I took a meteorology class in undergrad as an elective because I’ve always been into the weather: tornadoes, hurricanes, derechos, ball lightning, supercells, squalls, you name it. Not enough to pursue it as a career, but let’s just say that, were you to poke around my computer, you’d find a small ecosystem of weather and radar utilities and widgets. When my wife wakes in the morning — though I’ve added weather apps to her own computer — she just asks me for the forecast.
So I was pretty stoked to try Netatmo’s $179 Weather Station when it crossed my desk. It’s both an app for your iPhone, iPad or Android device (Netatmo says the Android version will be available in October), and an “urban weather station,” by which the company means actual weather monitoring hardware that sits both inside and outside your house to pass along information about temperature, humidity, air quality and more. Don’t be put off by the “urban” label, by the way — you can use it anywhere, whether you live in a city, a smaller town or, like my wife’s parents in northwest Iowa, the middle of nowhere. Netatmo’s calling it “urban” simply to indicate its value in areas where air quality may be of more concern.
The kit itself comes in a fairly small box about the size of a small board game like Yahtzee or Boggle. Inside, you’ll find mounting materials, international plug adapters (U.S., U.K. and Europe) and two metallic, plastic-tipped cylinders — one taller than the other, about six inches versus four inches — that look a little like alien artifacts (or maybe something in which you’d place superhero-making serum). The cylinders are the indoor/outdoor weather-monitoring stations themselves, running on batteries (the indoor station includes an AC adapter) and communicating with Netatmo’s servers through your wireless access point.
In other words, when you pull up the monitoring app, you’re actually talking to Netatmo’s servers, not the monitoring stations directly. Think of it as “cloud” weather, going wherever you go. The upside is that you can check the weather inside or outside your house whether you’re at home, work, or lounging on a beach (with Internet access) somewhere.
Sound complex? It’s not. In fact installation is so elementary that the trifold instruction card eschews words for just a few pictures illustrating what to do. After installing the AA batteries (included), you’ll need to position the cylinders inside and outside your home or workspace, obviously away from stuff that could throw the sensors off like air vents or lamp light bulbs. The sensors are meant to be placed, unsecured, on a flat surface, though the outdoor module, which has a rear notch, can be mounted with a hanging strap or a screw/molly (both included).
To finish up, you’ll visit Netatmo’s website, create a free account and step through a few questions that help you get the cylinders online and linked with Netatmo’s servers, a process that takes just a few minutes. You’ll need to download a small setup wizard to get the indoor unit online, and Netatmo supports Mac (OS 10.5 and up), Windows (XP and up) and Linux (both 32- and 64-bit).
That accomplished, you’re in business — the monitoring stations begin collecting data automatically, pulling in metrics that include indoor/outdoor temperature, humidity and “raw particle” counts, as well as indoor noise (decibel), CO2 (ppm) and barometric pressure levels. Measurements occur every five minutes and run continuously, so you’ll quickly amass loads of data. I’ve had no trouble with the equipment, and after a week of testing, the monitoring stations Netatmo sent me never missed a beat (battery life also looks to be excellent — Netatmo’s online monitoring tool still shows the outdoor module as at 100% capacity).
The mobile client and interface — I tried it on an iPhone 4 — is what brings everything together. Once you download the free app from the App Store and log into your Netatmo account, you’re treated to all of your stations’ data with a pleasant interface that divides outdoor and indoor data into upper and lower screen panels, using stylish visual cues to indicate weather (sunny, stormy) or indoor air quality (a fuzzy ball of green, yellow, red) as well as numbers for temperature, humidity levels and a “feels like” index.
There’s also a pull-up-or-down feature that lets you slide the lower panel up to see more detailed indoor data, e.g. CO2 and decibel levels. Slide it all the way down, and you’ll get a summary of your local seven-day forecast sourced from “global private weather business” MeteoGroup.
A pair of bars between the upper/lower areas rate “outdoor air quality” based on “Air Quality Index” colors (from the “raw particle” count, so measuring air pollutants like ozone, carbon monoxide, etc.) and “indoor comfort,” a combination of temperature, humidity, CO2 and acoustics. The bars are helpful overviews, but I did find myself wishing I could see more specific information about the air pollutants.
The Netatmo app highlights the “main pollutant,” but doesn’t break out the rest, though you’ll get special alerts if, say, the CO2 level rises above 1,000 ppm (fairly common in enclosed areas) or 2,000 ppm (high enough to cause headaches and sleepiness). Netatmo touts its air quality angle as a way to help you “assess the best times for outdoor physical activity” or “when to commute versus drive to work.” I’m not sure my schedule’s flexible enough to let me do that, but I did find the periodic jumps in indoor CO2 levels — when I closed up the house and ran air conditioning — to be fascinating.
But probably the coolest feature occurs when you flip your iOS or Android device sideways, landscape-style, prompting the app to bring up a line graph that shows the history of all your measurements — temperature, humidity, sound, CO2, etc. — marked off at five minute intervals. Its only shortcoming is that it stays at whatever date/time you last checked, and you can’t quickly zoom to the present, which is a pain, since even scrolling 24 hours forward takes over two-dozen finger swipes.
If you spend most of your day in front of a computer, there is a crude way to interact with the Netatmo stations using a web client that displays and lets you rename your data stations, tweak settings, check battery life, reconfigure Wi-Fi and export/download all of your stations’ data as a CSV file. But it’s pretty barebones — just a line-by-line way of parsing the stations’ text data. It’s a shame Netatmo didn’t have a GUI client at launch for those of us — the clear majority — who still spend our workdays in front of desktops or laptops.
And then there’s the price: $179 from Netatmo for everything, whereas you can pick up LCD-based weather monitoring gizmos for as little as $10. I’m pretty sure the main expense here is the air quality monitoring technology. Poking around Amazon, I’m seeing indoor air quality monitors that track CO2 going for at least $150 and as much as $260. So for $179, you’re getting both an indoor and outdoor weather station with air quality monitoring technology as well as a wireless interface and the ability to view that data on any iOS or Android device, anywhere you have Internet access.
Whether it’s worth $179 to you, with all the free basic weather-tracking apps out there, depends on your interest in this sort of meteorological minutia. Maybe you live in an area that’s always throwing air quality alerts. Maybe it really does impact when you can or can’t exercise outside. I don’t, and I found I paid less attention to those metrics, but I have found it interesting to track my local (as in really, really local) weather compared to the readings the local monitoring stations send to a service like The Weather Channel. Sometimes the temperature readings have differed by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which, if you’ve ever looked at something like Weather Underground’s gorgeous full-browser weather map, displaying dozens of reporting points in a given area, makes perfect sense.