We were pretty thrilled with Google Maps and Google Local for Mobile when we first reviewed it, calling it a big, interactive ball of fun. Now, the folks at Google have added even more functionality to this mobile app by integrating traffic information. The new features are currently limited to 30 U.S. major metropolitan cities, and some other restrictions still apply (only Java-enabled handsets are supported), but we can't deny the coolness and utility of getting driving directions and interactive maps on a cell phone. Google Maps for Mobile is free to download, but you will need a data plan from your service provider (see below).
Google Maps for Mobile can be downloaded to most Java-enabled cell phones, but there's a catch and it's a major one. It works only with mobiles offered by Cingular and Sprint and color BlackBerry devices; if you're a T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless (or BREW-enabled handsets), or Nextel customer, too bad--no Google Maps for you. And Palm Treo owners? Sorry, you're out of luck, too. The encouraging news is that Google says it's working to make the service available to more handsets, so don't give up hope. You can check for your phone's compatibility here. Also, while Google Maps for Mobile is free to download, be aware that you'll need a data plan from your service provider for the airtime used to retrieve maps, traffic information, and so forth. You can purchase plans wherein you pay by the kilobyte, but we recommend you get an unlimited data plan as the charges can add up fast.
For our tests, we downloaded the app to the RIM BlackBerry 8700c by visiting www.google.com/gmm on the mobile's Web browser, and setup was fast and painless. We entered our location, and Google Maps returned with a rendering of the area. It's important to note that Google Maps is not based on GPS technology. You can zoom in and out as well as pan around the map using the phone's keypad. For the most part, the redraw rate was acceptable in our tests, although there were occasions where it took several minutes for the maps to reload. You can also bring up a satellite view, which is always cool.
Driving directions are offered step by step, and you're presented with the total distance and estimated travel time. However, viewing these instructions on a tiny cell phone screen while driving probably isn't the safest, so if you have a passenger in the car, it'd be best to pass the handset to him or her. Also, we found that we didn't always agree with the directions given by Google Maps. There were times where we knew there was a more direct route to our destination, but, hey, if you don't know where you're going, Google Maps for Mobile can definitely be a lifesaver. You can search for local businesses by entering specific names or generic terms, such as Chinese restaurant, and Google Maps will pinpoint locations with those lovely balloons. Even better, you get the phone numbers of the establishments so that you can dial directly from your mobile; perfect if you want to make an impromptu dinner reservation. We tried out several terms, such as ice cream, Italian restaurant, and gym, and found the results to be current and accurate. We also like that Google Maps saves recently entered addresses and searches; alternatively, you can set frequently visited locations as part of your Favorites list.
Google Maps for Mobile currently offers traffic information in 30 major U.S. metropolitan cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, and partial coverage in other locations. Google doesn't provide a list of available cities, which would have been nice; instead, you can check out the interactive demo to go to your home city, select Show Traffic, and either you'll get the traffic data or you'll get this message: "Traffic info is not available in this area." According to Google, the level of coverage for traffic updates is determined by the quality and amount of traffic data available in each market, but it's looking to expand into more areas in the future.
If you live in a supported city, the service is pretty handy. You get information only about major highways, not surface streets, but heavily congested areas are outlined in red, while slow areas are marked in yellow, and clear roadways are noted in green. In addition, there's a Traffic Delay feature that gives you an estimated time of delay. We tried out the service in San Francisco, and in general, we found the data to be pretty accurate, although Google Maps identified some high-traffic sections as yellow or green, when we thought they should have been red.
Overall, Google Maps for Mobile is straightforward to install and use, so you shouldn't have too many problems. There were times where questions arose (for example, is traffic information available for surface streets?), but as with most free software products, support options are somewhat limited. Still, the FAQ section, the interactive tour, and the discussion forum do an adequate job of addressing most issues.