Google Maps on the desktop has been rebuilt from the ground up, ushering in its most significant changes since its launch eight years ago. After spending some time with the new Maps, and with its lead designer, we’re struck by Google’s choice to do away with most of the user interface elements and let the map reach from edge to edge in your browser. A lone search box in the upper left gives you access to Maps’ features, as does clicking on elements within the map. Google has integrated Google Now’s card metaphor to present information from a newly built-in version of Google Earth, reviews from Zagat and Google+, Street View, and directions. And new user interface tweaks surface locations and transit routes before you even search for them.

Redesigned from the ground-up

The rebooted Google Maps user interface, which made its public debut at Google I/O today, is a total reimagining of one of Google’s most popular services. The changes are a bit shocking at first — the new Maps looks and works more like a native app than a traditional website. The tiled desktop maps of old have been replaced with cleaner, quicker-loading vector maps. As you type into the search box, predictions show up as they did before, but once you’ve settled on what you’re looking for, details appear in the Google Now-style information cards.

Rather than solely relying on you searching for a location, the map automatically highlights your work, home, frequently searched-for locations and new places you might be interested in, based on your search history and places your friends have given good reviews. “Larry calls this going from a demand to an assist,” Jonah Jones, Maps’ lead designer, said of CEO Larry Page.

In line with the new Google aesthetic

The new vector maps usher in more subdued colors, dumping the harsh yellow streets in favor of white or grey roads. Mountain ridges are rendered in darker shades of green, and the blue ocean shifts from light to dark in real time depending on where the sun is shining on earth. Google has even incorporated its custom Roboto font, which can be seen running on its Nexus phones and tablets, into the new Maps.

The redesign brings Maps into sync with the look and feel of the modern Google design esthetic, and it’ll push your computer in the process. “Obviously this all is going to be more expensive than looking at a flat map,” Jones said in an interview. “If you’re running a MacBook Air, it will set your fan off.”

The most innovative feature of the new Google Maps is its ability to surface contextual information, based on your identity and on what you’re currently looking at. When searching for sushi restaurants in San Francisco, we not only saw icons for eateries, but also nearby places like a new bar we might be interested in checking out after dinner. Google is using reviews from Zagat and your friends to rank the locations, and makes recommendations based on what’s popular nearby and what your Google+ buddies are into.

Click on a restaurant, and the most frequently used roads to get there are highlighted in white, while others fade into the background in grey. Click anywhere on the map, even before you search for anything, and a Now-like card displays the address. The more you interact with the map, the better it will get at highlighting relevant information, and even predicting what you might be looking for. “It’s kind of like having a cartographer in your pocket,” Jones said.

Clicking on the map brings up a Now-like card

The new Maps will also respond in ways you’re unlikely to notice, or, unfortunately, even understand. The circular icons that identify location type show up in different colors, and sometimes with a yellow glow behind them. There’s no map legend or explanation of what these different colors mean. “Our intention with the icons is basically that you’re not supposed to notice any of this stuff straight off,” Jones said. “I think it’s fine if people miss it, but if people pick up on it, then they become an expert and that was the general theme that we were going for — not overloading people with too much.”

The new Google Maps offers a radically different user interface from its predecessors, while also pushing web technologies forward by embracing WebGL, which allows it to act more like a native app without the need for plugins or downloads. Eventually, the redesign will inform new versions of Google Maps on Android and iOS, but for now this new take is confined to desktop. Users can sign up for the preview by visiting Google's Maps preview page. “We want as many people in this thing as possible,” Jones said. “We’re not planning on leaving this thing in preview for five years or something. We want to get it out there.”