Google Maps Gives Your Tablet a New Direction

Google Maps has never been totally pointless on a tablet, but it was always a little sad that the app wasn’t optimized for tablets before. After all — and there’s no need to debate this or go into great detail — Google has had the strongest mapping data available for quite some time now. I’ve tried other mapping systems and just don’t get the same ease of use with them.

But the app itself needed to change. Until this week, Google Maps on a tablet was more or less the same experience you’d have with your Android phone. With the recent update, Google has finally made Maps look great on tablets and added some much-needed new functionality — as well as giving some old features the boot. Read on for a detailed analysis of this emperor’s new clothes.


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The New Tablet Design

Like it or not, Google’s continuing with their card-heavy aesthetic for the tablet version of Google Maps. This is the biggest change, and it makes sense for tablets — especially the larger ones. The drop-down Search menu and Directions “float” above the main maps, which I think helps provide a sense of space and continuity within the app.

The new user interface, with Traffic mode on. I like the changes, but some people will note new similarities to Apple Maps.

The new user interface, with Traffic mode on. I like the changes, but some people will note new similarities to Apple Maps.

Tapping on an establishment brings up a separate screen with an off-grey background. The business’ information is broken up into cards as well, which is slightly odd to describe, but it works well visually. In this case, cards aren’t providing a sense of space, but they’re creating white space.

This is a business' page.

This is a business’ page.

Speaking of business information, this is one area where Google’s top notch and the information is only getting better. Why use Yelp when you can find everything you need within the Maps app? This is the kind of thing most companies can only dream of building, and Google quietly started doing it before the iPhone.

Explore

Maybe you’re new to a city though, or you’re just looking for places you might want to try out. Although it’s only available in larger cities right now (I live close to Toronto and was able to access it when I panned the map around), the Explore section of Google Maps is exactly what you’re looking for.

Explore is fantastic.

Explore is fantastic.

Explore breaks cities into categories: Cinemas, popular tourist locations, parks, museums, etc. And every major city is slightly different. Toronto has a distinctly different Explore page, with different categories, than New York City does.

What’s cool about it is that it’s more detailed than an app like Yelp. While Yelp makes it easy to find things near you, if you live in a city benefiting from Google’s Explore feature, you’ll find Explore has a less narrow focus. In New York City’s Explore page, for example, the city was broken down into popular tourist areas and local hotspots.

The local hotspots were very cool. I’ve spent some time in New York City, and quickly learned the best places to go were the ones recommended by locals on the street. The app confirms this, with very little grey area in terms of where the separate crowds go after a long day.

This is the down and dirty on the Metropolitan Museum. All the information I need before I even have to scroll.

This is the down and dirty on the Metropolitan Museum. All the information I need before I even have to scroll.

Tapping on a business in the Explore section is a little bit different than searching for a business manually. Within Explore, the business’ page features highlighted review snippets on the top and other essential information laid out as efficiently as possible.

In short, Explore is meant to get you in and out as quickly as it can. It’s a little odd, given that Explore’s title insinuates you’ll spend a lot of time there, but it’s very utilitarian — not unlike the maps themselves.

When Google Giveth…

…Google taketh away. There are some things in the app that are gone. The first, and arguably most noticeable absence for many, is Street View. The functionality is still accessible from a searched location, but you can’t use it to navigate the streets anymore. I’m wondering if Google believes Google Earth — or maybe even Google Glass — are sufficient replacements for it.

The other missing feature, which is surprisingly causing a bit of a stir, is Latitude. In case you never used it, Latitude was a way to track the location of family and friends (who would have okayed your ability to do that in-app). Although it wasn’t the most popular of Google’s offerings, like Reader, it had a loyal fan base. But it looks like this is the latest product to hit the Google Graveyard.

Google's new design is really the star of the show.

Google’s new design is really the star of the show.

That being said, Google is replacing some of the features of that product with the ability to check-in to a location on Google+. Oddly, Google+ allows you to check in with Foursquare or Yelp. Both of those products are great for checking in, but if Google’s focus is on being as holistic as possible with their social networking service, wouldn’t it make more sense to check in to a location on Google+ with Google Maps?

The Bottom Line

For most people, the big news here isn’t going to be what’s missing. The big news is going to be Google’s continued focus on stellar design. Stellar is an understatement in this case, though, because Google Maps is finally gorgeous on a tablet and easier to use than ever thanks to the card-like interface.

Despite the fact that some features were removed, for every feature gone, a new one has been added. And for what it’s worth, the new ones are more interesting than the old ones. They restate the mission Google began with Now: Google wants to figure out where you’re going to go before you do. The Explore area is a great way to do that. And by focusing on the destinations and making it easy to get there, Google Maps feels like a more focused app than ever before.


Summary

The new features in Maps more than justify the extinction of some of the old ones, but also give the app a refined focus on getting you where you need to be in as stylish a way as possible.

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