We may not have a new version of Android to drool over, but at least we've got more feature-filled, better-looking maps. At its Google I/O keynote Wednesday morning, Google announced an enhanced version of its popular Google Maps service. The demos shown on stage drew some applause out of the otherwise listless attendees, and I was itching for the chance to put this improved version of Maps through its paces.
After playing around with Maps and virtually visiting several locales around the world, I'm impressed with how much Google has improved its already great mapping tool--though I think the company might have oversold it a bit on stage.
The new desktop Maps version looks fantastic: Google has done away with the navigation bars on the top and left side of the screen, dedicating your entire browser window to your map. For the most part, menus are hidden out of sight, which makes the entire interface feel less cluttered. I know there are people who'll miss all the knobs and sliders of the older version, but if you only really use Google Maps to get around, this new layout will fit your needs perfectly.
Look up an address or city, and you'll immediately fly to that location with an incredibly smooth and fluid animation. Zooming in or panning around the map is much faster than it was previously, and doesn't require you to wait 30 seconds for all the elements of the map to refresh themselves. Switching between the standard and satellite views still isn't as fast as I'd like, but the 3D models that pop up when you zoom in close no longer look like deformed blobs, and you can actually tell buildings apart.
Google Maps, meet Google+
Google, ever trying to find ways to push people into using Google+, has incorporated more social elements into Google Maps. If you search for, say, "Pizza, San Francisco," Google Maps will display pizza restaurants in the area and highlights ones rated highly by Zagat or your friends on Google+.
The new Zagat feature is helpful for finding out basic information like a restaurant's business hours, location, and phone number, and the professionally sourced Zagat reviews are a step up from the reviews you see on Yelp, where people complain about not getting enough napkins. I'd like to tell you how well the Google+ integration worked, but I don't know anyone who actually uses Google+, and even if I did, I would be suspicious of their tastes.
Missing features and delving into the unknown
One feature apparently missing in this latest iteration of Google Maps is the ability to determine a user's general location.
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