Google Maps returns to iOS with an all-new app

After the release of iOS 6, many iDevice users found themselves frustrated with Apple’s new stock Maps app. Complaints varied from inaccurate directions to certain places simply not existing at all, and many users were very keen for Google to bring their mapping service back to iOS through the App Store. It has taken some time for this to happen, but it’s finally here — Google Maps is now available from the App Store as a free download — though presently not in an iPad-optimized format.

Those expecting a simple return of the old iOS Google Maps app in separately-downloadable form may be in for something of a surprise, however — Google Maps for iOS has been completely revamped and redesigned, and now bears very little resemblance to its former incarnation.

The basic interface for Google Maps now features a vector-based map that is quick and smooth to update dynamically as the user pans and zooms. Rather than having to wait for individual “tiles” to load on slow mobile connections, zooming in and out is now a very smooth process. As before, a button in the corner allows the user to jump quickly to their location, and tapping it again tilts the map into a quasi-3D view, allowing the user to see which direction they are going in conjunction with the built-in compass of modern iOS devices.

A search bar at the top of the screen allows users to search for locations by business name, street name, postal code or any manner of other criteria. Once a location has been located, a pin is dropped in the map — this may also be accomplished by simply tapping a landmark on the map — and the user may then interact with this location in several ways. The location’s basic information — name, reviews and estimated travel time by car — appear at the bottom of the screen, and this may be slid up into a more detailed panel of information. From here, it’s possible to call businesses, save the location as a bookmark into the user’s Google account, share it via SMS/iMessage or Mail, and copy the map ID to the clipboard. The information panel also includes additional information such as a business’ website, full address, opening hours and the like — though exactly how much information is available depends on what the business or location has made public.

Street View may also be accessed from the information panel, assuming the location is in an area with Street View coverage. Street View now works in portrait as well as landscape orientation, but is otherwise similar to its previous incarnation. Businesses who have submitted their own photographs may also list these separately — a feature which Google markets as allowing users to “look inside” businesses.

A big improvement over the previous iOS Google Maps app is the addition of turn-by-turn voice-led navigation. Upon selecting a location, tapping on the car icon brings up the route planning interface, from which the user may choose their starting point (“My Location”) by default and route options such as avoiding highways and toll routs. An overview of the route may then be seen, and tapping a “Start” button in the corner then begins the journey. This mostly seems to work quite well, though its behavior can become a little erratic if the user travels through an area with no cellular signal.

There are a couple of other nice little touches in the new app, too. A “profile” function allows the user to set their default “home” and “work” locations and thus get the app to quickly direct them to home or work from wherever they might be. A selection of “views” including traffic, public transit and satellite imagery may be overlaid onto the map screen by sliding out a panel from the side of the screen, and the user may also switch to the Google Earth iOS map if they have it installed.

The new Google Maps will take a little adjusting to for many longtime iOS users as, unlike the original default app, it does not follow the standard iOS interface conventions, instead adopting Google’s simple, clean visual style that it has been gradually rolling out into its other mobile apps recently. It is an attractive app, however, and seems to work well — it remains to be seen, however, whether users will switch to it as their primary mapping solution, whether they have learned to live with Apple Maps, or whether they have found other third-party navigation solutions in the meantime.

Google Maps is currently the No. 1 free app on iPhone. Follow its progress with AppData, our tracking service for mobile and social apps and developers.