Google Maps in Ireland - A Test Drive

Can the Free Mapping System be used on a Vacation?

Google will even guide you to Muff ... in County Donegal
Screenshot from Google Maps

Google Maps ... you will have heard about it before - Internet giant Google is offering a map system for free, called (you guessed it) Google Maps. While free maps are ten a penny on the web, Google takes an all-inclusive, state-of-the-art approach. Meaning that you can get basic maps, satellite images of a mixture of both. Great fun - but a useful tool for the tourist? I took Google Maps for a test drive in Ireland.

What is Google Maps?

Amongst the dozens of tools available on Google, Google Maps combines the origins of Google as a search engine with cutting-edge technology - you put in a (geographical) search term and get a satellite image and map of it.

Plus related information from the Google empire, most of it geared towards revenue generation. In short: expect ads.

Search terms can be specific or general - and the search engine's behavior annoying at times. I put in Glendalough, and was immediately whisked to Australia. Intelligent search is not a feature, though Google tries to predict your main interest via your IP address (if it is an Irish one, expect more Irish results). Lesson One remains: always specify at least the country, better the county! The more specific your search term, the better Google's result.

Now Google Maps is a rather "holistic" tool. You can choose to display a schematic map only. Great for quick reference. Or you might choose to opt for a satellite picture with a map overlay - my personal opinion on the last feature constantly oscillating between "great" and "annoying". The map overlay also shows just how basic these maps can be, especially in rural areas ... the satellite images showing quite a few unmarked roads. And sometimes the map overlay is a few hundred feet off the image layer.

Which, however, will only be relevant when you are steering a Predator drone on final approach. For the normal driver, "take the first left" usually stays the same.

You may also zoom in and out - the search engine will initially choose the display size it deems most suitable for your search term. But take note that not all satellite images come at the highest resolution. Our own house is a pixel blob, the farm a few hundred metres away far clearer. But it is a free tool after all.

Using Google Maps

It is as easy as A-B-C ... you put in your search term, refine your search (if your search term was ambiguous), zoom in. The actual handling of the maps is very intuitive, mastered within seconds.

The drawback - you need a computer of average power and modernity. Old clunkers can't handle the data in real time. But most laptops, tablets, and smartphones handle this well. And, more important, you need a fairly good connection to the web. The latter of these especially can make the use of Google Maps in the field virtually impossible for the traveler. Or will cause such costs (by data transfer via a mobile phone connection) as to make alternatives viable from the outset, despite the service being free.

Google Maps is absolutely great in the planning stage at home, or in a hotel room, especially combined with Streetview. Or after the holiday to re-track and re-live your experiences. 

Google Maps Compared to Conventional Travel Planning Tools

In general, I would rate Google Maps amongst the most clever online tools available - to be used in addition to conventional planning tools like guidebooks or websites. While the satellite images are great, the information contained at times can be sparse, and also subject to a distorted perspective (see below).

The mapping section is, how shall I say ... computer-friendly. It contains necessary detail like road names, but there it stops. Additional information from height indicators to hints at features is often simply not there. In this aspect, any large-scale map purchased from Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) wins hands-down.

The Pitfalls of Google Maps

Here are some things I noticed in daily use:

  • Uneven Coverage Quality
    • While Dublin City is seen in good, detailed satellite images, some deep, confusing shadows in the city centre prevent it from being great. Glendalough is superb, but Clonmacnoise almost invisible and Tara simply drowning in fuzziness. Take note that Google Maps occasionally zooms in beyond sense, leading to dramatic losses in picture quality.
  • Unusual Viewpoint Flattens Detail
    • The Spire of Dublin in O'Connell Street is Dublin's highest landmark, yet it cannot be seen. Only its shadow gives it away. The reason: you look straight down upon it ... great for scanning a building layout, if it actually has a major horizontal dimension. The Cliffs of Moher and Slieve League look decidedly unimpressive from space.
  • Dangerous Sense of Security
    • Always remember - Google Maps distorts! The Grand Canyon looks like a manageable indention from straight above, and on a two-dimensional screen. Never, ever plan a cross-country hike without consulting a detailed map first. I recently discovered a basic map that mentioned the viewing point on the Cliffs of Magho on (Lower Lough Erne) being "a short walk" from a jetty. Apparently, nobody had noticed that while the horizontal distance was indeed only 500 yards, the vertical distance is around a thousand feet ...
  • The "Face on Mars"-Effect
    • Remember all the hubbub about the sphinx-like face on Mars? It was a trick of light, shadow, and unusual perspective. Beware of interpreting the satellite images in a rush - I showed Dublin City to a friend who remarked she never knew Dublin had so many canals. Actually, these were the deep shadows of tall buildings on wide streets, indistinguishable from the real canals and the Liffey. Beware of wild goose chases ...

The greatest peril of Google Maps may, however, be to the amount of time you have available for other things - it is seriously addictive and you will start looking up your grandma's house, famous places all around the world, Area 51 and other stuff.

A Final Verdict

Google Maps is a great tool and it has grown into the go-to thing on the web. It is a fun tool to play around with or to do some research. Though a good map will give you more geographical detail, it will not show you which houses have rooftop gardens - practically useless information, but who knows when it will come in handy?

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