Google is making itself indispensable, on both Macs and legacy systems, too.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Fly away with Google Earth, or find that file with Google Desktop

April 29, 2007

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2007, The Post-Standard

   Google took the notion of a search engine and ran away with it. With two of its latest products -- Google Desktop and Google Earth -- Google is making itself indispensable.
   You might already know that Google's search engine has a lot of little locomotives helping pull the load. There's Google News, Froogle (for shopping on the Web), Google Microsoft (at www.google.com/microsoft), Google Apple (at www.google.com/mac) and dozens of other localized search engines, in many different languages.
   Google even has one of the best free blogging sites around, at www.blogger.com, and a lot of free software that doesn't seem directly related to searching, such as Picasa, the cool image-cataloging program for Windows.
   But Google comes back to its roots with its free Google Desktop, from desktop.google.com. Unlike most other programs designed to help you search your hard drive, Google Desktop works just like the best search engine on the Web -- that is, it works just like Google itself.
   In fact, Google Desktop sets itself up to incorporate local searches into every Google Web search you perform. When the results come back, you see a separate result line just for what Google Desktop found on your hard drive.
   I installed Google Desktop on my main computer, an Apple OS X Macintosh. Macs running the latest version of OS X already have a powerful local search function, called Spotlight. Google Desktop makes use of Spotlight but adds two features Spotlight lacks -- common-sense results within a Web page, just as we're all used to on the Web, and a lot more speed. (Apparently, Google Desktop caches, or stores, results more thoroughly than Spotlight does.)
   Although Windows does not have the advantages of Spotlight, there is a version of Google Desktop for Windows that uses Google's own search functions. It is not as fast as the Mac OS X version, but it works well otherwise.
   Google Earth expands your search field to our global planet, although I'm convinced that most people who use Google Earth are just having fun flying over and zooming into places they're never seen from an altitude. You can choose how high you're "flying" and how oblique your view of the ground is. In other words, by dragging a scroll bar, you can tilt your view of the ground so you can see objects in real elevation.
   You can limit your views to the kind of things you'd see from space -- or, for that matter, from 300 feet up -- or you can add route signs, labels for important places and political boundaries. Just about everyone who tries Google Earth finds out that some of the aerial views are a little out of date, but Google seems to be catching up and updating its central database constantly. (And, yes, this means Google Earth needs to have an Internet connection to work -- and it should be a fast one.)
   Google Earth is free and is available for Mac OS X, Linux PCs and Windows PCs. You'll need a fairly powerful computer. The download site at earth.google.com/download-earth.html explains the requirements.
   Google has two upgraded versions of Google Earth -- a Plus version at $20 a year and a Pro version at $400 a year. The pro version, in particular, lets you save high-resolution views of most locations. I had a grand time on a wintry Saturday zooming in on my brother's house in Florida and checking his garden -- Google Pro is THAT good at detail -- and I then zoomed off to visit Cape Canaveral's nearby wildlife refuge.
   Flyovers went very smoothly with my OS X Mac and broadband connection. Google Earth makes good use of the graphics speedup routines in modern Macs -- a good sign, given the 300 percent increase in Mac sales amid a plunging PC market and the failure of Windows Vista to catch on, that Google has decided to put the Mac on equal standing with Windows PCs.