Maps for iPad hands-on

A hands-on look at using the Maps app on the Apple iPad, including new features such as terrain view and street view.

The Google-powered maps for the iPhone and iPod Touch have been a mainstay of the iPhone OS since its inception. With the iPad, the maps app gets some subtle new features.

More importantly, and perhaps harder to convey in words, is the fact that the screen real estate afforded by the iPad transforms the app from a squinting approximation of a map into a full-fledged map replacement. Holding it in my hands, I couldn't help feeling a little like Dr. Evil, plotting my course for world domination.

There are a few things to know right off the bat. First, all versions of the iPad include an integrated digital compass, which the maps app can use along with Wi-Fi triangulation to approximate your location and orientation.

Also note that you'll need to invest in a 3G-capable model if you really plan on utilizing the iPad as a proper "Where the heck am I?" kind of map. Not only will the 3G-enabled iPad ping nearby cell towers as an additional means to determine your location (along with Wi-Fi signal triangulation), but the hardware on the 3G models includes extra assisted-GPS hardware, providing a true GPS experience that you can't get on the Wi-Fi only iPads.

Photo of Apple iPad with Google maps.
Maps for the iPad offer several new features unique to the device. Apple

Technical details aside, what's so special about maps on the iPad? Well, as the hands-on video at CNET TV demonstrates, the map's street view mode feels all the more godlike on a nice, big, capacitive touch screen. With the screen nearly three times the size of the iPhone's, you can literally see the steam coming off a cup of coffee, or in the video's Lombard Street example, you can see an enthusiastic tourist giving the thumb's up. In short, street view is much more impressive on iPad than it is on the iPhone, though no more practical. Contrasted with a comparable laptop screen, iPad's capacitive touch screen makes the experience feel like spinning a digital globe. It's fun.

There's also a new terrain view, which shows off topographical data. So say you're taking a walking tour of Rome (as I often find myself doing) and using an iPad to plan your adventure, the new layer of topographical data can help you avoid an unintended trip up the Apennine mountains. Of course, there's no reason we wouldn't expect to see this feature rolled out to the iPhone and iPod Touch in a future firmware update, but for now, it's only on the iPad.

Beyond those few updates and the fact that viewing every corner of the world on a gorgeous 9.7-inch touch-screen display makes you feel like you should be able to shoot lightning bolts from your fingers and intone your voice like James Earl Jones, most of the other existing maps features haven't changed. You can drop virtual pins in your map, create lists of favorite locations, search for local restaurants and points of interest, double-tap or pinch to zoom, and get directions specific for car, foot, or public transportation.

Also worth mentioning: the same map pops up again in the iPad's photos app, for users who have associated their photo albums with locations using Apple's iPhoto software (or perhaps another photo program capable of embedding location metadata).

There are a few map features, though, that you'll only get from the iPhone. For example, without phone capabilities, you can't locate a nearby business on the map and click on its number to place a call. You'll need an iPhone for that. Also, while the maps app does not yet support an augmented reality view using the iPhone's built-in camera, it's conceivable that it may in the near future. Apps such as Yelp are already harnessing the camera/GPS combination of the iPhone for a cool augmented reality view , that will surely roll out to more apps over time. Third-party manufacturers may come out with a snap-on camera for the iPad eventually, but for now, the iPad's augmented reality potential is nil.

 

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