Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 124 / DECEMBER 1990 / PAGE 84




Hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Windy today, windier tomorrow. Snow from October to April? You bet. That's the weather where I grew up. Brutal storms that swept across the prairie, rain that was rarely where it needed to be when it needed to be there—it was a farmer's nightmare and not much better for a city dweller.

I follow the weather. We all do. Weather's right up there next to sports as part of the fabric of American conversation. It's no surprise, then, that there are so many ways to find out what the weather's going to be like: TV, radio, colorful maps in newspapers, or just watching the sky for clouds and smelling the air for rain.

You can do better than that. Put that PC of yours to work as a personal meteorologist, crunching numbers and drawing graphics. All you lack is the raw data—the weather observations and recordings. No, you don't have to check a rain gauge every hour or stare at a thermometer all day long. The National Weather Service (NWS) already does an excellent job of gathering weather data. You just need to get your hands on it.

That's where two programs—Accu-Weather Forecaster and WeatherBrief—come in. These packages put you in touch with two of the largest commercial weather information databases in the country, Accu-Weather and WeatherBank, both of which get their basic information from the NWS. Connected to one of these databases via modem and telephone line, your computer can channel an enormous amount of weather info into its hard disk and onto its screen.

It's one of the most innovative uses of a home computer.

Weather on the Way

Accu-Weather Forecaster and WeatherBrief are remarkably similar in their operation. Both programs let you select the weather information you want before you call the database—that cuts down on connect time and thus cuts costs (the Accu-Weather and WeatherBank databases charge connect time by the minute). Once you've selected the information, each program automatically dials its database, pulls down the information you requested, then breaks the connection. Once you're off the phone, the programs build maps and compile lists of up-to-the-minute information. Just as impressive, both packages let you download TV-style weather graphics and specialty maps that look amazingly like what you see on local newscasts.

WeatherBrief's colorful maps make the weather interesting and understandable.

WeatherBrief's satellite photos offer you a remarkable perspective on the weather.

WeatherBrief is the less expensive of the two packages and in many ways is the easier to use. Even though it's crammed with options, this is the better program for beginning weather enthusiasts.

Before dialing the WeatherBank database, you use WeatherBrief's simple menu system to select from the dozens of available information choices. WeatherBrief lets you cluster those requests in up to eight different groups and save them for later use. I created several of these groups—one for local area weather information, another for national weather forecasts, and a third for world weather.

These information choices make WeatherBank a weather buff's candy store. Here are just some of the things you can ask WeatherBrief to retrieve for you: current conditions for any major NWS reporting station, 6- and 10-day forecasts by state or city, radar maps of any of six regions, cloud-cover maps, precipitation forecast maps, lightning-strike maps, satellite pictures of the United States, even custom-created TV-like graphics that show national 30-day temperature and precipitation forecasts.

When you're satisfied with your selections, WeatherBrief dials and logs on to WeatherBank; then it pulls down data while you wait. The time online depends on the number of items and the complexity of any graphics you've selected. Simple data requests are the fastest, taking less than two minutes. Satellite pictures and custom graphics can make your online time jump dramatically; in one test session, WeatherBrief was on the line for over 17 minutes. It's easy to spend five or six dollars in a single session if you're downloading a lot of graphics or pictures.

But the wait (and maybe even the money) are worth it. Although the simpler items—current conditions, perhaps—are in text form, Weather-Brief's maps are dazzling on an EGA or a VGA monitor. Satellite pictures and custom graphics like the drought index I downloaded are even more impressive; you won't mistake them for what you see on TV, but they're close.

I thought the text information was the most valuable, though I was tempted by all the color maps and fancy graphics. It was fascinating to see complete weather reports, including current temperatures, humidity levels, and tomorrow's forecast highs and lows—all from cities across the country. I especially liked tracking a hurricane's progress up the Atlantic seaboard. There's a certain satisfaction in knowing that your PC can access weather forecasts, warnings, and observations only moments after they've been posted by the NWS. Not even the Weather Channel is faster.

System Box Blizzard

Accu-Weather Forecaster does much more than simply download information and present it to you. It gathers raw data from the Accu-Weather database and then creates a variety of maps, charts, pictures, and lists to visually describe the weather.

With the exception of its excellent TV graphics library, Accu-Weather Forecaster doesn't ask for specific information requests. Instead, you identify two NWS stations—the one nearest to you and another you'd like information from—and decide how many major stations around the country will be polled by Forecaster. The program does all the rest.

Logging on to the Accu-Weather database and culling its data are handled automatically once you've given the program a telephone number, account name, and password. One nice touch is that Accu-Weather Forecaster estimates your online time before you call.

As long as you stick to requesting data, not graphics, Forecaster quickly grabs the last 24 hours' worth of observations from your two primary stations, the last hour from all stations within a specified area, and the last hour from 100 major stations around the country. You'll be on the line an average of four to five minutes. Off-line, you can view that data any number of ways.

Create a chart showing the rise and fall of temperature, precipitation, wind speed, and barometric pressure

Prodigy's weather map gives you a quick look at the national forecast.

More than 100 radar sites across the country supply information for CompuServe's map of precipitation intensities.

CompuServe gathers information for its temperature map every 15 minutes.


If your weather information needs are limited, WeatherBrief and Accu-Weather Forecaster may be too much of a good thing. Fortunately, your computer can tap other electronic resources to tell you what it's going to be like outside.

CompuServe, the telecommunications giant, offers extensive weather information and news among its hundreds of services. Nine types of National Weather Service-style reports appear in text format, ready for you to read while online (or capture as a text file for later reading). Although reports are limited and sometimes several hours old, they duplicate some of those you can retrieve with WeatherBrief. CompuServe also has three maps you can view or download; even in color, though, they're crude when compared to those on WeatherBank or Accu-Weather.

Prodigy, another major player in telecommunications, also has a weather section, which was recently improved. It now has three national weather maps, one showing weather for the current day, another showing fronts and iso-bars for the current day, and the third showing weather for the next day. Seven regional weather maps have also been added. City weather reports have been expanded to include temperature in Fahrenheit and Centigrade, winds, air quality, a three-day forecast, and the times of sunrise and sunset. The number of cities has been expanded to 235 domestic and 100 frequent international travel destinations. In the major metro-politan areas, there are reports for the cities in the region. And the outdoor reports have been expanded to include reports on beach/boating, skiing, and foliage reports.

Neither CompuServe nor Prodigy offers up the weather info that Weather-Brief or Accu-Weather Forecaster makes available. But keep in mind that getting weather info via CompuServe or Prodigy is less expensive than it is with WeatherBank or Accu-Weather.

over the past 24 hours. Or view 11 different national maps that show temperature, wind velocity, visibility, and more in either symbol or colored-bar contour fashion. Choose Picture and Forecaster draws a graphical display of the selected station's report, complete with cloud cover, thermometer, and barometer. Or simply list the data on the screen for quick comparisons between locales. A separate function lets you check out local reporting stations' forecasts, as well as the national weather summary.

Accu-Weather Forecaster doesn't cheat you out of great graphics, either. Its newest version makes it easy to select and download any of 145 different television-quality weather maps, graphics, and pictures. By and large, they're much more impressive than the ones you'd see with Weather-Brief. Check out the maps that show such things as wind chill and the heat index or the satellite pictures that look almost as good as those you see on the local news. The enhanced radar maps are especially striking.

The versatility of Accu-Weather Forecaster justifies its higher price. Where WeatherBrief simply downloads data and, with some exceptions, displays it for you, Accu-Weather Forecaster transforms raw weather information into interesting graphic interpretations. It makes the weather easy to follow and even easier to understand.

Who'll Stop the Rain?

Both programs give your computer a perfect excuse to dial the phone. Each offers a slick entrance to a complex database, then lets you extract just the information you want. But they're different enough that if you're a well-heeled weather enthusiast, you'll want both.

I thought Accu-Weather Forecaster the better all-around value (even at its higher price), but just barely. It excels at displaying current weather conditions, and its television graphics are second to none. But it's weak in providing forecasts and the more esoteric weather information.

WeatherBrief lets you dig through such weather information as long-range forecasts, alerts and warnings, hurricanes, and interstate highway travel reports. It's slightly easier to use, yet it can still overwhelm you with facts and figures about the weather.

If you want to stop talking about the weather and really know something about it, you should have one of these electronic Willard Scotts inside your PC.