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4 Top Tips for Navigating Google Maps

David Pogue
Tech Critic
Yahoo Tech

I’ll come right out and say it: Google Maps is one of the greatest mobile apps ever written.

It’s the first app I recommend to new iPhone or Android phone owners. This app’s intelligence isn’t infallible, but it’s so much better than rivals, like Apple Maps. They’re not even in the same hemisphere.

The latest redesign of Google Maps, though, threw me for a loop. Frankly, I stumbled every time I tried to use it. I mean, it has a bunch of cryptic unlabeled icons, and there’s no Help to help.

Quick — what do these buttons do?

To make things more confusing to the first-timer, options you need (like the X button to stop navigating, or the choice of routes) can sometimes disappear, and there’s no hint on how to get them back.

The designers’ challenge, of course, was to pack an absurd number of features (and a massive amount of data) onto a small screen, without presenting you with an ocean of clutter.

So today, I offer you a crash course in Google Maps app — a guide to navigating the navigation app.

Tip 1: It’s a galactic Yellow Pages.

You probably think that Google Maps is primarily a GPS navigation thing. And, yes, it does that extraordinarily well.

But Google Maps is also plugged in to Google’s ridiculously huge database of knowledge about the world — businesses, restaurants, shops, roads, and so on. Once you realize how much it knows, you’ll use it more often as a kind of global Yellow Pages.

For example, it incorporates the Zagat’s restaurant-recommendation guide and all those terabytes of photos taken by Google’s Street View vans that have been cruising cities worldwide for 10 years.

So you should use Google Maps like a phone book: Whenever you need some company’s phone number, Web site, hours of operation, or address. It’s faster than using the Web, faster than Siri, faster than asking someone across the room.

For example, you can use it to look up places you need urgently, like “24-hour pharmacy” or “Indian Restaurant.” Type that into the Search box, or tap the microphone and then say it. You’re instantly shown a list of matches nearby:

Tap a listing to open its information card, where you’ll find the distance, the hours of operation, the Web site, the reviews. In many cases, you even look around inside the place, scrolling the photograph with your finger so you can “turn your head” and “walk toward the restroom.” It’s as though a Google Street View car had plowed through the front wall of the restaurant and kept right on taking pictures.

Maybe the most useful item here is the Call button. You can call some restaurant, shop, business, drugstore in a matter of seconds: say its name, tap its white panel, then tap Call. Your phone places the call while your buddy, trying to do the same thing by searching the Web, is still firing up the browser.

You’ll never even know or care what the phone number is.

Tip 2: Google Maps knows the neighborhood.

When you’re in a new city, before you type anything into the Search box, tap the white strip at the bottom, where it says something like “Explore this area” or “Explore Fisherman’s Wharf” or whatever.

Boom: It lists places within walking distance that are open right now. Restaurants, theaters, stuff to do. You can use the pop-up menu at the top to specify whether these places are within driving distance or walking distance.

Yes, you could ask your hotel’s concierge for similar recommendations — but isn’t it less awkward to keep your head buried in a screen?

Tip 3: When you need directions, tap the blue buttons.

There are many apps that require you to enter addresses. Other mapping apps. Uber. Lyft. Shipping-company apps.

But no app has ever been as freakishly good at knowing what address you want as Google Maps.

This app seems to know what address you intend. Its intuition seems to come from a combination of what addresses it knows to be nearby, searches you’ve performed before (even on your computer), places you’ve been, and, for all I know, the creepy dossier that Google has gathered on you over the years.

If you’re in San Francisco, for example, you can type tra to find the Transamerica Pyramid Building.

Or suppose you want a street address. This happened to me: The address I wanted was 747 Howard Street. You want to know how much I had to type? Two digits. I typed 74, and there it was.

Anyway.

Here’s another tip people miss: Instead of typing in an address, you can just hold your finger down on any spot on the map. The app drops a red pushpin, shows you the address, and shows the blue car icon, exactly as though you’d typed in the address.

This is the part where a lot of you get confused. How do you start the turn-by-turn GPS directions?

So here’s the big tip: When you need driving directions, tap the blue stuff. Here, look:

In this example, you first tap the blue car. Then, on the next screen, you tap the blue START NAVIGATION. And you’re on your way!

Now, before you tap START NAVIGATION, you have some options. If you’re not driving, Google Maps can also help you walk there, bike there, or take public transportation there — it actually knows the schedules of all the bus and train lines. (Note, on the “On foot” page, that Google Maps can even tell you how far away the closest Uber car is, should you decide to summon a ride.)

You can scroll down to see alternative driving routes. But honestly, the first one listed is always the quickest, since Google already knows how bad traffic is on each route. (Ever notice how the roads are color-coded? It was only a couple of years ago that dashboard-GPS companies charged you $80 a year for exactly this kind of information.)

While you’re driving, don’t miss a further demonstration of Maps’s cartographic mastery: It not only tells you when to turn, it tells you in advance which lane to get in. Amazing.

You can turn off the voice, if you want, by tapping the lower-right button (shown at top) and then hitting Mute:

Alternatively, you can turn off the screen, and rely on only the voice to tell you when to turn. (She’s smart enough to say the street names — not just “Turn right,” but “Turn right on Weybridge Road.”) That method saves a lot of battery and lets you keep your eyes on the road.

Tip 4: Play with the map.

Once you’re driving, Google Maps usually orients the map with your driving direction at the top, and not North. If you prefer North to be upward, tap this little compass thing:

You can also rotate the map with two fingers on the phone’s screen. Once again, the compass button will put North back at the top; tapping RESUME will put your direction upward.

You can drag the green road instructions leftward to see what turns Google plans to have you take next:

Hit RESUME to get back to where you were.

Once you’ve resumed, you can tap the white strip on the bottom (or drag it upward) to see a list of upcoming turns. Tap anywhere to hide the list.

To zoom in, spread two fingers on the glass; to zoom out, pinch with two fingers.

Or use this little-known, faster method: Double-tap/drag. That is, with one finger, tap the screen twice, but leave your finger down on the second tap — and drag up or down the screen to zoom in or out quickly.

Hit RESUME to get back to where you were. (Yes, there’s a pattern here.)

As for all those cryptic icons, here’s a cheat sheet:

And the X button stops the navigation. It’s confusing, because the X button disappears if you’ve scrolled the map. Just hit RESUME to make the X reappear.

Navigating Mapping Apps

In 2013, Google bought rival mapping company Waze for (to Google) pocket change: $1.3 billion. 

Waze is also an astonishing app. It lets drivers on the road with you warn you, in real time, about accidents, speed traps, construction, and so on.

Lots of people swear by Waze, but Waze’s best features have already been folded into Google Maps. For example, if a faster route becomes available while you’re driving, both apps invite you to change routes. And Waze drivers’ reports of accidents and construction are used in Google Maps.

I like Waze, but I’m sticking with Google Maps. It saves me — and all of us — an incredible amount of time (by knowing ahead of time when there are traffic jams, and guiding us around them) and money (by letting us research shops and restaurants so we don’t wander into a turkey). It’s even good for the planet: It cuts down on pollution(by saving millions of people from wandering around, lost.

All you have to do is figure out its personality and where its controls are hiding. Get outside, fire it up. And obey.