ArcGIS Explorer vs. ArcGIS Online: A Side by Side Comparison

Tracy Dash


Two of Esri’s principal GIS viewing products, ArcGIS Explorer Desktop and ArcGIS Online, offer a variety of tools for both business and personal use. However, there are some key differences between the two programs to examine before deciding which one is more suitable for your needs.

Esri’s website markets Explorer as a GIS viewer to “explore, visualize, and share GIS information.” The program is designed for one “authoritative” source to distribute data to a broad audience.

ArcGIS Online, on the other hand, is designed with “interactive mapping” in mind. Esri designed ArcGIS Online with ready-to-use content and applications to be used efficiently with the web, smartphones, and tablets.

Primarily, both products offer a free service. Explorer is free to both download and use. To register with ArcGIS online, one of two accounts is required: a free public account for non-commercial use or a subscription account for either commercial or non-commercial use. Customers can choose between four subscription accounts depending on the number of users they wish to include: five users, 50 users, 100 users, or 100 users and more (this requires a customized plan). While public accounts can manage content, add data, share maps, and store data in Esri’s cloud, a subscription account is necessary for storing a large amount of data.

Both Explorer and ArcGIS online offer a number of basemaps, such as imagery, street, and political boundary maps.

The two programs make adding data simple and quick. Both Explorer and a subscription account to ArcGIS Online allow the user to display a large amount of data. Explorer supports conventional GIS data such as geodatabases, shapefiles, KML/KMZs, and more.  ArcGIS Online, however, opens a multitude of data types, from PDFs to files for mobile applications.

Furthermore, both programs work with additional mapping services such as ArcGIS for Server, Open Geospatial Consortium, and GeoRSS feeds.

3D viewing is included in each program. While Explorer has an integrated 2D and 3D display, ArcGIS Online offers 3D viewing through the CityEngine Web Viewer.  CityEngine was created with urban planning, architecture, and design in mind. The web viewer is a web app for viewing 3D scenes in a browser. Since the app is based on WebGL technology, the user is able to view 3D images without installing extra plug-ins.

Both applications also offer the option to include additional tools. In Explorer, these are known as ‘add-ins,’ and in ArcGIS Online, they are called applications. ArcGIS Online includes both ready-to-use apps, which are included with the user’s account, and downloadable apps from the ArcGIS Marketplace. The ArcGIS Marketplace is a “one-stop destination for apps and data services provided by authorized Esri partners, distributors, and Esri.”

ArcGIS Explorer Screenshot
ArcGIS Explorer Screenshot

Popular apps include Esri Insights, a JavaScript-based web app that enables users to look at data in most areas of the world, and World Demographics, a set of demographic and purchasing data for countries worldwide.

Both Explorer and ArcGIS Online are localized. In Explorer, all interface elements are available in six different languages. ArcGIS Online, however, is available in ten languages.

While maps in Explorer can be emailed directly from the program, ArcGIS Online maps are easily sharable in a number of formats. It’s simple to embed online maps into blog posts, web pages, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

ArcGIS Online screenshot.
ArcGIS Online screenshot.

It’s also possible to perform spatial analyses within both applications. Explorer offers the option to conduct simple analyses such as visibility, modeling, and proximity searches, while ArcGIS Online can calculate drive times, create buffers, and more.

Ultimately, the largest differences between the two programs are price, ease of sharing maps, and customization. Either way, both products offer suitable options for use with other Esri products.

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About the author
Tracy Dash
Tracy Dash is a GIS specialist with a surveying company near Jacksonville, Florida. Dash holds an undergraduate degree in Sustainable Design, and a graduate certificate in GIS.

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