Windows Phone Thoughts: Look Way Up: PocketStars 2.0 Reviewed

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Monday, July 7, 2003

Look Way Up: PocketStars 2.0 Reviewed

Posted by Kevin Remhof in "SOFTWARE" @ 10:00 AM

With the summer upon us, I like to spend as much time outdoors as I can. Once the sun goes down, I turn to the heavens to see the stars. If youíre like me and would like to know what youíre looking at, check out my review of PocketStars 2.0 by Nomad Electronics.




PocketStars 2.0 by Nomad Electronics is a full-featured tool for learning about stars, planets and other celestial objects. It has so many features though, that it can be a bit intimidating to start using. But, once you get past the learning curve, you'll see that this is a great product.

Basic Features
PocketStars has everything you need for backyard stargazing.
  • Animated star chart (star, planet, Messier and Caldwell object identification)
  • Ephemeris
  • Celestial navigation
  • Rise/Set for all solar system bodies
  • Lunar Phase Calendar
  • Images and data for objects
My goodness, it's full of stars!
Once youíve installed the application and set up your location, itís time to see whatís in the sky. The main view of the app is the star chart. From there, you can choose the zoom level, star magnitudes to view, and where you want to look.

You can quickly and easily move your point of view around and choose the direction you are pointing by dragging with a stylus. You can also tap-hold to get a menu which allows you to get info on an object (more on that feature later) or to Center on that object. By default, the chart assumes that you're holding your Pocket PC over your head and viewing the stars that way. You can change this in the preferences by clicking "Flip Chart on North - South axis". You then have a mirror image of the night sky.


Figure 1: The main star chart screen. The toolbar lets you change what you see. You can scroll around the sky using your stylus.

To show more objects, you just change the star magnitudes level on the toolbar. For beginners, three or four should be plenty. For those more advanced (or those who live in rural areas) you can go higher. The app defaults to "Smart Zoom" which changes the magnitude for you automatically. This is a nice feature that speeds up the app. Keep in mind that astronomy is based on some complex mathematical equations. Check out the bibliography if you're interested, itís quite extensive.

More Features
Over the past few years, I've tried various applications for stargazing, rise/set times, and other things that PocketStars can do. What's great about PocketStars is that it integrates all of these features into a single application. Here are a few of my favorite features:


Figure 2: The Planet/Star/Messier detail screen. Here you can find out info on what you're looking at.

The information that you can get on objects is very detailed. You get size, mass, density, and other physical measurements as well as orbital info to help you track objects. You can spend hours just looking at this info and pondering.


Figure 3: Rise/Set Times. Allows you to find out when the sun, moon, and other planets rise and set.

I always like to know when the sun is going to set. PocketStars takes this one step further and shows you when all of the planets rise and set. It also shows you the transit times as well. I find this to be very handy.


Figure 4: Lunar phases. Look, a blue moon in July, 2004.

You can also find out the phase of the moon. I've used other programs which show you the moon phase but this is better because it shows you when a full moon (or blue moon) occurs. This is very handy if you're a werewolf or you want to know when the next Smurf will be born. An added bonus is an animation showing you where the moon is in relation to Earth. Not the most useful feature, but it looks neat.


Figure 5: Sextant tool. Here you can do some really advanced calculations.

OK, this is a feature that just boggles my mind. I know what a sextant is but don't really know how to use one. With this program, you can find out where you are in the world. Kind of like low-tech GPS. The Nomad Electronics Web site has a great example to show you how to use the sextant feature. Plus, it helps prove the accuracy of the app's astronomical calculations.

PC Version
New with version 2.0 is the PC version. It is almost identical to the PDA version. In fact, they share the same codebase. Pretty slick, huh? What you get with the desktop version is synergy. You can change settings and preferences on the desktop version and share them with the PDA version. This is a fast and easy way to get the app just the way you want it. Plus, the desktop version is a great app. I find it to be easier to use than the PDA version just because you can use a mouse.


Figure 6: The PC version of PocketStars. Note the similarities between this and the PDA version. [Click the image for a full-size version]

With the desktop version, you obviously have more screen-space to work with. You can get a much better view of what is the sky. Itís a nice tool to figure out what you want to look for during the day. When itís dark outside, grab your PDA and use it instead.

Field Trial
After trying to figure out all of the features of this program, I decided it was time to take a step back and look at some stars. Last weekend, we went to a small lake in Michigan for the weekend. A perfect place to see stars. I went out on the dock with my iPAQ and grabbed a seat. After switching the Starchart color to Red (to preserve night vision), I got oriented with the sky. I quickly found the big dipper and used that as a reference. I was able to identify a ton of constellations and even the planet Jupiter. Since PocketStars shows you the relative brightness of stars, it was easy to find objects in the sky.

Using PocketStars at night is pretty easy. But, the backlight on my iPAQ is over-powering even on the lowest setting. That's not the fault of the application though, it's the reality of PDAs. I found it very simple to locate constellations and identify stars with the app. I used the default setting by which you hold your PDA over your head to match the sky. After a few minutes, I could put it back down and still keep track of what I was seeing.

On a side note, if you want to go stargazing, don't pick the longest day of the year. I was up pretty late looking at stars.

Gotchas
This app is a bit overwhelming at first. There are just so many features in it. But, I donít consider that to be a Gotcha. Iíve only used this app for a few weeks. Each day I use it, I find a new feature and a new use for that feature. With that said, Iím sure that some will find this to be a challenge to get used to. Fear not, you can go to the Nomad Electronics Web site and watch some tutorial videos.

One of the only features that Iíd like to see added would be a search engine. Iíd like to search for constellations, stars, planets, etc.

Where To Buy
The PDA version software can be downloaded from Handango or purchased for $14.95 (affiliate link). The PC version can be downloaded from Nomad Electronics or purchased for $14.95. If you buy both from the Nomad Electronics site, you can save 20%.

Specifications
The PDA version will run on all Pocket PC Phone, 2000, and 2002 devices. It takes 2,222.4KB of RAM and can be installed to a storage card.

Conclusions
PocketStars 2.0 is a welcome addition for anyone interested in Astronomy or just general stargazing. Look past the learning curve and enjoy a great app.

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