Swiss watches have a longstanding reputation for accuracy, complexity, and elegance, and Cosmic-Watch ($3.99) prominently displays a "Swiss made" label the first time you load the app. But while it is stylish and intricate, Cosmic-Watch is not a watch at all, at least not in the physical sense. It's an app for the iPad, the iPhone, and the iPod touch (I tested it on an iPad Air 2). There is no Apple Watch version at this point, however. Cosmic-Watch is interactive, beautiful, and fun, though it has its share of quirks.
Design and Features
Cosmic Watch has three main modes: Clock Mode, Astronomy Mode, and Astrology Mode. From the Home screen you can access them from buttons running down the screen's left-hand edge, with icons depicting a digital clock, stars, and planets, respectively. Above them is yet another button, labeled Cosmic Watch, which resets the app to basic Clock Mode, removing any gridlines, names, coordinates, or other overlays you may have added.
In the screen's upper-right corner is a button with three dots inside it. Tapping it removes all the other controls, except for the button used to take screenshots (more on that below). Tapping the three dots again restores the other controls. To that button's left is a button with a search icon (magnifying glass), for highlighting a new location on the globe. Tapping it brings up a Search field and your iPad's keyboard. Type in a place name, and with each succeeding letter, a list of suggested cities is narrowed down, and your desired location hopefully appear. If not, you can try a nearby city, or ditch the search bar and touch the desired point on the globe after zooming in. Below the three-dot button is a star icon. By pressing it, you can see up to three locations that you had previously favorited, or mark your current location as a favorite by touching a plus sign that appears above the city name. If you want to add a new favorite, but already have three, you can delete one by tapping a minus sign next to it.
Each of the bottom two corners of the app contains a button. On the left is a settings button (gear icon), and on the right is a time button (clock icon). Pressing the settings button brings up a row of additional icons, labeled Solar System, Clock, Guides, Earth, Sky, About, and Help. The Clock option lets you choose between a digital or a clock-face time view, or both, and add seasons or months to the display. Guides lets you add coordinate grids and labels to the display. With the Earth option, you can change how the planet is presented, adding clouds, showing continents as outlines, or depicting its geological structure. The Help icon simply shows the labels on the main buttons, but provides no other assistance.
Above the on-screen clock is a red button that acts as a camera shutter, letting you take a screenshot of the view. You can share the shot on Twitter or Facebook if you wish, or save it to your iPad's Photo Album.
In Clock Mode, local time is displayed digitally in 24-hour format, broken into hours and minutes. The time is superimposed on a globe of the earth, with your location—initially gleaned via GPS—highlighted at the center. Surrounding the globe is a circle marking the ecliptic, which is the path that the sun appears to trace through our sky against the background stars over the course of a year. The circle is broken into several rings. In one, the moon and planets, as well as the sun, are shown in their current positions. Areas of the globe facing the sun are lit, while the rest is in shadow. You can rotate or tilt the globe by swiping the screen right or left, up or down. The ecliptic circle serves as a 24-hour clock, broken into tick marks in 5-minute increments, with longer marks every hour, and labels every 3 hours. By rotating the globe, you can surmise the approximate local time for anywhere on Earth, and you can tap a location for a more precise time.
When you press the button to activate Astronomy Mode, you still see the earth, but surrounding it is a representation of the celestial sphere—the imaginary dome of the heavens on which the stars are set. Bright stars and constellations are identified by name. Lines connect the traditional star patterns. The four cardinal directions are marked at the edges of the sphere. Constellations are even superimposed on your view of the earth, and whatever constellation is at the center of your view would be overhead if you were at the point on the earth the globe is centered on.
The constellations, however, are shown backwards, as this is in effect a "God's-eye view"—as if you were looking down on the constellations, etched into the celestial sphere, from outside. This is akin to the backwards star map that decorates the ceiling of New York City's Grand Central Station, and is just as confusing and astronomically dubious. (Because the stars in a constellation can be at wildly varying distances from Earth, you would not see the same pattern in reverse even if you could somehow get behind the stars.)
Trying to represent the three-dimensional celestial sphere in two dimensions presents another problem. While I was writing this, when I centered the view on New York City, I noticed the crescent moon depicted well up in the eastern sky, even though in reality it wouldn't rise for more than two hours. When I used my finger to rotate the globe and celestial sphere, I found that the moon was still on the back side of this imaginary yet translucent sphere, and had yet to rotate into view.
The bottom line is that because you are looking at the celestial sphere from the outside, you can't effectively use Cosmic-Watch as a star map. If you want to find your way around the heavens, you would be much better off with a planetarium app, such as SkySafari, Sky Guide, or Star Chart. They display the sky as if you were looking up at it from Earth's surface, showing the stars and constellations in the direction you are pointing your iPad.
While you're in Astronomy Mode, tap the Settings (gear) icon and then tap Solar System. It brings up a virtual orrery, which is a representation of the motion of the planets. As in the main Astronomy Mode, you're looking at the scene from afar. Most orreries are heliocentric, showing the motion of the earth around the sun, but Cosmic-Watch has a geocentric view, showing the motion of the planets over time relative to the earth. (Another, topocentric view shows their motion relative to a given point on Earth, in which they circle the sky in the course of a 24-hour period.) This lets you see, for example, the apparent loops made by Venus and Mars when they periodically make close approaches to Earth. When sped up, the pattern resembles one made with a Spirograph toy.
The app's Astrology Mode shows the sun, the moon, and the planets, identified by their astrological sign. They are set against the houses of the zodiac, labeled in a ring divided into 12 equal parts. A similar ring, broken into months, identifies where the sun is at any point in time. Lines drawn between the two rings mark the cusps, and you can see the see the span of time that the sun spends in each house. By moving the clock backward or forward, you can set it for any year, date, and time, and create a birth chart or other chart.
Cosmic-Watch is a pretty iPad app, perhaps best suited as an educational aid. It does well in portraying time on a global scale, showing the delineation between day and night, and the changing light, particularly at the poles, as the seasons progress. With the app, you could use your iPad as a clock, but it isn't very practical as such. You could only see it at a glance if you set your tablet to never go into sleep mode, and it would use up juice unless you kept it plugged into a power adapter. The Astrology Mode seems true to that divination system, but the "God's-eye view" of the celestial sphere presented in the Astronomy Mode is confusing, and unusable as a star map. The app's views are beautifully rendered, however—whether you're looking at Earth floating amidst the star clouds and clusters of the Milky Way, or watching the lights of cities across a continent or the green glow of auroras in the polar night sky.