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The world on your desktop

Google Earth and MSN Virtual Earth combine satellite images with local search information

Two services now bring the world to your desktop via satellite images. You can pan and zoom to get a bird's-eye view of a travel route, a prospective vacation destination, or maybe just the stomping grounds of your youth.

Google Earth and MSN Virtual Earth (the latter live as of today) also provide details of restaurants, shops, schools and other local spots. Both are currently in beta, or trial, phase.

Google Earth provides medium-resolution images of the entire globe (high resolution for most of the US and other areas of North America, Europe and Asia).

Virtual Earth's coverage is more limited, but should soon sport images that look as if they were captured by a camera hovering just above the skyline – the next best thing to being there.

Zoom in and around Google Earth’s satellite images using your mouse or the navigation controls at the bottom of the screen. Select the businesses or landmarks you want to see by checking them in the pane on the left.

Google Earth is a downloadable Windows desktop application that links information from the Google Local service to satellite images from Keyhole, a service the company acquired last October. Its razzle-dazzle graphics require at least a 500-MHz Pentium III PC with 128MB of RAM (512MB recommended) and 200MB of free hard-disk space (2GB recommended).

It's free for personal use; the Plus (about £11 a year) and Pro (about £171 a year) versions add tech support and other options.

Using Google Earth is flat-out fun. You can use your mouse to spin the virtual globe in any direction, or you can enter a place name, an address, or even a description ("best hotel in Manhattan") in the search box under the 'Fly To' tab and then zoom like a superhero to that location. The type of info displayed varies depending on which Layers options you choose (you can pinpoint hotels, parks, or even census data, for example).

Unfortunately, at present the local-search part of Google Earth doesn't always work well. For example, we entered "Mt. St. Helens" during testing and inexplicably received results for Lincoln, Nebraska.

Right-clicking the location of a business on Virtual Earth’s satellite images brings up a window listing its address, telephone number, and links to driving directions. MSN Virtual Earth has a much more unfinished feel.

It currently covers only the US and major Canadian cities, and offers fewer local search options than Google Earth. However, the MSN product opens in any browser, and connects with other MSN services with a single click, allowing you to email or otherwise share satellite images, maps and your local-search results quickly and simply.

The service's aerial images – to be provided through an agreement with Pictometry – will eventually offer 45-degree-angle views of buildings and other metropolitan locations. Apart from looking neat, the images help you find your way in unfamiliar locales.

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