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Hey, ArcGIS Explorer Desktop Has Turned Out Pretty Good!

Yeah, that’s not news to a lot of you, but it is to me. My last significant exposure to ESRI’s ArcGIS Explorer digital globe software (Windows only) was back when it came out, quite a few years ago. I tried it, and found it inferior to Google Earth in performance in 3D, and too complicated to bother learning it; since then, I’ve stuck strictly with Google Earth. A recent post on the free Garmin Tool application, which creates Garmin Custom Map overlays using ArcGIS Explorer, forced me to look at it again, and I was surprised to discover that it’s turned into a pretty cool, and pretty useful tool. Not perfect – the 3D performance is still pretty weak compared to Google Earth, and the out-of-the-box configuration isn’t as strong. But it has it’s own very strong set of features, and when used in 2D mode, is a good addition to any geography toolbox. Nice re-organization of tools/features in a MS-Word-like ribbon format, much better than the original interface.

  • A good selection of basemap imagery sets, including Bing Maps (aerial/road/hybrid), general world imagery/topographic/road maps, OSM, general terrain shading and National Geographic shaded topo maps:


No vector basemap data, like the roads you’ll find in Google Earth.

  • Add raster/vector data from multiple data sources and types: ArcGIS Online, GIS web services (ArcGIS servers, GeoRSS, WMS), ArcGIS lyr files, shapefiles, KML, GeoDatabases, text files, georeferenced raster imagery (e.g. GeoTiffs), and GPS data files (GPX).
  • Vector editing tools: Point, Line Area, Circle, Rectangle.
  • Export data in KML format (for user-created vector data), nmc map content packages for other ArcGIS Explorer users, or lpk layer files for ArcGIS.
  • Driving directions/routing
  • Add links to non-geographic data (documents, images)
  • Measurement tools for distance/area
  • Create a slide presentation by saving a series of map views
  • Time/flight animations

Oh the “needs work” side:

  • In the default install, I can’t find a way to set shapefile colors/sizes/symbols to depend on attribute values. For example, if you have an area shapefile with multiple subareas, each depicting an area with a separate property, they’re all displayed with the same color. For a GIS data viewer, this is a major missing feature. No selection/filtering by attribute either. The only way to view attribute data is through an on-screen pop-up; no tabular views of the DBF data.
  • I initially thought there was no adjustable transparency for raster/vector layers, but it’s under the Appearance ribbon tab, instead of in the Properties window for each layer, which is where you’d normally expect to find it.
  • Zoom and tilt controls are the opposite of every other digital globe I’ve used; scroll the mouse wheel away from you to zoom in, click the center button and move the mouse away from you to tilt the view to an oblique angle. And boy, can it be unresponsive sometimes in 3D mode! I usually only use the program in 2D mode only, so as not to have to deal with those issues.
  • There’s a nice interface for querying/previewing datasets available in ArcGIS Online, but there’s no comparable gallery of pre-packaged content files (NMC/NMF files) anywhere on the ArcGIS website, at least that I could find.
  • The app comes with the ability to add GIS-like analysis tools, as well as utilities like the Garmin Tool mentioned above (created with .Net and a free SDK kit from ESRI). By default, it comes with a buffer tool only; the process for adding additional tools isn’t explained very clearly in the help file. And while there’s a fair number of tools available, they’re hard to find; there doesn’t seem to be any systematic directory or catalog of them on the ArcGIS site. With some work, I tracked down some of them, and will post on them tomorrow.

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2 Responses to “Hey, ArcGIS Explorer Desktop Has Turned Out Pretty Good!”

  1. 1 Jon Becker

    What date was this published? Or another way, what version of AGX are you commenting on? I think Build 1500 is the current version. I’ve had mixed success with AGX so far: in theory it’s great but seems to crash a lot on a lot of different computers we have here, especially when trying to utilize layer files pointing to geoDBs in SDE.

  2. 2 Leszek Pawlowicz

    I’m using Build 1500 as well; haven’t seen the problems you’ve had, though I haven’t connected to geoDBs.

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