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Google Maps for Android: new design, improved navigation, and custom tablet interface

Google Maps for Android: new design, improved navigation, and custom tablet interface

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Google Maps Android update
Google Maps Android update

After appearing in the Play store last night, the Google Maps update for Android that was previewed at I/O in May has been unveiled in full. The redesigned maps experience, which we first saw on the iPhone last December, works on both phones and tablets. It follows the same Google design aesthetic that has taken the rest of the company by storm — with information cards, cleaner fonts, and radically fewer buttons and menus. In lieu of difficult-to-understand icons and buttons, the map view simply has a search box, a button to center your view on your location, and a tiny menu button. When you search, information pops up and you can swipe left and right between info cards or alternate routes.

The tablet interface is slightly different but just as clean

On tablets, the interface is slightly different but just as clean; it more closely matches the look and feel of the Google Maps desktop beta that was released at I/O. Instead of a single swipeable information card at bottom, the tablet gives you a grid of cards more appropriate for the larger screen size. Both versions benefit from the cleaner layout, with the previous version's little-used and ill-conceived menus and options excised in favor of in-map information or information that only appears when you search. They also utilize the new, cleaner map layout that debuted on the desktop version, with easier to read road and location names that intelligently appear when you zoom around.

Zagat reviews are still included alongside user reviews, but Google has standardized its ratings on a five point scale instead of a 30 point scale. Google says that Waze, which the company purchased last month, is not yet integrated in this version. The Zagat information has been expanded to provide local "guides" broken down into five categories: eat, drink, shop, play, and sleep. Google is also beginning to use more of the information it can collect from its users. "Local favorites," for example, show highly-rated places from users who have set their home location in that city, while "Tourist favorites" show the same for people who Google knows are traveling.

Navigation is also improved

Google also says it has improved navigation, presenting alternate routes when you initially search in a easier-to-read format. Traffic incidents will be displayed, so you can see what is causing the snags on your route. Finally, the company claims that it can redirect you when you're in transit if something on your route goes awry.

The new interface does have some slight differences next to December's iPhone update — the menu button has been moved to the lefthand side to better fit with the Android standard of presenting menu options in a lefthand drawer. Unfortunately, on phones that button is still as tiny and hard to hit as it was before, but on tablets its a larger target placed next to the search box.

Offline maps removed, but "okay maps" easter egg mitigates the loss

The other problem with the redesign is that Google (mostly) removed the option to save offline maps — a feature that was only a year old to begin with. Power users still have a way to cache maps locally, however. Daniel Graf, director for Google Maps, tells us that the company's engineers were just as unhappy with the loss of the feature as we were, so they built an Easter egg. When you type in "OK maps" (or "okay maps") into the search box, it will save a cached version of the visible map area locally. It's not as convenient or manageable as proper offline maps, but at least it's an option — assuming you remember it's there. If you were using Latitude as a "Find my Friends" service, that has also been removed. Google will instead be promoting Google+ location sharing.

While Google says that versions for both the iPad and iPhone are coming "soon," the company wouldn't be drawn on whether they had been submitted to Apple for approval. The Android version should be available today in the Google Play store, but it will only work on Android 4.0 and up. It's a much-needed refresh for the design of one of Android's core apps, and hopefully a sign that the rest of Android will be headed in this new, Google Now-esque direction.

Additional reporting by Dieter Bohn.

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