Hands on with the new Google Maps

I'm still waiting for my Glass headset... but for now Google has at least given me a new version of Google Maps for the web. Here’s what it looks like:

The first change you'll notice is that the map now fills your window. The map itself looks subtly different too: there’s a new cleaner design, with a paler palette, more white space (well, light grey) and – if I’m not mistaken – Google's Roboto font now used for labelling.

A small search bar floats at the top-left, with search results now appearing directly on the map. Instant suggestions appear as you type, with priority given to places you’ve previously searched for and interacted with. A film-strip of photos of the area you’re exploring can be brought up at the bottom of the window.

Searching for directions works in a similar way. By default, a selection of routes is shown on the map, including public transport options, and live traffic information estimates how long it’ll take you to drive from A to B.

One initial point of confusion for me was the removal of the Street View icon. Now, when you click on a  location of interest, a floating information panel appears showing a thumbnail-sized street view preview, along with any other available information. Click the thumbnail and you're taken into full-blown Street View mode. This hasn’t noticeably changed, except that streets are now labelled and you can click anywhere in the entire lower portion of the window to move forward. That’s more convenient than the old way, but I haven’t yet found a way to move backwards.

Another button that’s vanished is Satellite view. It’s replaced by a button at the bottom-left labelled simply “Earth”, which switches you into Google Earth view. By default this works in the same way as the old Satellite mode, but you can now click the perspective button at the bottom-right to switch into 3D view – not currently useful in the UK, but working for many US cities. You can also zoom much further away from the Earth's surface, all the way out to a simulated space view, showing the globe as a whole against a backdrop of stars. (Oddly, the Moon is nowhere to be seen).

The new Google Maps looks more pleasant than the old one, and it shows more useful information at a glance. The marriage of Maps and Earth is neat and sensible. Overall, though, the update doesn’t seem to bring anything really revolutionary to the table. That being the case, the interface overhaul does feel a little like change for change's sake. No doubt I’ll soon become accustomed to the new ways of doing things, but Google should be wary of heading down the Facebook path of periodically tinkering just to keep things fresh. Making an established product unfamiliar gives users a perfect opportunity to try out the competition.

Google is slowly rolling out the new Maps, but you can request an early invite here.

Read more

Blogs