Google Maps for iPad has been a long time coming. iOS 6 was introduced ten months ago, and the beta was out even sooner — we’ve been living with Apple Maps on our iPads for quite some time. And it’s not that Apple Maps is a terrible experience — visually, it’s extraordinary — but most of us don’t use our iPads as GPS devices.
Maps on tablets, in that sense, are a bit different than maps on phones. Although GPS is important on them, what I really want is a way to browse my local neighbourhoods as efficiently as possible. In fact, what I want is a fast and accurate way to find cool places I want to go. Let’s see if Google Maps finally fits the bill.
The Goodness of Google
For all of Google’s flaws, there are some things — apart from killing off beloved web services — they do really well. Among them are Search, Gmail and Maps. Google has spent years refining each service, and I think they’re spectacular. The data within Google Maps is almost always spot-on.
So it goes without saying that the data within Google Maps for iPad is just right on what it should be. Google has spent years mining the world for map data, and it really shows — especially on a higher-resolution display. The thing is though: it can’t be perfect. The world changes too much for anybody, even Google, to catch up. So while the data isn’t perfect, it has the least inaccuracies of any maps service I’ve used. Yes, it’s better than Apple Maps.
I also love the way Google recognizes businesses nearby and renders them on the map. I’m sitting in a Starbucks while I’m putting together this review. Google Maps has everything in the plaza except Starbucks, which is relatively new, listed in the app. Apple Maps isn’t aware of the plaza’s existence, but did find the restaurant on the corner. The difference is vast.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account any of the other reasons you’d want to use Google Maps over the competition. The app includes not just car directions, but also local transit routes, bike routs and walking directions. It’s much more thorough and complete than any other offering on the market.
The app’s also been designed, from the ground up, for iPad. In fact, it’s kind of interesting to compare where Google Maps used to be on iOS to where it is now. A year ago, Google Maps looked a little long in the tooth. Now, there are some shocking similarities in design choices — particularly in its starker overhead view design.
I approve of the new design. I think it’s a little less “pastel” than Apple Maps without being too drab. Like most Google products, much of it seems steeped in deep chrome and floating cards. The floating cards part of the design is particularly evident in the app — even the Search bar “floats” above the map itself. Cards aren’t always a smart way to design an app, especially on a smaller screen, but on a tablet screen, cards help create a consistent sense of space and spatial awareness. It’s much nicer than Apple Map’s renditioning of information.
The design isn’t perfect though. Some elements of the user experience aren’t wholly desirable. The Satellite view makes the Navigation button on the top left of the screen harder to see, and sometimes map routes can get buried underneath the Directions card.
I also have to question the validity of including a tappable button to view the Google Earth map that takes you to the App Store. I’d love to see Google Earth get embedded into the Maps app, but it bums me out to see an Earth button included as if it’s already part of the app when it’s not.
But generally, most of the design flaws in the app are fixable. They’re all admittedly minor. And the data, what makes Google Maps stand out from the rest of the pack, is impeccable and put to great use.
Consider the way that Google Maps helps you find local businesses and bike routes you’ve never seen before. Within a few minutes of using Google Maps, I had found some bike paths not too far from my home to try out — something I’d been looking for since moving here a couple of months ago. (I never thought to check on Google Maps, though, so I might not be the most intelligent man alive.)
And while Apple integrated Yelp into Maps for local business data and reviews, even Yelp can’t beat the Google’s review system. Google found more businesses, gave me more information for each one than Apple did and provided the information in a much more visually pleasing way.
And while Apple requires me to download the Yelp app to write a review, Google lets me do everything within Google Maps. I can check in, write a review and even add a photo from within the app. It’s great. Google’s ability to provide operating hours for many establishments also makes my life a lot easier.
Where I’m At With It
Although I’m not fond of giving away my personal information so Google can sell it, their Maps product is one of the few things that I’m okay with the tradeoff on. Without a doubt, Google Maps provides the most consistently accurate mapping service, no matter where I am. I like the iPad design, which makes smart use of the larger screen, but hope to see a couple minor improvements as Google keeps working on the app.
There are also a couple missing features. While Street View is available when looking at specific locations, it isn’t available as an alternate view from anywhere in the app — only from searched addresses or tapped locations (like a restaurant). It’s an odd exclusion that’s also missing from the Android update. I suspect we’ll never see it again.
That being said, it’s a marked improvement over Apple’s offering. With Apple Maps, I’ve become confused over which street direction is north and which is south (the app was mixed up). With Google Maps, although street data isn’t always accurate, it’s never reversed and usually the least accurate of the mapping solutions I’ve used. On iPad, it’s highly interactive and beautiful. Highly recommended for any weary-eyed traveller.