Google Earth Goes Into the Past, Underwater--And Deep Into Your Computer's System
Earlier this month, Google released a beta-test release of the newest version of Google Earth. Google Earth 5.0, a free download for Windows 2000, XP or Vista, Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5, and most versions of Linux, adds some fascinating new perspectives on this planet--and one other--but I'm not going to rush to install it.
(Remember when I said I'd have a review of this program by last week? I lied.)
Unlike earlier releases, this treasure chest of 3-D cartography doesn't just show what's on the ground today. It includes a collection of overhead views from earlier years and lets you view the majority of the Earth's surface covered by its oceans.
The historical imagery is likely to be the biggest time-suck. To see what a place looked like before, click the clock icon in Google Earth's toolbar, then move a slider back to earlier years. For example, you can see that in 1949, there was only one 14th Street Bridge going over the Potomac (although a second span was under construction). The Las Vegas of 1950, meanwhile, is a barren, lifeless desert.
But this historical record also has numerous gaps at the moment. For instance, that 1949 aerial photography only covers a minority of the District, plus a slice of Arlington; the next most recent shot dates back only to 1988. In other cites, even fewer views of the past are available; the oldest overhead photo of Chicago dates to 1988, and in Paris, you can't go back farther than 2002. I won't be surprised, however, to see Google build out this catalog in the coming months.
Google Earth's underwater views are less practical--anybody planning a vacation to the Mariana Trench?--but can still be fun to poke around.
Google Earth 5.0 also lets you take a side trip to Mars. I'm not sure the 3D views there fully express the scale of such landmarks as Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system, but maybe it's just the lack of any familiar objects to put that mountain into perspective.
But getting at all this geographic goodness demands a somewhat invasive software installation. In Windows Vista and Mac OS X, Google's installer loads a software-update tool that runs in the background. That application doesn't seem to take up much memory in either operating system, but it's also unnecessary. Google Earth could check for updates on its own each time it runs, as many other programs do.
(On a PC, you can argue that many people have multiple Google applications running--say, Google Desktop and Picasa--and would benefit from a centralized update system. That's unlikely to be the case on a Mac, where Google Earth is often the only Google program in sight; writing a separate updater utility seems a waste of time for the Mountain View, Calif., company's developers.)
The Windows installer also prompts you to add Google's Chrome browser, but you can easily decline that.
I generally try to keep my computers as simple as possible, and not installing programs that I don't need is a big part of that. Google Earth 5 isn't the first Google application to silently add this update agent on computers--see this January story from Ars Technica for more details--but at some point you have stop and ask "do we have to keep doing business this way?"
What will you do? Does the addition of this extra snippet of background software make the foreground program, Google Earth itself, unappealing?
February 13, 2009; 12:58 PM ET
Categories: Productivity , The Web
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