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The New Google Maps: Hands-On With The Dramatically New Service

Posted by on May 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm
Y HELO THAR MOON

Y HELO THAR MOON

It only took a week after Google’s I/O conference to get our invite to try the new Google Maps. Maps has been a regular go-to for over a decade now, besting Mapquest’s directive abilities long ago, and has only gotten stronger since with the acquisition of Keyhole (Earth) and Street View, the you-are-there feature that launched thousands of shutterbug cars and almost as many privacy lawsuits. Well, Google’s made it even better by integrating many of these features into one sleek-looking package. So how does it work (and what are parts that don’t work quite as well? Let’s dive in.

Maps seems to filter out more results for better effect.

Maps seems to filter out more results for better effect.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the map is bigger now, taking up the entire window. The new maps are also stylized just a smidgeon with slight graphical flourishes here and there, a change in typeface and GPU-powered fades (rather than the standard “pops”) as you zoom in and out. Bing fans will understand. Another big change: Google’s removed right-click functionality, integrating all your specific functions as context-sensitive buttons instead. It’s not as intuitive off the bat, but as you get used to the new search bar, things make much more sense.

Rather than requiring a big white panel to facilitate search results and directions, it’s all integrated into the search bar and years of mobile interface experience has no doubt blessed them here. Also gone are the clutter of text buttons and options that used to reside here. I started out with an easy inquiry, like where Best Buys were back in my hometown, and got instantly better results. I’d always noticed that Google filtered in a bunch of local shops that might have “Best” and “Buy” in their name, but it always mixed in the nationally-branded stores in with the lot of them. Not here. All three of my targets were highlighted off the bat.

Buildings! Yeah, it's nothing new, but it's striking to say the least.

Buildings! Yeah, it’s nothing new, but it’s striking to say the least.

Google stripped away the topographical view in favor of keeping things simple between its flat projection Maps mode and the new Earth mode, which integrates the Satellite view. Perhaps to prevent completely weirding up your view of the planet (or inadvertently inverting it as I did five seconds into a trip back to the old Earth view), your interaction with the 3D world is limited to cardinal ratchets and two tilts. This seems like another trade-off, but oh man, am I glad this is here to safeguard my view of the planet.

Google still seems a little hazy on that rental car portion of the flight.

Google still seems a little hazy on that rental car portion of the flight.

Is readability a slight issue between the two modes? Yep.

Is readability a slight issue between the two modes? Yep.

Since E3’s right around the corner, so I decided to pop in the directions from here to downtown Los Angeles, just for giggles. At this point, Google felt confident enough to recommend flight information as well. Then I played with driving distances between them by adding waypoints and watching paths fade in and out as you move the marker – although I think I still like the pop-and-lock-style of the original Maps. At that point, Google also explained how much traffic would affect transit (which isn’t new) and offered a traffic view (which is). Directions, as you see in the picture above, are harder to find in the Earth view and turned off entirely when the world is fully tilted for whatever reason.

Street View gets easier... and weird.

Street View gets easier and harder to use.

Street View’s integration into the new maps is a little weird. No longer do you place a Peg Man or right-click your way to victory, you simply click on a location and if it has a Street View available, you click on the location card to go there. Once you’re there, you’ll notice has shed the navigation markers in place of a free cursor. If you want to go down a road, you simply click on the road and you’re there. This creates the illusion of freedom, but quickly turns into a headache as Google can’t figure out what you’re trying to click on or where you’re trying to go. You also can’t scroll wheel your way in and out of Street View, which was my favorite way to access it. You’re also able to visit the inside of stores in Street View, but so few places use it that I couldn’t find one.

It's that far, guys.

It’s that far to E3, guys!

Lastly, we get to the Earth globe view. Scrolling out further brings up the entire sphere, complete with real-time cloud maps. I don’t know how they bring out such great cloud projections, but whatever, let’s not question the Google magic on hand here. Gone is Earth’s hazardous yellow borders and in is an elegant way to view the Earth. Zoom out a bit further and the renderer changes, showing the sun refracting off the oceans and an accurately placed daylight terminator (which, sadly, doesn’t update if you keep the browser open). The moon, the stars and the Milky Way appear in their accurate positions in the sky, but it’s really all just window dressing. Again, another limitation to rein in scope, but would it kill to have a moon calendar if you clicked on it? Or a card when you click on a star for more information?

Taken apart, this seems like a minor upgrade, but in full use, it’s obvious that Google put a lot of effort into refining and changing their Maps service. You’ll need to learn some new things, but in reality, you’re just forgetting all the clunky things about Google Maps you got used to. The world’s most powerful navigation tool available just got that much better.

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