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Software Review - Starry Night: Pro Plus - Space Software/Avanquest 

 

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For many, astronomy is more than just a matter of popping out and taking a peek at the stars - it's a serious hobby, and the Starry Night range is simply the best software we've seen to support that legion of amateur astronomers. The "Pro" heading here is a little exaggerated - Starry Night: Enthusiast is for amateurs with telescopes who do astronomy regularly, but not too heavily. The Pro and this, the Pro Plus editions, are for amateurs for whom it's a serious hobby that takes up a fair amount of their spare time.

It's much more than a planetarium, though as we'll come back to, it's still a great way to find out what's what in the night sky. There's a 192 page book (the Starry Night Companion) which isn't great, but you can't complain as it's effectively free. There's SkyTheater, a DVD of mini-features covering around 2/3 of the excellent Atlas of the Sky DVD, and there's Starry Night itself. The stunning planetarium has much more information than the even the Pro version - showing an incredible 55 million stars (500+ million online) and a million galaxies. there's the excellent Sky Calendar that details all the upcoming notable events you will be able to see, and around 100 superb interactive explorations (30 more than Enthusiast). Oh and there's a neat astronomical dictionary, plus a "fly around" spaceship feature like Deep Space Explorer. Like the Pro edition, Pro Plus also has an Ephemeris generator, providing location data for any object over a specific time span, and 180 degree, full sky charts.

The special features you get by going for Pro Plus rather than Pro are themselves very attractive. Perhaps the most impressive visual aspect is its full colour photograph of the entire night sky, to a limiting magnitude of 14-15. This is a mosaic of around 20,000 images taken with a 6 megapixel camera, and does give a stunning representation of the star field. There's also a useful addition if you have the MaxIm DL imaging software. Pictures taken through your telescope and processed with MaxIM DL can then be integrated into Starry Night to form part of the visual support in the program. This is for Windows users only, but Mac users get their own unique feature with a "telescope handbox simulator" that allows you to move your linked telescope to any position. There's better telescope linking too in the telescope control window - and some rather elegant horizon photo-realistic horizon panoramas. Oh, and along with the newer versions of the lower editions of the software as they are released, there's joystick control when you are moving around the sky in spaceship mode.

Despite all the bells and whistles, Starry Night remains at its heart an excellent planetarium program that brings up on your PC or Mac a view of the night sky that is simply brilliant. It's a clear, crisp, image, the controls are mostly intuitive and some of the extras are a delight. Constellations can be brought up in stick form, or (for the major ones) with a very effective graphic image. The program shows you the view from home (or anywhere else), and monitors real time to show you the view now (but of course you can move to another date and time at will). Pro Plus can cope with an amazing range of dates from 99,999 BC to 99,999 AD. The secondary features are good too. You can find something in space, print of excellent star charts to take outside and more.

Perhaps most impressive, if you have an appropriate hi-tech telescope is that the Pro and Pro Plus versions of the software can control your telescope, pointing it at the object of your choice. You need a serial port and RS232 cable, and not every telescope is supported (there's a list at the end of the review of those supported in early 2005, but check the Starry Night website www.starrynight.com for the latest support list.

If you take astronomy seriously, but not quite to this level, see more on Starry Night: Enthusiast. If you aren't such a serious astronomer, but find the night sky fascinating, consider the more basic but still excellent  Complete Space and Astronomy Pack.

Inevitably Starry Night is going to be compared with Redshift. 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.

According to the blurb the software runs on PCs (Windows XP) and Macs - we have only tested it on PCs.

The DVD is only available in region 1/NTSC format. This will work with most PCs with DVD players, and on multi-region and NTSC supporting DVD players (including more recent Playstation 2s), but will not work on quite a lot of European (PAL) DVD players. Check the compatibility of your player!

(NOTE - Review is of Version 5)

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007