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Google Maps returns to iPhone with an app, finally

Published December 13, 2012 10:05 pm

First look • Despite glitches, new app is better than Apple version, to the delight of millions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was probably the biggest blunder Apple has made in years. In the latest version of its operating system, iOS 6, the company mercilessly dropped the built-in Google Maps app in favor of its own flawed and infamously inaccurate Apple Maps. It was a disaster.

Since that giant misstep about three months ago, iPhone users have been eagerly waiting for Google to release its own native mapping and navigation app to replace the one Apple ditched. It's finally here, and it's an improvement, although there are some glitches.

Wednesday night, Google debuted its free Google Maps app in the iTunes App Store, and iPhone users can now confidently go from Point A to Point B without detouring through, say, Alaska. Unfortunately, it's available only for the iPhone, although an iPad version is coming soon.

Many of the features from the former Google Maps app have been ported over here, including traffic congestion, satellite view, and most importantly, public transit schedules, something that Apple Maps didn't include for bus and train commuters.

Google has kept the interface sparse. There is only a search bar at the top and the GPS locator button the bottom. Swipe to the left a small menu tab on the bottom, and you're greeted with the options to turn on traffic info, transit points, the satellite view, as well as go directly to the Google Earth app. The app also feels faster and smoother than the older Google version.

Pointing to a place on the map brings up a pin, as well as an address bar on the bottom. Touch or swipe up on that, and you are shown options to save that spot in favorites, share the address via text message or email, or be taken to Google's Street View, a ground-level view of that spot. Street View was one of the biggest things iOS users missed after Google's Maps app disappeared. Apple has not devised its own version of that useful feature. Touching that address bar can also bring up more information about a business, including restaurant reviews and links to websites.

There is one new feature in the latest Google app that wasn't present in the old Google app ­— voice turn-by-turn navigation. Now, you can ask for directions to a place and a female voice directs you at every turn. The feature also gives you choices for alternate routes, and the voice used seems more clear and natural-sounding than the one for Apple Maps.

In the one time I've used it, the app wanted to take me off the most direct route to where I work, so it's hard to say how accurate it will be without more testing. The free navigation app called Waze is still a better alternative for turn-by-turn directions.

As for the accuracy of the maps, that also needs more testing. But if Google is using the same database it did before, expect it to be much more up-to-date than Apple's maps, which sometimes led people over cliffs or onto roads that didn't exist.

One of the biggest advantages of Google Maps is that it has a much bigger database of businesses than Apple. Searches for restaurants, stores, movie theaters and other places yield much bigger results. And with Street View, you can get a quick look at what the place looks like before you get there. There are even some views inside of buildings.

There are other glitches, though. For example, a search showed that a California Pizza Kitchen was at least two blocks away from its actual location in The Gateway mall in downtown Salt Lake City, and it didn't include a new pizza place that opened up there about a month ago.

There are a few other disadvantages to consider. The new app is not integrated with other apps such as Yelp or Flixster. And it's not integrated with Siri, the iPhone's digital voice assistant. So, if you ask for directions somewhere, it will automatically call up Apple Maps, not Google Maps. If you see a place on the Yelp app and ask for directions, it will not call up Google Maps. But Google also has released a software kit for developers, so future updates of their apps can seamlessly integrate Google Maps.

Millions of iPhone and iPad users have been crying out for a better alternative to Apple Maps. It's finally here — the maps app that used to be on their phone.

vince@sltrib.com

Google+: +Vincent Horiuchi