Developer: Mike Smithwick
Price: $3.99 Download on the App Store
Distant Suns 2: Unleash your inner astronaut -- Judging by the number of pocket planetariums and other astronomy apps in the App Store's inventory, stargazing is not just for fans of Star Wars or astronomy nerds like me.
My astronomy app of choice is Vito Technology's Star Walk, a wonderfully entertaining and educational app tapped by Apple as one of the best apps of 2009. If you want to know what's going on in the skies around you, that is a must-have app.
I recently had some time to try First Light's Distant Suns 2: Unleash your inner astronaut, which is another astronomy app with similar features. I had high hopes that Distant Suns 2 would also take up space on my iPhone 3GS.
Distant Suns has an extensive pedigree in astronomy. The original Distant Suns was written in 1985 for the Commodore Amiga, a computer that never really went very far in the market despite its then dazzling, graphics handling capabilities.
Right after you launch this pocket planetarium for the first time you'll be looking at vast swath of sky and a row of icons along the bottom menu bar. You can read the App Store description just as well as I can, so I won't burden you with details of what each icon does.
Distant Suns 2 is aimed at casual astronomers and so I looked at it from the context of just how easy it is to use. It takes several evenings of stargazing to be comfortable enough with any app (or telescope, for that matter) to find your way around the sky without having to poke around for an owner's manual. If the app makes it dead simple for beginners to find their bearings in the night sky, it already scores points with me. Distant Suns 2 gets two thumbs up for an interface that is inviting and intuitive.
If you have an iPhone 3GS, the app goes a step further. Point your camera at an object and Distant Suns 2 will tell you what you’re looking at. Nothing could be simpler.
Distant Suns 2 includes more than 130,000 stars making up 88 constellations, the Messier catalog of galaxies, nebula and star clusters and dozens of photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. And, if you just can't wait to share your new heavenly discoveries, the app now offers a social media option that will let users tweet out their three most recently searched for objects. (Hopefully, a Facebook option will follow.)
This is a full-featured astronomy app with more than enough data to keep an amateur stargazer busy for a season or two. The real question though is, would I take Distant Suns 2 over Star Walk? Nope. Star Walk feels more polished to me, has additional features and costs a few bucks less.
Distant Suns 2 is also one of the few astronomy apps to offer a lite version. Distant Suns (Lite) is free and, according to the developers, pretty much the same as version 1.0 of the premium app. You'll get fewer stars, slower speeds, no tweets and Pluto is still considered a planet (unlike in version 2 where Pluto's planetary status became "optional").
There are only slightly less astronomy apps available than there are stars in the sky. How much you're willing to spend and what features are "must have" will vary. If you want the social media add-ons, you'll need to buy the paid version of Distant Suns 2. If not, then take a look at the options and see which features fit your needs.