The world in 3-D

Google and Microsoft apps bring new dimensions to search

Google Earth Pro 4.0

Performance: B

Ease of use: A

Application integration: B

Security: B

Features: A+

Value: C

Price: $400 yearly subscription per user (multiuser and federal discounts available).


Pros: Strong visual appeal and generally smooth operation. Can save locations, add or remove layers such as roads or borders and build custom applications using Google Earth Pro. Works on a variety of platforms including Windows, Linux and Mac.

Cons: Busy interface and some intermittent performance issues.



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Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D (beta)

Performance: C

Ease of use: B

Application integration: B

Security: B-

Features: A-

Value: N/A

Price: Price not yet set


Pros: Clean interface, cool Bird's-Eye View feature that lets you see buildings on the map, full integration with the Live application, and the ability to save batches of searches in the Scratch Pad for later use.

Cons: Current version is very slow and requires you to download the .Net framework. 3-D functions work only in Internet Explorer.



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PLAY BALL: Boston's Fenway Park as seen in Google Earth Pro (left) and Microsoft Virtual Earth (below).

Google Earth Pro 4 and Microsoft Virtual Earth have a certain wow factor: Enter a place name in the search box and a 3-D representation of the Earth turns toward that general region then zooms in on the location. It's very impressive. But these programs are far more than parlor tricks. They are sophisticated geospatial-software tools that can be very useful to government agencies or departments.

They are built on enterprise-quality programming platforms. When you apply your own data and programming expertise to these applications, you can use them in all kinds of interesting ways to track floods, disease outbreaks, traffic accidents, forest fires, terrorist attacks or any number of events. They let you see patterns on a map that might not be identifiable from a list of events on paper.

In general, Google Earth Pro 4 is a substantially more mature offering than the beta of Microsoft Virtual Earth. Although Microsoft provides all the necessary tools, its performance was inconsistent in our tests.

Google Earth Pro 4.0

Earth Pro 4 combines a dazzling visual experience with Google's search technology in a well-designed desktop package. In fact, one of the big differences between Google's offering and the one from Microsoft is that Google's is a stand-alone desktop application, while Microsoft Virtual Earth operates entirely in Internet Explorer.

The first thing you'll notice is that Google packs a lot of functionality into the interface ' maybe too much. The program gives you a 3-D map, browser, search box, saved searches and various layers, such as roads or buildings. To be fair, the interface is entirely flexible, and you can turn elements on or off to suit your own needs, even isolating the map in full-screen view.

It's important to remember that this is, first and foremost, a search tool. It's a search tool with a cool visual element, but its purpose is to search for places and view them on the map in 2-D or 3-D. After you locate a place, you can select how far you want to zoom in, but you cannot get down to building-level detail, as you can with Microsoft Virtual Earth.

You can navigate around the 3-D Earth representation using mouse commands or the navigation tools in the upper-right corner of the window. These include sliders for zooming in or out and for changing the tilt of the Earth.

Google also provides pretty good documentation, which you can download from the Help menu in the application, in addition to a list of keyboard shortcuts. And you can also interact worldwide with the Google Earth community to share ideas.

New features in this version include Linux and Mac compatibility, integration with Google SketchUp, real-time Global Positioning System support, higher-
resolution printing and Keyhole Markup Language 2.1 support. The latter is an Extensible Markup Language format defined by Google for displaying map information. Microsoft plans to use Geography Markup Language, an XML format defined by the Open Geospatial Consortium. Government users looking to integrate data with other systems will like the use of XML.

I noticed some performance problems, but fewer than I experienced with Virtual Earth.

Although this is a stand-alone application that uses information found on Google's servers, data in any custom applications you design is stored locally, a big plus for government agencies that need to keep their confidential data behind closed doors. And each Google Pro user must sign on to the system, providing another level of security.

At $400 per license (government discounts available), this is not a cheap option. But given the sophistication of the program, it could be a worthwhile investment for users who require high-level functionality.

Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D

Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D operates in the Internet Explorer browser as part of the Live suite of applications, providing a visually impressive 3-D experience. It even lets you get down to building level in a select, and growing, number of cities ' a feature Microsoft calls 'Bird's Eye View,' and something Google Earth Pro is not capable of doing.

Unfortunately, the experience is tempered by frustrating performance issues. Because the program is still in beta, we can cut Microsoft some slack, but the problems need to be resolved before the first release.

You can access Virtual Earth by opening the Maps application on the Live page ( A 2-D map of the United States appears by default. You can view maps in 2-D without any additional software. But to access the 3-D features, you need to install the .NET 2.0 framework and download and install a program to display the 3-D rendering in Internet Explorer.

The Internet Explorer requirement might not please information technology professionals who prefer another browser, but if you want to use this application, you have no choice. Still, as with Google, you can build applications that expand or refine the functionality of the base offering.

Like Google Earth Pro, Virtual Earth's primary purpose is to provide sophisticated search capability. You can choose from three search types ' businesses, people and maps ' and switch among them with a click.

A pushpin corresponding to the numerical order of your search appears on the map, and your searches are logged in the Scratch Pad, which you can save for as long as you are logged in.

To switch to 3-D view, you click the 3-D tab in the Navigation tool. After some delay, you see a note that the Earth is loading. After a further delay, the 3-D rendering appears. To be fair, this experience will no doubt vary from machine to machine and connection to connection, but it is clearly not like the experience you get with Google Earth Pro.

Google is clearly ahead of the game right now, but Microsoft is only in beta and is likely working hard to catch up and make a smoother experience.


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