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Comparative review - observatory planning software

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#1 Charlie Hein

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Posted 08 September 2013 - 09:14 AM

Comparative review of observation planning software

UPDATED 10/12/2013

By Thomas B. Fowler
 

#2 CounterWeight

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Posted 08 September 2013 - 12:17 PM

Hi,

I wanted to ask the author of this review how much time he spent using the software reviewed - I find the SkyTools review extremely shallow and completely lacking some basic and important features - would be interested in anyone else's opinion on that.
 

#3 theskyhound

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Posted 08 September 2013 - 04:47 PM

I'd like to point out that the author of this article mistook the outline of the cluster on the SkyTools chart for the eyepiece field of view. Of course SkyTools shows the proper field of view! It would be an enormous error if it didn't. The reviewer should have double checked something so basic, resulting an an extraordinarily misleading review. While I am here, I would like to point out that SkyTools has a much larger and much more accurate/corrected set of databases than the other software.
 

#4 Kyphoron

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Posted 08 September 2013 - 08:23 PM

I agree, I found the Skytools review very shallow and missed some key points. I also think the lack of object info was very unfair as well. All the important aspects of the object are there. Just under different tabs within the object info. Not to mention it will tell you based on the fields you entered (scope, mag skies, date, etc.) if this is an object that you can hope to see on any given night. Skytools also tells you when will be your best window of opportunity to see the object that a person wishes to observer.

I just felt after reading the review there was an unfair bias to astroplanner and that Skytools was left hanging in the wind with a lot of its key features not listed at all.

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#5 JimK

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Posted 08 September 2013 - 08:45 PM

Comparative review of observation planning software

By Thomas B. Fowler

I am a registered user of both AstroPlanner2 and SkyTools3 Standard -- I now only use SkyTools 3 because it has the planning and logging features that I need/use. And I don't use any telescope control features, only starhopping. AstroPlanner is nice, but as Greg mentioned, the single database is fantastic for tracking down those obscure faint fuzzies to view, and without getting multiple databases "hits" to make confusion. This is also the Achilles' Heel of SkyTools, such that errors or missing items are difficult to correct, but a workaround was provided -- the Supplemental Database. I also do not think that the strengths were comprehensive, and weaknesses were not accurate, for SkyTools.

Everyone has their own preferences, and the reviewer showed his bias. *My* bias is for SkyTools3.
 

#6 CounterWeight

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Posted 08 September 2013 - 11:51 PM

Greg,

I'm also amazed at the lack of mention on right clicking on objects in the interactive atlas sky chart, the object details and other features that can be right clicked on the object lists, the list is LARGE and why I have to ask if the author actually used the software for any time and took the time to learn what is 'low hanging fruit', let alone the power under hood on doubles and all the DB power search capabilities along with being able to select specifically from some or all the catalogs to create custom lists... planetary solar system almost entirely neglected...

Bias is one thing but error of omission another issue IMO that shows this doesn't pass muster, by that I mean that if there is a basic feature and they didn't like it that is one thing but to omit basic features is at best poor research.
 

#7 Eagle923

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Posted 09 September 2013 - 07:58 AM

Just a quick note other than what comments are already here.

ST3 will export the ".skylist" format as well for Sky Safari.

I've used both and prefer ST3 by a wide margin.
 

#8 Cames

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Posted 09 September 2013 - 12:55 PM

Please add me to the list of readers that find the description of the functions of Skytools 3 to be incomplete and misleading to the extent that a retraction is in order.

I don't even know where to start with my objections to the author's assertions. IMO a disservice to readers of the forum.
 

#9 Natty Bumppo

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Posted 09 September 2013 - 05:08 PM

Add me to the list also, of users who now use SkyTools exclusively on the desktop. SkyTools is just what I was looking for some years back. Moved to it due to being disappointed with the planner modules (and false hits) of both AstroPlanner and Starry Nights. SkyTools (Win8) & SkySafari (Android) work well together and are all I use now.

And add me to the list of those who thought the "review" was unnecessarily biased, and contained many errors and downright false and misleading statements.
 

#10 Kyphoron

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Posted 10 September 2013 - 01:45 AM

I don't think that the article should be retracted but I think the author would have been better served to just review astroplanner rather than omitting items to make Skytools look worse than astroplanner.

At least make a fair side by side comparison rather than picking out certain things.

Like astroplanner requires an outside program for an atlas. Skytools has an interactive atlas built into it.

Astroplanner has limited database and if you want complete star list you have to pay. Skytools has a very large database and you do not have to buy add on list.

Astroplanner has a single field chart. Skytools has a 3 panel chart which can all be customized.

A side by side like I just did would be a fair comparison of both programs.
 

#11 Fox1971

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Posted 10 September 2013 - 10:14 AM

Has anyone tried Deep Sky Planner?
 

#12 CounterWeight

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Posted 10 September 2013 - 04:10 PM

Frankly I don't know why the supposed review, IMO it does not qualify as one by any measure, was ever posted on the site. I don't understand why because no-one fact checked it and etc it should lower the bar so far just because it is a 'software review'. Does a huge disservice to the CN site AS WELL AS the fantastic work done by Rod Mollise on the same topic here on CN. That is what really hurt, there are some great reviews and reviewers here - to add this to the mix isn't just unfair to the readers -it's far more unfair to those who take the time and effort to get things right.
 

#13 gdd

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 09:08 AM

I wanted to ask the author of this review how much time he spent using the software reviewed - I find the SkyTools review extremely shallow and completely lacking some basic and important features - would be interested in anyone else's opinion on that.



I have not used either software, so I don't know what he missed or whether he focused on the most important features. However his review was more detailed than several other software reviews I found on this forum (there were only 3 or 4 since about 2009). Some were not even a full screenful, some had no pictures, but no one complained.

I think the OP has more experience with AstroPlanner so he his comparing SkyTools to it rather than the other way around. Also, a lot of people in my opinion form their opinions on how a genre of software should work based on what they successfully used first. Perhaps he should have given the review a narrower title so the reader would not expect an exhaustive feature-by-feature comparison. The features he chose to discuss seem to be based on what he personally needs the tool to do.

From what he wrote, I think I would prefer SkyTools because he says it is easier to learn and he said the integrated DB avoided confusing duplicate information.

Some readers said some features the OP said were missing were actually there if you looked hard enough. I did not see interfaces to other planetarium software listed in on their site (unless ASCOM compliancy handles that). Are these features available only in the Pro version? (The OP reviewed the standard version).

Gale
 

#14 theskyhound

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 10:25 AM

Does anyone know if there is a mechanism here at CloudyNights to complain about factual errors in a review, and perhaps have them addressed? Opinion is one thing, factual errors, even errors by omission, are quite another.
 

#15 Kyphoron

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 11:08 AM

Greg,

TOS are through Astronomics and if its not them maybe one of the postmasters can give you an answer. Ultimately I bet you they just balk at it and say its the editors opinion.
 

#16 Charlie Hein

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 04:22 PM

Folks, I just now responded to an angry PM form one of the folks posting to this thread. It prompted me to read through this thread to see what all the fuss was about. I think that rather than rehashing my thoughts about this, I'll just copy the text of my reply to this thread, and caution the angry pitchfork wielding crowd to apply some perspective to this situation. This is an amateur review. This is not Sky and Telescope or Astronomy magazine. I believe you folks have squandered a good opportunity to discuss the review with the writer and work politely to change any factual errors that may exist by presuming that there is some deliberate malice at work here. If I were the author the last thing I'd want to do is try to work with this crowd.

Subject: Re: SkyTools Review

Sir, I think you're operating under a misunderstanding or two. First, I did not write the review you're referring to. I am merely the editor.

Most reviews should be read as being the reviewer's experience while performing the review and regarded as personal commentary. For the most part we are not talking about professional writers or editors here.

For example, I certainly do not have the resources or time to fully vett every statement made in an article or review, and your garden variety reviewer won't be in a position to do a rigorous peer reviewed and professionally edited piece either.

That said, we do provide the opportunity for polite discussion and fact correction of every article and review. I've checked that forum and see that the general tone being used in this area is anything but polite, and as of my last reading there has been mostly angry and strident grousing about the review rather than reasoned attempts to correct the writer's errors or misunderstandings about the software. That is unfortunate.

If I were the writer, the last thing I'd be likely to do is enter into a discussion with the group that is posting in there right now. Put yourself if the writers shoes for a second and ask yourself if you don't agree. I think that the tone in that thread has made it very difficult for a reasonable outcome... That said, I'm not in favor of pulling the review unless the author decides he wants it pulled and he does not appear to have been badgered or otherwise coerced into doing so. He may have made some factual errors and his personal preference may be for AstroPlanner, but you people are treating this as if it is some form of malicious act, and frankly in my opinion that is shameful. Please step back and apply a small bit of perspective to this.

Charlie


 

#17 theskyhound

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 05:05 PM

Charlie, with respect, after reading the comments above I see only strong disagreement with the article over largely factual issues.

Beyond the factual misrepresentations, such as the claim that SkyTools does not compute an accurate field of view, there is a larger issue here that people are responding to. SkyTools is a much more capable product with many more features. Any comparison must take this into account. The review glosses over the many features in SkyTools that are not available in the other product. That is an unfair comparison.

Please, at the very least fix the obvious factual errors:

1. "AstroPlanner has more capabilities and flexibility with respect to observing lists." It is easily demonstrable that the reverse is true.

2. "No way to export observing lists to other formats than text." Sky Safari export is supported by SkyTools.

3. "Views shown in (SkyTools) charts are not actual eyepiece fields of view."

This last is a very strong assertion. It is a claim that a basic feature simply does not work, much like claiming that a finder scope cannot be aligned with the main telescope in telescope review. If someone is going to state something this significant, they need to look at the circumstances very carefully and be certain they are right. This was not done.
 

#18 gdd

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 05:23 PM

Hi Greg,

The article puts a quite a bit of emphasis on eyepiece fields of view. A problem I have when looking at star fields is even when I think I have the FOV referred to on a chart, the eyepiece view may show many more or many fewer stars making it difficult to match star patterns. I saw a sample AstroPlanner screen shot on their site showing that they can filter the stars by magnitude to solve that problem. I assume SkyTools can do the same?

Thanks,

Gale
 

#19 rboe

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 05:44 PM

You know, any one of you folks are more than welcome to write up your review and submit it. Having reviews from multiple sources with differing strong points when it comes to reviewing would be a big asset to our community.
 

#20 theskyhound

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 06:01 PM

Hi Greg,

The article puts a quite a bit of emphasis on eyepiece fields of view. A problem I have when looking at star fields is even when I think I have the FOV referred to on a chart, the eyepiece view may show many more or many fewer stars making it difficult to match star patterns. I saw a sample AstroPlanner screen shot on their site showing that they can filter the stars by magnitude to solve that problem. I assume SkyTools can do the same?


SkyTools uses a different approach. You enter your telescope data, eyepieces, how much light pollution you have, etc. The program computes the limiting magnitude based on a scientific model. It also displays only the extended objects (galaxies, nebulae, etc.) that can be seen in the telescope at that time under the expected conditions.

The same capability is applied to your finding device and what can be seen with the unaided eye. The resulting three-view finder chart makes it quite easy to find things in the sky, because the magnitude limits, scale, and orientation all match what you see in the field.

Clear skies,
Greg
 

#21 Kyphoron

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 08:20 PM

Charlie,

I don't think that this is an angry topic at all. I can understand why Greg is upset, his product has been misrepresented and that should be clear by all the responses and comparisons on the forum.

I think that its clear by what has been posted in the forum that there are some major flaws in the article and they are being discussed here. I also notice that No one here said that Skytools is "better" than Astroplanner but have pointed out that Skytools got poorly represented in the comparison.

Your right, this is not an S&T article but personally I am more likely to listen to the advice of a fellow astronomer over a publication that may be getting compensated for their review per advertising. So to me word of mouth goes a long way.

Again, you say that anyone can write an article but if Greg wrote it then it would obviously look like he is pushing his product. If I wrote it I would easily miss some key features simply because the program is so extensive that I would not even know where to begin.

I personally have used both programs in the past and Skytools fit my needs. I can honestly say that I could not write a comparative review simply because there are options in both programs that I am unaware of.

I will close by saying that this would not have been an issue here if the review were more of a true comparison and not an article lacking many facts. As Greg pointed out, if the user inputs all the fields correctly when starting out with Skytools the program will do the rest. It will tell you when an object is viewable, it will calculate what you should see in a certain eyepiece, finder scope, Binos or naked eye. Let me tell you based on what I have seen Skytools when set up by the user correctly is spot on.

Thank You.
 

#22 gdd

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Posted 11 September 2013 - 08:59 PM

SkyTools uses a different approach. You enter your telescope data, eyepieces, how much light pollution you have, etc. The program computes the limiting magnitude based on a scientific model. It also displays only the extended objects (galaxies, nebulae, etc.) that can be seen in the telescope at that time under the expected conditions.


If the extended object is just barely visible or your observing skills are not the greatest you could use the easier to see star patterns to confirm you are looking where the object is? A similar situation would be framing an invisible object using nearby star patterns so you can image it. Sounds like you have it covered.

Gale
 

#23 Tom T

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 01:32 PM

FWIW, I've used both and while I've found them both very capable, the only one I continue to use is SkyTools. Frankly, if I was limited to one piece of astro software SkyTools would be it.
 

#24 equuleus

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 02:51 PM

If these reviews are done by amateurs then the forum moderator should insist they be submitted to the program author or software company for comment before posting. Short of that, the review should include a caveat that the review has not been checked for factual errors.

Don't confuse this with freedom of the press or free speech. Professionals have controls in place which includes fact checking. And if these forums were to support free speech....well you can imagine.

In this case the reviewers credibility is pretty much shot for the future.
 

#25 Mark Martin

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Posted 12 September 2013 - 02:57 PM

Dear Tom,

As someone who has used SkyTools 3 extensively and even taught several classes on its use (though I do not benefit in any way from its sales), I was very surprised to see the many omissions and mischaracterizations of SkyTools 3 in your comparison of it to AstroPlanner here on Cloudy Nights. One thing that was striking was your suggestion that SkyTools only contains a "Help file" to instruct people in how to use it. Aside from the help facility that you are aware of, there is a handbook for the starter edition and are user guides available for the standard and professional editions that are available as free downloads from the Skyhound web site at http://skyhound.com/downloads.html. The handbook for the starter edition is 123 pages, the standard edition user guide is 566 pages, and the user guide for the professional edition is 623 pages. These documents describe every feature of the program in detail. In addition, there is an extensive library of video tutorials that demonstrate how to use many features or how to accomplish specific tasks available at http://skyhound.com/..._tutorials.html. There is also a SkyTools Yahoo group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/skytools where the author of the software and people like me answer questions and provide help.

The help facility that you referred to is also much richer than you indicated. When you first start the program, a small dialog box offers you the options of reading through the "Getting Started" or "Tutorial" portions of the help facility, provides a link to the video tutorials, and gives the URL of the Skyhound web site. Several parts of the help facility are accessible using buttons on the toolbar at the top of each major window within the program. Aside from the parts that I mentioned above, there are buttons for context-specific help, an extensive set of How-To's, and the general help facility index.

Another aspect of your review that struck me was what seemed to be a misunderstanding of the many ways that you can create an observing list. It seemed that you thought that the Nightly Observing List Generator is the only way to create observing lists in the program. This is only one of the ways available to a user. To create your own observing list, you typically create an empty list in whatever observing list group you like via the observing list menu, which is accessible using the blue down-arrow next to the title "Observing List". Then you add whatever objects you like to the list. You can copy objects from other lists, find them individually by name or location using the Designation Search tool, find multiple objects at a time based on almost any criteria you can think of using the Database Power Search tool, or read them from a simple text file you created. Furthermore, you can download pre-made observing lists, such as the lists of objects for Astronomical League observing programs, from the Skyhound web site. These lists are usually created by people like me and then uploaded to the site and vetted before being released for general download. Objects can be copied between observing lists one or more at a time (contrary to what you said) and the objects displayed in a list can be filtered to exclude objects based on a number of criteria. As you mentioned in your review, SkyTools also provides access to regularly updated and corrected lists of transient phenomena such as comets, novae, supernovae, and minor planets. The author of the program maintains these lists himself so that SkyTools has the latest and most accurate information possible for finding short-term astronomical events.

The Nightly Observing List Generator is also a much more flexible and useful tool than you seemed to indicate. The lists are tailored to your experience level and capabilities for your equipment at the location that you will be observing and for the night you're planning to observe. It can be helpful for beginners and advanced observers alike. Even for someone with as much experience as you have, it can be helpful to look through the list that this tool generates since it might contain objects that you wouldn't have otherwise thought to add to your list.

Another aspect of SkyTools that you didn't seem to understand was the nature of the SkyTools database. The author of SkyTools is a professional astronomer and he has exerted enormous effort to create a unified database as free of duplicates and errors as he could muster. The standard astronomical databases are rife with errors and inconsistencies, partially due to historical factors. These have been corrected and resolved as much as possible in the SkyTools database. I do not mean to say that the SkyTools database is perfect. It is still a work in progress and the author continues to make corrections as errors are found or as new information arises. But it is the result of many years of effort by a professional astronomer and it is much more accurate than simply downloading the plethora of standard databases and munging them all together, which is what most software does. If an object truly isn't in the SkyTools database, you can add it to your copy of SkyTools via the Supplemental Database. But this feature should be used very sparingly after very carefully verifying that the object is truly absent, often in consultation with the SkyTools Yahoo Group, and that your information about it accurate.

In contrast to what you said, there is extensive information available for each object in the SkyTools database. Simply right-clicking on an object in an observing list or typing "i" when the object is selected will bring up the "Object Information" dialog box, which provides the information about the object from the database, access to images of the object, information about the altitude of the object from your location during the specified night or throughout the year, pages where the object is located in various references, likelihood of observing the object in your different instruments, recommendations about when to best observe the object, and any information that you might have entered about the object yourself. This information is also available within all of the SkyTools search tools.

In your extensive discussion about eyepiece views, you seem to have misunderstood the nature of the finder charts that SkyTools generates and neglected to consider the many other kinds of charts that SkyTools provides. SkyTools creates charts that are overall views of the sky (like you see in the middle of your favorite astronomy magazine every month), naked eye views, interactive "planetarium" charts for general use, and finder charts for use in finding objects at the telescope. The finder charts that you mentioned in your review are actual simulations of the star field that you will see using your equipment at your observing location on the specified night. The star fields in each of the 3 panes are calculated to match what you will see with your naked eyes, through your finder scope, and through the eyepiece that you have specified. If you have set all of the parameters in the program appropriately, the views shown in the charts should very closely match what you see at the telescope, without any tweaking on your part. SkyTools intentionally only simulates the star fields and doesn't attempt to simulate the views you will have of most deep sky objects. This allows you to appreciate the objects yourself directly when you see them through the eyepiece. SkyTools does, however, provide the means to download many different images of deep sky objects from a large variety of sources and will display them on the interactive, planetarium charts.

Any of the charts that you create within SkyTools (on-screen or printed) can be customized in an unbelievable number of ways. In fact, a common complaint is that the user has too much control, which can lead to unnecessary complication. Charts can be made using many different projection schemes, including some similar to the Sky Coverage chart you showed from AstroPlanner, and can include as many objects as you like.

Just as the author of SkyTools thought that you would want to view objects yourself rather than seeing simulations of them on the finder charts, SkyTools doesn't provide any predefined ratings (beyond what you can infer from the lists that the Nightly Observing List Generator creates), as you noted. Instead, SkyTools provides the means for you to rate objects yourself. It also provides the means for you to prioritize the objects in a list and to specify whether or not you have observed an object or whether you want to re-observe it. In addition, SkyTools has extensive and convenient logging facilities for recording your own observations.

As others have pointed out, it is possible to transfer lists from SkyTools to other programs and specifically possible to transfer lists to Sky Safari in it's native skylist format via the "Export Observing List" option on the observing lists menu in the Nightly Planner. You stated that SkyTools was unable to do this.

Lastly, SkyTools provides telescope control facilities that are probably at least as flexible than those in AstroPlanner. You can order your slews in any of the ways that you can order objects in an observing list and you can even manually slew using your mouse from within a star chart.

This covers the inaccuracies in your article that disappointed me the most. But, in what I have written, I have only scratched the surface with respect to the facilities available in SkyTools. It would be great if you could correct some of the mistakes in your article. But, at the very least, I encourage you to give SkyTools a closer look yourself. Watch some of the video tutorials and maybe read about features you're interested in in one of the users guides. It's a much better and more extensive program than you have given it credit for and you might even find it to be extremely helpful in your own observations.

Mark
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