Gear Review: Smartphone Weather Apps to Help you Stay Smart on and off the Water

We have a wonderful saying here in the South when out-of-towners grouse about our seemingly unpredictable meteorological conditions.  “Don’t like the weather? Just wait five minutes, y’all.”

At no time during the year is this more true than in the summer, when we get into a pattern of afternoon and evening thunderstorms, or at least big ol’ gray clouds that just look like they are going to burst any second.

Sometimes they will. Sometimes they won’t. 

Here in the Raleigh area, it can be pouring cats and dogs at Falls Lake to the north, but be dry as a bone just a few miles to the south at Lake Jordan.

No matter where you are, if you paddle, it pays to pay attention, to know your local weather patterns and forecasts and more importantly know when things are, as we say here, fixin’ to change.  Fortunately, staying weather aware has never been easier with the advent of the smart phone.  Having some good weather apps set up on your phone, and having your phone charged and in a dry bag with you when you paddle is just good common sense.

But weather apps are .99 a dozen on Google Play and in the Apple app store.  How do you know which ones are worth the time to download, set up or even buy, let alone allow to eat up precious space on your phone? 

Sometimes it’s just trial and error.

Download and play with an app and see if it works for you. If not, hit the delete button.

I wish I could say there was one end all, be all weather app, but so far I haven’t found it.  There are several, though, that are always going to be on my phone for safety reasons, and because they are just super cool.  Before I launch into my overview of those, if there is a television station in your area that’s known for its weather forecasting, and it has a stand-alone weather app, download it.  It’s always good to have the local knowledge and the local radar information. Here in central NC, that station is WRAL.  Its weather app is always on my phone in the summer, and it helped save my bacon when I got caught in a gully-washer two years ago at Falls Lake.

Now, about Weather Bug and Dark Sky.  I’m also throwing in a few others just for comparison.  This review will focus on usability – how easy it is to use – and functionality.  All of the apps seem to have the same level of forecast accuracy, and since I’m not a meteorologist, I’ll let you make your own decisions on that.  The apps were evaluated on an iPhone 5s and 6s.

Weather Bug

Developer: Weather Bug

$2.99 per year for no ad version

iPhone and Android

weather bug

Weather bug was one of the earliest weather apps I loaded onto my first gen iPad.  It’s changed a lot since then.  Unfortunately, the user interface now looks conspicuously like older versions of The Weather Channel’s app. The iPhone interface is cluttered, especially if you use the free version – ads, including video ads, will be in the middle of the screen and at the bottom.  Some of the screen real estate is customizable – you can decide what info you want to put where but it’s still cluttered. And there’s stuff there I just don’t need, like live cams, local photos, the national weather outlook, etc. That adds to the busyness of the user interface. And be prepared to do lots of scrolling.

You’ll note that the Alert icon (the triangle with an exclamation mark in the center) is ALWAYS on the screen.  If there is an actual alert, it will be red in color.  Other apps only display that icon when an alert is active, so seeing it all the time is a bit confusing.

Weather Bug will allow you to add and store favorite locations once you sign up – either with an email address or Facebook account.  This gives the the ability to share those favorite locations and the data that goes with them from one device or another, which is handy.  You can toggle between favorite locations by using the down arrow at the top of the screen. You can only receive push notifications from one area, however.

One of the most valuable features of any weather app for paddlers is the hourly function.  Weather Bug’s hourly section is large and easy to read but again, it requires a significant amount of scrolling through to see the entire day or night.

weather bug

If you leave the Weather Bug app for any reason, then return to it, you’ll find you are starting all over again on the home screen, even if you haven’t closed out the app.  For example, say I am looking at the lightning strike map, leave it to check a text message then go back to the map. Well, when I re-enter Weather Bug, I won’t be at the the map where I left off, I’ll be starting at the Weather Bug home screen. To get back to where I was when I checked my text requires me to load the map all over again.  This is extremely annoying and time wasting. That doesn’t happen with other apps and it is something I hope the developers will address.

I am willing to forgive or overlook most if not all of these issues for one specific feature of Weather Bug – the feature that makes it a must-have on my iPhone: Spark. Spark is an app within an app that allows you to see where lightning has hit anywhere in the country.  It will tell you where the closest lightning strike is to you, within the last 30 minutes, using your phone’s GPS,  Spark also integrates your saved locations into the map and you can check those areas as well. In addition to showing the strike on the map, it will tell you how many miles away the closest strike was.  And that is key. No other app with lightning detection does that.

weather bug

To get to Spark, after you’ve downloaded and installed Weather Bug, tap the menu at the top left of the screen – you’ll see its large tab the the drop down menu. After you accept the Terms of Service, Spark will automatically populate on Weather Bug’s home screen.

You can set it to your current location using the tool bar at the bottom of the page or zoom in with your fingers. Little lightning bolts appear to indicate strike locations and Spark will tell you how far away the nearest lighting is.  If you set it up correctly, Spark will use the GPS in your smartphone and follow you as you go, keeping you apprised of how far lighting is from you, where ever you are.  Every race director and race safety director should have this app installed on their phones.  And every recreational paddler should too – for the obvious reasons.  Wrightsville Beach’s Ocean Rescue folks use this app and it’s easy to see why.

Oddly enough though, sometimes the lighting layer in the maps section of Weather Bug will show strikes that do not appear on Spark.  Curious. Spark is produced by Weather Bug’s parent Company, Earth Networks, which has an array of over 700 lightning sensors across the country.

In addition to gathering data from its own network, the app using a wide variety of government weather sources as well.

I really wish Spark was a separate, stand-alone app.  I’d ditch the full Weather Bug app and just use it.  But obviously that’s by design.

Dark Sky

Developer: Jackadam

$3.99

iPhone only (for now)

Dark Sky

Dark Sky is one of those apps that really is worth paying for, at least in my opinion. It has a wonderfully elegant user interface – its design is very simple, very streamlined and very easy to use.  The whole user experience of Dark Sky is quite unique for a weather app. So much so, it might turn some people off.  But wait…before you delete it just because it looks like Steve Jobs himself designed it,  TRY IT.  You’ll likely be impressed with the weather notifications.  And that’s the big reason to use this app.

If you turn on the notifications feature of Dark Sky, the app will let you know when rain or snow is expected to start falling in your immediate area, and conversely when it might stop. Open up the app and you’ll see a timeline for the next hour or so showing the projected amount of rain for the area. Swipe left and you’ll see the weather outlook for the week. Tap on any day and the screen will expand to give you an hour by hour look at precip and forecast conditions, including precip percentages, temp, wind, humidity and the UV index, all in a very simple format that is easy to navigate.  Swipe all the way to the right and you’ll get the map feature, which will zoom in to your current location and play an animate radar loop. You can stop the loop by tapping on the word NOW at the bottom of the screen. This is one of the best, easiest to use and decipher radar visualizations I have ever used.

Dark Sky

Dark Sky will also allow you to create custom alerts for wind, UV levels, temperature, feels like temperature, precip probability, snowfall or humidity.  The alerts can be set to run at specific times, for daytime or nighttime and you can specify perimeters. For instance, I have a custom notification scheduled for 7:00 am that will alert me if windspeed in the Wrightsville Beach area is forecast to go above 10 miles per hour during daytime hours.

Dark Sky

Dark Sky also can be set up to notify the user when NOAA issues severe weather alerts and warnings.

Unofficially, this app is used by many of my REI Outdoor school instructor colleagues for keeping tabs on thunderstorms, UV levels and humidity levels that could have an affect on our classes and participants.  In my experience, very, very useful, and has helped me keep my students safe.

Another cool feature of Dark Sky is the ability for the user to submit weather reports, much like the way WAZE app users can report on current traffic conditions.

Dark Sky has a desktop option as well, which is almost as cool as the mobile product (mind the ads.) One of the neat functions on the desktop is the Time Machine.  You can enter in a location, click a date in the past on the calendar and see what the weather was like on that day.  So, if you can’t remember if the wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour or 30 on the day you did the Graveyard Course for the first time, take a trip in the Time Machine.  But be careful, you might be disappointed to learn it was only 10 mph! 

The whole Dark Sky kit and caboodle was kickstarter project by two guys who were tired of getting caught in the rain.  Sounds like my kind of geeks.

Bottom line is you need both Weather Bug and Dark Sky – Weather Bug for the lightning strike feature and Dark Sky for the notifications and the rain alerts. If Dark Sky had the lightning strike feature, and may tide table integration, it would be damn near perfect.

And now for some other weather apps:

RadarCast

Developer: WeatherSphere

iPhone and Android

$3.99

.99 in app purchase for tides

Radarcast

This is likely to be the first app that pops up if your search for a lightning strike app. WeatherSphere has quite a few iterations of this product and bundles of other weather-related apps, and they are expensive. Especially for what they are.

RadarCast is a basic radar map that also includes many layers of data that you can pull into the main map and look at – including NOAA warnings, lightning strikes, hurricane and storm tracks.  More advance and specialized data layers can be added for a price, including tide charts. A basic weather forecast with hourly conditions, wind and temps comes up when you tap on the forecast option at the  bottom of the screen. It won’t tell you how far away the most recently lightning strike is, though.  You have to hunt for the lightning bolt icons.

Like most apps of its kind, you can add and save favorite locations. There is an odd “direction” function where it appears as though you can enter a start and end location, a la Google Maps, To what end, I am not sure.  I plugged in my address as the start location and Wrightsville Beach as the end location, and after quite a bit of “processing”, I gave up.  Nothing really happened. I was kind of hoping I’d get some kind of forecast or custom trip weather map but nothing ever materialized. And I tried several different start and end location configurations.  I found no help in the FAQ Quick Start section of the app, either.

RadarCast does have a notification function but it is extremely difficult to find.  Once you do, all the basking in the glory of finally figuring it out will quickly give way to disappointment – all it will do is notify you of pending rain. No wind or storm settings.

RadarCast

D- for usability and intuitive design.

It’s pretty basic.  And there’s no unique functionality or even graphic elements that makes this app worth almost $4.00  – not when other free apps will aggregate pretty much the same data. Having the tide information in one place is handy, but that’s about it.

Storm

Developer: Weather Underground

$1.99 yearly subscription for no ad version

iPhone 

Storm

This is what RadarCast should aspire to be.  The iOS version of this app was designed with the functionality and navigational properties of the iPhone in mind.  In other words, you can let your fingers to do the finding.  Swiping up will expand menus and data screens, where you can see hourly forecasts or the weekly forecast, for instance. 

On the main menu map, the default display includes lightning within a 100 mile radius of your current location, current radar, and storm track threat analysis.  If you want to see all three at once, so be it. The ability to show the multiple layers at once is extremely useful and why most the of the other apps in this same vein can’t do that is beyond me. Maybe because it’s produced by web weather giant Weather Underground? WU might just have resources the other guys don’t. 

Open up the settings and you can change the three layers that will show up on the main map.  And you can add others.  You can conceivably add so much additional information that the map gets a bit difficult to decipher. Some of the most helpful filters include water temp, wind stream, wind speed and wave height!

Storm

Like the other apps reviewed here, you can save favorite locations and get notifications for lightning, precip and National Weather Service alerts.  You have the choice of having the notifications “follow” you so that no matter where you are, you get the warnings, or you can set them for a specific, fixed location.

The more you play around with it, the more you discover just how much information is available in this app, and just how useful it can be.

Storm

For .99 a month, you can also get marine charts, tides, buoy/CMAN observations and the coastal and offshore forecasts.  Add all of those in, it is a very robust, intuitive weather tool that should definitely be on your phone.

IMG_1305

US Lightning Strikes Map

Developer: Corey Hoggard

Free

iPhone

I really wanted this is be successful.  It’s free, the App Store screen shots made it look good, the color scheme was pleasant.  The design looked clean.

I got one decent look at lightning strikes along the Eastern Seaboard but as soon as I started to work with the tools in the app, it turned into one hot, dysfunctional mess. Toggle buttons don’t seem to work, there’s a drawing tool that doesn’t seem to have a place and will cause the app to lock up…it’s as if someone tried to built an app for iOS on top of a non-compatible version of ARC-GIS.  I’ll be deleting this one.  So, don’t be tempted by the fact it’s free. 

Bet you’ve got a favorite weather app out there. Share it with us and tell us why you like it!

Lisa
Lisa is managing editor of PaddleMonster.com and is an avid paddler of all the things - including sup, SurfSki, outrigger canoe and prone, though she especially enjoys paddle surfing and downwinding. She is a former journalist with more than 30 years experience in print and broadcast journalism and in government communications. She is a six-time Chattajack finisher, racing both sup and OC2. When not paddling, she is an outdoor instructor.

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