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How many of us has wondered what our house would look like from space? What the area from above actually looks like to impending invasion? How much easier would it be to plan a route that we intend to travel if we could actually see what the route looks like? Well, thanks to the seemingly endless innovative talents of the guys at google, we now can.
Enter GoogleEarth. After Google took bought over a little known application called Keyhole in late 2004, they set to work googleizing it, adding more and more data, and have now released it as a free downloadable application that anyone with a half decent graphics card and a broadband connection can enjoy. Basically, GoogleEarth works as a collection of images taken from satellites all collated together so that anyone with the aforementioned technology can literally zoom into any part of the world they want to. The main thing that this joining of technology means for the masses is that the excellent technology developed for keyhole, can now be used in tandem with the (now legendary) searching capability of google.
Still currently released as a beta program (not fully tested so they get the general public to test it for them) the program can be downloaded from http://earth.google.com. I have only so far downloaded the free version however you can opt for the plus version at $20 (giving you GPRS and apparently better printing options) or Pro version at $400 (cited as being for commercial use). The download itself is 400 MB and there are some technical specs that they advise you have. It will only run on Windows 2000/XP or Mac OS X for starters, it requires minimum processor speed of 600 MHz, a minimum RAM of 128 MB, screen resolution of 1024x768 (32 bit colour) and an internet connection speed of 128 Kbps. Luckily, if that is double dutch to you, they give a guide that if your computer is more than 4yrs old, it is very unlikely to work, and if its about 2yrs old, it MAY work. Also, if you are on dail-up, forget it as you are just not going to be able to cope with the imaging at all. If you are on the threshold of these specs, then it is likely that the program will run a bit slower than if you were way over them. My desktop has 1500MB of RAM however my laptop only has 512MB, and I did notice the difference. And if you are running other programs, this is likely to slow things down further. So my advice here would be to make sure that if you are planning on touring the globe with it on a low spec machine, don't have your browser open at the same time.
So, now that the technical junk is out
Pictures of Google Earth
The starting point
of the way, its time to fly. And I mean this literally. Once you have installed the program and opened it, you are faced with a neat interface with a picture of the Earth as we know it in front of you. So where do you start with the world at your fingertips?! If you are in the UK, then the best thing I would suggest is typing on your postcode in the search box at the top left and see what happens. After you have hit the return key (or search if you are an ingrained mouse user) the program will kick into life. It will likely start over the US (as most things do these days!) and they gradually the earth will spin round to show the UK, at the same time zooming in on the area that the postcode is located. Now, even on the fastest internet connection (I'm on 8MEG) the image WILL look a bit blurry when it first stops on the postcode you selected. At this point, there is a small bit of streaming info at the bottom of the image view that will tell you how much of the download is completed. For me, it takes about 10 to 20 seconds to catch up, so if you have a slower connection it will take a bit longer. This is where the first downside of the beta program may come into play. When I first started using the program in the summer of 04, my home city of Glasgow was not mapped very well. What this means is that google had not bought up to date images of my city that gave a clear resolution of where I lived. This has since been rectified and when I put my postcode in the market actually shows directly above my bathroom window however some areas of the UK are still not as clear as they will eventually be. This is because Google have to actually buy the digital images from space from companies who have taken them and they are updating all the time as they continue to buy them. However, this may take a while as they do have the whole world to cover!
So, your home is not quite clear yet, so is it worth it? Well yes. At the moment from want I can see, most of the major urban areas of the UK have been updated to an impressive standard so zooming about just for the fun if it, is in fact, fun. Using your mouse's middle scroller (can't say I know how this will work on the MAC version), you basically scroll down to zoom in, and then scroll up to zoom out. You can also hit the left button and drag to move the screen about. The best I can liken the action to is a PDF document where you can scroll up and down with the mouse. Also, you can type in place names in the search box and it will take you there.
One hint here though, is that sometimes you are best searching for something with the map over the general area that you know it to be. This is because the search facility seems to search the immediate area for anything similar before going to what may be the most obvious location.
A pretty neat feature of the program that can be turned on or off when you are zooming around is the 'terrain' layer. What this means is that you can actually have a 3D image of certain terrains (maps permitting of course) that you can see. Coupled with the tilt function (where you can tilt the angle of the image) this means you really can get the feel for the location you are looking at. The best images for this that I have seen are the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam.
But is that it? Hell no! The application is integrated with an awful lot of very useful things. On the left hand side of the image, is a box that has a plethora of different tick boxes in it. These tick boxes have things such as hotels, pubs, banks/ATM's, schools, roads, churches, you name it, it's likely there. These are called 'layers' and are as they sound. You can have as many layers on as you like, or as few. The main advantage to this is that if you were going to a different place, and you wanted to know (for example) where all the banks were in the area, all you would do is to put that layer on and zoom into where you are going, and there would be markers showing exactly where the banks are located. Another option you can do is to just put that in the search box. For example, type in London and Banks, and it takes you to London and shows you place marks of different banks around about the Hyde Park area.
Want to know the directions from one pace to another? Well all you need to do is to type them both into the search box and type 'to' in between. This will then show you the way to go to get from where you are to where you want to go. This uses the road feature which actually shows the name of every street, road and motorway using the proper name or number (eg M4 etc). In the left panel, it will show you each step and if you double click on the step, it will take you to it. Then when you double click on the next one, it will zoom out and follow the course and actually show you what the route looks like to get to that step. Beats AA route finder hands down!
The application itself gives you various other options that you can use. Like most programs, if you hit F11 on your keyboard, it will give you the full screen view without all the toolbars and options so your entire monitor can be taken up with the different place you zoom about to. If you want to bookmark a certain place, all you do it hit the right mouse mountain and it gives you the option to do so in the context menu. On the free version, the printing option is not that great and if I have wanted to save an image, I have found that the best thing to do is to hit the print screen button in the full screen mode and then paste it into Paint and save it that way. However, you can save it as a Kmz file (the file name for a google earth application) in a specific folder that when you open, will direct google earth directly to that point.
As with any program, there is major help and support for it. The help pages provided by google are very comprehensive however you will rarely find any need to use them if I am being honest. As with most Google programs, this is very easy to use and pretty self explanatory. And finding out the best bits of it are actually more fun if you just fly over the earth and search for things you want to see.
A very useful site to visit in conjunction with the program however is www.googleearthhacks.com. On this site (which is unofficial) you can find help with almost any problems you will come across but the best bit, is that it has a forum there where people post the Kmz files that they have found. In here I have found files that show pictures of World War 2 bombers flying overhead a city, Google's headquarters in California, basecamp for Mount Everest, and many, many more. When you click on the file in the post, it will automatically instruct googleearth to fly to that point to show you the weird and whacky anomalies or sites that can be found worldwide.
Ok. I have gone on a bit here to be fair, however this program is one of the most engaging and interesting online tools I have used, so my enthusiasm for it can easily be forgiven. In my opinion, this is very much the future for so many different uses. I have even managed to find an RSS feed to install into it that gives me live news feed from an area (ie when I zoom in somewhere, if something newsworthy is going on, it will tell me with a marker). The possibilities are endless and its no surprise that Microsoft are currently scrambling to release their version as soon as they possible can.
So to conclude, I just cannot give this less than 5 stars. Yes, some areas are not quite as good a resolution as others but that just doesn't stop you getting lost in it for hours. If you have the proper specifications on your PC, then I urge to have a look at this program and see exactly what it has to offer.
(p.s - there is no sound but I had to put that in the options)
The fact that its free is excellent value for money lol
nuts_79 13.01.2007 20:17
Earth is a quality piece of FREE software. There are so many uses for this on a home front and commercial front. Hence BA and SKY news using it. Also some awesome websites that you can use, i found one that displays all the int'l flights in a 3D view, all within five minutes of real time location!! Great review!! Will
craigwstewart 10.09.2006 18:42
Great review! I posted a review on Google Earth recently and basically your review blew mine out the water but I am learning all the time.