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Hands on: Google Maps for Android gets a makeover and new card interface

Google Maps for Android - Cronuts

Ever since the I/O Conference back in May, Google Maps users have been anxiously awaiting the rollout of all the new features and changes that were promised to them. This Wednesday, Google opened the floodgates and unleashed the tidal wave of updates. Naturally, the first to get hit are Android users. Google is giving preferential treatment to the users of its own OS, though iPhone and iPad (iOS) users will get updates soon. How well does it work? Honestly, the only way you’re getting lost with Google Maps is if you’re too busy playing around with all its features.

GoogleMaps1Google Maps version 7 is one of the biggest updates the service has gotten in recent memory. It adds plenty of new features and modifies almost everything about the old app, starting with the interface. If you’re familiar with the Google Search app, you’ll already how the new cards of Google Maps work. These cards appear when you tap the search box, offering an Explore and Services card to help you find what you’re looking to find. For those new to cards, you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Getting around in-app with these options is no problem.

Of course, you’ll want to get around on the road more than anything. The Maps updates aims to make that easier by giving you a clearer picture of what your route looks like. The Navigation feature now allows you to see your entire route, which is handier than ever thanks to Google populating the map with live traffic updates, road construction, and stoppages/road closures that you’ll want to avoid. If a better route becomes available to you, the app will notify you so you can change to the clearer path. We were surprised to see this work even when testing it in a smaller city , so it’s not just functioning in places like New York and Los Angeles.

If you manage to get caught in a jam anyway, or prepare ahead and plan out your trip before getting on the road (let us know what that’s like), you can find all of the gas stations, hotels, attractions, and restaurants you might need in Google Maps. Integration of Zagat, the popular location rating service, will give you an idea of what’s worth checking out wherever you’re going. Top locations will have a badge displayed on them, and Google offers some curated lists to give you suggestions of specific places to see.

GoogleMaps2As is customary for Google updates, when new features come out, old ones are packed away. That’s no exception here, though it’s not as big of a deal as some people have made of it. Latitude, the location check-in service from Google that was once featured fairly prominently in Google Maps, is gone. But the dozen people who used Latitude shouldn’t worry too much: they can still find it within the confines of Google+. This is yet another move by Google to slowly integrate everything into its social network service until its all but forced you to embrace it whether you want to or not.

The biggest absence people have noticed in this update is Google’s removal of offline maps. The feature is not actually gone, just hidden. We’ve already covered how to download cached maps for offline use in the new version, and it has since been revealed that offline maps has been added back as a “hidden feature” in Google Maps version 7 accessible by typing “OK Maps” into the search bar. The name is either a nod to Google Glass’ command words (“OK Glass”) or is a subtle bash of how inadequate offline maps are in comparison to Google Maps’ data-rich offering when connected to the Web. Regardless, it is still in your app, so you can stop panic-searching for a way to go back to the old version.

As a whole, the new Google Maps is pretty impressive. The new features that offer a more clear view of the road ahead while navigating are welcome and appear like they have the ability to be instant time savers for those that utilize them. The exclusion – or hiddenness – of previous features appear to be little more than minor inconveniences and aren’t outweighed by having things like Zagat-powered reviews and suggestions built in to the app. Users of Google Maps 7.0 can expect their road trips to go smoother and their roadside stops to be better. That’s pretty much the most you can ask for in a navigation app.

You can download Google Maps for free from the Google Play Store.

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