How Google Earth Works

What is the Google Earth software?

Google Earth launch page with toolbars.
Google Earth launch page with toolbars.
Photo courtesy Google Earth™ mapping service

Google Earth is currently available for download as a desktop application, although you need to be connected to the Internet to use it. Every time you open Google Earth, it automatically connects to Google's servers, giving you access to terabytes of geographical, political and social data. For instance, you can view a city with certain "layers" turned on, including topographical information, population data and crime statistics for the area. The layers and all of the map navigation buttons, including zoom, tilt and rotate, are all located in the Google Earth frame.

The big deal right now is the basic version of Google Earth is completely free. Of course, this could change in the future. So let's all start by downloading the free version of the software located at while it's still free. If your computer runs Windows, Linux or Mac OS X 10.3.9 or higher, and it's fewer than five years old, you should have no problem meeting the system requirements. If your computer can't run the application, read on to find out what you'll be able to do once you update your equipment.

Once you open Google Earth and start moving around a bit, you'll immediately notice one of the biggest "whoa" aspects of the program: some of the information is 3-D, and the stuff that isn't 3-D is still a photograph -- there are no illustrated maps here. The baseline visual data comes from satellite imagery and aerial photographs taken by aircraft.

While Google Earth comprises an array of features that would probably take months to fully utilize, the basic features fit loosely into the following categories:

  • Mapping/directions
  • Local search
  • Sightseeing

The basic version of Google Earth is free, and it's an amazing piece of software. But in case you want more, or you intend to use the program for commercial applications, there are subscription-based versions of Google Earth that offer additional functions. Read on for a closer look at the basics. ­