Application Name: Google Earth

Description: 3D landscape views of local terrain with an aerial imagery overlay; GPS-enabled.

Publisher’s website: Google Earth For Mobile

Cost: Free

Version/date reviewed: v.2.0.1  /  5-4-11

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2


Android Market (mobile app only)
Android Market (browser)

Note: This review only looks at Google Earth on an Android phone; additional functionality is available on some Android tablets, including 3D buildings.

Google Earth for Android is a stripped-down version of its desktop cousin, which lets you view the Earth in a three-dimensional view, with satellite imagery draped over terrain. It’s pretty amazing that it works at all on small, limited devices like Android smartphones, much less preserving as much of the functionality as it does. Unfortunately, it’s still missing some useful functions found in the desktop version, which limits its overall utility.


The first time you start up the app, and choose My Location from the menu, the app will zoom in to an overhead view of your current location, marked with a blue-ball icon; location is determined either by GPS, nearby WiFi network, or cell tower triangulation.

Unlike the desktop version, there are no onscreen controls to change your point of view; it’s all done by touchscreen, and isn’t exactly intuitive.

  • Tap and drag with one finger to move the map in one direction (pan).
  • Use two-finger pinch to zoom in/out
  • Double-tap to zoom in on a point
  • Twist two fingers on the screen to rotate the view
  • Drag two fingers simultaneously on the screen to tilt the view for the full 3D effect.

To restore the view to overhead, north at top, tap on the compass rose in the upper right corner.

Google Earth caches data so that you can still use it if you go offline temporarily. You can set the cache size in the Settings section to Small/Medium/Large, but there’s no clue as to how much space each of these options uses. And if you’re on a limited data plan, watch out, especially if you’re using the app in a car – you can easily download many megabytes of data in a short period of time.


Tapping on the eyeball icon at lower left toggles you between the default panning view and “Look around” mode (indicated by the green marker). In the latter, the view is controlled by moving the phone, using the compass and accelerometer to determine which direction you’re pointing the phone. Very cool to look at, but on a phone, the screen is too small to let you make out significant details, and trying to use zoom functionality for a closer look can be an exercise in frustration – it’s difficult to zoom in on exactly the point you’re interested in.


There’s a limited subset of data layers available, most of which are more easily usable in the Android Google Maps app (Panoramio being the one notable exception).


You sometimes need to zoom in quite close on an area to see all the data points in the layer; not surprising, since in an urban area they’d completely cover the aerial imagery. However, none of the data points are labeled on the map; you have to tap on one to bring up an info page for it.

There are several incredibly useful functions on the desktop version that are still missing in the Android app:

  • No measurement tools for distance or area.
  • Fewer data layers.
  • Worst of all, you can’t add your own data to the map in KML/KMZ format, at all. Odd, since you can do so in the Google Maps app (subject of an upcoming post here).

Other issues: App does crash on a regular basis, but does so fairly gracefully; you will get an error message with a force-close option.

Final thoughts: Don’t get me wrong, Google Earth is a cool free app, fun to play with, and a great demo to show off your phone’s capabilities. But I don’t find the 3D terrain view compelling enough under normal use to make me switch over from the Google Maps app, which has far more features and options. If the option to view your own KML/KMZ data is added to the app, then it will become far more useful.

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