Gaze at the stars and play the arcade classics: iPhone apps of the week

This week's apps include an app for star gazing that uses augmented-reality technology and an app that lets you play classic arcade and console games from the golden age of gaming.

iPhone (Credit: CNET)

In a CNET News story yesterday, our very own Josh Lowensohn explored Apple's recent patent application for an interesting touch-screen concept. The patent details separate smaller displays outside of the regular iPhone touch screen. According to the patent filing, these separate displays could be used in tandem with the main iPhone touch screen or used by developers to show added information in apps and games. Josh is careful to point out that patent applications don't necessarily mean a company will use an idea in a future product, but they are nonetheless interesting to consider.

Obviously, adding separate screens would open up all kinds of options for apps, but I wonder if these areas would be used by Apple for showing things like battery life, current time, camera information, or other more generic smartphone-related uses. But if these added touch-screen areas could be used by app developers, it would open up a huge number of possibilities for more interesting on-screen controls and other information widgets related to what's happening on-screen.

Even without knowing whether this will come to light, what sort of uses can you envision for extra displays around the main iPhone screen? Let me know your ideas in the comments.

This week's apps include an app for star gazing that uses augmented-reality technology and an app that lets you play classic arcade and console games from the golden age of gaming.

SkyView

Simply point your iPhone at the sky and you'll quickly find planets and stars you recognize.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

SkyView (99 cents) lets you use your iPhone camera view to create an augmented-reality view of the sky complete with constellations, planets, and satellites. Simply launch the app and point your iPhone camera skyward to see constellations and other celestial bodies where they are in real time. You also can touch planets, stars, and constellations to get more info and history at the bottom of the screen.

While you can spend plenty of time simply pointing in different directions and viewing celestial bodies, SkyView offers a few more handy features for finding what you want. You can use the search tool to quickly bring up an alphabetized list of celestial bodies, with buttons across the bottom of the interface to narrow your search to planets in our solar system--stars, constellations, or satellites. The search results let you know which celestial bodies are above or below the horizon in your location, making it easy to find things you can actually see.

Another extra lets you enter the date and time to see what's in the night sky. This acts as a sort of time machine, letting you view the position of stars and planets on a specific day and determine whether you'll be able to see a planet as it passes closer to Earth, for example. But even just using the current date and time, SkyView lets you "scrub" forward on the moon's path, for instance, to see where it will be positioned later that day.

Overall, by using augmented reality, the iPhone accelerometer, and gyroscope technology, SkyView is an excellent way to identify celestial bodies, satellites, and constellations right from your iPhone. If you've ever wanted to know what you're looking at in the night sky, this app is the perfect stargazer's companion.

Atari Greatest Hits

It's great to see the sights and hear the sounds of Tempest, but the controls are not perfect.

(Credit: Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET)

Atari's Greatest Hits (free with in-app purchases) lets you relive the early history of video gaming, giving you tons of old-school arcade and Atari 2600 hits on your iPhone. But it's not without flaws. Games like the original Asteroids, Tempest, Gravitar, Crystal Castle, and many more are available via in-app purchases packaged with their associated Atari 2600 games and some extras. In other words, the Atari Greatest Hits app itself is free, but if you want to play Tempest, for example, you'll need to buy the Tempest pack (99 cents), which comes with Tempest, Tempest for Atari 2600, Outlaw (2600), and Video Cube (2600). You also have the option to buy all the packs in one shot for $14.99 giving you more than 100 old-school games.

Upon first launch of an old favorite, you're bound to be excited to see the same graphics and hear the same sounds you may remember from the classic days of gaming, but once you start playing, that initial excitement will probably wear off quickly.

The problem with playing these old games on the iPhone is the small screen size and limited control schemes for each game. As an example, Tempest, which was originally played with a spinnable knob and a fire button in the stand-up version, is controlled using a vertical slider on the left side of the screen and a fire button on the right. Even after a few plays, I was never able to get the slider to move the way I wanted it to, forcing me to try over and over to move around the board on levels I used to be able to beat easily in the original. Unfortunately, most of these classic games share similar issues.

Overall, Atari's Greatest Hits offers somewhat stunted iPhone versions of the old classics, along with several Atari 2600 titles. Sadly, after playing these old greats the new way, you might find your rose-colored nostalgia tainted. Certainly, some of the more popular titles like Adventure, Combat, and other Atari 2600 hits will be fun to play a couple times, but for the most part, the control schemes and dated games seem to be more for nostalgia than for actual lasting entertainment.

Around the Web, I've noticed that Atari's Greatest Hits is being reviewed fairly favorably, but for me--a gamer who used to load my quarters and tokens up at the arcade machines of old--this collection is ultimately a disappointment to play, if a cool novelty. I should point out that my CNET colleague, Christopher MacManus agrees in his first take, but suggests that the iPad versions are much more palatable.

What's your favorite iPhone app? How do you like using augmented reality to see the night sky? Am I being too hard on Atari's Greatest Hits? Let me know in the comments!

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