Google Earth for the iPhone and iPod touch is the mobile version of Google’s justly acclaimed desktop app. Like its desktop-based counterpart, the mobile version offers a birds-eye, 3-D view of the earth, allowing you to zoom, via satellite photos, from Paris to New York to (literally) your own backyard. And since its debut on the App Store, the iPhone version of Google Earth has won rave reviews for the way it puts the whole world on your mobile device.
This won’t be one of those reviews.
Look, I like the iPhone edition of Google Earth… to a point. It’s fun to go swooshing from one locale to another, and the ability to search for nearby businesses can come in handy if you’re a stranger in a strange land. But it’s a rough transition from the desktop to the iPhone, and Google Earth has lost some of the functionality that makes it such a pleasure to use on the Mac. Then again, the mobile version of Google Earth would do well just to match the functionality of the Maps app that comes included with the iPhone or iPod touch.
Here’s how the app works. You can type in a location after tapping the search icon in the upper left corner of the screen; tap the location button in the lower left corner, and Google Earth will find your current locale anywhere on the planet, highlighting it with a bright blue dot. The standard touchscreen gestures work in Google Earth—double-tapping lets you zoom in as does a two-finger reverse pinch, while pinching the screen lets you zoom out. Drag your finger in any direction, and Google Earth will follow.
Google Earth orients itself based on how you’re holding your mobile device; turn the phone sideways for a horizontal view of the map. The app also takes advantage of the accelerometer by tilting the screen as you tilt your iPhone or iPod touch. It’s certainly a cool way of getting something other than a top-down view of an area, but I found that even a slight twitch of my hands would cause the map to tilt unexpectedly and keep tilting as I over-corrected my grip. I wound up turning the autotilt feature off by tapping the settings button in the lower right corner of the screen.
Once you’re fixed on a location, you can search the surrounding area for businesses or points of interest. Tap on the search icon again, and type out a search query—“restaurants,” say. A series of labeled circles will pop up on the screen showing you all the restaurants in your immediate vicinity. Tap on one of those circles, and you’ll get an address, a URL, reviews from assorted Web sites (if applicable), and, in many cases, a phone number. While tapping the phone number did give me the option of initiating a call, tapping any of the Web page links on the page didn’t seem to do anything. Tapping an Open in Safari button launched Maps, of all things.
Unlike the desktop version, the iPhone’s Google Earth doesn’t include driving directions. You can get them, but you’ll have to drill down to that Google search results page to launch the Maps app. That will take you out of Google Earth, which seems like a lot of effort to go through for a feature that probably should have been included in the mobile effort.
Typing search terms in Google Earth has its pluses and minuses. The app is tied into your contacts, so if you start typing a name, the contact will appear as it does in Google Mobile App, saving you from having to tap out the entire name. Unlike Google Mobile App, Google Earth does not bring up suggested or common search terms as you type. If you want to look up nearby restaurants, you’re going to have to pound out each blessed letter—at least for the first time you search. Google Earth does remember previous searches, however, so if you’ve searched for restaurants or ATMs or other generic businesses in the past, they’ll appear as you start to retype them. There’s a caveat, though—you have to tap the existing search term twice to actually perform a search. Tapping once merely highlights the term, and if you then hit the Search button, Google Earth will look up your partially typed search term instead. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve searched for “rest” or “r” when I thought I was looking up nearby restaurants, but it doesn’t get any less annoying when it happens.
While Google Earth on the iPhone remembers previous searches, it doesn’t allow you to add placemarks or pinpoints in the same way that you can store favorite places on the desktop app. This is a very significant omission that diminishes the usability of the mobile version.
Another difference between the desktop and mobile iterations of Google Earth is the limited number of layers available for the latter. On the desktop version, you can choose to show street names, places of interest, traffic, or other layers created by the vibrant Google Earth community. It’s one of the things that makes the desktop version so appealing.
The iPhone version of Google Earth lets you turn Borders and Labels and Terrain layers on and off. Its only other layers are limited to Wikipedia entries and geo-located photos from Panoramio. Tapping on either a Wikipedia entry’s W icon or the blue box designating a Panoramio photo opens either of those screens within Google Earth. But there’s no way to tell what’s on the other end of that icon or whether it’s worth your time until you tap on it—you’re forced to hunt and peck. Also, in popular locales like the Vegas strip or Disneyland, photo and Wikipedia icons can be layered on top of one another; even zooming in for a closer look doesn’t always provide enough separation for those of us with meaty fingertips so some icons wind up being untappable.
I realize that shrinking Google Earth down to size for a mobile device requires some sacrifices. I surely don’t expect to be able to install a KML file that allows me to superimpose defunct National League baseball parks on a map, as I can with the desktop version. But some layers are more than just eye candy—street names, for example. As you’re scrolling and tilting and zooming your way through a Google Earth map on your iPhone, it’s easy to lose your orientation without a street name layer to guide you.
With its location and search capabilities, Google Earth could be a valuable tool if you find yourself in a strange city and need to track down an eatery, ATM, or tourist attraction in your immediate area. Still, while Google Earth offers an undeniable Gee Whiz factor, Maps seems like an infinitely more usable tool. It gives you street names, driving directions, traffic conditions in some cases, and even street views if you happen to be using an iPhone. The views in Google Earth are certainly eye-catching, but they can’t match what Maps offers in terms of practical value.
I suppose it comes down to what you expect Google Earth to be. On the desktop, the answer is “whatever you want,” thanks to the variety of layers, the multiple search options, and the ability to customize the app any way you see fit. The iPhone version is decidedly more limited. Users who merely want to zoom around the globe from the comfort of their mobile device will find plenty to like here, and certainly, there's a value to that. But does that make for an indispensible? Not from my vantage point.
Google Earth is compatible with any iPhone or iPod touch running the iPhone 2.x software update.
[Philip Michaels is the executive editor at Macworld.com]