This article was originally published in June 2013 during the beta period of the new Google Maps, which is now available for everyone to use.
Nexus phones, tablets and Android 5.0 were three things we didn't get at Google I/O 2013. What we did get, however, was something arguably of far greater significance: the vision of a company with unified core services and a grand master plan. It impressed us. And nowhere were we more impressed than the way in which a complete overhaul of Google Maps will sit at the heart of it.
So, having now spent some considerable time with the preview edition, does it live up to the hype?
The side panel is dead, replaced with just a search bar. How very Google.
The most notable change to the new Google Maps is the interface. Gone is the longstanding side panel, replaced by a map that fills the screen and a seemingly innocuous search bar. Yet it is from here that the magic happens.
Google has built a dizzying amount of functionality into the search bar. It is now the gateway not just to specific addresses and categories (bar, restaurant, etc), but also to dynamic routing and contextual information wherever and whatever you click on the map.
Key to keeping things tidy is the introduction of Google’s increasingly ubiquitous ‘card’ design, as seen in Google Now and common Google search results. Cards sit under the search bar and split themselves into clear sections that can also be stacked to switch between different sets of information. Cards appear and disappear as needed again saving space compared to the old side panel.
Initially the system can seem transient compared to the permanence of the search panel, but as it is far more contextually aware it is also smarter, faster and more flexible. It brings you information with every click. Google tried to do this in the previous version of Maps, creating pop up windows above whatever you clicked, but the result simply covered up the immediate surrounding area.
The Street View 'pegman' has retired. In its place come thumbnail previews.
Another neat touch is the integration of Street View. Google has done away with ‘pegman’ and instead anywhere you click on the map will load a preview thumbnail in a card under the search bar. This is ingenious and saves a great deal of time dragging and dropping pegman around the screen. Increasing numbers of locations offer Street View inside the premises with the ‘See Inside’ option so you can check out the decor, not just the store front.
User generated photography is also neatly integrated into a scrolling gallery along the bottom of the map. Wherever you are clicking, the gallery automatically updates showing relevant photos and if one has a play icon a click will start a ‘photo tour’ that smoothly morphs between the best images of their subject (for example, the London Eye). Should the gallery get in the way it can be minimised.
One thing that cannot be minimised though, is a gallery thumbnail named ‘Earth’.
The Google Maps 2013 does away with the old Satellite view in order to integrate the mighty Google Earth. This was previously available in the old Google Maps via a plug-in, but the new version takes things to a whole new level.
Major US cities include 3D buildings
Most simply, Google is expanding the tilt view with three-dimensional buildings akin to ‘flyover’ in Apple Maps. This remains largely US focused at present, but what is there looks stunning and Google has promised to soon expand to other major cities around the world. That said there are occasional iOSapocalypse moments and we’re sure Apple will have something to say in court about infringements of flyover.
A limitation is Earth doesn’t allow you to zoom as far into the map as the old Satellite view, something we miss, but it does let you zoom much much further out. Zoom out far enough and Maps shows you the earth spinning in space with real-time Clouds.
Zoom out again and you see Earth amongst the stars and the sun, with the relevant time zones reflecting which parts of the earth are in day, night or twilight. Countries in darkness are beautifully lit up by lights at their major population points. We doubt this view will be useful for helping you plan journeys, but is a wonderful reminder to keep life in perspective.
Google's version of the Total Perspective Vortex
Aside from the limited ability to zoom in with Earth though there is another caveat and that is performance requirements. These are relatively meagre, but old systems with under 512MB RAM, 500MB of drive space and a DirectX9 GPU with 64MB of dedicated RAM will miss out.