to be the best choice for finding your way around using the iPhone or iPad.
Here’s how the app looks in use (undoubtedly on an Android phone).
(Update July 20, 2013: Apple has purchased two mapping companies, presumably to obtain technology that will enhance its “Maps” app.)