With Apple falling short with its original release of its new Maps and GPS navigation app for the iPhone, Google could have either left Apple users with their existing options, and helped build buzz against Apple, or they could have stepped up with an all-new, well-done, stand-alone iPhone version of their product and offered it for free to help regain their maps dominance in the Apple iOS6 environment. Fortunately, Google chose the latter, and consumers are the winners.
The new Google Maps app has its shortcomings, however, including lack of integration with Apple's Contacts app (which most people use heavily), no Siri compatibility, no offline map caching, and no iPad version (yet). Users are also chafing at Google's login requirement for storing data.
Google Exceeds Expectations With New iOS Maps App
Google exceeded expectations with its new Maps app for iPhone by producing the app quickly (finishing it before the end of 2012); by doing right by iPhone users and even by Apple, and by producing a product that is polished and works well, and is competitive within the set of smartphone navigation apps.
Search: Google Maps' feature list includes: address and business/points-of-interest search using Google's powerful Local Search utility, ratings and local reviews, sync searches and favorites (with Google login).
Directions: Voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions, train, bus, subway or walking directions, traffic detection & avoidance.
Street View and imagery: Street-level imagery and touch-controlled panoramas of places around the globe. See inside 100,000 businesses worldwide. High-resolution global satellite imagery. Close connectivity with Google's earth-spanning imaging and mapping app, Google Earth.
Last but not least, you get Google's years of hard-won experience and all of the research and fine-tuning it has done on a global basis to present the most accurate map and points-of-interest data possible.
First Impressions: Speed and Simplicity
I have many impressions of the Google Maps app for iPhone, but the first is speed. Google has always placed a premium on fast performance, and the Maps app reflects that obsession. The app uses vector-based graphics (as does the new Apple Maps app), to help maps render and scale more quickly than bitmapped graphics. Google also manages some of the most powerful and fastest data centers in the world, and that shows up in the Maps app with super-fast data retrieval. The app is also fast at calculating (and re-calculating) directions.
My second impression of Google Maps for iPhone is simplicity, and I mean that in a mostly positive way. The opening interface is a familiar maps rendering with a few icons that control the app's significant feature set, including search, turn-by-turn directions, and quick access to traffic data, public transit directions, satellite imagery and Google Earth. There are quite a few navigation apps out there with cluttered interfaces, so this is no small accomplishment.
Spoken Street-Name, Turn-by-Turn Directions
Spoken-street-name, turn-by-turn directions are at the heart of any iPhone GPS navigation app, and Google Maps does not disappoint. In my tests, the app calculated directions quickly, provided optimal routes, and spoke street names in a clear, pleasant, and very human-sounding female voice. You may view directions in the traditional map view with a blue arrow and route line, or by a text list of directions enhanced by arrows. Two significant shortcomings of the turn-by-turn directions are a lack of lane guidance, and the inability to preview and select different route options.
A few other things you may miss in the app are current speed and speed limits, and distance remaining to destination (the app only shows time remaining to destination). Even though I admire the app's simplicity, it is too lean on these types of features.
As mentioned earlier, the Google Maps app for iPhone lacks integration with Apple's Contacts app, which is a deal-breaker for many, but I believe this will be remedied by Google rather quickly. Apple allows other app makers to access Contacts, so it will very likely happen.
Although Apple's voice-powered Siri assistant hasn't been embraced by all iPhone users, I have found Siri especially useful for starting turn-by-turn directions through Apple's Maps app. Any hands-free feature is appreciated when driving, and I commonly voice request a destination and get directions. Google's Maps app doesn't integrate with Siri, and likely won't in the future.
Google Maps plays well with other apps, fading into the background when appropriate, and continuing to provide spoken turn-by-turn directions.
If you're not familiar with Google Earth, it is an app that lets you explore detailed satellite imagery of the globe and 3D perspectives with the swipe of a finger. A menu option lets you select Google Earth (which is also a free app)to get different perspectives on your destinations.
Overall, the Google Maps app for iPhone is a fast, lean, and accurate alternative to Apple's Maps app, and other iPhone GPS navigation apps on the market. Heavy navigation users will appreciate its speed and accuracy, but may balk at its lack of integration with Apple Contacts, and missing features, such as lane guidance.