Google Earth, Google Earth Plus review

17 Feb 2006

Stunning, astonishing and not much use - yet. There's little reason to pay for the Plus upgrade, but if you haven't already downloaded the free client, do it now


Google Earth has been making jaws drop for over a year, but now it's finally come out of beta - and it's better than ever. At its simplest, Google Earth can be thought of as just stitched-together satellite photos combined with Google's expertise at search technology. But it won't take long before you start to feel its true power.

The basic features of Google Earth are only a free download away. The client is about 11MB and needs to be installed locally; this isn't a web-browser-based application, at least not yet. The 3D features need a fairly modern graphics card, but nothing made within the last three years should have any problems. However, you'll need to choose either DirectX or OpenGL rendering; on our particular test system the OpenGL renderer was far more stable than DirectX.

Fire up the client and you're initially presented with a view of the planet from an altitude of around 4,000 miles, centred - unsurprisingly - on North America. You can soon fix that though, and this is where the amazing part starts. All you need to do is enter a UK postcode or place name - you don't necessarily even have to tell the client that it's in the UK - and hit Enter. Your view will immediately and smoothly fly across the world, zooming in and resolving more detail as it zooms, and end up hovering about 4,000ft above the postcode or place you entered.

It doesn't end there, though. In the more populated areas of the country, you can zoom in even further; the level of detail in some areas really is astonishing. As you zoom, the image data changes from satellite-based photography to aerial photographs taken from aircraft. If you're in a well-covered metropolitan region, the view is good enough to resolve individual cars, buses and even people - enter Buckingham Palace into the search box, for instance, and the crowds milling around the palace are clearly visible. If you're in a rural area, though, only satellite data is likely to be available, with a resolution often not exceeding three metres per pixel.

With Google being what it is - a data company - mere aerial photography is just the beginning. In a pane to the left of the interface is a list showing a raft of different layers of data you can overlay on top of the current view. Many are currently only of much use in US regions; our stateside cousins can enjoy 3D representations of buildings in 38 cities, but the feature isn't available anywhere else. Similarly, activating the 'terrain' layer in the US overlays terrain elevation data; tilting the 3D view then gives you a true 3D representation of the landscape instead of a geometrically perfect globe with a flat texture overlaid on top of it. Terrain data is available for the UK, but is limited.

In addition to the officially sanctioned Google-supplied data layers, you can also activate the Google Earth Community layers. The Community is the equivalent of a geographically linked web forum and works in concert with the client-side placemark feature. A placemark can be a single point with a text description, a web link or even an image overlaid on the standard Google Earth image data. Individual placemarks can be uploaded to the Google Earth Community by anyone, with some restrictions on length and content. Groups of themed placemarks can be uploaded too. As you might expect, the Community placemarks consist of an interesting hotch-potch of stuff, some useful, some less so. There's a complete set of marks for UK National Trust properties, for example.