Google Maps for iOS review: The king of maps keeps getting better

After finding a location, an expanded info sheet at the bottom of your iPhone screen (just under the name on an iPad) gives you the hours for restaurants and a phone number if you need to make a reservation. In the latest version, you can also make a reservation online through the app, by touching a button and then confirming (at restaurants that support the feature). And though it's not immediately obvious, you can swipe horizontally among results on your iPhone without going back to the map to see more locations that fit your search term. If you sign in with your Google account, you can save searches so you have them handy for later. You also can see Google reviews or Zagat reviews if it's a restaurant. Unlike on Apple Maps, we're perfectly comfortable not having to interact with Yelp.

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When you get directions to a location, you can switch to turn-by-turn directions with voice and get the over-the-shoulder 3D view. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

One of the biggest features in the Google Maps for iOS is turn-by-turn directions with voice. When you search for an address, the app displays several routes in a list before you set off. But it also has a "route options" button near the top that lets you choose to avoid highways or avoid roads and bridges that require a toll. Once you select your route, Google Maps shows it on the map with the estimated time it will take to get there.

To start turn-by-turn directions with voice, simply hit the Start arrow in the lower right to get a 3D view of your route. As you drive or walk, you will be given audio directions for when you should make every turn. In our early testing, the app didn't miss a turn, and was capable of rerouting if I went off course. In other words, the experience is the same as you'd get from Google Maps on a computer.

The app also keeps getting better at giving you mapped directions to your destination. Google Maps will find live traffic data notifying you of accidents on your route and offer new route options as traffic conditions change. You'll get incident reports as you travel and an automatic reroute option to keep you out of a congested area.

Urban dwellers will appreciate the integrated transit and walking directions in Google's mapping app. The experience is the same as what you had before, which is to say, accurate and easy to use.

The app still doesn't integrate with your handset's contacts list as Apple Maps does, but it does let you access contacts saved in Google. Simply sign in to your account and you'll be able to search for a friend's name. Google Maps will recognize the contact information (if you've entered it), and give you directions to that person's house.

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Touch the Explore Nearby button to see hot locations based on the time of your search. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Explore your surroundings

Google Maps is adept at helping you find a place to eat, thanks to an integration with Google-owned Zagat. Restaurant cards give you star ratings, restaurant reviews and more information about locations to help you pick. You also can look at related features by Zagat, to find the best restaurants in a particular neighborhood or the best burger joints in the whole city, when available.

If you're looking beyond restaurants for things to do, places to shop or general points of interest, get acquainted with the Explore section of the app. Whether you're on an iPhone or iPad, touching the empty search field brings up an Explore Nearby button. Tap it to see categories such as Bakeries, Ice Cream or Parks that Google lists depending on the time of day (these results came from an afternoon search).

Depending on what you're looking for, you can use Explore to see suggestions for food, activities, hotels and interesting locations for that time during the day in your current area. You also have the option to switch the results by touching the "Afternoon" button at the top and using a scroll wheel to find different times of the day. Each of the categories is smartly laid out to help you get exactly what you want. After the time-related search results, for example, you can look at lists of local favorites and popular attractions, all with starred reviews if you want to read what people are saying.

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Read through user reviews for a location powered by Zagat. Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Big features added in 3.0

In addition to driving, walking, biking and public transportation directions, version 3.0, released in May, includes the option to summon an Uber private car from the app. You need to have the Uber app installed, and if you do, you'll see the option to open the app and immediately hire a car to take you where you want to go.

Version 3.0 also added offline maps, which allows you to download a small portion of Google's map of the entire world so that you can use it without a connection. There's a limit on the size of the map you can save, and the app will let you know if you're zoomed out too far -- you can save a map of a large city, but not much more than that. The map stays on your device for 30 days before disappearing to save space.

Conclusion

If you haven't downloaded the Google Maps app yet (and, seriously, why haven't you?), do so now. Even if you don't think you'll use it that much, download it and let it sit on your iOS device. It's free, after all, and you never know when you might need it. All the new features in recent versions only add to the experience, with smarter rerouting based on traffic, expanded Zagat info and the Explore feature that comes in handy whether you're traveling or just want to find a quality establishment in your hometown.

Overall, we think this is mapping done correctly. It's accurate, chock-full of information and easy to use. At this point, it beats any competing offerings by a mile (pun intended), and it's our go-to choice for navigation on iOS. So, have you downloaded it yet?

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