Google Earth upped the cartographic ante again today with Google Earth 5 for Windows and Mac. As CNET News reported back in April 2008, the latest version incorporates even more data from NASA, the BBC, National Geographic, and other proprietary sources to create one of the most unique map offerings ever, meshing comprehensive real-time data on Earth's surface with information on the oceans, the stars that we see, historical maps, and topographical information on Mars.
Conceptually, the oceanic maps are great. It is beyond cool to be able to see ocean-related points of interest like shipwrecks, and have cross-referenced content like undersea explorations. The interface remains flexible in the new version, too. Hot keys CTRL+ALT+B and CTRL+ALT+T toggle the sidebar and toolbar, respectively, making it simple to maximize screen real estate. Meanwhile, Google's use of scientific content from multiple oceanographic concerns makes this one of the few places that the public can access such an incredible range of facts, figures, and true stories of the sea from one place.
However, it shouldn't surprise many that the execution of the new features leaves much to be desired.
Searching in Google Earth is still atrocious. Even when you have Oceans activated, typing in "Titanic" into the search field will get you nowhere. If you adjust the term to "Titanic shipwreck," your results seem to depend on your most recently searched locations. After looking at San Francisco, searching for "Titanic shipwreck" showed me a list of shops and restaurants that had "Titanic" in the name. After closing and re-starting Google Earth, and searching for "Titanic shipwreck" again, the globe panned over to the correct part of the North Atlantic but did not zoom in.
For Google to fail so hard with its search algorithms is like Ford failing to stay on top of developing car tech.
Even once I found what I was looking for, Google Earth was not always free from failure. There is a feature with which you can click on a white and blue circle icon to learn more about the part of the ocean you're exploring. Sometimes this results in a picture, a bit of text, and links to more content online. Other times I was rewarded with a blue puzzle-piece icon. Clicking on this missing plug-in icon resulted in nothing--no jump to download the plug-in, not even a message telling me what the plug-in is called.
These mistakes are more than frustrating; they're the kind of basic problems that an outfit like Google should have nailed down by now. Despite these problems, though, the oceanic maps are pretty cool.
Sticking with Earth for a moment, Google Earth 5 also introduces historical maps. Accessible from the clock icon on the toolbar, they're neat to peruse but aren't useful for in-depth data mining. The time-lapse imagery of recent decades in specific urban areas, like documenting the growth of Las Vegas, is fun but somewhat counter-intuitive to the real-world relationship that Google Earth attempts to perpetuate.
Many of the older black and white maps awkwardly overlay the colorful ground beneath them, too. Having access to the images is better than not at all, but I'd like to see future versions of Google Earth improve on the historic map display and rendering.
Thanks to information supplied by NASA and other fact-based sources such as A Traveler's Guide to Mars--not to be confused with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy--the Mars map is surprisingly rich with information. From the well-known Olympus Mons to the recent discoveries that indicate the presence of water on the Red Planet, Google Earth's Mars maps are an entertaining, educational delight.
Compiling all this information into one easily navigable place is no small feat, but there is definitely room for improvement. The Mars maps suffer from the same search flaws that plague their earthly siblings, and rendering is often sluggish.
You should find that the OpenGL engine is faster than the DirectX version, but if not, you can switch from the second start-up icon loaded in your Start menu. Why you're not able to change this setting from the Options menu is yet another simple fix that would improve the Google Earth experience. Some of the problems that plague Google Earth are long-standing. Let's hope they get addressed before it reaches version 6.0.
Click here for more stories, and images, on Google Earth 5.0.