Esri ArcGIS Software Review and Guide: Tools, Extensions and Licenses

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

Last Updated: Mar 4, 2018 @ 8:12 pm

An Esri ArcGIS Software Overview

Esri stands Environmental Systems Research Institute. And they specialize in the development of GIS and mapping software for government, commercial and various industries.

While Esri ArcGIS Software is their suite of desktop applications, ArcGIS Online is their web/cloud-based platform. And in several years, their newest version Esri ArcGIS Pro has the potential to replace ArcGIS Desktop.

Collectively, Esri’s suite of products has become the industry standard for connecting people to their surrounding geography. Whether it’s infrastructure planning, protecting the environment or mapping places of interest, there are thousands of ways to apply ArcGIS as part of your daily workflow.

Today, we will guide you through all the tools, extensions and licenses that Esri ArcGIS software has to offer to get the job done.

Visualize and Manage Data with ArcMap and ArcCatalog

After you install ArcGIS, you will have access to ArcMap, ArcCatalog, ArcGlobe and ArcScene. Each application specializes in different tasks.

For example, ArcMap is the centerpiece software because it’s where you will create maps, edit data and perform spatial analysis. Specifically, this is all in a 2D environment in a MXD (Map Exchange Document).

Next, ArcCatalog is more like windows explorer but only showing GIS format types. Mainly, it’s for data management and writing metadata (information about the data).

ArcMap ArcMap is the primary GIS software environment with a customizable user interface for spatial analysis tools and cartographic output. (.MXD)
ArcCatalogArcCatalog manages geographic data and metadata. Furthermore, it has an interface similar to windows file explorer displaying only spatial files.

Now, the newest member of the Esri family of GIS software is ArcGIS Pro which delivers 64-bit, 3D and ribbon-based GIS technology.

ArcGlobe and ArcScene is for 3D

Because the world we live in is three dimensions, ArcScene and ArcGlobe makes our world come to life.

But these 3D applications are only available if the 3D Analyst extension is turned on.

ArcGlobeArcGlobe is a global 3D visualization and analysis environment focusing on larger study areas. (.3DD)
ArcSceneArcScene is a 3D feature and raster viewer specializing in smaller study area or local scenes. (SXD)

READ MORE: ArcScene vs ArcGlobe – Esri’s 3D GIS Software Differences

ArcMap’s anatomy and user interface

Esri has crammed a load of options for you to fully customize and map data. But how can you use this functionality?

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.

Here are the windows, toolbars and menus in a MXD:

Table of contents has map layers

Table of ContentsHow do you know what map layers are being displayed in your view? The table of contents (TOC) is a container that stores tables, vectors and rasters. In the TOC, it holds your data frame and GIS data.

PRO TIP: If your table of contents disappears in ArcMap, you can make it reappear by clicking Windows > Table of Contents

Also in the TOC, you can list items by drawing order, source, visibility and selection. For each option, it changes the appearance of the table of contents.

Display window displays map symbols

Display Window

When 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 refresh, pause and change views

ArcMap Modes

There 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. For example, you set up cartographic elements such as legends, neatline and annotations. Most likely, this is where you will export maps for professional reports.
  • The refresh button reloads data in the display window, if it didn’t completely load.
  • The pause button stops data from loading in the display window.

ArcToolbox has geoprocessing tools

ArcToolboxAll the tools you need for geoprocessing are in the ArcToolbox window. ArcToolbox conveniently organizes each tool into toolsets. Basically, toolsets are a set of tools for a specific a task. For example, the polygon to raster tool is 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, click  Geoprocessing > Search  to find tools.

Toolbars has buttons for specific tasks

Arcmap toolbars Toolbars are icons that perform specific tasks in ArcMap. For example, the Editor toolbar allows users to rotate, split, reshape, cut for editing.

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

Menu bars for common functions like saving and printing


The menu bar consists of pull-downs in order to access commonly used tasks or windows. Like most desktop applications, it’s how users intuitively select from a list of commands.

For example, the Geoprocessing menu gives quick access to the 6 most commonly used GIS processing tools like buffer, clip, intersect, union, merge and dissolve. Also, you can open panels for searching, Arctoolbox, environment settings, geoprocessing results, model builder and python windows.

Extend Capabilities using Extensions

For about 50 years, Esri has fine-tuned its software into an extraordinary mapping platform. And it only gets better with time.

Arcmap Extensions

Starting with the most popular extension, the Spatial Analyst extension provides specialized analysis tools for raster data. Even though the Geostatistical Analysis extension is similar to spatial analyst, you can access highly specialized tools like kriging.

If you turn on the 3D Analyst extension, you can access ArcScene and ArcGlobe 3D visualization. If you road networks, then the Network Analysis tools support the maintenance and analysis of network datasets.

For schematic diagrams, the Schematics extensions automatically generates diagrams from network data sets. If you want to automatically digitize rasters, the ArcScan extension assists in extracting features.

Finally, the Publisher extension supports the creation of published map documents in the form of PMF files. Lastly, the Tracking Analyst extension supports temporal analysis using historic and real-time data.

ArcToolbox: Geoprocessing Tools at Your Fingertips


Starting with the tools users access most, Analysis Tools contains a powerful set of tools that perform the most fundamental GIS operations. For example, buffer, overlays and proximity tools are in the analysis toolbox.

Because GIS data has different formats, Conversion Tools supports the alteration between different types of file formats. And if you want to really extract, load and transform data, Data Interoperability Tools supercharges the conversion of file types using Safe Software’s FME technology.

While Spatial Analysis Tools is a set of modelling tools for raster and vector data.

  • 3D Analysis Tools provides tools for surface modeling, analysis and management with three-dimensional vector data.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.

ArcMap License Levels: 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. And you’ll learn plenty of ArcMap tips and tricks along the way. 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.

For several instances, you’re going to want to use these tools. 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.

ArcGIS 8.0x

ArcInfo 8

ArcGIS 8.0 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 personal and file 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.

ArcGIS 9.0x

ArcGIS 9.x

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.

READ MORE: ArcGIS Model Builder: How to Create a Custom Toolbox and Export as a Python Script

ArcGIS 10.0x

Esri ArcGIS

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.

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 with a free trial version.

Find out for yourself how to map the world.

In Summary

Esri ArcGIS is the juggernaut in the GIS software industry.

And rightfully so.

Despite its cryptic 999999 errors, Esri ArcGIS is the leading tool that practitioners use today to get their work done.

All in all, it provides the most complete system for editing, storing, visualizing and analyzing geographic data.

  • 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


  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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