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New Google Maps Hands-On: It’s Never Been So Easy to Explore

by Brandon Russell | May 17, 2013May 17, 2013 12:00 pm PDT

Wednesday’s three hour Google presentation covered a wide spectrum of information—some exciting, some not—that included a pretty massive update to Google Maps. It looks different, and acts different. Is that a good thing? Absolutely. This is easily the best, most comprehensive Maps experience ever. The world never looked so good.

Built from the ground up, Maps introduces a completely revamped interface that Google said is designed to be more personal for individual users. The more you use it, the more it knows what you like, and where you’re trying to go. It builds upon Google’s newer, more intimate search experience, and adds plenty of the company’s minimal design elements we’ve seen pop up in its mobile apps. Less clutter, more of what you want.

We took it for a spin on a Chromebook Pixel, and came away really impressed. You’re going to like it. New Google Maps is incredibly intuitive, very natural. The new look is easy to understand—I was skeptical at first—with the fullscreen approach making the map itself much more prominently displayed. Everything is pushed out of your way when you’re exploring a city, but there exactly when you need it. I’m looking at the old maps right now and it’s making me a little sad—not that I don’t like the old/current Maps. The new one is just that much better.

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When you first open the new maps, Google will take you through the obligatory tour, making sure you know how to use the new experience. Freeways are orange, small streets are white, residential is gray and highways are yellow. The difference between new maps and old maps might be jarring at first—there’s an obvious difference—but that quickly fades. You’ll get used to it and not even miss the old version.

The search box itself it now smarter, allowing you to see recently searched places, directions, traffic (which has changed; it looks more like Apple Maps) and modes of travel. When you do search for something—Pizza, New York, for example—results show up labeled directly on the maps, with the most relevant showing up more prominently. Other, smaller restaurants do show up, as indicated by the fork and knife icon, and whichever result you click on will bring up Google’s new info cards. If you’ve used Google Now, they’ll look very familiar.

Every info card displays location, business hours, phone number, website (if any), directions and the ability to star the place so you can save it for later. The info cards also shows the relevant Street View results, Zagat reviews, the ability to see inside that business and photos of the outside taken by the community. All that info is provided very beautifully on top of the map, and not in a separate white bar on the side. If you’re unhappy with the results, simply X out or click on something else.

If you don’t want to search for any business in particular, and prefer to explore a city you’re going to visit, new Google Maps has an explore option in the bottom right hand corner where you can easily access Street View, photo tours and other images in the new carousel. It’s like a Google Image search, but right in maps, and much easier to use and access than how Maps currently handles images.

The familiar Satellite View is there, now displayed as a tile in the bottom left corner, which brings all of Google Earth’s elements into the new Maps. When you do switch to Satellite View—Google calls it Earth view now—Maps now allows you to see everything in 3D (everything actually does look 3D), or you can zoom all the way out to see Earth from space. Seeing our blue marble planet from space is absolutely stunning, and even more amazing is that Google provides real-time cloud information, along with stars and the rotation of the Earth.

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What really impressed me about the new Maps, aside from the looks and integration of Google Earth, was how fluid everything was. On the Pixel, Maps loaded up beautifully with few issues, and scrolling around cities and neighborhoods was fast and easy. The animations are pretty fantastic, too; jumping into Street View or viewing inside of a business looks great, with a nice zooming animation making it actually seem like you’re swooping down into that business.

Never once did I not find what I was looking for either, highlighting how down to a science Google has gotten with search. Of course, searching for pizza joints in a city like NYC will pull up hundreds of results, but you can narrow things down by neighborhood, and see which spots your friends (or critics) like most. Search will always get better the more you use it—that’s either really creepy or really awesome. Maybe a little of both.

Part of the fun of Maps is just exploring, typing in address and cities and just going through to see big landmarks. But directions are also an enormous part of the new experience as well, and everything is broken down in info cards with plenty of user control. You can see directions for driving, transit, walking, biking and flying (where you can see pricing and flight times), and everything is calculated with real-time traffic taken into consideration, along with alternate route options. If you do take a transit option—a bus, for example—it’ll show you which number you need to take, when you’ll be walking and how often that bus line is available.

The only time new Maps relinquishes full screen is when you ask for turn-by-turn directions, which are super easy to understand. Incidentally, when you do decide on a transit option, you can see exactly when the bus or train leaves, how long it’ll take, when you’ll be on foot, etc. You can set stipulations, too, such as when you want to leave, and also the day you want to travel. In one of the example screenshots I snapped, I got directions from SFO to a cafe in the city, and then chose transit as my preferred mode of transportation. It’s insane how everything is broken down granularly, allowing users to better plan their trips.

It appears the new Maps is already slowly rolling out for people to preview, and what a treat it is. I use Maps every single day, and never really felt much needed to be changed, but boy was I wrong. The new Google Maps is the best experience you’ll find; it’s amazing how Google can make exploring a new city seem almost familiar, like it’s your hometown.

The best experience is probably on a touchscreen, like the Pixel, but using it with a mouse and keyboard is just as good. When I wasn’t ogling over the new features, or the real-time clouds, I enjoyed simply exploring cities, and looking at Maps’s fancy new coat of paint. I have a feeling you’ll feel the same way.

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The familiar Maps experience is still at the core of the new Maps, but made infinitely better with everything under one roof, and the new full screen approach looks wonderful. Info cards provide all the information you’ll need about a restaurant you want to visit, and the improved directions ensure you’ll never get lost again. Unless you have trouble following directions as it is.

After a few hours with Maps, I can’t stop zooming out to peak at the dark side of Earth, or looking at the clouds. There’s something so serene, so mesmerizing. Invites are open right now, so do yourself a favor and request one.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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