Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Google Maps update adds downloaded maps for offline use, public transport navigation, and new bugs
Offline use of Google Maps used to be limited to a narrow strip around precalculated routes, but Google Maps finally learned that map browsing without a live internet connection is a useful thing. New in Google Maps 5.7: you can now choose map areas to download. Hit menu/more/labs/download map area, long-tap a spot on the map, and the surrounding area is stored on your memory card as a 15x15 mile block with the tapped spot in the middle.
Downloaded maps expire after 30 days, after which you'll have to redownload them if you want to keep 'em. A reason for the time bomb may be that the maps are spotted with landmarks like shops and banks and other businesses that advertise on Google. Of course you'll need the latest sponsors on your maps to keep the bean counters at Google happy.
You can't make the downloaded areas bigger, but you can download multiple 15x15 mile blocks. Unfortunately there seems to be a limit of ten blocks, so forget about loading your entire country on your memory card unless you live in Luxemburg or Andorra. But it's better than nothing, and maybe Google will lift the ten block maximum later on. If Google doesn't drop the limit I'm sure some smart hackers will find a way to bypass it.
Maps are stored as vector graphics so they take little storage space. A 15x15 mile area needs about 3 to 7 megabytes. That's a big advantage over competing free offline map apps like Locus which store maps in a bitmap format that eats gigabytes for breakfast:
- Amsterdam plus suburbs with Google Maps: 5 MB.
- Amsterdam with Locus: over a hundred megabytes, and that's without the closest zoom level and no suburbs either.
On the other hand, Locus lets you download maps from more sources than just Google.
Google Maps now also does public transport navigation. With only 400 cities covered worldwide it may not available where you live, but it's a promising start. Google calculates routes and transfers, gives a rough estimate of how long your trip will take, and it can vibrate to remind you that you've reached your destination or have to switch to the next train or bus. It needs to see GPS satellites for those reminder vibes, so it won't work in the subway. And don't forget to double-check the suggested routes to make sure that Google doesn't make you take the long way home.
Note that you can browse maps offline, but route calculations still need internet. Google still has some tricks to learn from the fully offline Nokia Maps.
Unfortunately the new update introduces some new bugs and other annoyances.
Google Maps loads the network location process as a background service that won't go away. Kill it and it instantly resurrects like a phoenix, even when you disable network location in the settings menu. Workaround: go to the Maps entry in the Android settings app and tap "force stop." Maybe Google will see the light and make the background service only run when needed in a future update? Yes, I know that previous versions had the same bad manners, so a fix is long overdue. Especially now, because...
...there's a bug that makes my phone run like a snail on tranquilizers or even freeze when I run Google Maps 5.7. The sluggishness persists even after I kill the maps app, so I'll blame the network location background service that refuses to go away (killing it by "force close" makes my phone run smooth again). Processor overload or memory leak? Whatever it is, Google needs to fix this. There are many others who reported the same issue in the Market comments. The bug bites different phones. It makes Google Maps 5.7 totally useless for me, so I had to go back to version 5.6.2.
This bug could bite you too, so don't update Google Maps (or any other app) until you made a backup of a version that works. Apps like Titanium and MyBackup can save the old version for you, so there you have another reason to root your phone if you didn't root it already.
While the coders at Google are busy ironing out the bugs maybe they can also repair the auto-update checkbox in the Android Market? If you allow the market to auto-update Google Maps you can't switch it off anymore (unless you use a third party trick like the market auto updates tool in Titanium). A fix is urgently required because force-feeding updates is totally wrong.
• Google Maps (Android Market)