The new Google Earth released last week is not yet a replacement for the classic Google Earth (version 7 and earlier). It is an early release of an effort by Google to completely re-write the 12 year old application to make it more current for new platforms the majority of people are utilizing today. Hence, the new GE is a web-based application and a mobile app. They started with a version which focuses on finding and learning about the wealth of information available in Google Earth. The new GE is still missing the majority of the value-added features that serious users of Google Earth rely upon. Google also focused on getting the new version to run well on the new platforms for the first release. This post examines the performance of the graphics update rates as it compares to classic Google Earth as a dedicated desktop application.
My perception at first was that the new web-based Google Earth was not performing as well as classic. Other people have said the same in feedback to this blog. But, my tests have revealed it is technically performing quite well in a web browser. But, there is a problem which causes a perception of slowness. Please excuse me if I get a bit verbose, but hopefully a few of you will find this interesting. Especially Google.
I have been running tests on an old laptop (2011 model), and on a new Windows PC with a brand new graphics card (current top consumer device). What I was interested in was the frames per second rendered of the 3D scene, because low frame rates can result in jerky movements on the screen. Anything less than 30 FPS is very noticeable, and for serious computer graphics users (especially gamers), less than 60 FPS is considered not good. But, ultimately, we wanted to know whether the new web-based GE was performing as well as the classic desktop application.
The good news, for those of you who are not technical, is that the new web-based GE performs very well and performs technically as well as classic GE on both Windows and Mac OS (on my older laptop). On the same 3D views of the same cities, they both tested at pretty much identical top performance once the scene had loaded. My faster desktop ran at full monitor refresh rates (144Hz) once things were loaded. The laptop typically ran at 60Hz or higher despite being almost 6 years old. Interestingly, sometimes a few locations seemed to load the data notably faster with the web version than with classic. But, I think this had to do with some anomalous data I discovered (and reported to Google) for a few locations. I did load the new Google Earth while on a hotel WIFI in New York on Tuesday and I didn’t notice any surprising issue with load times and it seemed comparable between the two versions.
So, technically the new GE runs on a par with classic GE in terms of graphics performance. I was actually surprised by this result, because in the past web applications have run sub-par for graphics compared to dedicated applications. This may indicate Google made the right choice to create its next generation GE as a web application. We have to note though that it is only available to Chrome, so it is not truly a generic web application. Will they be able to make it run as well with other browsers?
Nevertheless, some people who have used classic GE have reported they feel the new one isn’t running as fast. And, I noticed this as well. This has to do with the navigational methods of the new GE (as in moving the scene with your mouse). Not technically the graphics performance. See points below.
For example, if you use the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in, most mouse wheels will have a noticeable “click” for each increment of movement. With classic GE, they animate several frames of movement between each movement for a click of the mouse wheel. This gives a very fluid sense of movement. The new web GE does not do this. It just moves you the entire distance in one jump, which makes it seem you are “skipping” frames to move the same distance. I have already suggested to Google they should fix this and other points below.
Rotating with Mouse
If you hold down the middle mouse button (or hold down the SHIFT key and the left mouse button) you can rotate about a point you have selected with the mouse cursor. This can be a nice way to rotate about a building or a mountain for example. Here, both the web GE and classic GE seem to work similarly. You can still get a jerky behavior if you move your mouse in a jerky way, but if you move you mouse smoothly you get a mostly smooth “animation”.
If you use the new GE “orbit” feature, Google will do an animated rotation around a point on your screen. This can be done with either the 2D/3D button, or the keyboard shortcut “o”. The first time you hit the button (or shortcut) it tilts to looking straight down (2D like). The next time you hit it, it tilts the view and starts rotating your view (although not the center for some reason). I do wish for a rotation speed control in the settings for this.
Classic GE doesn’t have this feature, but it was the first time I realized the new web GE was higher frame rates because the motion was fluid (high frame rate). Classic GE has a much better feature though. If you click and hold the right mouse button, while pointing at an object, in classic GE you can do a cinematic rotate and zoom in and out by moving right left and forward back. Here Google animates about each point of movement with the mouse and it is very fluid. It is my favorite built-in navigation feature in classic GE. Unfortunately, the new GE does not implement this right mouse button navigation control. Right mouse button on the web GE instead does just a basic zoom in/out feature, and does not animate between inputs so it is not fluid.
As many of you know, the most popular way to fly around classic Google Earth for over 10 years has been a special 3D mouse called SpaceNavigator by 3DConnexion. Serious fans have these, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people complain they can’t use Google Earth without it after they have used one for a while. In fact, recently it’s been a very vocal complaint because the new web GE doesn’t support it. The reason is that classic GE supports this input device and all 3D motions are animated and it lets you pan, tilt, rotate, and zoom all simultaneously for a very cinematic experience. Needless to say, it was one of my first requests for the new GE. Please Google, support it! Your biggest fans will appreciate it.
Loading Times (Added)
As pointed out by @Ryan and @Jacobbs in the comments below, I neglected to mention that loading times on New GE are considerably slower on New GE verses classic. I hope this is due to optimization issues, and not due to issues in the NACL/browser architecture. Google will be able to fix things if it is the former. You can improve speeds a bit if you use the Map Styles to reduce the layers being loaded. But, the 3D imagery/terrain takes several seconds longer to load even on a very fast Internet connection.
So, these are the primary reasons I’ve found that the new web based Google Earth gives a sense of “jerky”, non-animated, motion when you are moving the scene around. The problem is not a performance issue, it is navigational UI implementation issues. But, these problems can be solved. Hopefully, Google will take the feedback and implement more fluid motion in a release you won’t have to download because it is now a web application. I should note that the mobile version of the new GE does move quite fluid. This may have to do with the interface for input from the touch screen being more intimately tied to the web application interface on Android. I expect the same results on IOS when they release an app for it.
Update: Loading times for 3D data and layers are slower (as mentioned above). This also is an issue that hopefully will be addressed in future optimization updates of the New GE.