Google Maps 2013 Review

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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.

The maps of the future…

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?

Google Maps UI
The side panel is dead, replaced with just a search bar. How very Google.

Google Maps 2013 – User Interface

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.

Google Maps London Eye
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’.

Google 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.

Google Maps 3D
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 Maps earth
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.

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