Google Maps 5.0 for Android Hands-On: Slicker, Faster, Smarter

Just in time for the heavy holiday travel season, Google has updated its Android Maps app. This latest version, Maps 5, now sports some significant changes and new features that make it even more useful. So much in fact that we couldn't resist taking it out for a quick spin ourselves.

First, Google has enabled Maps 5 to support automatic caching, a feature which downloads map data to the phone ahead of time. This means that you'll still be able to find your way even when you can't access a wireless connection. In theory, this should reduce wait times greatly or eliminate them entirely. Also nice is the new compass feature, activated by tapping the compass icon in the right-hand corner, that does more than just track your orientation. Depending on what mode you're in, hitting the compass icon will also launch Maps 5's  flashiest new trick, 3D view.

This mode provides a virtual cityscape complete with towering skyscrapers and building outlines even more detailed than what the full Google Maps Web site offers. Better still, the digital compass will automatically rotate the 3D map's orientation relative to your position, so buildings shown in front of you should match what you see in reality. Dragging two fingers up and down the screen will pivot the viewing axis resulting in a decrease or increase in viewing angle, from birds eye to 3/4 for example. You'll also be able to zoom in and out of the map more smoothly. The technology which makes all these new improvements possible, says Google, is vector graphics which stores shapes and outlines of objects as mathematical formula which are easier to scale up or down.

After a little hands on time with Google Maps 5, we can say it performs pretty much as advertised. We were able to quickly locate the position of our Manhattan offices and zoom into a 3D representation of the surrounding concrete jungle that is Times Square and the Fashion district. Tilting the map view with two fingers also works well and we definitely noticed a cleaner, more streamlined cast to graphics.

The compass also successfully tracked our movements and direction. In addition, manipulation of the map without a network signal or Web access was successful too. Of course map rendering was much smoother with a data connection. One small issue: while Google does state that the 3D view is currently only offered in over 100 cities, apparently only the isle of Manhattan counts for New York City. Ah hem, last we checked NYC has five boroughs, not just one. Even so, we can't wait to spend a little more quality time with this app. We suggest you check it out for yourself via the Android Market.

LAPTOP Senior Writer