New Google Maps: We explore the features of the preview

At Google I/O one of the most exciting developments was the reworking of Google Maps. Both online and on mobile devices. With maps being ubiquitous now, it's easy to forget that the old version has a few annoying bugs that make it difficult to use. Now a completely new look means that everything is better looking and more functional.

First thing you should do is zoom out because that's how you become a space tourist for less than the enormous sums that are necessary to really make a trip into space. From up here you can see real-time clouds, the position of the sun, what parts of the earth are in darkness and you can even see where there are a lot of lights on. It is utterly stunning to look at, and it will make any space lover feel very happy indeed.

Back on terra firma, and things are also improved with traffic updates. This is a feature that anyone who drives anywhere near a city will really appreciate. The information for traffic is vastly improved and seems to cover more areas than before. But what we noticed is how quickly everything updates. Go from a London view out to a map of the whole of England, and you can see traffic on the local London roads, then as you zoom, the major motorways.

Google is also focusing on becoming the defacto method for finding a business too. Search for an area, and Google has suggestions about things to "explore" in the area. By default this was pubs and restaurants but you can just search for other things you want to find: we looked for plumbers, then picked one from the map. Once you select something, the search box gets an additional area, on which there are contact details for the company with address and phone number. Remember when you had to call an expensive directory inquiry number advertised by two curly haired buffons? Well Google has just put the kibosh on that.

 

There's also helpful information for people who want to cycle. Google is - at least in cities - showing areas that are either cycle friendly, or have dedicated cycle routes. That's handy, and makes for a nice change in a car-orientated world. And while cycle directions were available on old Google Maps, they're easier to find and use now.

A big deal was also made of the ability of maps to help you find your way by switching on road names for minor roads when you need them. This is handy, because when you want to print a route, it makes more sense if only the roads you need are labelled, for clarity.

On the downside, we noticed two missing features that we really use a lot. The first is the ability to generate a link to exactly what's on your screen to send to someone else. We're sure this function is there somewhere, it's just that we can't find it. We also noted that the print function has gone missing. While you can still print a page, you won't get everything on screen when you do, which means you have to blindly jiggle around to get the right area in the print preview first. We also noticed that some directions were a little bit off. One we tried delivering us into the waiting waters of the River Thames, which would have been nasty. 

Google has also been gathering information about buildings over the past few years. This means that now, Maps has a pretty decent database of building heights stored. That means, in turn, that it can add a 3D view to many areas. This isn't working for London yet, but New York looks fabulous with the extra information added. The satellite images wrap around and give you a semi-accurate view of the city you're looking at. It's a bit rough and ready at the moment, but it has enormous potential for the future. It also merges a bit with streetview, to give you a "whole area" look at where you're going.

And speaking of streetview, the little yellow man is dead. We can't see him anywhere any more. To get to streetview now you simply click a road, and an image preview appears beneath the search box and you can click it to get to streetview. Rest in peace little yellow man.