Explore Your City With Google Maps 2.0

Seven months have passed since Google Maps made its return to the iPhone, and, boy, people sure have been thankful. Since it’s return, Google Maps has racked up over 32,000 ratings — most of which are incredibly favorable — and has maintained a high standing as one of the top free iPhone apps in the App Store. To call Google Maps’ return a success is the epitome of an understatement.

Personally, I didn’t get caught up in the Apple Maps vs Google Maps hoopla. Being a loyal Waze user, I sat on the sidelines and watched the endless bashing of Apple’s attempt at providing a map and navigation service. However, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t eager to sample Google Maps when it was released, as well as when version 2.0 was made available earlier this month. Does the newest version of Google Maps have what it takes to be my go-to map and navigation service? Find out after the jump.

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Preface

One of the biggest inclusions in version 2.0 of Google Maps is support for the iPad. While this particular site focuses on iPhone apps, I highly recommend that all iPad users to check out Nathan Snelgrove’s wonderful Google Maps iPad review on our sister site. In addition, I invite you all to read Jacob Penderworth’s initial review of Google Maps for the iPhone, which touches upon a number of key points that won’t be the focus of this review (I’ll mainly be reviewing the new features).

A New Design

As part of Google’s release of the newly redesigned desktop version of Google Maps, the iOS app features a fresh new coat of paint. Almost every menu still maintains the same minimal design, but the maps themselves have been tweaked with an overall softer feel, with the exception of more prominent Interstates and other major highways. Text isn’t as prominent in many respects, which is accomplished by use of a softer gray and brownish color rather than stark black. Icons are more widely used to easily identify certain types of locations, such as restaurants, hospitals and coffee shops.

Version 1.1 on the left and version 2.0 on the right.

Version 1.1 on the left and version 2.0 on the right.

The sidebar is now accessible from the left side of the screen, versus the right side as before, which is where you can toggle various features (e.g. Traffic, Public Transit, Satellite, etc.) and settings. Comparing to the previous design, the changes are subtle, but seem to take away a lot of information. The biggest issue for me is that Interstates, highways and roads are not as clearly marked as before, even when zoomed in close.

Explore

Version 1.1 brought quick access to services (e.g. coffee, gas stations, groceries), which are represented by icons in the search view. In version 2.0, Google expands upon this concept with the Explore feature (also accessible in the search view). The Explore view is divided into five categories — Eat, Drink, Shop, Play and Sleep — and when tapped, relevant business are populated in sub-categories.

The Explore feature includes many handy categories.

The Explore feature includes many handy categories.

On a recent visit to my soon-to-be home city of Indianapolis, I took the opportunity to use the Explore feature to get to know the city a bit better. I found the feature to be incredibly well done, and rather enjoy how each option is laid out. For instance, when searching for a restaurant the Eat view provided a listing of places that are considered local favorites; as someone that enjoys trying out local cuisine this dedicated sub-category was quite useful.

Sub-categories make it easy to find exactly what you're looking for.

Sub-categories make it easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.

The Explore feature also incorporates Zagat ratings and deals on products and services through Google Offers integration. The only downside to Explore is that it’s only available in select major cities; a fact Google didn’t seem too keen to make public knowledge.

Reviews

For many, reviews are a major factor when deciding on which restaurants and businesses to patronize, which is the basis of high-profile discovery services like Yelp and Urbanspoon. Google account users have been able to rate businesses for quite some time now, but only in version 2.0 does this ability find itself in Google Maps. As part of the Explore initiative, it only makes sense to offer users the full range of the discovery experience.

Ratings are more heavily featured in version 2.0 of Google Maps.

Ratings are more heavily featured in version 2.0 of Google Maps.

First, Google Maps helps you find a place you want to go. Second, Google Maps provides turn-by-turn directions to get to the location. Third, and finally, Google Maps allows you to voice your opinion about your experience. As someone that needs and/or wants all three services, I find the integration of these features into Google Maps to be well done.

Further Additions

In my brief time with version 2.0 of Google Maps, I haven’t been able to take advantage of every new feature. Even though I drove over 500 miles using Google Maps as my main navigation service, I never experienced the new traffic updates and incident reports. These are meant to inform users of traffic issues, road closures and construction, as well as if a better route becomes available to avoid traffic build-up. Google recently purchased Waze, which offers very similar features, but there’s no indication if the information used in Google Maps is being fed by Waze data.

Another feature I wasn’t able to enjoy was indoor maps, which provides walking directions for select malls, transit stations and airports. One addition from version 1.1 that I was able to use during my trip was support for Google Contacts, which displays a contact’s name and address when searched for. While great for someone like me that keeps my contacts up to date in both iCloud and Google, Google Maps still doesn’t allow you to access your native contacts list.

There seems to be little to no reason for this omission on Google’s part, though a bit of a wonky workaround is available for iPhone 4S and 5 users with the help of Siri. If you ask Siri for directions for a contact’s home, and include the phrase “in transit,” you’ll be prompted with alternative navigation apps you have installed (and additional apps to download) and can tap the Route button for Google Maps. This little trick is also handy when you need to inquire about directions for restaurants and other businesses.

The Bottom Line

Version 2.0 of Google Maps brings a few great additions to the popular service. If you’re lucky enough to live in a supported city, Explore shines as a discovery service. Though not as major, I really enjoy having the ability to easily provide ratings and reviews that will aid others in their future outings. While I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience them first hand, additions like traffic updates and indoor maps are sure to be crowd pleasers.

Overall, though, Google Maps remains a service I won’t solicit for my day-to-day navigation needs. I find the turn-by-turn navigation experience to be inferior to Waze, as on-screen driving animations are annoyingly jerky and far too little information is displayed on screen for my liking (why do I have to choose between seeing the remaining drive time, mileage or estimated arrival time?).

With that being said, Google Maps is unmatched when it comes to search (surprise, surprise), and I’m sure to find myself using the app from time to time when I need to find a local coffee shop or other establishment. If the recent purchase of Waze leads to a more community-based experience in Google Maps, in which users can manually input hazards, it may be curtains for all other navigation service contenders in the iOS space.


Summary

Explore cities, submit reviews and more in the newest version of an already great map and navigation service.

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  • jaystrab

    How do I access the Explore feature?

    • Jesse Virgil

      The Explore feature will display when you tap the search bar. If it doesn’t appear for you, it means the feature isn’t available in your area. To date, only major cities seem fortunate enough to get this feature.