Google updated its Maps for Android software Wednesday, bringing a new feature for those who take public transportation, as well as some additional functions for everyone. Stop-by-stop Transit Navigation directions are now available for more than 400 cities around the globe. Search is improved; users gain faster access to directions; and photos now appear with Places (s goog). But I noticed one unannounced new Labs feature that could help consumers manage their mobile broadband usage: map downloads for offline use.
It’s possible the download area map function was part of the Labs experiment in a prior Maps version, but if so, I missed that news. And to be honest, it doesn’t matter to me when it arrived; it only matters that it has arrived. Why? Here in the U.S., the second of the big two network operators is dropping unlimited smartphone data plans and moving to a tiered business model. AT&T (s t) did this in June of last year, while Verizon Wireless (s vz) will be doing so July 7. Anyone on tiered data plans, especially heavy domestic travelers, can benefit from offline map downloads with the Labs feature.
After enabling it, I tested the Labs function on the Philadelphia area. It’s simple to use while online: After finding a place on the map, a quick tap of the “Download map area” option will download an 10 square mile map around the location. Downloading my test map over a standard 3G connection took just over a minute. Once I had the local area stored on my handset, I placed the phone in airplane mode to simulate an offline status. The locally downloaded area appeared as a black square in the map software and I was able to interact as normal by zooming in and panning around.
According to the Labs description, you won’t get anything more than a basic map with this option. That means no traffic data or satellite imagery, but all the street names will appear, as will major points of interest. While offline, this provides a usable way to navigate around the town without either a connection or a big paper map that never seems to fold up quite right. Again, this Labs feature may have slipped under my radar during a prior Maps release, but it’s good to see Google working on ways to make information available while offline: something it said in December it would be doing for Maps on Android smartphones.