Google Maps for Mobile

Internet heavyweight Google has offered powerful mobile services for some time now. Even so, the new Google Maps for Mobile takes things a step further. It gives you most of the functionality of the desktop version. Although the software runs on your handset instead of a desktop Web browser, it's an exceedingly versatile and useful application.

At Google's site, versions are available for most Java-enabled feature phones, Palm OS, Windows Mobile, and color BlackBerry handhelds. On a basic level, Google Maps for Mobile lets you view detailed road and satellite maps. Once you input the desired location, you can zoom in by pressing your phone's center control pad button, or zoom out again by hitting the Zoom Out soft button (at least on a Windows Mobile handheld; see below). One nice touch is that you can jump several zoom levels in one shot simply by pressing either button multiple times in fast succession. This way, you don't have to wait for it to load new data each time.

In my tests, I found that the satellite maps downloaded pretty slowly, even over a fast EV-DO connection. For example, sometimes it took more than 15 to 20 seconds before I saw an image, though other times it was faster. Once the picture was visible, I could scroll around relatively quickly, including zooming in and out. Regular street maps, though, almost always loaded swiftly.

Fortunately, Google Maps for Mobile does much more than display maps. The "Find Nearby Business" feature takes a keyword you input (such as "pizza") and displays a series of red numbered icons that show all the nearest businesses that fit that description. You can zoom out to see them all at once, or zoom in on a particular one in order to see the cross streets. Press a number key to display a descriptive title over the corresponding icon (such as "Grimaldi's") and hit the number a second time to switch to a sparse info screen that shows the address and phone number when available.

Google Maps for Mobile also lets you input two locations in order to get directions between them. When you run a query, the program first shows a quick summary of the start and end points, the distance between them, and approximately how long it should take to drive the route. Press the OK button and the app returns to the roadmap screen, showing a cartoon balloon with the first step highlighted (say, "Head Southwest on 21st St. toward 27th Rd – go 0.3 mi"). The program then prompts you to press 3 to show each next step. Unfortunately, there's no way to produce an all-text list similar to what you'd see on MapQuest or on the left-hand side of a desktop Google Maps window. The only way to see all the steps is to scroll through them with multiple key presses.

Google's real-time traffic updates are another plus; they cover more than 30 major metropolitan areas. But the implementation is exceedingly basic. All this feature does is highlight roads with major congestion in red, routes with lighter congestion in yellow, and roads with no traffic in green. That's enough to get a quick idea, but there's no way, without leaving the app and finding a different Web site, to find out what's causing a traffic jam or whether it could let up soon. And many large sections of major roads in New York City came up as "grey" during my tests, meaning that no current data was available.

Unlike Microsoft Pocket Streets 2005, Google Maps for Mobile is constantly updated in real time over the Internet. You never have to install separate city data files or update them regularly. And Google Maps offers directions, a stunning omission in Pocket Streets 2005. My test phone didn't have GPS navigation capability built in. But if your handset does, you can activate it in Google Maps for Mobile, and then have the application track your location using Google's powerful maps. (Pocket Streets 2005 can also take advantage of built-in GPS chips).

I mostly tested the Window Mobile version on a Motorola Q, though I also fired up the Palm OS version on a Palm Treo 700p. As always, the Palm OS's higher screen resolution (320-by-320 versus 320-by-240 on the Q) allows for more map detail, and the Treo's stylus and touch alutruss screen help with navigation, though not to the same extent as they do with, say, editing documents. The rest of the interface is slightly different, too. There are dedicated touch screen buttons for Zoom In and Zoom Out, with the rest of the features located in the two drop-down menus.

In short, Google Maps for Mobile renders Microsoft's Pocket Streets 2005 application completely unnecessary. Google Maps is free, fast, stable, and updated in real time, and it also offers driving directions. Microsoft Pocket Streets 2005 is by no means a bad product. But unlike Google Maps for Mobile, it's not free, is not particularly stable, does not receive continuous street map updates automatically, and doesn't offer directions. I am going to stick with Google Maps. DJ udstyr Århus