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Contact search highlights Google Maps for iPhone update

Mapping is still a contentious issue for many iOS users, and Google looks to be taking advantage of that chink in Apple's armor to improve its own offering. A new update to the free Google Maps for iPhone, released on Tuesday, adds a couple of new capabilities, whittling away at iOS 6's last remaining competitive advantages.

When I reviewed Google Maps in December, I noted one key weakness that the app had compared to iOS's built-in map option:

That said, Google Maps does have at least one notable shortcoming in search: Unlike Apple's built-in Maps, it can't recognize your contacts. So if you start entering John Smith, Google Maps won't offer to find John Smith's address--rather, it will look for a John Smith Street.

Tuesday's update corrects that shortcoming, but of course does it in a typically Google fashion: The app doesn't access your iOS devices' built-in contacts, but rather pulls them from your Google account--which means that you must have a Google account and be logged in. That's a benefit for Google, and a bit of a poke in Apple's eye, though Google does point out in its blog post that it's not too difficult to sync your iOS devices contacts with your Google account.

Though in my tests, contact searching does work, I found that Google Maps did a poor job of prioritizing my contacts in the search results. Searching for our editorial director "Jason Snell" placed him several entries down on the list, despite my spelling out his entire name. It's possible Google will refine this over time, but it seems obvious that contacts should pop to the top of the list.

In addition to integrating contact search, Google's added a handy set of shortcuts for often used searches, saving you the time of laboriously typing the same entries. When you tap on the search field--but only, somewhat confusingly, when it's empty--a set of icons appears beneath it letting you quickly search for restaurants, coffee, bars, or gas stations in the vicinity of your current search. Tap the More icon and you'll get a handful of additional shortcuts, including post offices, hotels, grocery stores, pharmacies, movie theaters, malls, hospitals, ATMs, and attractions. That's a clever feature for the iPhone, where on-the-go users might not want to spend the time typing their search terms--not to mention it allows Google to more easily populate your results with its local search service.

Speaking of Google's predilection for integrating its services, I was somewhat surprised that the company's Google Search app still doesn't hook into Google Maps for iPhone--instead, tapping an address in the search app kicks you out to Google Maps in Safari. It seems like an obvious oversight in Google's burgeoning iOS ecosystem.

A couple other changes have made their way into this recent update, including the ability to set the distance units for the app to miles or kilometers (in addition to an automatic option that will decide for you, based on where you search). Google is also bringing the English version of the app to a number of Middle Eastern countries: Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE.

With the addition of contacts, the only remaining mark against Google Maps is that I wish there were a native version for the iPad--though the old leave-'em-wanting-more strategy may well work in Google's favor.

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