Friday, February 25, 2011

New Google Earth: Version 6.0

Google has released another update to Google Earth - now version 6.0!   [I actually had this post prepared last year for the update to version 5.2, and was nearly ready to release it on you, when my testing showed that a couple of very substantial bugs had been introduced into previously working code!]

So, even though there were a couple of interesting new features, my testing showed that the so-called "update" had broken part of the code which allowed you to save your trails correctly for others to see. I decided that was too much of a damage to the program for me to want to endorse; so, instead of telling you about it, I told Google – or at least tried to. Have YOU ever tried getting through to a REAL person at Google?

My bug discovery was published in the Google Earth forum and did receive comments from other users; but, not even a shred of acknowledgement from any Google official person. So, the only thing we could do was to wait to see when/if they improved it in later versions.

A second full release of version 5 came and went without the requested bug fix – it was still generating defective trail files and I reported it again, with pretty much the same results. Like the previous time, I had to try and find the OLD version of GE so I could put it back on my computer, after I had deleted their "improved" version, just to be able to continue providing you the free maps!

Now, finally, version 6 has come out and I see that they have fixed the error which prevented GE from creating its zipped files to the standard that even their own instruction manual said it would do. It seems as though at least the bug I reported is now fixed and GE does generate maps with correct styles so that they can be displayed correctly. [Although, I do have to tell you that the actual code it creates seems awfully "bloated" now and the files are much larger even though they do the same thing.]

None-the-less, I have actually installed the new update on my own machine and have been using it for almost a month without noticing any major issues; so, lets talk about what's new.

Download, Installation and Compatibility

I have tried many of the existing Offroading Home trail maps in the new version and find that they work correctly. The download of the new program is still very easy from their Download Page. But beware, Google Earth has a function which, if you let it, will automatically check for "new updates" and automatically install [arrow #5] them for you – don't let it do it! At least if you want my opinion. Turn off automatic updates and use the manual download page instead. You can't even see this button however, until you click on the tiny "+" symbol [arrow #3].

First, we have already shown that the programmers have a problem at Google. Not that they shouldn't ever make mistakes – because everyone does – but because their whole system makes them very unresponsive to problem solving. And undoing their mistakes, once they have inflicted them on you, is almost impossible. You need to try and find an old copy of the program and reinstall it - not so easy! You'll need to re-download the old version – actually done on this page [arrow #4].

And Second, maybe even more important, allowing an automatic install gives Google "Carte Blanche" to not only decide what private information to extract from your computer usage but what Google related advertising and other programs to inflict on you. Their default is to change your browser to their own proprietary Google Chrome! Even though there are at least three other major browsers including Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Mozilla's open-source Firefox, Google seems to have realized that their new product can't compete with Internet Explorer if you allow people to freely choose. So, even over strong objections from the web community, Google still takes your choice away by default. You must "opt out" of the download.

What most of us heavy GE users do, is to meticulously make sure we have scanned the download page for hidden "authorizations" and UNCHECK them all! Don't let it download the excess Chrome Browser [arrow #1] and don't let it change your browser to Chrome [arrow #2], don't let it send usage information back to Google [separate screen], don't let it publish your contact information to other programs [separate screen]. IF you really want any of those, you can deliberately select them separately later. You've already got enough junk mail, inflicted advertising and changes to your system to learn with just the new program, let alone everything else it will want to do to your computer. And you don't need to slow everything down with extra code.

Regarding the actual program itself, Google gives a WARNING that the .kml files which the new version creates are NOT COMPATIBLE with earlier versions of Earth. What that means is that all the new styling and animation features take extra code of a type which isn't recognizable by older versions of GE. IF you use those features in the maps you create, and IF you regularly share them with other people who have older versions of GE; THEN they won't be able to see/use the file you generate with the new features.

Fortunately, Offroading Home does not rely on the mapping code that Google Earth creates itself. We manually program .kml files to generate the readability style that we like, and we streamline the code dramatically. I've looked at the .kml file code that GE 6.0 creates and it still follows the standard KML coding conventions.

So, if I find anything out of the ordinary I'll let you know. There is a "settings" box which allows the creation of "old style" code which may come in handy in the future.

New Eye Candy

Some of the first new things you may notice are several new buttons and menu's which control the way GE will display things. It will now not only display the current day and night over where you are browsing, but clouds as well – and trees! In selected places of course.

You must be forewarned however, that all these extra features are heavily graphic download dependent and WILL definitely tax your Internet connection… and patience. As a once-in-awhile look-see, it's kind of neat to see. What you can do is move the screen around for awhile and let it download; then, go back and move a second time. The images should already be there and it will look much nicer.

I suppose that there is some reason somewhere for that type of eye-candy, even if I can't envision it. To me, anything which gets in the way of seeing where the trail goes, or slows me down, is an annoyance. That said, however, I have seen a file which you can download that has a network link to plot actual real time weather forecasts on GE – seeing clouds is a kick… but just wait until it starts RAINING or Snowing. Of course it works best if you're sitting at your desk. To me, I don't pack a computer with me in the field so it would be only intermittently useful at best.

Additionally, even Google didn't have a clue just how much making their their "graphic modeling" system available to the public would form a cult-following, almost to rival the "Trekkie's!" Absolutely no one could have dreamed that there would be hundreds of thousands of graphic-trained "nerds" around the world who had hundreds of hours of free time on their hands. There have been "clubs" formed which have computer-modeled WHOLE CITIES – all of the buildings and bridges – and, now, even all the trees!

Built In Browser

Fitting well into Google's "Master Plan" of breaking into Microsoft's browser market share, beginning with version 5.2 Google Earth has a built in browser for us all to use right inside the earth window. Now we don't even have to even leave GE in order to follow a link on a pop-up box.

I don't have a photo of what GE does cause it doesn't screen capture; but, when you click on a link, a browser screen automatically slides in from the side with your desired web page displayed. What that means for you now is that you can easily flip back and forth between the Offroading Home blog descriptions and the free track map available on most posts. I have even begun putting a link to the specific blog post right inside a pop-up in the map file.

To use it, first visit the blog to find a post about an area you'd like to visit. Within the first few paragraphs of the post there will be a link to an accompanying map - click it, and if you select "run," the file it should open up inside Google Earth. Click where it says: "Click for Description" and the pop-up will have a link back to the blog post. Click on that link and the post opens up inside Google Earth so you can finish reading it – neat huh? Of course, that's only for maps generated after last week!

Google can now "keep you" on their turf, even when you click on a link. I'm sure they've got their eyes on more advertising opportunities, but for now it's pretty ad free and it's a very convenient feature.

Play A Trail

Additionally, the new version has made it quite a bit easier to "play" a trail – really quite a nifty function. Just highlight the "trail" icon by clicking it with your mouse then click on the tiny blue "play trail" icon which appears [arrow #1]. GE will then automatically zoom in and take you on an animated 'whiz bang' tour along the route, as it was coded. Controls pop-up [arrow #2] which you can use to pause or stop, speed-up or slow-down your travel.

I say "as it was coded" because the only problem you might have is when the programmer has used the programming, behind the scenes, to alter the order the track is displayed. Sometimes you take the trail in a bit of a "vertiginous" experience; but, most of the time it's kinda' fun.

Historic Imagery

Another feature which some of you historians might enjoy is how Google Earth now handles its "historic" imagery – all the satellite views from years past. Great if you want to see how the area you are viewing has changes over many years.

Of course not all of the globe has been photographed over the years; but you will be surprised at just how much has been. How will you know? Well, any time you are browsing over an area which has extra imagery available, you will automatically see an indication in the bottom browser bar [arrow #3] which shows the alternate imagery years available.

If you click on the date, another pop-up will appear on the screen with a slider which you can use to scan backward and forward in time to see how the earth "used" to appear! Additionally, now Google has announced that users can "register" with them to receive an automated email whenever imagery for your "favorite" area is updated.

Data Import

For those of you with Garmin "Forerunners," and other devices which capture user data (such as heart rate and speed etc), the new version of GE will import and plot that data as a screen overlay.

To me, the interface to that extra data is quite clunky and hard to utilize; and the functionality isn't all that necessary. I would have rather seen them spend their programming time in interfacing with more brands of GPS – it still is only Garmin, Magellan and Wintec WBT-201 (whatever that is); but, there you are!

Expanded Street View

I guess we also need to mention that the "street view" idea Google initiated, and have spent so much money in expanding, has now become almost impossible NOT to use. They have put what they call "peg-man" as a movable icon on the right side of the screen by the navigation controls.

If you are in an area that you would like to see a ground-level "street view" – simply mouse over the "peg-man" and drag it over the map. If a street view is available, you will see a whole lot of blue lines appear wherever the camera-car has driven. Move the icon to where you would like to see and let go.

The whole view will change to the 360° panoramic photograph that you expect. Of course, then you can navigate in any direction using the standard movement controls. This whole system makes a high demand on your Internet connection and you need to only expect that you can navigate around very slowly.

More Information and Tutorials

There you have it, probably more than you expected to read about – so if you're still here, thanks!

There are a couple of other tutorials on the subject which I have found. Google has a nifty interactive page which contains video explanations of these things: new in 6.0

And additionally, the official Google Earth blog has an extensive description of the new functionalities at: Announcing Earth 5.2

Learn A Little More

I chuckled to learn that Lucasfilms and Adidas have teamed up to create a Google Earth "experience" which uses the Star War's Death Star sequence to blast your home town.

I'm sure they are hoping to go "viral" – and it probably already has. To view it yourself visit Star Wars/Adidas and download the file, it only takes a minute. It'll ask if you want to use "Facebook" but you don't need to.

Unfortunately, the program seems to pick up the GPS location of your ISP to use as it's target; and, even more unfortunately in Japan the major ISP is immediately adjacent to the Emperors Palace.

So, after release of the advertisement, thousands of death rays hurtled toward earth and the palace – a piece of humor that seemed to loose a bit in the translation for the Japanese government!


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