Google Earth, first impressions

By Nicholas Rougeux, posted on June 28, 2005 in Web

Google Earth has just been released and after playing with it for a few hours, there is plenty to go over.

It looks like the partnership with Keyhole has paid off for both parties as it has resulted in a pretty nice product. There are several versions available, free, Plus, Pro, and Enterprise with a variety of capabilities in each including GPS tracking, and the ability to draw 3D objects. I only have the free version as I don't quite have the finances to splurge on the more advanced packages just for testing. I'd love to give them a shot at some point though. Maybe someone else out there will review those versions.

The most obvious feature is the animation. I'll admit, I had fun flying around to various parts of the world. I'm on an older computer running this so it was a little slow but I'm sure it will be faster once I test it on my main one. To get a dose of the cool stuff right away, try going to one of the six default sightseeing locations provided in the "Places" section. Double-click on one and off you go. One of the best is the Grand Canyon if you have "Terrain" turned on at the bottom. You can also enable it in the "Layers" section along with many other features. Of course, it's supposed to be nicely done since it's default location but other places are just as nice. As you zoom in on the canyon, you might notice that it continuously updates the detail of the terrain to include all the littl nooks and crannies.

A behavior that I don't like is during the animation. When you've performed a search and are flying to the desctination or watching a play-by-play of directions from A to B (nice fun feature), you can't switch between applications very easily. In fact, you have to wait until the animation finishes completely before you can switch to anything else. I'm not too happy about this as I don't often devote all of my attention to a single program at a time. Now, this may be due to the age of the computer on which I'm testing this, but I don't think so. Hopefully this will be fixed in later versions. I'm curious about others' experiences with this aspect.

Another feature I'd like to see improved is how it updates the photos. Satellite photos only appear to be downloaded when you're not moving around on the map which means as your viewing animations, you frequently are flying around blurry areas.

The interface doesn't take very long to get used to and most of it is self-explanatory. I like that I can rotate and tilt the views and that coupled with the terrain in some areas helps understand the landscape more. In usual Google fashion, different sections are marked with different colors but it looks a bit like a beginner's Photoshop playground in some areas. That aqua Apple look is pretty much everywhere. While I like it as much as the next person, knockoffs aren't usually that great. I think if they took a little more time designing it, they could have done a better job. It's still usable though.

One of the features I wished for when I wrote about Virtual Earth was the ability to overlay street maps onto the satellite photos and it along with many, many other options are availble now. Microsoft's Virtual Earth might be at an advantage though considering they'll be offering that in the online version which means you don't have to install anything to get it. Hopefully, Google will get around to offering that soon. Among the options is everything from cloud coverage and golf courses to volcanos and retail stores. The text can be a tad hard to read in some areas like large cities when there are many dining areas and you have them all labeled but it's still pretty much readable. Go ahead and turn on the dining layer over New York City. It can get pretty crazy and somewhat mezmerizing!

The printable view doesn't seem to be working at the time of this writing so I can't review how that works. I'm sure it'll be working soon enough though.

Like Virtual Earth, Google Earth gives you the ability to create what they call "placemarks" or essentially bookmarks for the world and it saves the searches you do so you can toggle them on or off or view multiples simultaneously.

Miscellaneous things of note

(Updated as I find more…)

  • Amusingly enough, I did spot a spelling error in one of the examples on the "Fly to" section. As I was browsing around Washington DC, the example said, "1600 Pennsylvanis Ave, 20006." It's a minor thing but one I wanted to mention just because.
  • When creating a placemark and adjusting the Icon Rectangle width and height in the Advanced section, increasing these two properties shows that the A, B, C, etc. images used for placemarkers aren't individual images but one large of all of them. Looks like it's using the same effect as Dave Shea described in his CSS Sprites: Image Slicing's Kiss of Death article at A List Apart.
  • Zooming out all the way allows you to see stars. Look closely, and you'll see some constellations.
  • You can measure in Smoots

Google Earth wishlist

  • Different zooming controls like one main slider so I can see the level I'm at similar to the one on Google Maps
  • A slider for terrain relief instead of setting a numeric value
  • Cleaner interface (keep the aqua look if you must but make it look more professional); clean up the dialog boxes and menus by using users' native OS menus
  • Give users ability to clear search at any time
  • Create a help system that doesn't rely on Flash
  • Record movies from tours?
  • Visual and numerical representation of the angle I'm viewing
  • Images on buildings (far-fetched, I know but hey, it's a wishlist)
  • Angles on buildings such as tapered roofs
  • Wireframe view
  • Simple map view (without satellite photos like on Google Maps…I'm surprised this wasn't included by default)
  • Opacity sliders for all views/layers (wireframe, satellite, simple map), not just when overlaying your own images
  • Ability to paste Google Maps links into Google Earth to go to locations (easily)

Overall, it's definitely a fun app and nicely built. The controls are nice and intuitive and they keyboard controls are a nice touch. and I'm sure others will write far better reviews than this on it but I wanted to get my voice out there on the matter. Download it and try it out. Let me know what you think.

Update: It appears that they have now stopped offering downloads and new users. Apparently, they only opened a small window to develop a larger user base for testing purposes (it is in beta after all like all their other products). I'm sure they'll open it up again at some point.

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