Our short navigational nightmare is over. People can stop heading to the wrong cities, falling off warped bridges, and dying of heat strokes while using Apple Maps. iPhone owners running iOS 6 can now restore Google Maps to its rightful place on the home screen for free, thanks to a new, standalone Google Maps app that's available in Apple's App Store.
Also, for the first time, it brings parity with Android by including a beta version of voice-enabled car navigation. Just as Google Maps Navigation works well on Android phones, Google Maps now does the same thing on iPhones; the only difference is that you have to download it first.
Interface and map graphics
In some ways, the new Google Maps app is actually smoother, more attractive, and more fun to use than the previous version. Fire it up and you'll see a 2D overhead map view of your current location. The little blue icon still pulses with light when it has a lock on your GPS location, but it's more subtle now, without the rings that emanated from it in earlier versions. Across the top is a search bar. To the right is a small icon that gives you quick access to your saved destinations, both from here and your regular Google desktop account.
Map and satellite graphics look fantastic on the iPhone 5's large Retina screen, with 3D buildings appearing in for example Birmingham as you zoom in closer, thanks to the new vector-based rendering engine. You can tip the view over from 2D to 3D even in pedestrian mode.
Google's famed Street Views for major cities make an appearance as well. Tap the small vertical bar of dots on the bottom right, and a panel opens up giving options for real-time traffic, public transit, satellite view, and a shortcut to the Google Earth app (if you have it installed). Highlight a point of interest, and Google will display its identity on screen. Then you can swipe up to see the location, reviews, contact information, and other relevant data.
Inputting destinations for navigation is simple; you tap the navigation icon near the top, which looks like a junction arrow that splits in two directions. You can type in anything: A street address, a point of interest, a search term, whatever you want – and then select it from the resulting list below.
The app also presents you with alternative routes in each mode. There's no way to tell it up front if you want the fastest or shortest routes, or to avoid motorways, though. Regardless, during my tests, everything I searched for resulted in the correct answers, just as you would expect from Google.
Many iPhone users prized Google Maps for its solid, real-time pedestrian navigation, but new to this version is a voice prompt-based mode that you can use when behind the wheel. It takes a few extra taps to begin voice navigation, though. Once on the road, the car navigation view is a little sparse compared with what you see on TomTom, Garmin, and other car-focused navigation apps. For example, there's no current speed, road speed limit display, or configurable speed limit alerts. There's also no way to display the trip ETA, the current time, and the distance remaining simultaneously.
Audio prompts are excellent, with a smooth voice, correct pronunciation, and detailed, complete sentences at just the right times. When Google first launched Google Maps Navigation back in 2009, voice prompts were a total mess, so this is a clear victory.
Google has done a lot to add photo-realistic junction views and destination photos to its navigation, but there still aren't enough of them. In fact, if there's no photo available of a motorway exit, you don't see any lane assistance at all – either a 3D rendering or 2D lane arrows – which is disappointing.
All of the routes I tested out were accurate and worked well. As always, Google Maps data is super-accurate, and real-time traffic information was also on the mark, for the most part.
Overall, aside from some issues with the 3D interface while driving, Google Maps is a must-download for iPhone users, whether you're on foot or behind the wheel. There's no iPad version yet, unfortunately, though I imagine Google will rectify that sooner rather than later.
While this app does a nice job with car navigation, dedicated car navigation apps still offer more, and work more like standalone GPS devices. I wouldn't automatically discount every paid navigation app from consideration, but make no mistake: Google Maps for the iPhone is a comprehensive GPS and voice navigation solution for walking, driving, biking, and taking public transit. I can't help but wonder if Apple needs to bother fixing its own Maps app anymore.