Tue, 24 Mar 2009 Google Earth 5 review
A virtual planet at your fingertips
- Manufacturer: Google
- Pros: Beautiful satellite, astronomic, and topographical imagery; numerous fun bells and whistles; excellent value.
- Cons: Cluttered interface; overwhelming amount of content; slightly buggy.
- Min specs: Mac 10.4 (Tiger), 10.5 (Leopard), Universal.
- Price: Free
- Star rating:
You get what you pay for
Google Earth 5 is a lot of fun, and the price—free—is definitely right. But it’s often so eager to be useful that it can be unusable. With so many data layers, it’s hard to decide where to begin. You can switch individual layers on and off, but it’s sometimes hard to tell from layer names alone whether they will be useful or interesting.
The interface felt cramped on a 13-inch laptop screen, squeezing Fly To, Places, and Layers panes into a sidebar to the left of the main window. It took a lot of scrolling to see each pane’s entire contents; expanding one pane only made the others smaller.
Limited topographical data makes Google Earth’s underwater views—like this, supposedly the Mariana Trench - less than impressive.
The program also has a surprising number of bugs. Descriptions in the Places window sometimes illegibly displayed text atop other text. When I created a new placemark, Google Earth wouldn’t save location names more than one word long unless I also added a description.
Google says it’s aware of both issues and working on fixes, though programmers couldn’t consistently replicate the latter problem. In addition, when I attempted to share a placemark with other users, I was taken to a bare-bones Web page saying that feature had been temporarily disabled. According to Google, it’s upgrading the Web site tied to this feature and will restore service soon.
Historical imagery lets you travel back in time to see some areas as they appeared years or decades past.
Privacy buffs may also object to Google’s Update Engine, which installs with Google Earth and can’t be deactivated or removed on its own. The Mac version checks for updates once every day, rather than when Google Earth is opened. It also invisibly activates every two hours to see if a day has passed since its last check, whether Google Earth is running or not.
Google Earth lets you know about the updater before you install, but if you’re not wild about an invisible program under your computer’s hood talking to Google every day, you might prefer some way to turn it off. Google says it’s heard users’ concerns about the updater, and it’s working on a better solution.
[Nathan Alderman is a writer and copy editor at approximately 38 degrees north latitude, 77 degrees west longitude.]