Snigger as you will over Microsoft's decision to call Bing, its overhauled search engine, a "decision engine," but those giggles should dissolve when you start up Microsoft's brand-new Bing for iPhone (and iPod Touch). As a search app goes, Bing, in the iTunes App Store, is the real thing.
The Bing app has a slew of expected features, including voice search, maps, directions, search suggestions, and location-awareness. That's no surprise. Besides these being features common to Bing.com and to the Bing application on other mobile platforms, they're also necessary to compete with Google Mobile App for iPhone.
Bing's stylish layout is a pleasant surprise, and one that adds up, screen by screen, to a cohesive search experience. Opening Bing, you see the image of the day as your background (this doesn't appear to be customizable,) with the search field and voice search button at the top of the app. A rounded, six-panel grid of buttons jumps you to Bing's image collection, movie listings, maps, directions, business look-up, and a news feed. A drop-down menu on the search bar lets you filter your searches in all those categories, save directions. The semitransparent navigation strip below has a Home button and back and forward arrows, plus a button to hide the button panel, and an icon that pops up settings to clear your search history, set your search filter, and so on.
Bing gives you directions for your car and for navigating on foot, but it doesn't yet include directions using public transit, as the Google Mobile App does. Bing, however, has a neat feature that lets you swipe a transparent ribbon to advance through each direction, which moves the satellite, hybrid, road, or shaded map along in turn. We like that tapping a search result on the map brings up a tag with ratings and with icons to call the business or launch into directions.
Another difference to keep in mind between Bing and its Google rival is that Bing smashes a map and search app into one, whereas Google's mapping program is also the iPhone's default map app. When you access maps from Google Mobile App, you'll wind up opening up the Maps app for the actual search.
The Bing app for iPhone still isn't complete. As far as we can tell so far, it lacks some of the extras of other mobile Bing apps, like the capability to lay down pushpins on the map and save locations, and the capability to view multiple locations on the map. The absent features in the iPhone app indicate the direction of Microsoft's plans for Bing's growth on iPhone.
While Bing's performance during our initial testing was good, individuals may notice fluctuations based on their data and Wi-Fi connections. There may be other areas where Bing might not match up: for instance, Google claims its iPhone app can detect British and Australian pronunciation in addition to U.S. and Canadian accents. Do our international friends notice parity with Bing's voice search?
Although Bing may not match every bell and whistle that Google Mobile App and Maps apps do combined, Bing 1.0 for iPhone does offer a viable alternative to Google's searching and mapping dominance.