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Review: Digital Universe and Distant Suns
By: Jason Compton
Distant Suns was the standard for "home observatory" software on the Amiga
for many years. Unfortunately, it has faded into disuse and relative
obscurity as of late--the biggest event since the 1994 release of V5 was
the abandonment of the program by its developer (Mike Smithwick) and his
publisher (VRLI) when DS5 failed to sell a single copy in the span of a
Another publisher, Chaocity, picked up VRLI's Amiga software line and
released DS5.01 (the .01 apparently accounted for the labeling change) and
has promised upgrades, but none have surfaced yet.
Around the time that happened, Syzygy Research and Technology of Canada
released The Digital Universe. A monumental undertaking, DU ships in one
(or optionally, two) lay-flat 3 ring binders on 14 (!) floppy disks. (A
logical candidate for CD-ROM, but so far none has been made).
On the very surface, both programs roughly do the same thing--give a "sky"
or "planetarium" (configur able) view of the cosmos. You can orient
yourself at a given position (Select from a list of cities, give
coordinate information, or in Distant Suns, put yourself somewhere else in
our solar system) and see what the view would be like. Of course, this is
a 2-d representation, so you can change the direction of view as well.
Both programs will identify bodies for you, and you can set the date to
virtually anything you please. Check out the configuration of the heavens
on your birthday or any other date in history you feel might be important
to you. Identify constellations...you get the basic idea.
Distant Suns, from start to finish, takes an approach very forgiving to
amateurs and astronomical ignoramuses. The 128-page manual is filled with
instructions on how to set up various events of note, such as observing the
exchange of Plato and Neptune as most-distant planets, showing that in 4145
AD, Polaris will no longer be the "North star", and so on. The program
even comes with a few preconfigured "projects" of events, just click on the
"time forward" button and go.
Digital Universe takes a much more comprehensive approach. The base user
manual is written and printed in what appears to be TeX, with the standard
TeX font that can't help but seem solemn and serious. (The XiPaint manual
is the exact same way.) Copious amounts of stellar objects have been
cataloged in the program, and new modules are coming monthly.
At the risk of sounding superficial, I'd also like to take this opportunity
to point out one very significant difference between the two
programs--their interface. Distant Suns is showing its age. It was
clearly designed with an ECS machine in mind, is relatively uncooperative
to being mode-promoted, and has menus which, while functional, aren't very
Digital Universe, straight from its opening animation, shows that things
are going to be different from now on. The program's interface is based on
MUI. There are those who harp, whine, and moan about MUI, but this program
has done an excellent job of turning it into a serious dash of class
without going overboard and making the program a pig to use.
Digital Universe is also the much more illuminating and informative
program. It seems that virtually every object in the sky has at least two
pages worth of vital data, and quite a few have extended encyclopedic
entries, complete with pictures. (Viewed through AmigaGuide, which DOES
have some problems with MUI, which are supposed to get sorted out.) All
this data and information, in print form, takes up over 700 pages--Syzygy
knows, because for US$65 they'll sell it to you. Personally, it's a take
it or leave it affair for me, because I love the hypertext integration and
am so used to reading important information off a screen that I'm not set
off by it. (Avid Amiga Report readers presumably feel the same way.) Even
clicking on something trivial like the Sun gets very interesting very
DU seems to pay a lot more attention to detail, right down to asking you
the temperature in your area for better calculating refraction if you
choose to view your sky with refraction accounted for.
It's almost embarrasing how much time I've spent with Digital Universe,
magnifying and identifying to my heart's content various objects out of the
NGC, or turning every possible object on and marvelling at just how much
STUFF there is out in space...
Both programs will allow you to generate animations of events over time.
Digital Universe supports some printing--Distant Suns lets you save the
view to an IFF for later printout.
There's a great big galaxy out there, so if you're going to be inside
screwing around on your Amiga the least you can do is stick your head out
the window, note what you see, and fire up a program to help you learn more
about it. Both Digital Universe and Distant Suns can get you there--DU is
a much more comprehensive program, with upgrades and updates (two upgrades
are available on Syzygy's Web site, along with several new modules for new
stellar objects and updates to the on-line encyclopedia), not to mention
the Web site's information on new events and discoveries in the
astronomical world. Distant Suns is a cheaper, more introductory setup,
and may be frustrating to those who know they could be getting more from
Both programs will take advantage of an FPU (highly recommended. It's a
big universe out there, and there's a lot to keep track of.), and you'll
need a hard drive.
Digital Universe: Demo on
Syzygy Research and Technology
US$ 129.95 for Digital Universe software and manual
US$ 64.95 for Digital Universe hardcopy Encyclopedia
221 Town Center West #259
Santa Maria, CA 93454