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8/1/2006
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Review: Google Mobile Maps Goes In A New Direction

Google's latest service gives some cell phone users free access to real-time traffic information--but don't try to use it while driving.

Google's mission is to organize the world's information -- and when you're driving in a crowded metropolitan area, knowing your way around and what traffic conditions are can be very important information indeed. A new free service from Google lets you get directions and immediate traffic information from Google -- assuming you have a cell phone that can accommodate it.



The newest beta version of Google Mobile Maps works with several dozen cell phones from most U.S. carriers. If your phone supports it, you can download Google Maps using your phone's Web browser. You then use the keypad and arrow keys to display a map that shows traffic directions and conditions in your area. Although Google doesn't charge for the service or its data feed, there could be charges from your cell phone carrier.

I tested the Google Maps service on the Sprint network using a Samsung SPH-A940 and on Cingular Wireless using a Blackberry 8700c. You can also test-drive the service from a PC with live traffic in an interactive tour that's pretty much like the experience from a cell phone.

When you load the service, you get a menu that you can use to find a business, find a location (by full address or just zip code), get directions, or see a satellite view. Traffic data works by color coding: Roads that are green are running at the speed limit, yellow designates some congestion, and red indicates a traffic jam. By default traffic data is turned on, but you can turn it off.

If you simply select a location, you'll see the general area around that location, but you can easily scroll out to see a larger portion of the area. You can also use your phone's arrow keys to scroll around the map. It takes a bit of getting used to on a cell phone, but on my Samsung phone I was easily able to scroll around the entire San Francisco Bay Area.

Another option is to "get directions," which requires you to enter your starting point and destination; if you don't need precise directions, you can just enter the zip codes. Even though it can be a pain to type an address on a cell phone, the software will remember recent locations, so you only have to do it once. Once you enter your start and end points, you get a route overview with distance, the time it should normally take, and the traffic delay time. The phone then displays a map along with turn-by-turn directions (which are displayed on the map in a typical dialog balloon). Each time you need the next stage of your directions, you hit the "3" button on your phone for "Next."

Testing, One, Two, Three
To test the device, I plotted a route for a Bay Area drive from Palo Alto to Berkeley along the busy Highway 101 between Palo Alto and San Francisco, over the Bay Bridge (Highway 80), through portions of Oakland, and into Berkeley.

When I checked the map for traffic conditions, it showed mostly green with some yellow along portions of the corridor between Palo Alto and San Francisco, and then patches of red in San Francisco and on the approach to the Bay Bridge. To see if the map was correct I called the traffic department at KCBS (the AM news station where I do tech daily tech reports); according to the traffic coordinator, all of the congested spots I saw matched what she had from her maps, along with the reports from the station's ground- and air-based traffic reporters.

That's the good news. The bad news is that it's dangerous to try to use Google's mobile maps while driving. It's certainly reasonable if you're a passenger but, for obvious reasons, you don't want to be squinting at your phone, pressing buttons and manipulating a map while behind the wheel.

The other problem is that it's hard to get a good overview of the area as well as advice on alternative routes. Also, Google Mobile Maps doesn't use GPS even with a GPS-enabled cell phone, so you have to use the arrow keys to track your trip, and you're on your own for finding your exact location.

Still, if you know the area and alternative routes -- and don't mind pulling over to check your directions -- Google Mobile Maps is a useful service to have on hand. And having an overview of area traffic can help you reach your destination a little faster.


Google Mobile Maps
Google
www.google.com
Price: Free
Summary: Google Mobile Maps is a useful and free service, but don't try to use it while in motion.

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