This page copyright 2012 Steve Ford http://geeky-boy.com and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
I believe that a sky mapping program for you home computer can be very useful, whether you are a beginner or an experienced astronomer. As a beginner, it can help you learn the constellations and locate planets. Most sky mapping packages also provide these features:
http://www.fourmilab.ch/yoursky/ is a web site that provides most of these functions for free. Unfortunately, like most web sites, this one is slow, has pretty low resolution maps, and isn't nearly as user-friendly as a good package that you install on your computer.
Every package has a certain following of amateurs who swear by that package over all others. I do not claim to have wide experience - I only know about one package: SkyMap. (For a pretty long list of packages, see http://seds.lpl.arizona.edu/billa/astrosoftware.html.)
Fortunately, it does everything that I want. It is easy and intuitive to use. And it is among the least expensive packages. I particularly like it's "real-time" mode of operation which locks in on the current time and shows you the sky as it is right now. In addition to being a useful tool for observing, I kind of like just playing with it, bringing up various views, zooming in on interesting objects, comparing distances, etc.
It is shareware, which means that you can download it for free and use it for a certain period of time. SkyMap's trial period is not defined by an amount of calendar time, rather it is defined by the number of different days you use it - 30 to be exact. So, if you only bring the program up one day a month, you have a 30 month trial period. Considering that most places have more cloudy nights than clear, most people can get a lot of use before the package expires.
If you decide to buy it, you can get the "cheap" version for $50 US, which has many more stars in it than the evaluation version (which makes it easier to find some objects), or you can get he "expensive" version for $80 US which comes on CD ROM and has more stars than you can shake a telescope at.
Alas, it is only available for MS Windows (3.1, 95, or NT). Mac users will need to find something else.
You can get info about SkyMap at http://www.skymap.com/. You can download an evaluation copy at http://www.skymap.com/skymap_eval.htm.
Although I haven't tried it, I've heard good things about SkyGlobe. Alas, there doesn't seem to be an "official" site for it. Since it's shareware, you're supposed to pay for it, but I can't find the info. Perhaps that comes with it when you download it, which you can do from http://download.com/PC/Result/TitleDetail/0,4,0-18000,501000.html (DOS program compatible with Windows).
Sfordsez: if you haven't seen my standard disclaimer and copyright at
then check it out now.