In Google's expanding empire there is no place on Earth left to hide. Not satisfied with tracking the world through its search engine, Google has now taken to the skies and even into space. Google Earth is one of the latest in Google's long line of auxiliary products, and also one of the most fun.
- Very easy to use, high quality images
- Only works whilst connected to the internet, lacks some coverage and features for Australia
A well made product that’s fun and costs nothing – what could be better?
Downloading and installing Google Earth is easy; once that's done opening the program reveals a view of the Earth from space, the whole globe photographed from satellites. From here the user can spin the Earth round whichever way they like, zooming in to cities and panning across continents. Navigation is very intuitive; dragging the mouse cursor rotates the globe whilst the scroll wheel provides the zoom functionality. Flicking across the world and being able to zoom from the Statue of Liberty to Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and then to your own house is highly entertaining. Google Earth even renders the world's terrain in 3D, meaning that the viewing angle can be adjusted to give a lifelike impression of what it would actually look like to be standing at each location. This works especially well for rocky areas such as the Snowy Mountains or the Grand Canyon. Some (American) cities also have 3D buildings, though this feature is pretty much useless. The buildings are only shown in a monotone grey, making the cities look like a giant metropolis constructed of children's toy blocks.
The amount of detail shown varies wildly, depending on where Google obtained its imagery. Most well populated areas are covered in high detail; if you want to find somewhere in Sydney you'll likely be able to zoom right into your back garden, but if you live in Wagga Wagga you may have more of a problem. In fact, depending on which side of Wagga Wagga you live, you may get the impression you live in a radioactive wasteland. This is the key problem with Google Earth at the moment. Its satellite imagery can be highly inconsistent, providing some areas with crystal clear photographs while making others appear as a garish green haze. Things will improve as Google obtains access to higher quality images, but for some it will always remain frustrating.
Similarly, other aspects of Google Earth are not available to all. One nice feature is the ability to plot directions. Unlike other route-planning software, Google Earth can plot your path directly on to a photograph, making sometimes complicated directions slightly easier. However, this feature still needs some work though to make it as good a commercial product. The biggest problem is that no roads are actually plotted for Australia - you can only use this feature in the USA, Canada and the UK. This also makes searching for Australian locations somewhat tricky. Though Bondi may be clearly labelled on the screen, using Google Earth's place finder draws a blank. Another feature that is missing from Australia is the ability to show ATMs, restaurants and other useful tourist information on screen and we can only hope that Google will address this soon.
One of the best things about Google Earth is its cost - nothing. If you want to use GPS devices with Google Earth you'll need to upgrade to the Plus edition for the moderate charge of $20 (US). For everyone else though, this is a fun product to download and have a play with, even if it's only for a few minutes.
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