Review: The Weather Channel’s Slick New (and Free) iPhone App

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Cracks about meteorological accuracy aside, I’ve morphed into my family’s weatherman in recent years — partly because I’m the only one with a smartphone, partly because I’m obsessed with severe weather-watching. My wife has the requisite weather Dashboard widgets on her MacBook Air and knows as well as I do how to find weather forecasts from half-a-dozen online forecast sites, but for whatever reason, she likes to ask me what the day’s prospects are, weather-wise.

For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve answered her using The Weather Channel’s iPhone app. I started with the basic freebie version, then opted for the $3.99 version to scrub the ads. I’ve been using that, along with Shuksan Software’s NOAA Radar US (it has a better high-res radar/map display) when I want to know what to expect. The forecasts are as accurate as you’ve come to expect from weather stations that slap storm icons over 10-day readouts whether the chance of precipitation is 30% or 60%. I can’t vouch for TWC’s accuracy over anyone else’s — the cable/satellite network predicted storms last weekend through today, and all I saw where I’m vacationing in southeast Florida was sun until last night, but then I use the TWC app more for general information, e.g. humidity, sunrise/sunset, the radar maps and severe weather alerts.

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The Weather Channel just overhauled its TWC app for the iPhone, describing it as “the first major redesign since [the TWC weather app’s] initial launch in 2008.” It basically wraps the same underlying information in a cleaned up interface. Launch it and you’re greeted by a picturesque shot of a cloud-filled blue sky that yields to an interface tutorial. The new default layout — the weather tab’s “now” view — positions the locales and temperatures center-screen in large font with a drop-down option to view details like wind speed, UV index, visibility, etc. You can now swipe instead of tapping between locations, and the new background wallpaper images shift to reflect the weather outside in realtime: The “mostly cloudy” image I’m looking at for Orlando, Florida this morning is a snapshot of what looks like stratus and cumulus clouds hovering in a deep blue sky. It’s a dramatic improvement over the previous version’s dismal solid black background.

If you want to add a locale, a “search” magnifying glass icon replaces the prior version’s open search box, occupying the interface’s upper-right-hand corner alongside a “settings” icon — now accessible from all screens — that lets you tweak favorites, alert notifications, your home location and social networking login info.

Social networking huh? Yep, the app now supports services like Facebook and iWitness (in addition to Twitter, which it already did) if you want to snap images of weather or whatever else and share with friends (they’ve added a built-in camera button on the app’s homepage). TWC notes that it “may even share your weather photos on The Weather Channel or weather.com,” though no, there’s no prize for stupidly chasing down a killer shot of a tornado.

Also improved: Instead of swiping through eight bottom-menu tabs (four to a page), TWC’s managed to jam everything into just five tabs, all of them visible at once. The idea was clearly to get a similar amount of information onto one page while improving the way it’s displayed.

The only downside: The banner ads that occupy the top eighth or ninth of the screen, and the lack, at least at launch, of an ad-free alternative version. I’ve been checking all morning, and TWC’s ad-free version, dubbed TWCMax, is still showing as the older 4.2 version, last updated on Jan. 24, 2012. To TWC’s credit, the ads in the updated version don’t flash or scroll or otherwise draw your attention, though the bright red Lexus ones I’ve been seeing clash, color-scheme-wise, with the current powder-blue sky/clouds background.

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