“A superlative mapping experience that’s unrivalled on the iPhone, with only a few minor caveats.”Free
Although we expected it to, we didn’t know if it was definitely coming, but when it arrived, it provided relief for a lot of iPhone-owners. Apple’s iOS 6 Maps debacle proved that good mapping is crucial for the reputation of a mobile platform. Google had remained tight-lipped over Apple’s June-announced move to produce its own mapping with iOS 6, presumably confident that people would flock to its own app when produced. And so it has proved. The new Google Maps is nothing like the bundled Maps app with the iPhone; it’s way better than that.
It’s important to point out that while the app will run on the iPad, it’s not meant for it – Google has not been reluctant to point out that this is Google Maps for iPhone rather than iOS as a whole. It will, of course, run on iPod touch, too. Expect a version for iPad in the future.
The first thing you notice when you open the app is how different it is (you’ll also need to sign in with a Google Account). It will take you a short while to adjust, primarily because it’s not immediately obvious how to access certain features. Something like the much-missed Street View, for example, is a little hidden – presumably to ensure that most of the screen is taken up by the all-important map. When you’ve searched for a location, swipe up on the address to see more information, including Street View as well as the ability to Share and Save the location. As before, tap and hold to ‘drop a pin’ (although you don’t actually do that) and look up the place you’ve selected. You can also tap and hold an area on your map and you will be instantly told what's at that location and how far it is from your current location (by foot or by car). Again, the interface is a little different than you’re used to. The design of the app matches Google’s recent penchant for very stripped-back design and is, we have to say, more than a little Android-like.
Further map options are provided by a swipe across button in the bottom-right of the main mapping screen. This includes traffic, public transport and satellite view as well as a link to the Google Earth app. Of these options, Public transport is disappointing. London searches show tube lines, but it can be patchy elsewhere in the UK.
Directions are accessed through a small button on the search bar, which then takes you to a new screen where you can search for the destination and choose the method of travel. Crucially, Google Maps includes turn-by-turn directions just like Apple Maps does – reputedly Google’s refusal to put turn-by-turn on the standard iOS 6 Maps app prompted the Google-Apple mapping stand-off in the first place. Routing of the turn-by-turn works well, but aside from turning off the voice prompts and viewing a step-by-step list, there are few options, while the voice prompt is a rather unnatural, computer-sounding voice. If you’ve already got a sat-nav app such as TomTom or Co-Pilot, you won’t swap from your previous navigational choice.
Crucially, location search is excellent. You’re hard pressed to get the app to make a mistake in finding what you want. This is the key component that’s missing from Apple Maps, powered by Google’s near-15 year expertise in search. The intelligence also points you in the right direction for local businesses should you search for them; we don’t know how Google does it, but it makes finding things so simple. If you type ‘London’, for example, it knows that London Road, Bath, is near our present location and presents that as one of the key options alongside the capital. Business information is presented – again by swiping up – such as a web link and Google reviews. You can also call the business, save or share the info. With any search, car directions are automatically generated, available at the touch of a button.
At the moment there's no 3D buildings that you get in the latest Android version (if you have Jelly Bean) and the absence of downloadable maps, which does away with the need to load mapping tiles, means that there's still someway to go for Google Maps on your iPhone. Google's known for regular updates though, so hopefully we'll see those features sooner rather than later.