Esri ArcGIS Software Review and Guide

Esri ArcGIS Software Overview - The Basics
Esri ArcGIS Software Overview - The Basics

Last Updated: Jul 9, 2017

An Esri ArcGIS Software Overview

If you are looking for a simple overview of Esri ArcGIS Software, your search has ended.

Because we can get you in the swing of things with our foolproof guide to Esri ArcGIS software.

Learning the basics of ArcGIS doesn’t have to be difficult. That’s why we deliver you a no non-sense ArcGIS for Dummies overview about all the extensions, license types, toolboxes and toolbars that make up Esri ArcGIS software.

We understand you have to learn to float before you can swim. Let’s get started:

Visualize and Manage Data with ArcMap and ArcCatalog

It’s so fine-tuned that its origin dates back to the 1970s.

It has had over 40 years of refinements… and it’s only gets better with time:

Have you been trying to figure out what the differences are between ArcMap, ArcCatalog, ArcGlobe and ArcScene?

ArcMap is the centerpiece software because its focus is on quick spatial analysis, feature digitization and map development in a 2D environment.

But how do you manage the data and metadata (information about the data)?

Data management is a colossal task in GIS. ArcCatalog lets you manage databases and metadata in a windows file explorer environment. However, you only see GIS files like shapefiles, geodatabases and raster files.

ArcMap ArcMap is the primary GIS software environment with a customizable user interface for spatial analysis tools and cartographic output. (MXD)
ArcCatalogArcCatalog is used to manage geographic data and metadata. It has an interface similar to windows file explorer with a focus on spatial files.

Make Objects Come to Life with ArcGlobe and ArcScene

Nothing against two-dimensions, but sometimes it feels good to hoist the anchor and sail away.

Most people in the GIS industry don’t experiment using the 3D possibilities that come with ArcGIS:

Because the world we live in is three dimensions, ArcScene and ArcGlobe give you the option to make objects come to life in such a way. But 3D software is only available if the 3D Analyst extension is turned on.

ArcGlobeArcGlobe is a global three-dimensional visualization and analysis environment (3D analyst) specializing in global datasets and larger study areas. (3DD)
ArcSceneArcScene is a 3D feature and raster viewer part of the Esri ArcGIS suite of applications (3D analyst) specializing in small study area scenes. (SXD)

The Anatomy of ArcMap: Everything You Need to Know About the User Interface

Have you ever asked yourself what all the different components that make up ArcMap? ArcMap is crammed full of options for you to fully customize and map data with an incredible amount of confidence.

When you open ArcMap and save a map, it’s saved as a map document with a MXD extension. When you reopen the MXD, all the data, display window and everything will be exactly the same as it was.

Let’s go through all the windows, toolbars and menus in a map document:

Table of Contents

Table of ContentsHow do you know what map layers are being displayed in your view? The table of contents is a container that stores vectors, rasters and tables. Within the table of contents, is your data frame that houses spatial data. Pro Tip: If your table of contents disappears in ArcMap, you can make it appear by clicking Windows > Table of Contents

Within the table of contents, you can list data by drawing order, by source, by visibility and by selection. The options button gives the capability to change the appearance of the table of contents.

Display Window

Display WindowWhen you turn on/off a layer in your table of contents, the layer will be visible/non-visible in the display window. The display window can be set to data view and layout view.

Viewing Modes

ArcMap ModesThere are four buttons in the bottom left corner of the display window. These buttons change exactly how the display window will show data.

The four viewing modes in Esri ArcMap software are:

  • The data view gives a full viewing screen and is for data exploration.
  • In layout view, you set up exactly how your map output will appear. You set up cartographic elements such as legends, neatline and annotations.
  • The refresh button is used when data has not loaded properly in the display window.
  • The pause button stops data that is loading in the display window.


ArcToolboxAll the tools you need for geoprocessing are in the ArcToolbox window. Each toolbox is conveniently organized into toolsets which is a set of tools for a specific a task. If you want to convert data from polygon to raster, this tool can be found in the Conversion Toolset.

Pro Tip #1: If your ArcToolbox disappears, click Geoprocessing > ArcToolbox.
Pro Tip #2: If you can’t find the tool in ArcToolbox, do a search Geoprocessing > Search for Tools.


Arcmap toolbars Toolbars are strips of icons used to perform certain functions in ArcMap. For example, the Editor toolbar allows users to rotate, split, reshape, cut and sketch points, lines and polygons.

Pro Tip: Add additional toolbars by clicking Toolbar > Customize.

Menu Bar


The menu bar consists of pull-downs in order to access commonly used tasks or windows. It provides a very simple way for users to intuitively select from a list of choices of commands.

For example, the Geoprocessing menu gives quick access to the 6 most commonly used GIS processing tools: buffer, clip, intersect, union, merge and dissolve. You can also enable windows in this drop-down menu for tool searching, arctoolbox, environment settings, geoprocessing results, model builder and python windows.

Extend Capabilities using Extensions

Arcmap Extensions

  • The 3D Analyst extension provides tools for surface modeling and 3D visualization. Enables 3D Analyst toolbox.
  • The ArcScan extension supports the creation of automated vector features from raster images. Enables ArcScan toolbar.
  • The Geostatistical Analysis extension provide a range of spatial analytical tools to explore and predict uncertainties. Enables Geostatistical Analyst Toolbox.
  • The Network Analysis tools support the maintenance and analysis of network datasets. Enables Network Analyst Toolbox.
  • The Publisher extension supports the creation of published map documents in the form of PMF files. Enables Publisher toolbar.
  • The Schematics extensions automatically generates schematic diagrams from network data stored in geodatabases. Enables Schematics toolbox.
  • The Spatial Analyst extension provides spatial analysis tools with raster data. Enables Spatial Analyst toolbox.
  • The Tracking Analyst extension supports temporal analysis using historic and real-time data. Enables Tracking Analyst toolbox.

ArcToolbox: Geoprocessing Tools at Your Fingertips


  • 3D Analysis Tools provides tools for surface modeling, analysis and management with three-dimensional vector data.
  • Analysis Tools contains a powerful set of tools that perform the most fundamental GIS operations. Buffer, overlays and proximity tools are part of the analysis tools.
  • Cartography Tools provides options to refine data for the purpose of the production of maps. Grids, graphics and graticules are among the items supported in this toolbox.
  • Conversion Tools supports the alteration between different types of file formats.
  • Data Interoperability Tools assists in the conversion of file types using Safe Software’s FME technology.
  • Data Management Tools is a set of tools designed to develop, manage, and maintain vector and raster data structures.
  • Geocoding Tools supports the process of assigning a location with a descriptive location’s address (such as street name, postal/zip code or census tract).
  • Geostatistical Analyst Tools contains a rich set of tools for creating continuous surfaces for spatial visualization and analysis.
  • Linear Referencing Tools provides a comprehensive set of tools for linear reference systems that store relative positions along existing line features such as roads, rivers and sewer networks.
  • Multidimension Tools are designed for netCDF raster formats.
  • Network Analyst Tools supports the analysis of network datasets including closest facility, service area, origin-destination cost matrix, vehicle routing problem, etc.
  • Schematics Tools are used to create, update, and export diagrams or create schematic folders.
  • Server Tools manages ArcGIS Server map and globe caches for faster display.
  • Spatial Analysis Tools is a comprehensive set of modelling tools for raster and vector data.
  • Spatial Statistics Tools are designed for statistical analysis such as spatial distributions, patterns, processes, and relationships.
  • Tracking Analysis Tools prepares temporal data to be used with the ArcGIS Tracking Analyst extension.

Licensed to Map the World in ArcMap Basic, Editor and ArcInfo

ArcGIS License Levels
ArcGIS License Levels

Esri ArcGIS software has three product levels with different capabilities. In ArcGIS Administrator, you set your license type. You can go from zero (ArcView – Basic) to hero (ArcInfo – Advanced):

Basic (ArcView): With the basic license, users miss out on some of the extra functionality found in the standard and advanced products. ArcView is still chalk-full of GIS processing tools. However, it lacks in some of the geodatabase, conversion and advanced manipulation tools.

Standard (ArcEditor): With ArcEditor, you get all of the state-of-the-art data creation and manipulation abilities found in ArcView. ArcEditor is designed to allow users to easily handcraft their data with extra editing capabilities and multi-user editing abilities.

Advanced (ArcInfo): ArcInfo is the highest licensed product in Esri ArcGIS software. It gives you the complete list of tools readily available at your fingertips. This includes advanced feature manipulation, processing and data translation.

A Look Into ArcCatalog and Data Management

We all know a GIS software stores, visualizes, collects, captures and manipulates geographic data. ArcCatalog puts emphasis on storing and manipulating spatial data with a windows explorer style. ArcCatalog recognizes the various formats used in GIS – geodatabases, raster and vector files, map documents (MXD) and metadata. All the files that make up a shapefile, are seen as one file (as opposed to multiple) in ArcCatalog.

ArcCatalog gives you an interface to manage both spatial and non-spatial data. It’s easy to browse for spatial data because of its tree view. The tree view also helps with the preparation of geodatabases. Often, features datasets with relationships and topology rules are set up in geodatabases. What’s the easiest way to do this? The tree view really makes it quick and easy to see the dynamics of geodatabases. And if you want to visualize the data? The preview tab can give you that option

Possibly, the most common task in this software may be the creation and manipulation of metadata. The metadata editor can be accessed in the description tab. From here, you can enter titles, tags, summaries, abstracts and credits about what the data represents.


Fix and Compress Map Documents

You hear little buzz about the Document Defragmenter or MXD Doctor. But these stand-alone tools are part of a fresh Esri ArcGIS software installation.

You’re going to want to use these tools in several instances. These two tools gives you the capability to reduce storage and fix broken links in Map Documents.

ArcGIS AdministratorArcGIS Administrator is the license administrator where you can specify your license types (basic, standard and advanced – concurrent or single use)
MXD DoctorMXD Doctor is a stand-alone utility that analyzes broken Map Documents (MXD). The Document Defragmenter reduces file sizes for MXDs.

Spatial Analyst Tools

1. Conditional statements that you can do in raster calculator,
2. Density- kernel density takes known values such as population from points and lines and spreads them across the landscape.
3. Distance consists of “Cost” tools and “Euclidean Distance” tools, summing up the cost and finding the optimal choice route.
4. Extraction- Ways to clip rasters (polygons, your own point values, etc) or add raster values to points.
5. Generalization- Expand, shrink, thin, aggregate, filter raster cells.
6. Groundwater for flow, velocity and particle track.
7. Hydrology for detecting flow direction, accumulation and length. As well as contributing areas of watersheds and stream orders.
8. Interpolation ways to interpolate points into rasters such as IDW, kriging, natural neighbor and spline.
9. Local tools for determining frequency and other comparison between sets of rasters.
10. Map Algebra is a raster calculator that does raster math.
11. Math applies a mathematical operation to a raster such as trigonometric, arithmetic or logical operators including boolean.
12. Multivariate Tools is for multi-band rasters with classification algorithms and reducing redundancy with PCA.
13. Neighborhood tools calculates statistics based on cells that are within close proximity.
14. Overlay Tools you can overlay multiple rasters and do fuzzy or weighted sums.
15. Raster Creation enables you to create random or constant rasters
16. Reclass Tools lets you reclassify rasters by ranges or tables
17. Solar Radiation – For incoming solar radiation
18. Surface- For elevation surfaces such as contours, aspect, hillshade and viewsheds
19. Zonal – Calculates geometry and statistics by zone

The History of ArcGIS

  • Esri is on the map. It provides first commercial statewide GIS for Maryland in 1973.
  • PC ARC/INFO released for individual personal computers (command line based) in 1987.
  • In 1991, ArcView 1.0 is a fresh GIS software approach for a GUI desktop environment.
  • ArcView 2.0 combined with the object-oriented Avenue programming. This product was developed using a multi-platform windowing environment in 1993.
  • In 1995, ArcView 3.0 was the first full-featured GIS functionality. It included a geoprocessing wizard with extensions for raster and 3d processing.
  • ArcInfo 8

  • ArcGIS 8.0x: was first released in 1999 combining ArcView and ArcInfo. One of the key changes was that it strayed away from Avenue and ARC Macro Language (AML) in favor of Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripting. Another key feature was the introduction of its proprietary Geodatabase. Geodatabases are relational database management systems which can store a variety of formats including vector, raster and tabular data. Relationships can be created with primary keys for optimal data handling and efficiency. In geodatabases, data can be checked for errors using topology rules. Other improvements were on-the-fly projections and being able to store annotation in the data frame and map document.

    Example: ArcGIS 8.0, 8.1, 8.2 and 8.3.

  • ArcGIS 9.x

  • ArcGIS 9.0x: In 2004, ArcGIS 9.0x was released with several improvements. The geoprocessing environment including overlay tools like buffering, clipping and intersecting spatial data could be accessed through the Python scripting language. Model builder was introduced where a series of geoprocessing tools could be used in succession to automate redundant tasks. Other key changes was integration with Google Maps and dynamic map publishing with tools such as data driven pages.

    Example: ArcGIS 9.0, 9.1, 9.2 and 9.3.

  • Esri ArcGIS

  • ArcGIS 10.0x: In 2010, Esri released ArcGIS 10.0. One of the major improvements was its intuitive editing tools by adding feature templates and easier snapping. This version of ArcGIS introduced better raster capabilities with the Image Analysis Toolbar. This included tools for raster clipping, NDVI analysis and image classification. Several other features were released specifically for CAD, metadata creation, time series animation, data conversion and sharing maps with map packages.

    Example: ArcGIS 10.0, 10.1, 10.2 and 10.3.

The Verdict

From toolbars to toolboxes… from ArcMap to ArcScene… ArcGIS is a big machine with a lot of moving parts.

Long story short, there’s a good reason why ArcGIS is the most used GIS software in the world.

It has a solid foundation for the functions of a GIS – creating, managing, analyzing and visualizing geographic data.

We’ve gone over the most fundamental pieces that make up Esri ArcGIS software. You now have a blueprint to guide you through the most recognized GIS software program in the world.

Now, it’s your time to put these skills to use. Test out Esri ArcGIS software and find out for yourself how to map the world.

In a Nutshell

  • Solid geoprocessing framework
  • Boatloads of symbology choices
  • Beautiful 3D software options
  • ArcGIS Online data warehouse
  • Extraordinary topology editing
  • Some data types consumption
  • Obtaining license for basic tools
  • High cost

In Summary

Esri ArcGIS is the juggernaut in the GIS software industry. And rightfully so. It provides the most complete system for editing, storing, visualizing and analyzing geographic data.


  1. I’ve been using Arcgis for years. It’s gone from BAD to WORSE. Probably the slowest, buggiest, most unreliable piece of software out there. What other software locks itself out of it’s own maps? Corrupts it’s own shapefiles? Takes 10’s of minutes to open a single tiny map? etc…

    Arcgis is like playing a bad round of golf everyday. Yeah there are a few moments that play out ok, but most of the time you’ll be cursing at the monitor and wondering how this company is still in business.

    Do yourself a favor and use Global Mapper. It does 99% of the same things and it works EVERY TIME.

  2. I completely agree with Derek. The fact that ESRI has a near monopoly on commercial GIS software shows its signs in the steadily worsening product. If you try QGIS or any other open source software and compare the loading, drawing, and computing times against those of ArcGIS, you’ll be blown away at the difference. In fact, I use(d) arcGIS on corporate machines with immense computational power while on QGIS I’m performing identical operations on my tiny ultrabook in over a 10th of the time it takes on arcGIS. If that isn’t bizarre, I don’t know what is.

    Do yourself a favour, skip arcGIS until they decide to put in some effort into their software.

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