Google Earth delivers miracle on 34th Street, and 65th Street, and...

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It may not cover all of the good boys and girls in Manhattan, but Google Earth's 3-D option has bulked up enough to make a virtual traveler feel a little like an airborne Santa.

The 3-D-layer option in Google Earth is old news, but it wasn't very thickly populated in its early incarnation. However, a data increase earlier this month adds thousands of photo-textured buildings to the original set, which included pretty landmarks such as the Empire State Building and the Woolworth Building, but not more prosaic locales such as, say, the intersection of First Avenue and 65th Street.

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As you can see from the screen capture, through the miracle of modern technology First and 65th is now revealed to be perfectly hideous, with an enormous newish condo building on the east side of the street towering over older, smaller brownstones.

For buildings rendered in three dimensions, as the condo building is, Google Earth projects a photo of each building over a grey-box frame representing it. Some undistinguished low-rise buildings -- those on the left side of the street are 5- and 6-story affairs -- maintain their previous 2-D rendering, though we saw that our ancient 6-story apartment complex around the corner is also 3-D.

We found much of Manhattan below 110th to be pretty thoroughly rendered, though uptown enclaves such as Washington Heights and parts of West Harlem are mysteriously underrepresented. (Confidential to Google: Skipping the Heights but 3-D rendering the George Washington Bridge is what we call "bridge-and-tunnel thinking.") A number of buildings in the Herald Square area still lack their overlays, which could be disconcerting for Santa on his way to Macy's but indicates to the rest of us that more images are on the way.

Google Earth itself has one major thing on the way out. The company announced earlier this month that the $20/year Plus version, which included support for GPS and some spreadsheet inputs, is discontinued. Those functions are currently available through third-party developers for the free version of Google Earth, and exist already in the $400/year Pro version.

One's always sort of surprised when Google Earth does what it does as quickly as it does. Rendering speeds were for the most part agreeable, though we noticed considerable effort from our machine and a lot of flicker in general, especially as we continued to poke around. A few edifices, such as the building on the north end of Union Square Park, appear to be a bit taller in 3D than they are in real life. (But our hats are off to whoever thought to put up the flags above the entrance to the Waldorf Astoria.)

The oddest omission, though, is in the controls themselves -- Google, we want to fly. Specifically, we were able to ascend and descend over the streets of Manhattan with no trouble, but any flight-sim vet wants to be able to pitch and yaw a bit too without freaking out the computer. With renderings slowing down as we moved along, casting our eyes up and down buildings turned out to provide less detail than it was worth for the most part. And late in our session Google Earth lost patience entirely and dropped us near the East River; we've had cab rides like that, and it's only slightly less annoying when it's happening onscreen.

The inevitable blurring in closeup made us feel less like Santa and more like one of those wistful Wim Wenders angels. Still, if your stay-cation plans this holiday keep you away from the Capital of the World, the new collection of renderings makes for an addictive holiday diversion.

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