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Google Maps for iPhone hands on: Finally, a working maps app!

In the last few months, Apple Maps has led me dangerously astray no less than a dozen times. It’s told me to take the wrong exit off of a highway; its taken me to businesses that are shut down; it nearly forced me onto the Blue Water Bridge and into Canada when I just wanted to go to Port Huron, Michigan; and it thought our Digital Trends Portland office was on the other side of town. Why does Apple’s good-looking app screw up so majorly on such a regular basis?  I can’t tell you, but I can say that help has arrived. Months after Apple abruptly removed Google Maps from the iPhone, Google has finally released the first version of its maps in the App Store. It was worth the wait.

Swipe it like you mean it

Google isn’t developing apps for Windows Phone, but it definitely likes what it sees. The new Google Maps, like Android itself, is beginning to resemble Microsoft’s critically acclaimed, but slow-selling operating system in some functional and aesthetic ways. The app is full of areas to swipe back and forth between screens. For example, a swipe on the lower right of the screen will slide open options to turn on views for traffic, public transit, satellite imagery, or Google Earth, which requires a separate app.

The user interface is flat and clean, with an easy-to-read font. There’s a search bar on the top, and once you perform a search for a location like “Madison Square Garden,” you’re instantly taken to that place on the map and a bumper shoots up from the bottom. Pull or swipe the bar up to learn more about the location and/or initiate driving, walking, or mass transit directions to it. Google’s 3D maps are on display as well – use two fingers to tilt the angle and look around. Everything about this app looks slick and outshines Apple, which isn’t easy to do.

New features that work

Those who remember Google’s old Maps app should be happy. For the first time, Google has given iPhone users the same basic slate of features Android owners have had for years. The Google Maps for iPhone app has turn-by-turn, voice-navigated directions for walking, driving, and using the subway/bus. I’ve only done a few searches so far, but have had no problem finding absolutely everything I’ve looked for, from hidden laundromats to barber shops to burger joints. If you’ve been able to find it on Google Maps before, you’re back in luck. And those of you who are tired of driving right onto airport runways using Apple Maps, Google tends to know where you want to go.

As a New Yorker, my favorite feature is the mass transit map layer and turn-by-turn directions. Apple Maps does not have this at all yet and currently boots you to a third-party app of your choice (I use HopStop), but it saves time if one app can do the job. Being able to see where a subway train will stop on the map is also helpful.

Though it doesn’t seem to know where you’re going, Apple Maps does have a nice feature. When you are in the middle of turn-by-turn directions and minimize Maps, it keeps your directions on screen as a little notification. Either due to limitations or time, Google Maps doesn’t yet have this feature, so  you’ll have to keep the app open while you’re navigating.

My only other gripe is Street View. You can access it, but it’s hidden. To access it, find a yellow street, double tap to zoom in, and hold your finger to bring up a bumper about that street. Swipe up that bumper and tap the Street View picture to enter the mode. Once you’re in, you can walk around town just fine. 

Just download it

We’re going to have an in-depth comparison between Apple Maps and Google Maps soon, but until then, just download it. Google Maps is what powered your iPhone navigation for five years and this app is better than that one ever was. The rift between Apple and Google hurt all iPhone users for a few months, but it looks like ultimately, we’re the winners here. Without this split, who knows when we ever would have gotten turn-by-turn Google navigation. Now it’s here. Celebrate! Have a beer. And if you get lost in the woods, now you’ll know there’s a chance you’ll make it back alive before the bears get you.

You can download Google Maps in the iPhone App Store.