Google Earth: Power Tips and Tricks

Here's your chance to discover a new dimension to Google Earth: Find out how to create your own maps, scroll through historic imagery, or fly across the globe.

Google Earth Power Tips and Tricks

Google Earth does the job when you want to zoom in on your hometown or see your own roof, but it’s more than an interactive map. Discover a new dimension to Google Earth, and find out how to create your own maps, scroll through historic imagery, or fly across the globe with these power tips--they'll keep you busy for hours.

Scroll Through History

You can travel through time to see historical satellite imagery. In Google Earth, click on the year at the bottom of the screen, and then cycle through imagery with the slider at the top. For starters, check out how the Las Vegas Strip expanded from the 1950s and 1960s to today (pictured), and examine New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

How Far Is That?

The ruler tool can help you determine the span between two rims of the Grand Canyon, or you can use it for more-practical purposes, such as measuring a running or biking route before you head out. The ruler can also give you advanced information, like the elevation profile of a certain area. To see this, make a path with the ruler, save it, and then right-click it in the Places tab on the left and choose Elevation Profile.

Live Weather

Live weather information adds another dimension to Google Earth, with real-time conditions and forecasts across North America and Europe. You activate the Weather layer in the sidebar's Layers box. You can tick the clouds layer to see where rain is forming, and you can select the weather radar and temperature forecasts (pictured).

Dive Into Layers

Experiment with layers in Google Earth beyond the Weather feature, and you'll find yourself sinking hours into it. You can dive into dozens of built-in layers, from the likes of NASA (Earth City Lights, pictured) or National Geographic, with sights and sounds, photos, and feature articles for topics across the globe; all of these items are available in the Gallery folder in the sidebar's Layers box. Tip: Try to enable just a couple of layers at one time, rather than getting lost in a sea of markings.

Create Your Own Maps

Google Earth works with KML files to allow you to create and share your own maps. You can insert (via the Add menu at the top) paths, polygons, placemarks, or photos to any map, export the result (File, Save), and share it via email or view it on Google Maps. The beauty of this feature is that other users have created hundreds of interesting maps so far that you can download and view in Google Earth yourself, such as the one PCWorld made with placemarks for the strangest sights in Google Earth. Google also hosts an extensive gallery of available maps.

Go on a Tour

Guided tours on Google Earth give you the best view in an expedition around the world. To go on a Google Earth tour, pick one from the Google gallery or from the GoogleTouring collection, click the play button, and enjoy. Get started with a tour of the Seven Wonders of the World, or tour the world’s skyscrapers with 3D models included (pictured).

You Be the Guide

Once you have gone on a tour, why not make one of your own? You can record a tour of your street, for instance, or produce a tour of the places you visited on your vacation to show off to your family. To record a tour, simply click the camera button in the menu and click the record button at the bottom; you then browse in Google Earth through your desired locations, panning, zooming, and displaying different angles. You can even add audio descriptions.

Flight Simulator

A different way to explore the world is to use the flight simulator in Google Earth. You can find it under Tools, Enter Flight Simulator. Choose between two aircraft (F-16 or SR22) to view the world from above while controlling your plane. You can take off from several airports across the world--or from any given point on the map--and if you have a joystick kicking about, you can use it to control the plane, too.

Create Your Own 3D Building

Cool 3D buildings are still pretty scarce in Google Earth, but Google has made it easier to construct your own house or office block in 3D. If you live in one of the places on Google’s list, you can start building your own 3D models with the free online Building Maker tool, which allows you to combine 3D digital building blocks on top of two-dimensional aerial images, just as you might use physical toy blocks to represent a real building.

Use Google Earth Offline

Google Earth requires a constant Internet connection to navigate, but if you want to show something on your laptop where Wi-Fi will be unavailable, here's a trick: Google Earth allows a maximum disk cache of 2GB, and you can take advantage of that. First visit your desired location when you are connected to the Internet (including any layers). Then, once you disconnect, you will still be able to get the imagery for that specific place offline.

Reach for the Sky

The Sky feature in Google Earth (Explore, Sky) lets you travel the far reaches of the universe via high-resolution images from several telescopes that give you incredible close-ups from deep space. Check out some of the spectacular sights in Google Sky that we collected for starters, or explore at your leisure among the constellations.

Fourth Planet From the Sun

Go extraplanetary with Google Earth--on Mars. Choose Explore, Mars, and the virtual globe changes to a rendition of the fourth planet from the sun. Layers for Mars include imagery from spacecraft, and you can even track the Odyssey and MRO, the two man-made satellites orbiting the planet.

Pie in the Sky

The Moon module in Google Earth (Explore, Moon) allows you to explore the moon’s surface with imagery from the various missions on the rock. Additional layers let you see photos from the Apollo missions, as well as human artifacts, or go on a tour with the Apollo 11 and 17 missions.

Explore the Oceans

Back on Earth, you can explore the deep sea. To do so, first tilt the Google Earth view so that’s almost parallel to the ocean surface, and zoom in until you are below the surface. Google Earth has several layers to help you learn about ocean observations, climate change, and endangered species, and it also allows you to discover new places, including shipwrecks and surfing spots. On Google's site, you can find a few places to take a dive.

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