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                   Wednesday, May 6, 2009 - 5:13PM

WxWorx is still a good option

By DAN ROBINSON
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Standard disclaimer: I'm not getting paid by Baron to say this. Heck I'd be thankful if they just gave me free service (Baron, if you're reading this, that's a not-so-subtle hint). But I have to give my opinion to counter some of the WxWorx criticism, mainly about it being low-resolution.

You don't get WxWorx for the resolution, you get WxWorx for the reliability. Comparing GRLevel3 to WxWorx is comparing apples to oranges. Of course level 3 data is better than the Baron data. But the point of WxWorx is not to have superior resolution. The point is to have data all the time. That is something that cellular internet cannot yet deliver 100%, even with the advances in cell coverage across the USA. Cell data is sufficient about 90% of the time - but as many storm observers are finding out (including me, I have an aircard now too), data holes can crop up at the most critical times in an expedition - leading to missed tornadoes, hail damage or more.

Yes, WxWorx data is limited. But that's because bandwidth is limited when you're pushing data down from a satellite whos real purpose and design is actually to deliver radio (XM). As far as I can tell, Baron isn't purposfully limiting the data - they are trying to cram as much as they can in that little stream that they get from XM. If they had more bandwidth to do more, the cost would be much higher.

I've also said this before: while it's nice, you don't need high-res GRLevel3-style radar on an expedition. All you really need is to see if there is a big isolated blob somewhere. Monochrome, blurry radar from the 1950s would be enough to do that. Heck even ASCII radar (if it existed) would work. On most expedition days, all you need is to see which storm is dominating and staying isolated. Level3 radar doesn't give you any more information for that purpose than WxWorx radar does. Not only that, but WxWorx rotation markers are just as good, if not better in my opinion, than viewing raw velocity data to detect circulations. Once you have an isolated 'blob', hi-res or low-res, then you know you want to drive to its south side - particularly if it has a circulation. Once you're there, you go visual and don't need radar anymore.

That brings up another point - going visual is not always possible. You could be in a forward flank precip core, under a stratus deck north of the warm front, or in thick haze, enough that you won't see a tower going up 30 miles away. Visual is good when you're on storm, and even then you can't always see what other storms nearby are doing. But radar is the only way to see what's going on at a distance, or if you're in heavy precip.

The cost breakdown between cell vs. WxWorx is not all that different either, unless you buy a brand-new WxWorx receiver. There are plenty of used ones to be had for around $500. For a good cell connection, you'll spend the same amount on an aircard and a good amp/antenna rig (granted, free aircards can be had if you sign a lengthy contract with a provider). You can also tether your phone for data, but you can't make calls with it at the same time. The monthly fee for WxWorx data is about the same as a cell data plan - and without a contract. You can even drop down to a $30/month radar-only plan for the winter if you want. WxWorx also gives real-time lightning strike data, a very helpful product that you can't get online without paying extra.

RIGHT: Nearly every observer who had cellular data this day got burned - June 12, 2005 in Kent County, Texas. Cell data was nil in this part of Texas, and so storm observers using aircards/tethered phones didn't see the monster supercell exploding to their south (shown here on my WxWorx display). Those of us with WxWorx did - Including me - and saw 7 tornadoes!

My point being, WxWorx isn't the worthless, overpriced pile of junk that it sometimes gets made out to be. It is still a viable option for observing that I credit as instrumental in many of my tornado intercepts since 2004. The only problems I have ever had with WxWorx were a couple of isolated instances of 30-minute radar delays (only during the 2007 season). Other than that, it has run flawlessly on both my old and new laptops since 2004.

Just read a few of the recent reports from this season where storm observers have either missed a new storm going up, or ended up in a hail core because they found themselves in a cell data hole at the wrong time. WxWorx doesn't give you the internet, but it gives you everything you need to know on an expedition day, and is always there when you need it.

Cellular internet reliability has been improving in recent years, and there may come a day when coverage truly gets to the 100% mark. When that happens, the need for satellite-based data will fade. But for now, if I had to choose between cell or WxWorx, WxWorx would still win hands down. It's the only way to ensure you have data when you need it, every time.

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