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Google unveils a new version of its popular Maps app

The new version of the Google Maps app is pictured on a Nexus 4 smartphone in an illustration released by Google.

Handout/The Canadian Press

Google is unveiling a new version of its popular Maps app, available now for Android phones and tablets and "coming soon" to iPhones and iPads. It'll be the first time iPad users get a dedicated Google Maps app.

The app's design has been significantly streamlined to declutter the screen and get rid of a series of menus that confused some users, said Daniel Graf, senior product manager of Google Maps.

"It was interesting," Graf said diplomatically in describing how he assessed the previous interface, which had become bloated and overly complicated after years of incremental updates.

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"You know what it was, it was seven years of [development], it started very simple and you add one option after another and that's how you end up [with a cluttered interface]," he said.

"And now we just basically started over from scratch."

Some iPhone users have already tried the new interface, which was released to that device a few months ago. But they will still want to download the update to access some new features.

For navigation, the app can now automatically reroute around accidents, traffic jams and other issues that suddenly emerge.

Users can also save map data to their device for use without a data connection, which is particularly handy while travelling.

Typing "ok maps" in the search bar will save the map area on the device's screen to be used later. Saving offline maps was already available to Android users but is new to the iPhone.

Another new feature Google is hyping – but not yet available for Canadian cities – is called Explore, which encourages users to find new places to discover in their area.

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"Now we want to help people make choices [if they're thinking] 'I don't really know where I'm going tonight,'" said Graf.

A slick interface helps users browse through categories of nearby restaurants and bars, stores and hotels. Embedded within the app is review data from Zagat and other users to help narrow down a decision.

While the new interface without all the familiar menus may be a little difficult to navigate at first, Graf said the app uses pop-up prompts to get users acclimated to the changes.

"The first time you use it it actually tells you, 'Hey, you can swipe down here to see the different results,'" he said.

"We actually see more and more apps going [down] that path that once you know [the interface] it's super simple, but if you don't know you're screwed. So it's very important that you educate the user. And I'm leaning towards [implementing] these simple user interfaces and educating the user [rather] than [using] menu options, I totally believe in that."

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