Formerly known as Live Search Maps, Windows Live Local, MSN Virtual Earth, and Windows Live Maps, Bing Maps is Microsoft’s web mapping service. It came to be after Google Maps was released and, given all its features and apps, was primarily intended to serve as a competing or alternative mapping service. Sure, it took some time for the service to catch up, but it did manage to get itself close to its Google counterpart and is now neck and neck with it in most reviews, especially with respect to location coverage and satellite imagery – two of the most important features of any mapping system.

The difference between Bing and Google’s maps is probably just a few features. Bing, however, does have a few features that make distinct from Google Maps.

Getting directions. Bing Maps is great at letting you figure out how to find your way to any location. In fact, it can even offer you multiple routes involving different spots. The directions are clearly mapped out in a blue line that contrasts the rest of the map and is accompanied with turn by turn details found on the left panel of the screen. There is a map marker that you can use to modify the direction that was originally set out.

In addition to the general road route, Bing Maps will also give you three different routes using different modes of transport, namely walking, transit, and driving. This feature is available and particularly useful in many cities across the North America, including but not limited to Washington, D.C., Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York (Metro), Newark (Metro), Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston.

Want to find the best route? Chances are, the transit route is what offers the means of getting to your destination as fast as possible. This is because the route will have you avoid toll points and bottlenecks that are normally encountered by those who travel by car. Meanwhile, Microsoft uses Clear Flow technology, which uses real-time traffic to assess road activity for about 72 cities in the United States. The information comes in the form of traffic patterns as well as a suggested route to take to reach your destination quickly. The flow of traffic will be indicated as slow or fast using a color gradation. The app will mark trouble spots as well.

One really interesting feature is the fact that you can use the app to access local traffic cameras. This allows you to get a visual feed of the actual traffic conditions for an area.

Ways to View Street Maps

Road view – This is the default map view and shows roads, buildings, and the rest of the geographical features in vector. It mainly uses data that’s licensed by Navteq, but it also uses data from other providers in some parts of the world. A map of London, for instance, will be based on data from the Collins Bartholomew London Street Map, while data from Ordnance Survey will be used to depict roads in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Aerial view – This mode gives satellite imagery and overlays it with highlights that mark roads and major landmarks, making them easy to spot. As of November 2010, OpenStreetMap mappers have been allowed to use the imagery in Bing Aerial as its backdrop. Just don’t be surprised if some of these landmarks are blurred – this has been done upon the request of certain governments.

Bird’s-eye view – This one gives you imagery from a low altitude over a given area. Think of it as the perspective of a low-flying aircraft. Due to the oblique 45-degree angles from which the images are taken, this view offers better depth perception of the geography that’s being shown as opposed to the aerial view. Bird’s-eye view will allow you to see signs, pedestrians, billboards, and even the windows of buildings. This view, however, is available only for selected areas.

Streetside – This view takes the user to the streets with the help of 360-degree imagery taken from cameras that were mounted on moving vehicles. The data has been gathered from metro areas of different parts of the United States and some selected parts of the world. Through this view, users can see the selected area from a pedestrian’s point of view and, in some cases, even navigate through the streets.

Venue maps – This mode gives users a way to see the layout of a given venue. Bing currently has this feature set for more than 5,300 venues around the world. These are usually places of interest to many travelers, such as airports, convention centers, malls, museums, shopping centers, shopping districts, universities, zoos, and more. It’s like the streetside view, only more focused on the inside of certain establishments.

3D maps – Bing’s 3D maps feature lets users look at the environment in 3D mode. This gives them the ability to rotate, tilt, pan, and zoom, allowing them to take a good look at a certain point of interest on the map. This near-photorealism is a product of aerial photography. In order to use this feature, users must install a special plugin. Over 60 cities all over the world can be seen in 3D mode, most of which are in the United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom.

Note: Keep in mind that Bing Maps isn’t just limited to its own features. The app is also compatible with a wide selection of first and third-party applications that contribute to its overall utility. Some apps, for example, allow users to find a parking spot while there are those that help calculate or approximate the taxi fare for a given trip. Other apps offer a different kind of functionality, such as letting them see their Facebook friends on the map or being able to view the front pages of the newspapers of a given location.

Bing Maps has pretty much proven itself to a viable alternative among map services. It now all boils down to whether you prefer it over its Google counterpart.