Google Maps continues to crank out the updates; the default map view has been updated with new shading detail to convey terrain information, along with color gradations to depict vegetation and labels for natural land formations.
The amount of terrain detail shown varies depending on which part of the world you’re looking at and how far you’ve zoomed in, but for the Americas and Europe major geographic features are now shaded and labeled.
“This enriched visual data allows you to quickly and easily see where the great forests, deserts, and mountain ranges around the world begin and end,” writes Karl Johann Schmidt, Google Maps Software Engineer, on the company’s Google Maps blog. “It also conveys how natural land formations can impact where, how and why man-made developments like urban cities, dams and bridges are made.”
I’m not sure how many people (aside from us map nerds) browse Google Maps to study how and why cities and other developments came to be where they are, but there is another side effect — the basemap now looks more interesting. The slight shading for textures and the green of forests break up what was previously just vast expanses of white. And in my testing on the desktop, mobile and Android Maps app the new visual overlays did not make Google Maps noticeably slower.
The new terrain features in the basemap aren’t anywhere near as detailed as the terrain overlays that can be added from the Google Maps menu widget, but they do add more information to the default map, which is likely the only map most users ever see.