By allowing you to fly around the planet and craft your own virtual worlds, Google Earth 4 beta stands apart from other mapping tools.
Google Earth 4 beta is free, and it now offers Mac Plus and Pro versions as well as editions for Linux users and speakers of French, German, Italian, and Spanish. You'll need 400MB of free space on your Windows 2000, XP, or Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later computer. But to import GPS data and addresses from CSV files and to access e-mail support, you'll have to pay $20 for Google Earth Plus.
Once installation is complete, Google Earth 4 beta looks generally the same as its predecessor, with a broad map screen in the center right and a left-hand tabbed menu of options. Tools now line the top of the map screen, and layers are organized within a left-hand drop-down box. The Fly To, Find Businesses, and Directions tabs are more intuitive for searching than similar functions within the online Google Maps.
New to this edition of Google Earth are onscreen navigation enhancements that fade on and off as you move the mouse away from them, allowing you to spin around at a site, move in any direction, including diagonally, and tilt topographical views so that you can see the terrain, for example, as you climb the crest of a hill. And we like that Google Earth allows you to play back an animated tour of your mapped points and routes, so you can rest your hands and feast your eyes. However, sometimes we became dizzy getting the hang of the controls, especially when we couldn't stop Google from spinning or zipping between locations.
Some of Google Earth 4 beta's imagery, drawn from photos shot from satellites and airplanes, looks clearer than in the last version. By comparison, MSN Virtual Earth seems even slower and less vivid than it did upon its initial release last year. Google has updated its pictures and says that Google Earth allows one-third of the planet's inhabitants to spy a high-resolution image of their own home. Cities now look more realistic, as Google has colored in buildings with textures to reflect brick, glass, and metal. The Options dialog box now lets you fine-tune views, such as choosing from three levels to exaggerate the displayed elevation. This takes some tinkering to achieve the desired effect, as the third level can distort buildings significantly.
You can flesh out such views further by dropping your own 3D models--whether photorealistic or cartoonlike--from SketchUp or 3DWarehouse into Google Earth. An architect, for example, could draft a model of a project within SketchUp, then load it into Google Earth to show clients a preview of the finished site. Overlays allow you to blanket a chosen area with the data of your choice. This could be helpful for showing, say, weather patterns around a camping site or changes to a construction site over a period of time. We dropped Google's sample model of the Transamerica Building into Google Earth's San Francisco within a minute. Then, just for kicks, we grabbed a model of a giant PC monitor from Google's 3DWarehouse site and opened it on a rooftop in Boulder, Colorado, within a matter of seconds. However, we found it tricky to figure out how to add and place our own SketchUp drawings into exact locations within Google Earth.
Google Earth is currently ad-free, although we expect to see commercial uses cropping up in the future. If you run a company, you can add a business listing to Google Earth at no charge. Members of any profession that deals with geography, whether it's selling real estate or managing ecological resources, could rely on Google Earth's unique abilities to map locations and display models of developments in progress.
Google Earth offers thorough Web-based support, including a getting-started guide and a searchable knowledge base. While limited technical help is normal for a free download, we find that Google does a better job organizing its instructions than other makers of online apps do. That said, Google's directions weren't newbie-friendly when it came to integrating images and SketchUp models. For example, we'd appreciate better explanations of the options to Open, Import, or Add content as well as a clearer walk-through of the difference between vector data, images, and KMZ content. Only the paid Plus version allows you to contact the company via e-mail.
Google Earth is the most innovative and powerful free desktop mapping tool available. While Yahoo Maps beta earned our Editors' Choice nod for online mapping and directions, Google Earth provides more functions than a Web-based tool can. We like that this beta version of Google Earth 4 not only shows off 3D views of the globe, but also lets you tell your own story and design your own environments, whether for personal or professional gain. How people choose to use such capabilities remains to be seen.