Updates for worldwide virtual mapping applications are like buses: you wait ages for one then two come along at once. We had a spare minute this morning, so we thought we'd take a look at Virtual Earth 3D, released on Monday, and the fourth version of Google Earth, which dropped on 1 November.
Both apps let you fly over a virtual globe, travelling freely between locations as you view satellite images of just about everything. But there are notable differences.
Unlike Virtual Earth, Virtual Earth 3D includes a fairly wide selection of landmarks rendered in full 3D. Microsoft uses an aircraft equipped with a Vexcel aerial camera to capture bird's-eye footage, and just look at the results: we can now gawk at 3D models of the London Eye, Chelsea Bridge and Battersea power station, among others.
Also in Virtual Earth 3D are 'virtual billboards' -- hoardings that float above buildings showing adverts for real-world companies. There are no ads in the UK as yet, but US TV network Fox has placed an ad above a cinema in downtown San Francisco. It's only a matter of time before similar virtual ads reach Britain.
Google Earth, meanwhile, has its own set of new features, but it only takes a couple of minutes use to realise that Google's baby doesn't have nearly as many 3D attractions. Check out how Virtual Earth 3D renders the London Eye in full 3D (top left) compared to Google Earth's fuzz-o-vision.
We think Google Earth's standard mapping images are slightly more rubbish than those in Virtual Earth 3D. We navigated to St Katharine Docks (just behind Crave Towers) and it failed to capture the detail of the boats quite as well as the Microsoft product.
What Google Earth does bring to the party is improved icons, more easily accessible pushpins to annotate your maps and a set of drawing tools that let you sketch figures (polygons, etc) on the landscape. You could theoretically use these to construct 3D models of buildings. Google Earth is also noticeably faster than Virtual Earth 3D, but we're not surprised, given that Virtual Earth 3D runs in a browser.