Google Maps

Monday, 2005-02-28; 01:44:00

If you occasionally use MapQuest or Yahoo Maps to get driving directions, then you'll surely be amazed at the most recent thing to come out of Google. It's called Google Maps. If you try it out, you'll be amazed out how you actually stomached MapQuest or Yahoo Maps before. At least I did. (Note that when Google Maps first came out, it didn't work in Safari, only in Mozilla, Firefox, and other Gecko-based browsers. Now, however, it appears that Safari works fine with Google Maps, which is good.)

The first thing I noticed with Google Maps compared to MapQuest or Yahoo Maps is that the map actually LOOKS GOOD. Not that MapQuest or Yahoo Maps look particularly bad, but they just look crappy in comparison to Google Maps. Take a look at this Google Maps map (apparently the link doesn't preserve zoom, so make sure you change to the 4th zoom on the zoomed-in side of the slider) compared to this MapQuest map or this Yahoo Maps map. While they both show roughly the same stuff, the roads in Google Maps actually have reasonable relative widths. What I mean by that is that the width of highways actually are relatively correct compared to widths of normal streets. On MapQuest, highways appear thicker, but by like 1 or 2 pixels, which doesn't make sense, since most highways are usually 3 or 4 times the size of a two-lane road. This also allows Google Maps to color bigger streets with yellow colors, so that you can immediately see which roads are the main "arteries". The color scheme is much more pleasant on Google maps, and highway numbers are also put on the map where appropriate. The text also seems to be anti-aliased a bit better, so it's easier to read than MapQuest. And last but not least, Google Maps gives a much bigger viewing area compared to the other two, which affects usability a LOT.

If you don't believe me, take a look for yourself below. If you don't agree with me, there's only one possible explanation: you're smoking something. (Click on the pics to see a larger picture.)

Google Maps Screenshot MapQuest Screenshot Yahoo Maps Screenshot

Oh, wait, that's not last. True to Google style, there are ABSOLUTELY NO ADVERTISEMENTS on the Google Maps page. That's right: none (not even a text-only ad). Not only does it allow the map to actually occupy the vast majority of the web page, but it just makes it much less distracting. No ads gives Google Maps so many bonus points it's sickening (well, not literally, but it's an expression, OK?!).

OK, so Google wins hands down on appearance. But what about functionality? Well, you may be pleasantly surprised. First off, Google Maps has 15 zoom settings compared to 10 for both Yahoo Maps and MapQuest. When it comes to the other controls, Yahoo Maps and MapQuest are pretty similar. MapQuest offers four controls to move in each of the four cardinal directions. You can also click somewhere on the map to have it recenter on that place. Yahoo Maps is similar, except that it has four dedicated buttons for each of the intermediate directions (NW, SW, NE, SE). It has the centering feature as well, except that the zoom level automatically goes back out to the 4th zoom, so that makes it really annoying on Yahoo Maps.

How do you do it in Google Maps? You click and drag on the map to move wherever you want. That's right -- click and drag and the map updates in realtime to show you the new portions of the map. It's fucking BRILLIANT. There's no need to wait for the page to reload, and there's no reason to have to choose where to center your map or a fixed direction in which to move. You just drag it. Let me reiterate that it is BRILLIANT!

You could actually choose to use the standard controls to move a fixed direction in one of the cardinal directions, if you really wanted. But even these are more useful -- it actually animates the map moving in the direction you clicked: again, the map page doesn't reload; the map just moves.

But that's just the beginning. You're just using the maps function. Try getting driving directions... the first thing you'll notice is that when you click on the "Driving Directions" link, the page STILL doesn't reload! It just presents the new fields for start and end address. Little things like this that reduce wait time make the experience so much better.

So back to driving directions. Like Yahoo Maps and MapQuest, the highlighted route is transparent, which allows you to see through to road names and such. But it gets better. Two little pins appear on the map for the start and end direction (with intuitive colors AND shapes -- green and a play icon for your start, red and a stop icon for the end). You can click on them, and you get a detail bubble, again without the page reloading. What's so cool about this is it casts a shadow on the bigger map behind it! It looks awesome, and it highlights the fact that this is a separate map. SO COOL.

Now switch to the Local Search function. This is where Google Maps really shines. Put "cafes" into the What box and leave "the map area below" in the Where box and click Search. Little pins show up on the map for matching cafes! This is AWESOME. You can see where all the cafes are in relation to each other right on the map. You can click on a pin and get the name and address of the cafe! This is very useful when you're trying to find a Kinkos or a Safeway. Try it -- just put "Safeway" into the What box and do another search. It'll put little pins on the map where the safeways are. SO MUCH MORE USEFUL than MapQuest or Yahoo Maps.

Seriously. Try Google Maps. It kicks MapQuest and Yahoo Maps in the butt. And WHY THE HELL DIDN'T SOMEONE COME UP WITH THIS BEFORE? (Maybe browser technologies haven't been up to par until now, but somehow I just think that Yahoo and MapQuest aren't actually trying to improve their map services -- it's always been the same as far as I can remember.)

Google Maps leads me to my final, more general question. Why does it seem like Apple and Google are the only two consistently innovative companies in the technology sector right now? Apple has been on a roll with almost all of its products lately (iPod, iPod mini, iPod shuffle, Mac mini, iMac G5, Mac OS X Panther, iWork, iLife, Xserve G5, Xserve RAID, etc., etc.), and so has Google (Google Web Search, GMail, Google Maps, Google AdSense, as well as things that I don't use like Picasa and Google Desktop Search). It's just ridiculous how often you hear about these two companies making something totally useful and totally innovative that just makes you scratch your head and go, "Now why hasn't anyone actually DONE that before?!"

Meh. While I'm certainly not complaining about having Apple and Google around, it would make me feel a lot better about the technology sector in general if more companies were actually making useful products, instead of making crappy things like Windows Longhorn or the Dell DJ or *shudder* Norton Utilities.

Maybe I'm being a little too hard on everyone else, but I don't really think so.

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