GIF source: Google Earth

Google Earth is one of the purest, most beautiful gifts the company has ever given us. Today, the globe-trotting software received a major overhaul that will delight hardcore fans and remind others that it’s still a great way to throw away hours of your life.

It’s been two years since the search giant last gave Google Earth a major update and it seems as if the virtual globe has become a new priority for the company. Last October, a new virtual reality version was introduced and now several additions have made the application extra sticky.

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One of the biggest changes is that it no longer has to be a separate app that you download. On a desktop, you can just go to the URL in Chrome and start exploring. This may seem minor but you’ll now be seeing a lot more of Google Earth because there’s no need to open a separate app and sharing is an emphasized feature. With the Android app, you can quickly share a digital postcard with your contacts. The ability to use the service in browser is also a big deal for Chromebook users who were previously locked out. An iOS app is will be out soon as well as support for other browsers. (Google Earth Pro is still an app and it’s still outdated.)

Above all of the other updates, the most significant overall is the new “Voyager” feature, which is available by clicking the ship’s wheel icon. Google has partnered with organizations like BBC Earth and DigitalGlobe to create little informative experiences. Clicking on “Endangered Species Around the World” will show you the locations of various endangered species, give you photos and a “knowledge card” gives some background about them. It’s kind of like Wikipedia mixed with Google Earth. Other Voyager stories feature regular and 3D videos. “Itineraries” offer guided tours of cities and a lot more information has been added to major destinations. So far, there are a little over 50 stories but Google plans to add more every week. There are also 20,000 destinations with knowledge cards. It seems all but inevitable that a crowdsourcing model will be implemented eventually to flesh this tool out.

Fukuoka, Japan in Google Earth

If you want to go off the beaten trail, there’s an “I’m feeling lucky” button. The first time I clicked it, I got Fukuoka Tower in Fukuoka, Japan. Cool tower. It was also a great destination for trying out the new 3D features that allow you to explore renderings of major cities and landmarks from any angle. We’re still not close to photorealism yet but it has a lovely Simcity-esque quality.

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All-in-all it’s a solid refresh for Google Earth and I probably lost about 45 minutes of my night playing with it. But “lost” is really the wrong word. I visited some far-flung locations, learned some factoids about the lined seahorse and was once again reminded why Earth is the best planet. I also learned that my neighbors have a pool that I never noticed before.

[Google, Engadget]