Google Earth 5 full review

If you’ve ever wanted to be Superman - soaring above our globe, diving deep in the ocean, or launching into outer space - Google Earth 5 can grant your wish. In exchange, you’ll have to put up with a few bugs, an inelegant interface, and a controversial update system. Still, the delight of a superhero’s-eye view of Earth is almost too much fun to pass up.

Up, up, and away

Google Earth applies satellite imagery and topographical data to a 3-D globe. In some major cities, you’ll even see fully textured 3-D buildings and landmarks. You can enhance these maps with a smorgasbord of relevant data, including photographs, Wikipedia entries, and YouTube videos. (Google Earth downloads data on the fly, so the graphics occasionally stuttered as I traveled the globe, even on a speedy aluminum MacBook.)

Learning the program’s basics is easy, but for anything more complex, you’ll need to brave Google’s sprawling online user guide.

Bored with Earth? Google Sky offers a map of the heavens packed with Hubble Space Telescope imagery, and Google Mars lets you explore the Red Planet.

The latter feature is particularly fun; you can follow the paths of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, or converse with a Martian chatbot near the famous “Face on Mars.” All these features are available in Google Earth’s free regular version.

For $400, around £275, you can upgrade to Google Earth Pro, which I didn’t review. According to Google’s Web site, the Pro version includes faster performance, the ability to make movies of your virtual travels, support for GIS (geographical information system) and GPS data, and higher-resolution image printing, among other features.

Newly arrived on Earth

The major features that are new in the latest version of Google Earth include ocean views, historical imagery, and tours. The Ocean layer lets you dive beneath the water to explore the ocean floor, and adds various nautical layers, including shipwreck sites and YouTube videos from National Geographic, the BBC, and Jacques Cousteau.

The videos are entertaining, but the ocean floor looks surprisingly boring and flat. Searching for subsea sites is hit or miss, too. I typed in “Titanic” and was whisked to landlocked Titanic, Oklahoma. (Google says it was unable to add many well-known underwater locations in time for the initial launch, but will work to include them in future updates.)

Historical imagery lets you slide back and forth on a timeline of available aerial and satellite photography. Older images can be impressive, but for now, they’re often scarce. I rarely found photos more than a decade old, and many of those were understandably less detailed than the latest images.

Tours let you share journeys with other Google Earth users, either by automatically following a predetermined route, or recording what you see as you zip around in real time. You can add audio, text, and images to explain different landmarks. Tours worked fine for me, except for audio.

Google Earth consistently cut off the first few seconds of sound after I hit the record button; according to Google, the program needs a few seconds to load audio drivers before it can actually begin capturing sound.

NEXT: You get what you pay for

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