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From iPhone to iPad: Star Walk


How do old iPhone favorites hold up on the iPad? In our From iPhone to iPad series, TUAW revisits iPhone applications that have transitioned to the iPad. We look at their latest incarnations and see how the new measures up to the old. Today, TUAW looks at Star Walk.

I first encountered Star Walk last summer at an O'Reilly Foo Camp meet-up. "You want to see an app that really takes advantage of everything a 3GS can do?" asked one of the attendees. "Try Star Walk." I dutifully scribbled down the name and, when I returned home, I picked up a copy at the App Store.

True to the advice, Star Walk really impressed. It's a kind of "virtual window" application that you use at night. You look "through" the 3GS to the sky behind it and see a live view of the constellations the 3GS is pointing at. Move the 3GS down out of your field of view, and you see the real night sky. Move the 3GS back in front of you and it explains exactly what you're looking at.

That's because Star Walk was one of the first applications that took advantage of the iPhone 3GS's built in magnetometer. The sensor that powers the onboard compass allows apps to retrieve magnetic north readings. Star Walk uses the magnetometer to determine which way you're looking -- not just your position. And it uses that bearing information to display the correct portion of the night sky.

My astrophysicist husband and astronomy-enthusiast 7-year old both love the app. They were thrilled when Star Walk finally debuted an iPad version. The beautiful, immersive graphics really blossomed on the larger device. The application is even more of a visual treat for anyone who loves astronomy and the night sky.

What's better news is that every current iPad model provides a built-in magnetometer. That's why the iPad Maps application is now able to re-orient the maps display to match the way that you're standing and looking. And that's also why even the Wi-Fi iPad is able to take advantage of Star Walk. The breathtaking application from the 3GS has made a brilliant jump between platforms.

There are, however, things you need to take into account. As my son quickly found out, the iPad in all its size and glory does block a lot more of your normal view when looking at the night sky. That means you have to take a lot more care when walking around with the iPad stuck in front of your face. It also helps to not have a nervous mother on hand, who might appear to be more worried about her precious iPad breaking than you tripping over, say, an inconvenient shrubbery while focusing on Star Walk's much-enhanced visuals.

There's also more of a work-out involved. You'll be lifting and lowering the much heavier iPad a lot. Good for upper body strength, I suppose, but less handy when you're out in an isolated area and have to carry the thing with you.

Finally, there's the brightness of the screen. My husband is a complete photophobe -- always trying to get his eyes to best adjust to darkness while observing. No getting around it -- both the 3GS and the iPad versions are going to kill your night vision, even with the brightness adjusted to the minimum and using the red filter. But that's a small price to pay when you're inculcating a love of science and the stars in the next generation. And if you're looking for a way to get your kids really excited about astronomy, I can't think of a better tool to get them started with than the US$4.99 iPad version of Star Walk from the App Store. The original 3GS version (also a gem) retails for $2.99.

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