Google has released a new version of Google Earth today that has been re-designed for a new generation of 3D mapping applications. This first release is not a program you have to download and install on desktop OSes (Windows, Mac, Linux, Chromebook). It is a web application that loads in your browser. Specifically, this will load today only in Chrome browsers. But, this means that platforms like Chromebooks will now be able to run a version of Google Earth for the first time, and support for Linux should be more robust (where Chrome is available – and other specs required). And, there is a mobile app as well (the Chrome version will not work on Chrome for mobile). The mobile app appears to be fully as capable as the Chrome version, but is only available for Android so far. So, Apple users will have to wait until an IOS app becomes available.
The new Google Earth version is only a subset of the legacy Google Earth (let’s call it classic Google Earth – version 7 or lower) in terms of features. But, it has obviously been carefully designed for a beautiful, user-friendly experience that is remarkably consistent between the desktop and mobile. It also looks a lot more like current Google Maps, so it is consistent with new interface design. This version makes it easier to discover new content, and visualize the 3D imagery of cities and other places that Google has been adding the last few years. This seems to be the primary focus of this release. You also have access to Street View imagery (and user-contributed photospheres) and can share links to specific Street Views.
From what we have seen, the speed moving around is comparable to the desktop Classic GE. This is significant as we expected there might be a performance hit compared to a dedicated install application. Google must have worked wonders to make this happen. We will do more analysis in the coming days, but I did some quick checking on frame update rates and it was comparable in performance between the web version to classic GE in tests on my laptop here. The user interface is not quite as fluid on the web as classic GE (more on this in a later post).
There is a cool new feature that lets you push a “dice” icon that is the Google search equivalent of “Feeling lucky?” that randomly flies you to an interesting place on the Earth and provides a knowledge card about that place. The knowledge card can be clicked on to expand and share other relevant data and other places of interest surrounding it. This is a wonderful tool in my opinion as it will encourage people to explore in new ways.
The new GE has a ship helm wheel icon that is labeled “Voyager” that is a new way to explore a wealth of content Google has collated for interesting places and things on Earth. They are like a tour of information about a topic which fly you to interesting places relevant to the topic. There appears to be a huge amount of information available.
KML Support Still in Early Stages
The new Google Earth does support KML. However, it is not a complete implementation yet. Google says they plan to implement more KML features in future updates. It also is not as easy to load KML content on the browser version. You have to go to “My Places” and click on a link to import KML you want to load. And, you have to have the file already downloaded. We will be researching what KML features work with the new GE and report on our tests.
Things Missing, Don’t Worry
This release of the new Google Earth is missing most of the creation tools more serious fans of classic GE like to use. All the features from classic to create KML content are basically not available. Also, a long list of important features are missing like measuring distances, historical imagery, time animations, tours, GPS tracking, Flight Simulator, and more. The good news is that classic GE will still be available, so you can continue to use it if you enjoy those features. And, you’ll be able to create KML content with it that can be shared with new GE. Google says future versions of the new GE will implement “many” of the missing features. No promises on all of them of course. At some point, the new GE might meet, and even exceed, the features of classic – and classic will probably stop being supported at that point. One feature they must implement though is support for the 3D mouse called SpaceNavigator. Serious fans of classic GE know this device is the best way to fly through 3D data. I made sure to point this out to Google – but, they already know it because lots of Googlers use it too.
As expected, this new Google Earth will not be a replacement for the classic Google Earth. There are too many powerful features built into GE’s 12 year-old system to implement all at once. But, the new Google Earth does an excellent job of providing a new generation experience for exploring the Earth with a wealth of new ways to experience our beautiful planet. And, it accomplishes the goal of moving the application from a legacy platform of different programs for different OSes (which have to be downloaded and installed) to a web-based model (with the exception of mobile) which can be updated transparently and quickly.
We will be reporting in more detail as we look at things more closely. But, we are impressed with this first release. We hope the public at large will really like the new application and maybe re-discover classic Google Earth’s more powerful features if they want to do more. If all goes well with its popularity, I’m sure Google will work hard to implement more features and capabilities in the new GE.
About Frank Taylor
Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.