Using the Marble mapping tool

World Atlas

Article from Issue 177/2015

Although Marble might look like a rather bare-bones map application, it has a few tricks up its sleeve that make it a useful mapping tool.

With the proliferation of map apps on mobile devices, you will be forgiven for thinking that desktop map applications like Marble [1] have outlived their usefulness. However, even if an Android smartphone with Google Maps or OsmAnd [2] is your tool of choice for navigation and mapping, don't write off Marble just yet. This desktop map application might not replace Google Maps, but it provides a viable alternative that has its advantages.

Unlike Google Maps, which is based on proprietary map data, Marble uses OpenStreetMap (OSM) as its primary map source. OSM is built by a global community of contributors (you can think of OSM as Wikipedia for maps), and all of the project's map data is open and free to use. The quality of OSM maps is excellent, and the project often beats Google Maps at its own game, providing the most up-to-date and complete maps. For obvious reasons, OSM doesn't provide a street view option or high-resolution satellite imagery, but Marble taps on other data sources to provide useful information, such as points of interest, photos, weather info, satellites, and more.

The application also features navigation functionality, so it can be used for planning trips and finding directions. As a native desktop application, Marble is lightning fast, and it features a user-friendly interface that puts all essential features at your fingertips. In short, Marble might not replace Google Maps or a smartphone with a map app, but it definitely deserves a closer look.

Getting to Know Marble

Marble is available in the software repositories of many popular Linux distributions, so you can easily install the application using your distro's package manager. On Debian and Ubuntu (as well as their derivatives), Marble can be installed by running the

apt-get install marble

command as root.

Marble is a hybrid application that combines globe and map functionality. This arrangement becomes immediately apparent when you launch the application; in the default Globe View mode, Marble looks more like Google Earth than Google Maps. The Globe View mode with the default map can serve as an educational and informational atlas. Marble provides several ways of navigating the globe and the maps.

To rotate the globe with the mouse, click and hold the globe, then drag it in the desired direction. Using the scroll wheel, you can zoom in and out. Instead of the mouse, you can use the dedicated navigation box in the lower right-hand corner of the main working area. Marble also supports keyboard navigation: The arrow keys rotate the globe, and the + and – keys zoom in and out. Marble doesn't limit you to the default atlas, and the application comes bundled with a handful of alternative maps. This includes a political map, various temperature (Figure 1) and precipitation maps, and the spectacular Earth at Night map.

Figure 1: Marble comes bundled with several maps, including temperature maps.

To replace the current map with another one, simply choose the desired map in the Map View panel. Marble also makes it easy to install third-party maps from the official map repository. Choose File | Download Maps (or press Ctrl+N). This step opens the Install Maps dialog (Figure 2) with a list of all available maps. Press the Install button next to the desired map. Once the map has been installed, it appears in the list of available maps in the Map View panel. By the way, the repository contains not only various maps of Earth but also of other planets in the solar system, so you can use the application to explore Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn. Moreover, the historical maps transform Marble into an excellent educational tool.

Figure 2: The official map repository contains a handful of maps that you can easily add to Marble.

The globe view is great for using Marble as an atlas, but you can easily switch to a variety of supported map views that let you use Marble as a regular map tool. To do so, click on the appropriate button in the Map View panel and select the desired view from the drop-down list. The Mercator view is the best option for working with maps in Marble.

Marble can pull data from different online services and display it on the globe or the map as overlays (Figure 3). You can enable and disable individual services using the View | Online Services menu. The Satellites service lets you view the satellites orbiting around the Earth (this works best in the Globe view). If you click on a satellite, you can view its brief info. Enabling the Weather service displays current weather conditions around the world, which can come in useful when you need to check the weather at home or at your destination.

Figure 3: Using data from online resources, Marble can display various data on the map, such as temperatures and satellites.

As the name suggests, the Photos service lets you view photos of specific locations on the map. To perform its magic, the service uses public photos from Flickr containing geographical coordinates. All found photos are displayed as thumbnails on the map, and you can view a larger version of a photo by clicking on its thumbnail. The Wikipedia service works in a similar manner, but instead of photos, it pulls information from Wikipedia and presents it in clickable icons on the map (Figure 4). Combined, these two services offer a great way to explore locations and plan your journeys.

Figure 4: Marble can also show photos from Flickr and useful info from Wikipedia.

When using Marble, keep in mind that the application makes extensive use of symbols to convey various information, such as population in cities, places of interest, boundaries, and so on. The Legend tab in the sidebar provides a list of all the symbols with their explanations, which can help you make sense of the information on the map.

Searching and Bookmarking

Marble wouldn't be very useful if it didn't have search capabilities. Fortunately, the application features powerful search functionality accessible via the dedicated Search panel (Figure 5). The Search field doesn't limit you to a specific search query format, so you can define a query practically any way you want. For example, you can specify a query containing a city and country, city and/or street name, or street name and number. Separators such as commas aren't needed, either: In most cases, the system is clever enough to figure out what's what.

Figure 5: Marble features powerful search functionality.

The search feature has another rather clever trick up its sleeve. If you click on the binoculars icon in the search field, you can choose between the Global Search and Area Search options. The former performs searches in the entire world, and the latter limits searches to the currently displayed area. For example, if you search for "mohrenstrasse" in Global Search mode, the result will include matches from different German cities. Now, zoom in on Berlin, switch to Area Search mode, and run the search again. This time, the result includes a match from the Berlin area.

Searches in Marble are not limited to places: You can use Marble to find points of interests as well. Again, you can use the free-form approach to define your search criteria. Type, for example, "pizza" and press Enter, and you should see a list of all matching results. Obviously, running a global search for pizza places is not particularly practical, which is where the Area Search mode can come in rather handy. Locate the desired area on the map, run the "pizza" query, and you should see all pizza places in the area.

To make it easier to keep tabs on different places and locations, Marble lets you use bookmarks (Figure 6). Bookmarking the current location is easy: Make sure that the crosshairs point directly to the spot you want to bookmark, then choose Bookmarks | Add Bookmark (or press Ctrl+B). Give the bookmark a name and enter an optional description. The bookmarking feature in Marble supports folders, so you can neatly organize bookmarks into groups. For example, you might create separate folders for places to eat, sightseeing, hotels, and so on. You can create folders on the fly using the Add Folder button. Once you've done that, click Save to save the bookmark.

Figure 6: The bookmarking feature in Marble makes it possible to bookmark locations and places for faster access.

Marble also features a no-frills bookmark manager for organizing, editing, and deleting bookmarks. To use the tool, choose Bookmarks | Manage Bookmarks. The bookmark manager can also be used to export and import bookmarks, which offers a simple way to back up bookmarks and move them between different Marble installations. However, the application provides another, and more convenient, way to keep bookmarks and routes in sync: Marble can synchronize the data via an ownCloud server (Figure 7). To enable and configure this feature, choose Settings | Configure Marble Virtual Globe and switch to the Synchronization section. Then, enable the available synchronization options, specify the required server connection info (use the Test Login button to test the connection settings), and press OK.

Figure 7: Marble can synchronize bookmarks and routes using an ownCloud server.

Routing with Marble

Marble's routing functionality makes the tool useful for finding directions (Figure 8). All routing features in Marble are tucked under the Routing tab of the sidebar. Finding a route from one place to another is easy: Specify the starting point and the destination in the appropriate fields. Here, too, you can use free-form queries containing anything from a country name to a specific street name and number. If the queries return multiple matches, you have the option to pick the one you want.

Figure 8: The routing functionality makes it possible to get directions from point A to point B.

You also can use the currently displayed location or bookmarked location as start or destination. To do this, click on the A or B icon in the search field and choose either the From Map or From Bookmark item. Once you've specified the starting point and the destination, select the desired means of transportation; click the Get Directions button, and the system calculates the optimal route, along with step-by-step navigation instructions.

To fly over the display route, just press the Preview Route button. The Save Route button lets you save the route as a file in the KML format, which you can use with any other application or service that supports KML files. If you've enabled the synchronization functionality, you can also save the route to the cloud. Additionally, the File | Download Region command makes it possible to download maps and routes for offline use (Figure 9). Choose this command; specify whether you want to download the currently viewed region, a route, or a user-defined area; enter the minimum and maximum zoom levels; and press OK. To use Marble without an Internet connection, choose File | Work Offline.

Figure 9: Marble lets you download maps for offline use.

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