Google Maps, the venerable digital navigator that manages to keep even the least-oriented among us on track, gives pretty good directions. But what it doesn’t do is give accurate cardinal directions, largely thanks to the inconsistency of smartphone magnetometers. Indeed, any six phones of the same model can give wildly different compass readings. Software improvements can’t fix hardware flaws, of course, but Google’s doing what it can all the same: A new version of Maps contains interface tweaks that should shed light on the preciseness of your phone’s compass.
The updated Maps makes finding out which direction you’re facing “easier” than it was before, Google says. How? A slight visual tweak, basically. Previous versions of Maps indicated orientation with an arrow jutting from the blue dot that shows your current location. That arrow’s been replaced with a beam — “a flashlight guiding your travels,” the company called it. (Clever, Google.)
There’s more to the beam than meets the eye. It indicates accuracy: A narrow beam is a show of high confidence in your compass’s reporting, while a variable or broadening beam communicates uncertainty on the app’s part. (The latter case, Google said, is typically a symptom of an uncalibrated sensor.)
A broad beam every once in a while is practically inevitably, Google said — magnometers are temperamental little sensors, prone to interference from chargers, metal objects, and even other magnometers. But luckily, there’s an easy fix: repeatedly waving the phone in a figure-eight motion. “This should immediately result in a more accurate direction,” Google said. “Once you master the curving motion, you’re one step closer to having a more accurate compass when you use Google Maps on your … phone.”
The new Maps is rolling out to Android devices gradually, Google said. Details on an iOS equivalent are presumably forthcoming.
Google Maps upgrades have been fast and furious, lately. In July, Google rolled out improved typography for street names, points of interest, and transit stations, and shaded regions — “areas of interest” — determined arithmetically by restaurant, shop, museum, and monument density. In August, it rolled out a revamped Street View, its street-side imagery viewer, with interface and performance tweaks for mobile devices. And just last week, Maps gained a menu bar with shortcuts to different locations, driving information, and transit details.