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                   Saturday, March 9, 2013 - 11:44PM CST

Tablet-based weather expeditioning - the next big thing?

25 Years of Storm Observing
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The trusty laptop has been arguably the most significant technological improvement to weather expeditioning since the hobby's inception. When I added one to my setup in 2004, it along with the peripherals like WxWorx, GPS and mobile internet was a complete game-changer. While weather expeditioning traditionally has been (and sometimes still is) done without the technology, there's no question that what these devices bring to the table has improved success rates many times over.

When tablets began arriving on the scene in the past couple of years, I was skeptical that they'd be of much use for expeditioners. Programs like WxWorx, GPS mapping and video streaming take large amounts of resources and file space, and are primarly Windows-based. How would a tablet be able to handle the typical applications expeditioners use, if they could even be used at all?

I finally bought a tablet for myself a couple of months ago, and not because I wanted one. I needed a couple of Android devices to test mobile web development projects. But over the past few weeks, I have been using my tablet more and more for everyday things, and I have to say this device is the most useful technological gadget I've bought in a long time. Using a cellular-based wifi router in the car for internet, the tablet has all but replaced my laptop for everyday car-based computing tasks. There have even been a few local expeditions that I never fired the laptop up, using the tablet for radar and GPS.

My tablet is now performing the following functions:

  • Weather data (radar, obs, satellite, forecast discussions)
  • GPS-based storm reporting (MPing, Spotter Network)
  • GPS position feed for live video streaming
  • Quick photo updates to social media
  • Social media (personal and business page management)
  • Appointment calendar (syncs with the web-based calendar I already use)
  • GasBuddy app for finding the cheapest gas
  • MP3 player for the car (via the headphone jack into the car's aux port)
  • FTP client
  • Youtube video uploader (taking advantage of the car's 4G connection, faster than my home internet)
  • Netflix viewer while running on the treadmill
  • Google Maps locator/search with GPS
  • The entire MacArthur Study Bible via Amazon Kindle app (I take it to church now instead of my print Bible)
  • Skype
  • Gmail email
And that's only scratching the surface of what this device can do. Nearly all of these functions would require my laptop to be booted up, even for a quick 30-second task like checking email. Now, the laptop stays off and I just pick up the 'always on' tablet.

There are still a few obstacles to my car computing becoming 100% tablet-based, particularly for weather expeditioning:

  • Hands-off GPS mapping. StreetAtlas is still better at the task of navigating with as few keystrokes/mouse clicks as possible (this is a safety issue, simply put).
  • WxWorx. Baron now makes a $200 wifi-based adapter called 'Mobile Link' that plugs into the old receiver's USB connection. This allows an Android app to display the WxWorx data on a tablet. However, $200 is a bit pricey for that upgrade, when the money may be better spent on a cellular amplifier (if you can get one now with the FCC's new regulations). Also, the wifi platform means you likely will have to choose to connect to either the WxWorx receiver or the internet - but not both at the same time.
  • Live video streaming. While you may be able to get live video from the tablet's camera, this isn't practical for the typical dash-mounted view. I can't see any way to get around needing an external USB camera and the hefty processing power of a laptop to encode/broadcast a live stream.
  • Video and photo editing. The ability to upload video quickly to Youtube or photos to this web site after an expedition still requires the pc-based Photoshop and Premiere. As far as I'm aware, there's no an Android version of these Adobe products. Even a basic version would probably work, but there's still the problem of getting the images and video from the cameras into the tablet. I'd expect newer versions of tablets to have more USB connectivity and driver support for this, but right now it's not commonplace.
Though it's inevitable that tablets will improve to the point of solving those problems, the questions remain: how soon that will be, and how much it will cost. Laptop-caliber tablets are already on the market, one Windows 8 model supposedly retailing for a grand. Though with much more powerful and capable laptops attainable at that price, it doesn't look like a very practical option now, in my opinion. It is a start, though, and a sign of things to come.

My tablet has convinced me that these will be the next big thing in weather expeditioning, especially once the issues above are eliminated or have easy workarounds available.

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