Yesterday, Google released a new version of its popular Google Earth application designed specifically for Honeycomb tablets. With the help of a trusty Motorola Xoom, we fired up the program to see how it fared in comparison to its smartphone and desktop cousins.
New Action Bar
When we launched the application, it presented us with the usual interactive globe, which can be spun with the flick of a finger or gradually zoomed into via pinch-to-zooming or double tapping the screen. Regardless of what type of device you're using, one thing is for sure. This opening sequence never gets old. The user will immediately notice an action bar at the top which provides quick access to search, a compass, a my location button, a drop down menu to access various layers, and settings.
One of the best features of Google Earth for Honeycomb is the new pop-up box for places and businesses. When using Google Earth on non-Honeycomb mobile devices, the act of selecting information boxes, flags, or panoramic pictures takes you to another page, briefly taking you out of the immersive visual environment until you hit the back button. With Google Earth for Honeycomb, however, users are treated to a pop-up window that houses all kinds of contextual information such as photos galleries and descriptions of a building. What's really neat is that the pop-up window can be scrolled both vertically and horizontally (when switching info tabs) to reveal additional information including pictures, videos, and Wikipedia write-ups.
The same pop-up box appears when choosing layers as well.
Performance & 3D Rendering
Honeycomb has been built from the ground up to take advantage of hardware acceleration and the extra muscle of dual-core CPUs (particularly the Nvidia Tegra 2). After some hands-on time with this app running over both Wi-Fi and Verizon's 3G network, we can easily see this extra power being put to good use. Normal Google Earth movements such as zooms, pans, and tilts were relatively smooth and the famous "fly to" feature worked as you would expect it to and was a joy to watch.
To really see give this app a workout, we took a quick trip over to the Bin Laden Compound and turned on the 3D buildings layer to survey the land. In an instant, a fairly accurate model of the compound complete with 18-foot walls and a satellite dish popped up from the ground. As on the desktop version of Google Earth, we were able to easily rotate around the 3D model with ease and could see a reasonable amount of detail. When we tried to view a city such as Manhattan with the same 3D building layer, however, the limits of Tegra 2 quickly became evident. The Motorola Xoom wasn't as snappy and the full amount of detail was never displayed, whereas on the desktop everything was much more photo-realistic.
It's important to note that the Internet connection hooked up to our desktop is DSL, whereas our Motorola Xoom is running with much less reliable 3G and Wi-Fi network connections. It will be interesting to see how the 4G version of the Xoom and the HSPA+ enabled T-Mobile G Slate will perform.
With the addition of the action bar and the ability to render 3D buildings, the Honeycomb version of Google Earth easily bests its smart phone sibling and, because it's mobile by design, makes it more useful than its desktop counterpart. Will it give you that same desktop quality? No, but who cares when you can speak to your tablet and utter "Buckingham Palace" and watch as you are magically whisked away?