Digital maps are awesome, and top of the tree at the moment is the venerable Google Maps. This map and navigation product started out in typical Google style as a low-key, fairly basic offering, with bare bones location information presented in a clean and nicely designed interface. My how times have changed. Last week’s launch of the latest version of Google Maps on the Android Play market has moved the whole genre onto a completely new level, since it now includes the power and glory of offline maps.
So what does that mean? Well, for one thing, you can now select and store full city maps on your phone in minutes, meaning that won’t need an Internet data connection to find your way around in the future. This is perfect if you’re visiting a city for the first time, and are unsure how reliable the data connection is going to be. Note that if you want to use the full GPS navigation function, you’ll need to have at least a WiFi connection at some point when you’re setting it up, since the offline maps don’t offer any fancy frills without data. In other words, no offline maps navigation is currently available.
This new feature adds yet more glitter on to an already sparkling product, especially when you remember it’s completely free of charge. The product now features:
* 3D buildings (in major city locations)
* Voice by voice turn based GPS navigation
* Walking, driving, public transport directions (and bicycle rolling out slowly to major cities)
* Live traffic information (and re-routing)
* Local business search, and listings
* Street View (via an add-on)
* Indoor maps for selected locations such as airports, hotels and large stores
In use, Google Maps offers the best of all worlds. It’s great for a quick location look up, and on the latest smartphones your location is displayed incredibly quickly from startup (using WiFi and cell tower triangulation as well as raw GPS info). There’s no question though, that for the best GPS navigation you really need a standalone satnav unit, because even now, having to page in map data can be a problem, especially when data reception is patchy.
A good demonstration of this is if you try and find an alternate route on a highway/motorway when you hit a traffic jam incident. Because the data in that cell area is likely to be saturated by others trying to do the same thing, you’ll more than often find you can’t get a new route or maps loaded at all. The data simply can’t keep up. This sucks. With a standalone GPS unit, you’ll find an alternate route in seconds, which is how it should be.
At the end of the day however, this is more to do with the still pathetic nature of 3G data from the cellular service providers, rather than a direct failing of Google Maps, but it’s still annoying. Offline maps should (may?) help to alleviate the problem, but it’s too early to tell right now.
The bad news in all this is the fact that the new Google offline feature seems to have broken the old offline caching system, which many people in data poor countries like the Middle and Far East relied on to help them navigate from place to place. This is a classic case of breaking something unnecessarily, when the transition could have been done much more elegantly. If you’re using offline map caching in one of these countries, do not upgrade!!!