Saturday, September 18, 2010

Get the most out of Google Maps for Android

As any smartphone guru will tell you, Google Maps is one of Android's greatest features. There are Google Maps applications for other platforms, of course, but Android's version has some major exclusives that make it stand out. I've spoken to several iPhone users who say that Maps is one of the features they're most jealous of.

With all the features it has, though, it's easy for the app to seem overwhelming and some of the coolest features to go unnoticed. So let's take a look at some of the useful stuff hiding under the surface and how to get the most out of Maps on Android.

View 3D maps without Navigation
Navigation is undoubtedly the most impressive feature of Maps. Free, always up-to-date turn-by-turn directions is pretty epic. But for the times when you're not using Navigation, and just simply want a map view on the screen, it can sometimes be confusing to just look at the 2D map, especially while driving. Did you know that you can view the 3D map, which auto-orients to the direction you're heading, even when not using navigation? Just tap the Navigation icon in your app list, then hit the Map button in the top right. That's it!

Avoid Highways; Avoid Tolls
This is something a lot of people want, but few know how to find. To tell Navigation to avoid highways and/or toll roads when giving directions, tap the Navigation icon in your app list, then the gear-shaped Settings button on the top.

Take advantage of Places
The latest version of Maps adds a Places icon to your app list. Tap this to bring up a quick and easy way to search for places nearby. Searches like Coffee, Hotels, Bars, etc can be done instantly, all based on your location. You can even view the results on a map to quickly see where they are. It's very useful.

Turn on some Labs features
There are a number of extra features you can turn on in Maps that are considered "experimental." This means that they may not quite work perfectly, and it's very possible that they won't always be there. But there's no danger in turning them on, and some of them are really cool. To find them, open Maps and press Menu. Tap More, then Labs. At present, there are 4 extra features you can turn on. Look them over and try a few out. I personally like Scale Bar, Traffic with Labels, and Bubble Buttons.

Install the new Street View
In the latest upgrade to Maps, Google also upgraded Street View, but it's not installed by default. To find it, go to the Market and search for Street View (or tap here from your phone, or scan this QR Code). The new version brings easier navigation by dragging Pegman around. Check out the official demonstration video to see it in action.

Give Latitude a try
Google's Latitude feature allows you to see where your friends are and communicate with people nearby. But even if you don't want to share your location with anyone (or if you don't have any friends), Latitude can still be useful. There's a page of extra web apps you can use with Latitude, the most useful of which might be Location History. This provides a private (viewable only by you) web page where you can see a history of where you've been and how long you've spent there. For example, Latitude figured out by itself where I work, where my house is, and shows me a map of where I've traveled. This feature has to be turned on (it's off by default), and may creep some people out. But for others, it's hugely useful.

Search with your voice
This is a feature that's been part of Maps for a while, but lots of people haven't tried it. If you've never tried searching by talking, definitely give it a shot. You can say things like, "123 Main Street" or "Directions to New York City" or "Navigate to Main Street" and Maps takes care of the rest.

So there you have it. Maps is seriously powerful app, and one of Android's headliner features. If you don't use Maps very often, or don't use the advanced features, I highly encourage you to give them a try.

Do you have any cool uses for Maps that I missed? Let's hear about them in the comments!