A beta version of Google’s popular Earth browsing application has been released for Linux. Google Earth allows users to navigate across the globe, and view detailed satellite imagery of places and buildings. On a high performance computer with a decent video card and 3D acceleration, buildings in major cities can optionally be rendered in 3D. The application also provides a number of practical features, including markers to indicate the locations of restaurants and hotels and the ability to provide driving directions.
When Google released a Linux port of Picasa last month, I was critical of the application, and disappointed with its poor performance and lack of stability. Unlike the Picasa Linux port, which relied heavily on a Windows binary interpreter layer called Wine, the Google Earth Linux port is a native Linux application built with the open source Qt application development toolkit. Although distribution-specific packages don’t appear to be available yet, the installer available from the Google Earth web site is well implemented, and very easy to use. It even managed to figure out where to put the application symlink in my home directory based on my $PATH environment variable. Fully installed, it uses just under 50 mb of hard drive space.
I put Google Earth 4 beta to the test on my Athlon 64 X2 system running Ubuntu Dapper. Although a friend had introduced me to Google Earth about a year ago, this was really my first in-depth experience with the application. After about an hour of experimentation, I am pleased to report that Google got it right this time. The quality and performance of the application exceeded my expectations. Although the application works relatively well on the Linux platform, it could still use a little bit of polish. It didn’t use my default Qt theme, and it crashed once while I was testing it.
Every feature I tested worked well, including the fullscreen mode (which didn’t work correctly in Picasa). With the proprietary Nvidia drivers, the 3d rendering worked flawlessly, and didn’t consume too much of my system resources. Configuration data, crash logs, and cached data get stored in ~/.googleearth. After about an hour of use, the ~/.googleearth/Cache directory now contains about 190MB of data. The program itself is relatively bandwidth intensive, but I was still able to use it without any problems while engaged in heavy downloading via BitTorrent.
Other new (and cross-platform) features in Google Earth 4 include support for the creation of textured building drawings created with Google SketchUp and a new user interface. The application now draws on a larger index of high-resolution images, as Google has quadrupled its indext of satellite and aerial images. The new satellite and aerial imagery will soon begin showing up in Google Maps.
It’s nice to see the folks at Google making their applications available to Linux users, even if the applications themselves remain proprietary. This latest port is of significantly higher quality than the last one, and it fills a niche on the Linux platform. Perhaps now that Google has started to place a stronger emphasis on portability, other proprietary software vendors will as well.