How's the Weather?

Mac users are shut out of lots of areas of the computer world. Software incompatibility is the most common problem, but sometimes we miss out on cool hardware merely because nobody has bothered to write any Mac software to take advantage of the hardware.

One of the guys who works here at Macworld — okay, he actually works remotely from Arizona — has a PC hooked up to a cool computerized weather station. The end result is that I can visit his site and see that, at the moment I type this, it’s 56 degrees at his house.

You may not care about the weather in his backyard, my backyard, or your own backyard. But if you’re like me, seeing that weather station was like catnip. I wanted one. But… it turns out that most weather stations are downright hostile to Mac users. They use PC serial connections rather than the more modern and Mac-friendly USB. And there’s no Mac software available.

Except, as it turns out, that’s not entirely true. In my research for a forthcoming Macworld article, I found a handful of promising programs that make the Mac into a working weather station. I realize that this information is not quite as earth-shattering as playing your iTunes music through your home stereo, but it excited me.

Vantage Pro Weather Station in my backyard

All of the software I mention below works natively on Mac OS X. There is one caveat, however — they all require a serial-to-USB adapter from Keyspan, since all the weather stations use PC-style serial ports. Although I have GeeThree ’s excellent Stealth Serial Port, for some reason these products wouldn’t work with it.

Davis Instruments makes a bunch of weather stations, many of which are compatible with the $164 WeatherLink for OS X software. WeatherLink isn’t quite a native Mac OS X application. It’s written in Java and looks (and works) like a Windows application. The application’s menu bar, for instance, is attached at the top of its main window. However, WeatherLink is a remarkably full-featured. You can view charts and graphs of weather data, and export data you’ve collected to text files for viewing in applications such as Microsoft Excel.

WeatherLink’s most impressive feature is its Web support. Using a set of almost 50 custom tags, you can create Web pages that display live weather data, including graphics generated by WeatherLink itself. In a few minutes, I was able to create a basic page that listed all the data I wanted to see. Once you’ve created a template, WeatherLink will generate an HTML page based on current weather conditions and either save it to a special location on your Mac’s hard drive or transfer it via FTP to a remote server on the Internet—say, to the Web space on your service provider’s web server.

Since then, I’ve modified my page to use some basic PHP code, so that it’s a much more intelligent document. (For example, my page doesn’t show a chart of recent rainfall if there hasn’t been any.) You can download the source file here.

WeatherLink Screen Shot

Unfortunately, WeatherLink is also a little unstable. Occasionally it locks up while transferring data from the weather console, leading to losses of data and preventing the web page from being updated regularly. It also leaks memory a little bit. So I’ve written a small AppleScript that quits and re-launches WeatherLink, and set it (via cron, thanks to the Cronnix utility) to run a couple of times a day.

WeatherHawk ’s weather stations are quite a bit more expensive than Davis’s, but their $146 program WeatherHawk-X is a nice, native Mac OS X application. It was written by After Ten Software, the author of Mac weather utilities WeatherManX and WeatherMenu. WeatherHawk-X’s main window provides an attractive view of current conditions.

There’s a small graph area that can display one of a small number of pre-set graph types, but it doesn’t offer anything approaching the detailed number of charts that WeatherLink can generate. WeatherHawk-X can also generate Web pages full of data, although it doesn’t provide the same flexibility of tags as WeatherLink, nor the variety of auto-generated Web graphics. The program also only uploads files via FTP, even if you just want to save the files to a local folder on your Mac.

WeatherHawk Screen Shot

Where WeatherHawk-X excels is in its support for uploading weather data to outside sources. WeatherHawk-X supports the GLOBE Program, a group of weather stations at schools, and most impressively, Weather Underground, a web site that collects and displays data from personal weather stations from around the country. Within five minutes of launching WeatherHawk-X, my home weather was being displayed on Weather Underground. (Davis’s WeatherLink for Windows supports Weather Underground, but not the Mac version.)

The good news about WeatherHawk-X is that After Ten is also working on a separate program, WeatherTracker, that is largely the same application as WeatherHawk-X (with the exception of support for GLOBE). The big difference is that WeatherTracker will work with non-WeatherHawk stations, including the Vantage Pro and older Davis weather stations, as well as stations from Oregon Scientific. I tested an early pre-release version of WeatherTracker with the Vantage Pro, and it worked fine. A public beta version should be available soon; After Ten says it’ll cost “around $50” when finished. As After Ten adds support to WeatherTracker for new weather stations, the number of Mac-compatible weather stations will continue to grow.

WeatherStation Screen Shot
What if you don’t want to be limited to displaying the data from your weather station in a Web page? Christopher Snell’s (no relation) WeatherStation, a widget for the $25 Konfabulator, offers a supergeeky solution. By default, WeatherStation works with a Perl-based interface on top of a Davis weather station that requires some serious Unix chops to set up.

But I was able to divine the file-format WeatherStation was looking for and then create a WeatherLink template to replicate it (it’s here ). Not satisfied with that, I ended up modifying the widget to display some different information, including rain data.

So as it turns out, there are lots of weather station options out there for Mac users — and when WeatherTracker arrives, there will be even more. If you’re a Mac user who’s also a weather fan, you’ve got to check this stuff out. Take it from a guy who knows that right now it’s 43 degrees in his backyard.

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