Tested: Google Maps 5.7 for Android Fills in the Feature Gaps

By Ryan Whitwam

Google Maps gets better transit nav and offline map downloads.

Ever since Google Maps was broken out from the main OS and added to the Android Market, the app has seen a huge number of improvements. In the most recent update, Google added support for stop-by-stop public transit directions, improved navigation, and manual offline map caching. As you can imagine, this app continues to be one of the biggest reasons to get an Android device.

As Maps has evolved, other developers and companies have tried to fill in the gaps in functionality. With this last update, many of those third-party solutions are feeling less necessary. Let’s look at the new Google Maps update, and see what apps Maps can now replace.

Transit Navigation

In previous versions of Google Maps, you could pull up transit directions, but there was no live navigation for it. The new update basically adds public transit to the list of turn-by-turn navigation options. After some testing, we’re very impressed with the elegance of Google’s implementation here.

When you pull up transit directions, there will be a Navigation icon in the upper right corner. The app will instruct you to walk to the necessary transit pickup, and will actually track you as you ride around. It detects when you’re on the route and tells you what stop to get off at. The default view is the Map interface, just like driving navigation, but we actually prefer the list view.

In this interface, you get the different steps in order, along with times, distances, and the number of stops you have to sit through. What’s new here is that the ubiquitous glowing blue “you are here” orb is hovering on the left. It will move down the list as you progress along the route. You can press the Map button at the bottom to go back to the map interface at any time, but you don’t have to.

Google’s relative weakness in GPS transit directions has resulted in a plethora of metro-specific public transit apps. Apps like SmartTransit, HopStop and TreKing have been popular alternatives with more robust public transit options. Where Google Maps is likely to best these apps is in the departments of user interface, and battery usage.

One of Google’s smaller bullet points for the new update was an improvement in battery usage when navigating. If you’ve even used your Android device for turn-by-turn without plugging it in, you know how fast it will gobble up power. By hitting the GPS chip less often, and making better use of network locations, Google Maps can more effectively use power.

A lot of the third party apps are pulling from Google’s own transit database, then adding their own features on top of that. So if you find that Google Maps’ new transit directions do what you need (and we think you will), there’s no reason to keep the third party apps.

Offline Maps

Ever since Google rolled out turn-by-turn navigation, we have been yearning for real offline mapping. Since Google Maps pulls the map tiles from the cloud as you go, a data connection is usually required. This started to change last year when The Big G added automatic caching of areas you frequent. This feature saves the map tiles for your local area quite nicely for local map access without data.

Earlier this year Google added another similar feature that would save the route data when you started a turn-by-turn trip. As long as you did not deviate from your route, navigation would continue. This too improved the situation, but if you’re driving in an unfamiliar city, and don’t have a route started when you lose data, Google used to leave you high and dry.

With the new update you can manually download map areas for offline use. The feature is not as front and center as the new transit navigation, but you can find it in the Google Labs section of Maps. It is called Download Map Area, and requires no additional install.

To grab an area map, just find a location or business you’re interested in. You can also pick a random spot in the right region by long-pressing. Whichever way you go, tap the location bubble and on the next screen (where you get information about the address or business) and tap Download Map Area.

You will be booted back to the map and a pop up will inform you it is downloading the map area within 10 miles of the location you chose. This might take a minute or two depending on connection. The total data for each set of tiles is about 4MB. Keep in mind this is only pulling the map tiles, not street view, satellite images, and not Places data. When complete, Maps will show you a black box around the areas it has cached. This is only visible until the next time you enter Maps.

You can view and manage your offline maps in Menu > More > Cache Settings. Then select Downloaded Map Areas to see a list of everything you’ve saved. You can rename the maps and delete them if you no longer need them. Tapping on the name of the map will shoot you back to that area highlighted on the main map screen. All the data is saved on your SD card, so you should be able to grab a lot of maps should you need to. The saved maps will be deleted after 30 days, which we kind of think is unnecessary.

So, what sort of apps does this new functionality save you from? As far as we’re concerned, the apps like Navigon and CoPilot that want to charge you $30-60 for turn-by-turn navigation are a lot less compelling. These apps require large data downloads to the SD card for their maps, but with the new Google Maps for Android, you can just download the maps you need without worrying about losing data.

It is important to note that you cannot pull new turn-by-turn directions without a data connection of some sort in Google Maps, but you have the maps themselves available for offline use which will get you by when you lose your data connection. Having your maps downloaded ahead of time means you don’t have to rely on the automatic (and imperfect) caching of routes. The offline map tiles will also mean less data is downloaded when you do need to navigate. So it’s easier on your data charges and faster when you’re just stuck on a 2G network.

A similar category of apps are basically just offline maps for getting your bearings. Apps with roads and points of interest for a variety of cities are available in the Market. The argument for these is a little better as Google Maps does not download Places information. But if you just need to see city streets, Google Maps is enough.

There is also an app called Maps (-) that got some press a few months back by allowing users to download map areas to the SD card. This is essentially the functionality we now have in Maps, we can’t think of a reason to use this app, which costs $3 for the full version.

Google Maps gets demonstrably better every time we look. Rest assured we’re going to be caching maps for our next trip in case we get a little turned around. And the new transit directions are going to be truly useful in a strange city with unfamiliar bus and train lines. Have you taken the new Maps for a spin? Let us know how you like it, and if you still need any other mapping apps.