I had more hope for the iPhone app The Planets. The $1 app from Eric Vollnogel does provide a lot of information about the planets in our solar system—information that is obtained from Wikipedia and NASA—but the presentation is boring and not user-friendly.
The main screen of the app lists all the planets in our solar system. Tap on one of the planet names, and you get a screen listing the planet’s stats: mass, orbital radius, eccentricity, the number of named moons, and so forth. Then you can tap the Detailed Information button to get a lot more information about the planet. And by a lot, I mean a lot.
Having all this information at one’s fingertips is very nice, but as with any app, I’m looking for usability. The Detail view is one very long scrollable document, much like the one you’d get if you went to a particular planet’s Wikipedia page, except there are no visuals. It’s overwhelming and long, and it doesn’t allow users to get to specific information quickly.
I’d prefer this Detail view be broken down into a table of contents page, one that lists a link to the introductory statement about the planet, and then lists the various headings and subheadings found on the Wikipedia page: Internal Structure, Surface Geology (with entries for its subheadings), Surface Conditions and Atmosphere, and so forth.
More pictures and informational graphics would be nice, too. Graphically presenting the loads of information in this app would make the app more dynamic and useful.
Strangely, the app has only a picture of the various trans-Neptunian objects in our solar system. It’s a static photo, so you can’t tap one of the objects to learn more about it. The infomaniac in me frowned and cursed as I tried tapping an object here and an object there to see if something cool would happen. Alas, nothing did.
The trans-Neptunian objects are pretty interesting and have gotten a lot of press since the Pluto controversy. Some people may not be aware of the reality that Pluto is no longer considered a planet (it’s now termed a dwarf planet, which is different than a planet). Having some information about these objects at one’s disposal would be quite helpful. Also, providing this information might explain to users of the app why Pluto is not in the list of planets on the app’s main page. (Pluto was officially declassified as a planet in 2006, a decision that is still being debated today.)
The Planets is a good idea not fully realized. But its weakness is also its strength—because the app isn’t very full featured, it has lots of room to grow. And grow it must if anyone would want to pay even $1 for such an app. While the App Store offers some astronomically themed applications, there aren’t many apps whose focus is solely on the planets and other celestial bodies of our solar system. This app could be the quintessential pocket reference with just a little work.
[Sue Voelkel is Macworld’s managing editor.]
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