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Software Review - Redshift 5.1 Deluxe - USM/Maris/Focus 

 

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There are few pieces of home software more sophisticated than the big name planetarium packages, and Redshift 5.1 is up there with the best of them.

At the heart of this package is the extremely powerful planetarium engine, but it's worth taking a moment to explore some of its other features that give it that "deluxe" label. There are guided tours and lectures, which use the planetarium engine to take you on a narrated visit to various times and places through the galaxy, or follow a well-known spacecraft on its journey. Then there are animated "story of the universe" features and real video clips of major astronomical events from views from Hubble to the lunar rover in action. Much of the material in these add-ons is good, but it was all rather bitty - it might have been better to have had fewer, better structured and longer videos, for instance. There's also a great Sky Diary feature than tells you what is happening when.

But the essential heart of the package is the planetarium, which is powerful and effective. You can set the time from 4173 BC to 9999 AD and take a viewpoint anywhere in the solar system. 20 million stars and 70,000 deep space objects are plotted out for you, along with 50,000 asteroids and 1,500 comets. There's also information on a good range of artificial satellites, and additional object information can be downloaded as and when. The view can be altered every which way, including adding stick figures and elegant drawings to constellations, and zooming in to very effective surface detail on planets and the moon. The practical astronomer also gets useful help, with a low contrast "night vision" mode for use out in the field on your laptop, and handy image flips to compare with the view through a non-inverting telescope.

At the heart of Redshift 5.1's success are flexibility - there's a huge amount of control - and value for money. It is without doubt now one of the best pieces of planetarium software, and richly deserves its five stars. Even so, it's not perfect. The user interface is quite crowded, and can be daunting to the beginner - and that flexibility can sometimes get in the way of usability - it might be easier, for instance, to have an update option that just said "bring me up to date" rather than being able to specify each and every astronomical object that's downloaded. The interface isn't all bad by any means - when you track down the way to set the home location, for instance, it's very easily done from a map (just as well in the UK as it doesn't know many UK locations - no Bristol, no Cardiff, for instance) - but it really could do with a user friendliness overhaul. For instance the demo shows sky views with a clearly denoted and blocked off horizon, but it's not at all obvious how to switch this on.

Inevitably Redshift is going to be compared with Starry Night. Each has benefits. Redshift wins hands down on price, and beats the cheaper versions of Starry Night on features. By the time you get to the Enthusiast version of Starry Night it has the edge on features, and the Pro version, with facilities like direct telescope control and much bigger date range is better still. Starry Night also has the edge on ease of use. But if you want power combined with value for money, Redshift is unbeatable. If you like Redshift but want even more, see Redshift 6 Ultimate Edition.

Altogether, then, a superb piece of planetarium software, very much in the big league and a serious option to be considered by all astronomers. (Note US edition is Version 5.)

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007