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Stars on the Cheap

Silicon Valley doesn’t have a monopoly on good software, of course, but when it comes to planetarium simulators, the United States may well be trailing behind. Sienna Software of Toronto, Ontario, has just released its first product, the $28 shareware Starry Night 1.01, and it looks like both the product and the company are off to a great start. Starry Night is available for both 68K and Power Macintosh, and requires a color-capable Mac, System 7 or higher, and 4 MB of RAM. night.hqx night-ppc.hqx

Graphics vs. Features — Starry Night isn’t the prettiest planetarium simulator I’ve run. As trite as it might sound, first impressions do count, and your first impression of an astronomy program is going to be based on how the program looks and – compared to other programs on the market – Starry Night’s graphics come off as its weakest link. On the other hand, although the graphics might not be photographic quality, they’re used well, are by no means sub-standard, and (more to the point) they make a lot of sense. Also, Sienna Software has programmed in a couple of neat graphical tricks (Starry Night is very fast – and try looking down through the center of any object you’re standing on).

Don’t let the lack of snazzy graphics deter you – get under this program’s hood before judging it. Starry Night is an easy-to-use program that makes sense out of the night sky. It usually takes time to learn to use a planetarium simulator, and some of that time is spent combing through the program’s manual or online help. In Starry Night, Balloon Help teaches you everything you need to know. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of Balloon Help, but using it with this program got me up and running in half the time I required for other commercial packages.

Starry Night sports many of the features of commercial sky simulators, and it doesn’t even have the advantage of a CD-ROM for storage space. The program also has a number of impressive little features. For instance, when you wish to go to a specific object in the sky, Starry Night pans from where you are to where you want to be. This is invaluable for helping you to keep your bearings in the night sky. The creative feedback sounds that play when you touch a control are always a surprise, and although an adult may grow tired of them (they can be turned off) I think children will be delighted. Likewise, QuickTime movies can be saved by simply selecting the area of the sky you wish to record and hitting the "record" button.

An Interface for the Amateur Astronomer — Other packages enable you to move around the sky by selecting the azimuth and altitude you wish to look toward. Starry Night lets you do this "naturally" by grabbing the sky and moving it where you want. This method is perfect for people who might not be sure what azimuth is but want to move the sky so they’re looking toward the south.

Other programs tend to confuse new users by displaying all the constellations at once onscreen. Though this is a valuable feature (and Starry Night also has it), Starry Night’s "constellation tool" allows you to point the mouse at a particular section of the sky to display the constellation in that area. I can see tremendous educational value to this: point to a section of the sky, try to figure out what constellation you’re looking at, and then point-and-click to see if you’re right. What could be more Macintosh?

[Starry Night also lets you "Get Info" on selected constellations, bringing up brief descriptions of their origins and member stars, and most objects can be double-clicked for detailed information. -Geoff]

For Version 2.0 — Although Starry Night’s interface is among the best I’ve seen for an astronomy program, I do have a few suggestions for the program’s next version. One minor annoyance is that when you enter numeric values (such as a date), programs often provide up and down arrows to push. Most programs let you hold these arrows down so the values race in the direction you wish. Starry Night doesn’t do this; instead, you must click the arrow multiple times to achieve this effect, or type the value manually.

Starry Night’s Find function could also use some streamlining. It’s difficult to know what can or cannot be found by name. I would prefer that the program let you select from a categorized list (stars, planets, deep sky objects, etc.), or to let you choose objects based on a partial match of an object’s name.

Stellar Conclusions — I found Starry Night to be well designed, well thought out, accurate, easy to learn, and fun. True, it doesn’t have hyperlinked photos of the planets or an astronomical encyclopedia, but the package is also only 4 MB in size. Considering price over performance and features, Starry Night holds its own against anything on the market. If you can get through the fact that the ground you’re standing on isn’t rendered to the last blade of grass, you’ll find it to be a great program. Starry Night is Sienna Software’s first release; in a way its almost a shame since they’ll have to work hard to top their first product.

If you or your kids have an interest in astronomy but haven’t yet completed your doctorate in astrophysics, investigate Starry Night. It rates as a first magnitude program.

Sienna Software — 416/926-2174 — <[email protected]>

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