It's free, like Google Earth for desktop computers, but it's not entirely free of issues. It requires network access to load satellite imagery, so using Google Earth on parts of the Earth where one is subject to data roaming charges could be a costly proposition.
Google Earth on the iPhone can be used in airplane mode, which is to say without network access, but one's ability to zoom in on an area while offline depends upon whether or not the requested map data has been previously cached.
The app's responsiveness also isn't perfect, at least on a first-generation iPhone: At times, Google Earth does not rotate with a finger flick, as it usually does. It's not quite as graphically fluid as some of the iPhone games.
Also, the Google Earth auto-location function appears to be less accurate than the Google Maps for iPhone auto-location function. The former missed InformationWeek's San Francisco office by a city block, while the latter identified it correctly.
This may just have been an anomaly, however. According to a Google spokesperson, "Google Earth for iPhone and Google Maps for mobile both use Google's database of cell tower information to power the My Location feature." In any event, the Google Earth "search near me" feature certainly works well enough to find a nearby coffeehouse.
But such quibbles pale beside the peculiarly satisfying sensation of holding the whole world in one's hands. It's also an odd sensation, gazing down at the Earth on one's phone while standing upon the Earth under one's feet. It's an experience not unlike seeing oneself reflected back and forth between facing mirrors.
Indeed, there's something existential about pressing the auto-location icon and watching as Google's animated world rotates and zooms in on a map of one's location. It recalls the plea for recognition by the Whos in Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears A Who: "We are here! We are here! We are here!"
Mostly, it's just wonderful, thanks to the amount of user-contributed data in Google Earth. Google Earth users have littered the landscape with Wikipedia entry links for landmarks notable and obscure. You may never need a tour guide to explain local history again.
Google Earth also includes links to more than 8 million geo-located Panoramio photos. iPhone-equipped travelers now have the opportunity to see where they're headed before they get there -- minus the people.
"Besides being beautiful, high-quality pictures, they're specifically of places, so you don't have to see some guy's family on vacation in Thailand -- you can see the beaches, the temples, all the things that give you a real sense of the place," explains Google Earth product manager Peter Birch in a blog post.
Of course, emphasizing places over people might not fully convey a real sense of the crowds one might encounter on one's travels, but that's the nature of marketing. Auto commercials always show the open road rather than, say, the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza at rush hour. It's only fitting that Google Earth offers a more manageable, coherent snapshot of the real thing.
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