As mentioned in my previous post, Google recently announced a new version of Google Earth for Android. This version (188.8.131.525) is a complete re-write of the underlying Google Earth 3D model, and now has access to unified mapping data used by Google Maps and this new version of Google Earth. This means the most current available mapping data can now be viewed in this version of Google Earth (Google Earth version 7 on all the other platforms is based on less current data). Version 8 also adds some enhanced 3D rendering and improves some aspects of KML support. These things are good news for what they portend for future releases on the other platforms. So, although this release is not everything we hoped for (see below), we are happy to see this new version released.
We can understand why Google would want to start development of Google Earth version 8 on Android first. The mobile version of Google Earth has far fewer features than the desktop versions, making it easier to develop a smaller set of features. None of the power features that allow you to create your own maps on the desktop version are available on the mobile version. Similarly, the more powerful KML features such as time animations, network links, GPS tracks, and many others are not yet supported on the mobile platform. This is true on the new version 8 release as well. Not only that, but this new release is missing a few important features from the previous release on mobile. It seems Google rushed this new release out as there are a number of bugs.
This review will show screenshots of the previous mobile version next to the new release. Version 7 will be on the left, and version 8 on the right in most cases. My two devices used for testing (a Samsung Galaxy S4 for version 7, and a Nexus 7 for version 8) have different aspect ratios, so they will look somewhat different.
The new version 8 includes a stronger rendering effect for the atmosphere similar to the one on the desktop version of Google Earth introduced several versions ago. While this gives a more realistic effect in some ways, Google needs to add an option to turn it off. The reason is that you can’t view data clearly, especially while viewing more horizontally. Also, the colors of the imagery are subdued because of the atmospheric effect and they look dull and “grey”. I see the atmosphere effects as a “gee whiz” effect that distracts from the important map data. In real life, the atmosphere gets clearer or more hazy depending on weather. Lets give the user that option. See screenshot comparison of version 7 (left), version 8 (right).
New 3D model of Earth
Since Google Earth was first released, the rendering of the geometric model of the Earth had a flaw when viewing the poles. It was particularly bad when Google Earth was first released, but Google made some improvements in later versions. Google Earth’s developers told me years ago they hoped to someday re-write the model so you could view the poles. The new version 8 does address this and the renderings are free of visual anomalies. But, there is still some weirdness to how you zoom in and view the poles with the current interface. You can’t zoom straight down to the poles, you have to tilt your view and zoom towards them to see them. But, overall it is a much more pleasing view of the poles and proves this is a new geometric model for Google Earth. The south pole has a strange white spot (I guess they have no imagery there), but the north pole is fine. In version 7 you see lots of rays shooting out from the poles, but the new version shows the imagery fine. Unfortunately, the screenshots of the south pole are hard to make out due to lack of contrast with all the ice.
Version 7 of the mobile version of Google Earth had already combined the layers of Borders and Labels into one choice. In version 8 they have gone a step further and combined Road, Borders and Labels into one choice. This is a mistake in my opinion because the user has less control over their mapping data. Not only that, but the vectors drawn in version 8 are not yet optimized when compared to version 7 and draw and/or load slower. This is especially obvious when zooming in and out. Also, the new borders and labels in version 8 coming from the Google Maps data are black and white and do not provide as much information as the Google Earth borders and labels. Google Earth 7 border layers show more data, and different colors, for things like oceans and sea names, country names verses states and cities, etc. The new version 8 labels are pretty much plain white and not as informative. However, they are more consistent with the Google Maps platform (which I also don’t like). A very important missing layer in version 8 is “3D Buildings”. You can’t turn them off in version 8, which is a mistake. The 3D buildings layer loads a lot of data which, if you are on a limited 3G bandwidth plan, means it could cost you if you use Google Earth to view cities with 3D data. It also could slow down your view when you just want to view the imagery or Street View data for that location. Other missing layers include: Ocean, Places, and Businesses. The screenshots below compare the labels and border data between the two versions.
Previous versions of Google Earth for mobile were difficult to load KML. However, we recently discovered that recent versions of Chrome for Android now allow you to load KML from web links (like those found on GEB) directly from the browser into either Google Earth 7 or the new version 8. The new version also gives you the new option to load KML from Google Drive, in addition to the options from Maps Gallery, Maps Engine (which will be the new My Maps), and your Google+ photos (that have been geotagged). Some of the Google Maps Gallery choices do not work properly because of limited KML functionality support on the mobile platform. KML support in version 8 is also a bit buggy at this point. I found many KMLs that should work to have errors (which have been reported, and Google says they will work on them). One particularly annoying bug is that KML lines go transparent when you tilt the view, so in an example of GPS tracks of a ski vacation much of the tracks are not visible in version 8, whereas version 7 shows them fine. See version 7 above version 8 in the screenshots below.
Google Earth Version 8 for Android is based on a new geometric 3D model of the Earth, and accesses the more current and more accurate data of the Google Maps databases. According to Google, this new version is the first overhaul to Google Earth’s 3D model in 10 years.
Version 8 does make it easier to load KML, although the limited support of KML features and rendering is disappointing. This version has fewer options to turn on/off mapping layers than even version 7 for mobile, so the layer features are a bit of a step backwards. But, hopefully Google will continue to advance the technology behind the mobile version and add new features and layers as it evolves.
We also sincerely hope Google puts even more effort behind the development of the desktop version 8. The desktop platform has suffered from the lack of access to more accurate mapping data improvements, and other development and bug fixes which is not good considering Google Earth is one of the world’s most popular applications. The desktop version of Google Earth also provides much more powerful features of KML, user data, map creation, APIs for developers, and much more. And lets face it, Google Earth looks awesome on the larger screens we use on non-mobile platforms!