Android tablets and the iPad are long overdue for dedicated mapping applications, and Google is finally delivering.
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Google announced Wednesday an extensive overhaul of its mobile mapping products. Starting with Android smartphones, Google is releasing a new version of Maps that will eventually spread to the iPhone, as well as Android tablets and the iPad. The application is receiving a big visual rewrite, as well as a handful of new features. Not all the news is good, however, as Google is killing off some useful tools within Maps.
First, the good stuff. Google has added a wealth of new features to Maps, among them one called Explore. Google says Explore is "a fast and easy way to visually browse and discover new places without even typing." Maps users can touch the search box in Maps and the app will automatically show nearby places to shop, eat, drink, sleep and bank. The details are presented in a fashion similar to the cards in Google Now.
Maps gains improved navigation and commuting powers. It has offered live traffic conditions for years, but the new version is better at helping drivers avoid problem spots. For example, Maps will alert drivers to problems that develop ahead and automatically offer alternate routes to help circumvent delays. This feature will be available to Android devices first and iOS later.
Google Maps is adding in support for reviews. For example, venues that have been given a 5-star rating that is based on both user feedback as well as Zagat reviews (which Google owns). Google said the Zagat badge will appear on venues that have earned it, and is presented in a way so that Maps users can easily spot Zagat-rated eateries. Google Maps integrates Google Offers, as well. Offers is Google's LivingSocial/Groupon competitor. Active Offers will appear on Maps results for users who've signed up to receive Offers.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Google is offering a dedicated version of Maps to both Android tablets and the iPad. Until now, the tablet experience was simply an expanded version of the smartphone app. It presented limitations and was clearly not meant to take advantage of the tablet's larger screen real estate and form factor. Google says the new tablet version of Maps "makes exploring the world from the comfort of your living room much more fluid, smooth and fun."
Now for the not-so-good stuff. As part of its mapping and location overhaul, Google is killing off Latitude. Latitude was a (poor) Foursquare competitor that never saw much traction with Maps users. It allowed people to check into venues and share their location in real time with friends. Latitude and all the mobile/desktop apps associated with it (including the API) are going away as of August 9. It has already been removed from the latest version of Google Maps for Android devices. According to Google, it expects people to use Google+ for check-ins and location-sharing moving forward.
Further, the new Maps kills off offline maps and My Maps. Offline maps allowed users to save map segments to their devices for use when offline. Google is providing a workaround that lets people save some portions of maps, but it is clunky and you're better off taking screenshots. More troubling is the loss of My Maps, which allows Maps users to save and access their favorite locations between desktops and smartphones. Google didn't say why My Maps was pulled, but hinted that the feature might return in the future.
The new version of Google Maps hit the Google Play Store Wednesday for Android devices. Google didn't say when the new version would reach iOS devices, including the iPad, other than to say "soon."
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