Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Google Earth

When I found out that "Google Earth" was released, I was pretty psyched to launch right into it. I was expecting a hefty download (like the 184MB required for WorldWind), but instead I discovered a compact 10MB download which was done in minutes. Once downloaded, installation was a breeze. Here are a few general comments about the program.

I. The Interface

As comparied to WorldWind, Google Earth's interface is much cleaner and less murky. Everything you need is basically in front of you. When you first open the program, you are greeted with a nice, deliberately slow animation of the earth zooming in. This is representative of our 21st century need for speed combined with our willingness to sacrifice speed for eye candy.

The controls are half intuitive. If you left click and drag the mouse, the map will pan in whatever direction you want. If you hold the right click button and drag the mouse up or down, the map will zoom in and out. Unfortunately, I think it would have been better if the map tilted when you held down the right click button. The only reason I say this is because Google programmed the mouse's scroll wheel to also zoom in and out. Granted some people don't have scroll wheels, but this seems kind of repetitive.

You can use the buttons on the bottom of the window to control the navigation, though unfortunately they are not well marked or easily distinguishable. On the bottom of the screen, you'll see the directional controls flanked on both sides by two sliders. I still can't remember which is which. One is for zooming in and out (again) and the other is to tilt the map. There are buttons for rotating the map in each direction as well as buttons to reset the position of the map. Why do we need most of these controls at the bottom of the screen when they are either repetitive or a waste of space?

Google Earth comes with a standard set of options--as compared to WorldWind which came with next to nothing--for tweaking the viewing experience. This includes one very important thing: the ability to change the size and type of fonts that are displayed. This solves a big problem found in WorldWind where the text was too small or just downright illegible. More on the text later . . .

II. The Earth is a Ping-Pong Ball

As soon as you use the zoom feature or pan the map in any direction, you'll start to notice that the map is extremely sensitive and jumpy. If you use the scroll wheel, the map will zoom very fast. If you want to move over to the other side of the country, you can zoom out and pan the earth over a few thousand miles, but Google's touchy controls make it feel as if the earth is completely weightless. As soon as you let go of the mouse button, the earth abruptly stops moving. While this is technically more "precise," it's very jarring to the eye. This abruptness does not fit with the rest of Google Earth, which is filled with beautiful text and effects fading in and out constantly. If we compare Google Earth to WorldWind, the earth in WorldWind has a more urgent sense of weight and movement.

Google Earth does allow you to change the speed of the zoom setting, which is mildly helpful. I'm not zooming out into orbit anymore, but it still stops abruptly. How about a little motion momentum?

III. Reminds me of Karachi!

There is such a thing as too many options. There, I've said it. Google's interface gets too crowded too fast. On the one hand, there is a list of checkboxes on the left that you can check off to reduce the amount of information displayed. On the other hand, there is no "check all" or "uncheck all" feature nor is there any way to shift-click or cntrl-click multiple items at once. This forces me to sit there clicking through forty things before I can see the map.

While it looks cool at first to see how much detail and infromation is actually included, it gets tiring very quickly since it impedes ease of use. Here's a tip, don't ever turn on the "webcam" feature, which displays live webcams of a particular location. They litter the map with entries and clog everything up.

IV. Features and Integration

I'm not going to go into much depth with this since a list of these features is easy to find at http://earth.google.com/tour/. Google Earth is well integrated with Google Maps, a fantastic web-based service for finding directions. It completely blows away mapquest or mapblaster. The only thing is, if all you want to do is get some quick directions, opening up Google Earth is a waste of time since you should just use the web-based service at http://maps.google.com.

Unlike WorldWind, Google Earth lets you easily search by inputting an address or a landmark or a cross street. This is invaluable. There are, however, some quirks. The program won't recognize "San Jose Airport, CA" but will recognize "San Jose Airport." The one drawback with Google Earth is that the resolution on the images is not as high as certain WorldWind images. This is because Google has kept certain images for professionals only. It makes sense, but I would sure like to see my neighborhood with more clarity.

Another feature that seemed exciting at first was the "fly by tour" of your directions. This is basically a waste of time. Some decent features include the ability to find business reviews, see 38 cities in 3D, save your search results for later use.

Google Earth can be run in OpenGL or DirectX. Depending on your graphics card, one might be heavily preferred over the other. However, the program seems to randomly black out images every once in awhile. This is very frustrating, especially when you're trying to figure out directions.

V. Conclusions

Google Earth is definitely a must-install map program, though i'm not sure if its a must use. Google has a ways to go before Google Earth really strikes it big. It is a bit cluttered and repititive and they need to work out their controls and display issues.

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