Google Maps is already an essential traveller's tool, but two of the features in its new Labs experimental sectionare extremely handy for frequent road warriors and help reduce longstanding Google annoyances. Here's why Drag 'n' Zoom and What's Around Here belong in your arsenal.
Google rolled out the labs section on Maps late last week, matching similar options found in most of its other web apps. To enable Labs, click on the beaker icon near the top right when on the maps site.
Some of the options within the new Labs section seem pretty pointless to me (such as restoring the word 'beta' to the interface, or altering the orientation of your maps). Others (like the geography quiz and the new aerial imagery) are amusing ways to kill time, but don't actually serve a directly useful purpose. However, two of the new Labs additions — Drag 'n' Zoom and What's Around Here — substantially improve the Maps interface, and are definitely worth switching on.
Drag 'n' Zoom does pretty much what the name suggests. Click on the drag and zoom button under the zoom slider, and you can quickly select an area for Google to zoom in on. This is a rather more precise method than clicking somewhere on the zoom bar and hoping you'll get the right level of resolution.
I also find this useful because it solves one of my more frequent Google complaints: randomly changing zoom levels when you use the 'search nearby' option to find a store/restaurant/laundromat/supermarket near where you're staying. Google invariably changes the zoom level to fit in what it deems a reasonable number of results, which is of absolutely no use if you're looking for stuff within walking distance. Drag 'n' Zoom doesn't mean this annoyance goes away, but it does make it much easier to focus in on the results near your original search location and get on with the task at hand, as the main picture shows.
What's Around Here lets you see everything that's been labelled on Google Maps within your area by performing a wildcard search (using a * symbol and nothing else) in the 'Search nearby' dialogue. That's handy for seeing what's in your neighbourhood, especially if the interface is dominated by not-necessarily-relevant paid placements on the map. Not all the labels will be accurate, of course, but it's a useful way to find out what's within the region and suggest topics for further research.
None of this means Google Maps can be absolutely relied on, of course; it often doesn't know about business closures, occasionally places hotels quite some distance from their locations, and has no real idea where footpaths are anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, I'm hoping these two features soon become standard issue for Maps in general, and not just a specialised option.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman uses Google Maps constantly but still has no sense of direction. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.