Editors' note: This review was updated on May 15, 2013, with the announcements of new features that are coming to the app this summer.
Like an old friend returning home from a long trip, Google Maps is back on iOS. It's familiar, it's comfortable, a bit surprising, and instantly satisfying. And it's the best navigation app available on the device.
Absolutely, it runs circles around the much-lampooned Apple Maps. Yet, it's also vastly improved over not only the Google Maps we had back in iOS 5, but also the version accessible through the iOS browser. The complete interface redesign adds a new twist, and turn-by-turn directions with voice, Street View, more points of interest in the POI database, and Google's mapping accuracy sweeten the pot. Oh, and don't forget the cherry on top: transit directions.
Our major gripe is that there is no dedicated iPad app as there is for Google Maps on Android. You can use the app on Apple's tablet, but you have to resort to the smaller size or use pixel doubling to expand it to the iPad's full size.
After downloading the free app from the App Store, you can sign in before going any further (it's not required). Don't be fazed by this extra step, as there's a good reason for it. Once you sign in, you'll see any previous searches plus integration and saved favorite places. See this related guide on getting started with Google Maps for more details.
The interface is clean, simple, and exceedingly easy to navigate. There's a field at the top for searches for locations or addresses, the main map window is front and center as you would expect, and a tab in the lower right slides out so you can choose layers. The layers section pops in from the right to let you toggle traffic, public transit, and satellite views, and it offers a link to the Google Earth app for 3D views and other features (more on that in a minute). And once you tap on an address or location, you can jump right to Street View without leaving the app. It takes a couple of tries to figure out how to get there (click on the related photo), but you'll remember after you do it the first time.
Indeed, losing Street View was a big deal when Google Maps went away in iOS 6. But now it's back and an even better experience, showing up at the bottom of the interface when you perform a search. In Street View you get the same experience you find on the Web, with 360-degree views at street level, letting you swipe your screen to rotate the camera. But there's also a button in the lower right to switch to a view that lets you move your iPhone around, using the accelerometer to look at your surroundings as though you were looking through a window. You also can use the familiar arrows on the ground to move up and down the street.
No, Google Maps doesn't provide the same "flyover" feature that Apple Maps brings -- there's a quasi-3D view in standard map mode, though not all buildings will render as they really are -- but that's not a big loss. Yes, flyover mode is pretty and fun to use when you're bored, but how useful is it really? We'll gladly take Street View in exchange, since that feature delivers a pedestrian-only perspective that can be very practical. Heck, using Street View, you can actually walk inside some businesses and snoop around. Depending on your comfort level, that's either cool or creepy, but it's something that you can't get anywhere else.
Besides, if you really want a flyover equivalent, you always can switch over to the aforementioned Google Earth. Though that requires an extra step, the option is there and like we said before, we doubt many people use flyover for navigation or location search. You'll need to download the Google Earth app, of course, but it's also free from the App Store.
Navigation takes full advantage of the iPhone's multitouch features. You can pinch and zoom, rotate the maps by spinning fingers across the display, scroll with one finger, and tip the map up and down by sliding two fingers vertically across the display. Double-tap to zoom in and out and use a single tap to get information about a specific point on the map.
Rounding out the interface is the location tool in the lower-left corner. It's shaped like an arrow (similar to Apple Maps) with your location denoted by a blue dot (also similar to Apple Maps, but less luminous). To the right of the search bar are icons for getting directions (we'll expand on that feature in the next section) and for adding your home and work addresses and seeing your Maps search history. There's also a setting for sending feedback to Google on any map problems just by shaking your phone. Below the Search bar is the familiar compass for finding your direction or locking the map to point north.
Immediately after Apple Maps landed, customers and critics complained loudly (and rightly) of inaccurate location search and a lack of map data regarding points of interest. Fortunately, Google does search better than most everyone, and Google Maps for iOS is no exception. You can search for addresses as you would expect, but also landmarks, local restaurants, businesses, and common search terms like "pizza." Google's database is more extensive and generally much more accurate than Apple's offering. It had some misses -- for instance a search for "burgers" around the CNET offices missed some obvious results -- but we felt more confident about the results.