(Pocket-lint) - In the last couple of days, Apple has added indoor maps for airports and shopping malls in the UK. We've been give exclusive backstage access at London's Heathrow Airport to find out what it can mean for your air travel.
It's a timely release, too: 15 December, launch day in the UK, is also one of the most busiest days of the year for Heathrow, kickstarting 10 days of increased footfall with an estimated 2.2 million passengers moving through the airport between now and Christmas Day.
Indoor Maps can help you plan and expedite your airport visit, but how do you use them, can they give you step by step instructions, and do they know the secret shortcuts through the maze that can be Duty Free?
What are Indoor Maps?
Indoor Maps support has been added to the the latest version of Apple Maps and are available on all iOS devices running on the latest iPhone and iPad software, iOS 11.
Apple Maps is one of those apps that the company is always quietly updating in the background and because so much of the data is on Apple's servers, it doesn't take a big, visible update to add new features.
The latest addition is Indoor Maps. Apple has added maps for when you're indoors as well as out, for two kinds of venue: airports and shopping malls. These are now live in more than 30 airports around the world like JFK and LaGuardia in New York, Heathrow and Gatwick in London, Los Angeles LAX, Berlin's Tegel and Amsterdam's Schipol.
It's worth noting that Google Maps has already had indoor mapping at some airports for some time, but crucially, not for Heathrow or JFK. Covent Garden, in London is the first shopping area to have indoor mapping on the app in the UK.
How do you find Indoor Maps?
One you've launched Maps, those places with the extra level of information are revealed through a telltale phrase: "Look inside" found on airport locations.
You can find this either when you're at the airport or, if you're planning ahead, by searching for London Heathrow Airport in Maps, before you leave home.
Tap Look inside and the view changes. The area outside the airport greys out and you can see what's going on indoors, from where the security check-in is to the boarding gates, from the shops to the restaurants.
One of the striking innovations is the level indicator, which lets you switch from one floor of the airport to the next. And there's an option to browse the airport, too.
How does Indoor Maps work?
It uses wi-fi to pinpoint where you are. Apple has worked with the airports and shopping malls, creating a pairing between wi-fi access points and the co-ordinates on floor plans. The iPhone or iPad matches these signals to accurately map where you are, without the need to actually connect to a specific network.
Of course, if you're abroad you can log on to an airport's free wi-fi to use the Indoor Maps before you leave the airport without incurring data roaming charges.
It's super-accurate, too. Standing in Heathrow's Terminal 2, it mapped our position instantly and perfectly. Apple says it is accurate to within 3-5 metres. Apple uses wi-fi networks on each floor, correlating it with the floor plan to give what it calls a wi-fi fingerprint. This is important because you need to be sure of where you are in the airport, especially if you're trying to find your way to the gate to board your plane.
What else can Indoor Maps do?
Quite a bit. There's a button marked "Browse LHR" or whichever airport you're in. Tap it and it'll show you the terminals, shops, food options and drinks places. Choose one and you'll see an alphabetical list of what's available. Pick a restaurant, say, for opening hours, whether they accept Apple Pay and even how busy the restaurant is right now. You can see menus and order food to take away, with details of how long it will take.
There are extra features for the shops, too. If there's something on sale that you'd like to buy, you can click through to the shop's website on Heathrow.com and reserve an item which you can collect once you're airside. This is especially handy if you realise on your way to the airport that you've forgotten your sunglasses, thick sweater or headphones, say, and can arrange to pick them up on arrival – panic over!
You can also choose to buy something and leave it at the airport to collect on your way home if you prefer, however we weren't able to use it to help us navigate through the maze that is Duty Free. It will tell you where the sprawling Duty-Free area is, but not how sections within the shop are laid out. Perhaps that should be a future update.
What are the downsides?
It won't give you directions. So when your gate is announced, it will show you where in the airport to head, and if you turn the compass on in the app it'll guide you very accurately, but you can't get turn-by-turn walking directions to get to the gate which would be nice. Neither does it cover every Airport. Luton and Stansted have yet to be "mapped" in the UK for example, but we suspect with time this will be addressed.
Airports are busy, lively, stressful places. Something like Indoor Maps can make things that bit more harmonious and Apple's skilful implementation is slick, simple and highly effective.