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Not so long ago, armchair astronomy used to involve lugging along stacks of charts and flashlights if you wanted to know the name of a star (aside from notables like Polaris and Betelgeuse). The advent of astronomy apps for iOS devices changed all that for the better, but until now, the best ones have emphasized utility over beauty. That all changes with Sky Guide, which achieves a remarkable balance of both.
Like its inferior predecessor, Sky Survey, Sky Guide relies heavily on a breathtaking mosaic of 37,000 nighttime images by photographer Nick Risinger rather than abstract points of light for stars – and they're now pleasingly nestled behind a fluid and intuitive interface. Still, the long exposures mean the imagery's much more detailed than anything most of us will ever see, and thus we're happy to see the option to "dim" the sky with a simple swipe of two fingers to mimic non-rural viewing. An optional ethereal musical track adds emotional intensity to the experience, as do a series of chimes that resound as you click on stars of varying magnitudes.
But Sky Guide isn't merely pretty; it's also surprisingly useful. Gone, for instance, are many dubious entries lifted from Wikipedia; in their place, Sky Guide offers meticulously researched articles penned by scholars for a stunning range of stars. Even the search option reveals surprises, such as dimmed names for stars that aren't visible and listings for their rising and settings.
To be fair, Sky Guide's usefulness is limited. One of the drawbacks of the stunning panoramic photography is that it captures thousands more stars than Sky Guide provides data for; noted competitor Star Walk, on the other hand, includes data for near-invisible wallflowers like HIP 11117. Time controls are also missing, preventing you from seeing what your sky will look like at set times.
But for the intended audience, that should matter little. Sky Guide is aimed less at serious astronomers and more at dedicated enthusiasts seeking a viewing experience that's as emotionally moving as it is informative. In this regard it succeeds as no other app before it, and all for a price that won't leave a black hole in your wallet.
The bottom line. While lacking data for the most obscure stars, Sky Guide is a beautiful and informative app that should be a treasure for most astronomy aficionados.
iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad running iOS 5.1 or later
Star chart based on amazing photos. Informative articles on celestial bodies written by specialists. Enchanting auditory experience. Useful offline and online. Fluid gyro motion.
Data listings generally limited to stars visible with the naked eye. No time controls to determine what the sky will look like in the future.