Practical Technology

for practical people.

First impressions of Google Earth for Linux


Only a few weeks after releasing its first Linux application — the photo editing program, Picasa — Google has released its second application for Linux: Google Earth for Linux 4.

Unlike Picasa, however, which runs with its own bundled copy of WINE, an open-source implementation of the Windows API (application programming interface), Google Earth is a native Linux application.

It may not appear that way to some users, since many of the files look like they’re connected with Windows. But, a closer look shows them to be Qt application libraries.

The result is an application that enables users to tour about the globe. Much of North America, Australia, and Europe can now be seen with up to 1-meter per pixel resolution.

How good is that? When I zoomed in on my house, I could make out the two DirecTV dish antennas on my roof.

The free-for-personal use Google Earth is more than just an incredibly neat toy, though. With a variety of data layers available, the displays and maps can be remarkably useful for everything from literally looking over a new route to grandma’s house, to determining the best place for a microwave tower.

That said, it’s also a really great toy.

Of course, for such goodies as GPS device support or the ability to import spreadsheets, you’ll need to buy the Plus Edition for $20. And for commercial work, you’ll need to buy Google Earth Pro for $400. Neither of those versions, however, is available yet for Linux.

Based on what I saw of this beta version of Google Earth, I don’t think eager Linux users will need to wait long for the final versions of Plus and Pro to make their appearance.

I tested the beta on two systems. The first was my workhorse desktop. This PC has a 2.8 GHz Pentium IV, 512 MB of RAM, and an Ultra ATA/100, 7200 RPM, 60 GB hard drive, and runs OpenSUSE 10.1. The other test box was my HP Pavilion a250n. This PC ran Ubuntu 6.06, aka Dapper Drake, on a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor with 800MHz bus speed, and a GB of PC2700 DDR (double-data-rate) RAM. For graphics, it uses a low-end NVIDIA GeForce 4 MX 3D graphics card.

The recommended minimum system is a 500 MHz Pentium 3 with 128 MB of RAM, but you’ll be much better off with 512 MB of RAM. For full details, visit the Google Earth download page.

Two other factors really determine what kind of performance you’ll see. The first is a supported 3D graphics card with at least 32 MB of RAM. At best, the program will run adequately without one that uses “Mesa” (all software rendered OpenGL 3D graphics). The other limiting factor is your network connection.

Graphics rendering with Mesa alone is slow, but the idea of trying to use Google Earth with its minimum recommended connection speed of 128Kbps would keep me from ever running it.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to run it with less than the 3Mbps download speed my ADSL Internet connection gives me.

Downloading and installing Google Earth are both straightforward.

It comes as a bin file. To install it, you simply run it from a terminal window as a shell program. So, I simply typed in:

sh /home/sjvn/Desktop/GoogleEarthLinux.bin

And in less time than it took me to write this paragraph, the program was installed.

Once in place, I had one unexpected crash on the Ubuntu system, but it otherwise has run without a hitch.

You can, however, run into trouble with either using an older version of the glibc library or with a case of the drivers for either ATI or NVIDIA 3D graphics cards conflicting with glibc’s pthread. The quick and dirty fix, in any of these cases, is to export the environment variable LD_ASSUME_KERNEL=2.4.10 to the system before running Google Earth.

A better approach would be to upgrade your graphic card drivers, and make sure that you’re running glibc 2.3.5 (or later) with NPTL (Native POSIX Thread Library) support.

A minor problem that some users have run into is that the program really wants to use the Bitstream Vera Sans font. Personally, I found that with, or without, that font, the program still needs some fine-tuning with its character display. It was never bad enough to be unusable, or even difficult, but the text information was simply not as clear as it should have been.

Despite these quibbles, I still have to say I’ve seen shipping products that weren’t as impressive as this beta. I’m pleased that Google Earth is finally here for Linux, and even more pleased that Google is continuing to bring more programs to desktop Linux.

A version of this story first appeared in Desktop Linux.

Leave a Reply