Planning software, for want of a better name, is substantially different from the planétariums, where beautiful representations of the sky are an important measure of how good a program is. In the planners, the virtual sky takes a backseat to other functions. These programs are essentially giant databases—many boasting well over 1 million objects (not including stars) out of the box—and very robust search tools that allow users to select objects, build observing lists, and log observations. Charting is not the main course, but most planners can do sky maps of some kind, and some more than keep up with the planetariums.

Open a planner and what bursts onto the screen is not a pretty sky. Instead, it's a dry-as-dust list of objects that looks about as exciting as an Excel spreadsheet. Why would anyone want to give up TheSky or Starry Night for that? Because, for non-armchair astronomers, people who actually get out and observe objects, planners are usually more helpful than planetariums. Not only will a planner tell "what's up," it will show, at a glance, how bright an object is, when it's best viewed, and what its vital statistics are, all without having to click through layers of menus and windows.

Some planetariums—Starry Night most notably—can perform planning functions, but their planning features are usually rudimentary and sometimes awkward to use. Many of us who do use planners as our main observing tools, though, still supplement them with TheSky or Starry Night or Cartes du Ciel due to the more advanced charting features of those programs.

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