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Cell-phone weather: no perfect solution yet: Garmin and ForeFlight take top honors for bringing weather and flight planning to the palm of your hand, but no single service hits all the high notes.

Collecting, assimilating, and safely deciding what to do about weather is one of the hardest things we pilots do. But it seems like every computer platform to do this has a drawback.

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Weather terminals at FBOs are handy but require lots of clicks. I might drill down through many pages for METARs--a U.S. map, region map, and a state map--then scroll a long alphabetical list of stations. I go to more screens for TAFs, winds and temps, PIREPS, forecasts and satellite images. Then I try to picture the data on my route. For airport info, I pull out a book

Flight planning software puts all the weather around one route. But it requires a computer, software and, often, arduous setup and learning. Fine for home or office, but not ideal on the road.

There are Web-based products to overlay METARs, TAFs, PIREPs and winds graphically on a route map. But evolution of cell phones into hand-held computers means there's an even more convenient option.

Here are the four leaders in cell phone weather. Note that your phone determines your choices or, perhaps, vice-versa.

AVWX.NET

This might be the longest-running cellphone weather product. It provides METARs, TAFs, winds aloft, and NEXRAD, much of it graphically, for single airports. It also offers facility data. It doesn't have advanced features like route planning or prog charts.

AvWx.net's purchase and first-use path is a breeze. AvWx accurately explains their product and provides a 10-day free trial. Options start at $7.95 per month.AvWx.net has a new, iPhone edition of its software that's optimized for the iPhone and direct access to SkyVector.com sectional and en route charts, as well as Google Maps.

The user interface is easy on the eyes and intuitive. It takes about eight seconds from launching the Website to the main menu on most phones. If you want something basic, you might stop reading here.

FOREFLIGHT

Pilots haven't had much product choice for iPhones until ForeFlight came along. Thoughtful Web pages describe a passionate team and accurate product specs. ForeFlight provides current weather, airport facilities data, easy-to-read-NOTAMs, flight plan filing and--my favorite--color-coded TAFs. There's an online book of NOAA charts. ForeFlight uses Apple's respected design conventions, so the iPhone's two-finger zoom works on several map and weather images.

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                CELL PHONE WEATHER PJRODUCTS COMPARED

                               AVWX.NET              FOREFLIGHT
       PLATFORM          WEB-CAPABLE CELLPHONE         IPHONE

        PRICE                $7.95 PER MO.        $69.99 ONE-TIME

EASE OF USE AND DESIGN      INTUITIVE WITH         INTUITIVE WITH
                        WEB-DESIGN CONVENTIONS      APPLE-DESIGN
                                                    CONVENTIONS

       PROS[+]           GET AIRPORT FACILITY     BEST VISUALS AND
                          DATA AND AIRPORT OR    DESIGN; TWO-FINGER
                          REGION WX FAST AND       ZOOM; THE BEST
                                EASILY.           COLOR-CODED TAFS

       CONS[-]            NONE, BUT NOT MUCH          STILL IN
                            GROWTH VISIBLE        DEVELOPMENT. NO
                                                  ROUTE MAP. SOME
                                                 DATA NOT RELEVANT.

  FEATURE COMPARISON
    ROUTE PLANNING                NO                     NO

  ROUTE MAP OVERLAYS             NONE                   NONE

   METARS AND TAFS                YES            YES. COLOR DED.

        PIREPS                    NO                     NO

     AIRPORTS AND            YES, TEXTUAL          YES, ZOO MABLE
      FACILITIES                                       CHARTS

 WX DEPICTION CHARTS              NO                 YES, MANY

     WINDS ALOFT            YES, BY AIRPORT       YES, BY AIRPORT

   AIRMETS/SIGMETS                NO                    YES

    AREA FORECAST                 NO                     NO

        NOTAMS                    NO                 YES, WELL
                                                     PRESENTED

  NEXRAD SATELLITE &     STATIC NEXRAD AND IR     ANIMATED NEXRAD,
      LIGHTNING                  ONLY                VISUAL, IR
                                                     LIGHTNING

 FILE FAA FLIGHT PLAN             NO                    YES

                            JEPPESEN MOBILE      GARMIN PILOT MY-CAST

       PLATFORM             WINDOWS MOBILE           SEVERAL, SEE
                                                      GARMIN.COM

        PRICE             $129 PER YEAR + $40        $9.95 PER MO
                               ONE-TIME

EASE OF USE AND DESIGN      NOT INTUITIVE,       QUIRKY, BUT EASY TO
                           DOS/WINDOWS-LIKE              USE
                                DESIGN.

       PROS[+]              CAN TEST DUATS       ROUTE MAP WITH MANY
                          CREDENTIALS WITHOUT      OVERLAYS; FLIGHT
                        FILING; ETD CAN BE NOW     TIME CALCULATES
                              + X MINUTES           BASED ON FILED
                                                 ALTITUDE; FAA FLIGHT
                                                      PLANS WELL
                                                     INTEGRATED.

       CONS[-]           POOR NAVIGATION; FEW      NO WX DEPICTION
                        GRAPHICS; NO ROUTE MAP    CHARTS OR AIRPORT
                                                      FACILITIES

  FEATURE COMPARISON

    ROUTE PLANNING        YES. TABULAR, WITH     YES. GRAPHICAL WITH
                          DISTANCE, TIME, AND    DISTANCE, TIME, FUEL
                          FUEL W/WINDS ALOFT        W/WINDS ALOFT

  ROUTE MAP OVERLAYS             NONE              METARS, SIGMETS,
                                                    AIRMETS, WINDS
                                                  ALOFT, PIREPS, AND
                                                         TFRS

   METARS AND TAFS        METARS COLOR CODED.     METARS COLOR-CODED
                         FULL TEXT AND TABULAR     ICONS ON ROUTE.
                               SUMMARY.          CLICK FOR FULL TEXT.

        PIREPS              YES, OVER DUATS        YES. COLOR-CODED
                                                   ICONS ON ROUTE.
                                                 CLICK TO MOVE, ZOOM

     AIRPORTS AND                 YES                     NO
      FACILITIES

 WX DEPICTION CHARTS           YES, SOME                  NO

     WINDS ALOFT           YES, TABULAR AND       YES, GRAPHICAL ON
                          GRAPHICAL BUT MANY     ROUTE FOR ALL WINDS

                        CLICKS FROM EACH OTHER        AND TIMES

   AIRMETS/SIGMETS      YES, TEXTUAL OVER DUATS  YES, GRAPHICAL ROUTE
                                                       OVERLAY

    AREA FORECAST           YES, OVER DUATS          YES, TEXTUAL

        NOTAMS              YES, OVER DUATS              YES

  NEXRAD SATELLITE &
      LIGHTNING

 FILE FAA FLIGHT PLAN             YES                    YES


ForeFlight is purchased through iTunes. First use is fairly easy. Missing is my Holy Grail, however: route planning with data overlays.

ForeFlight requires iPhone Firmware 2.0. Current pricing is introductory as they develop the product, but the next upgrade is free to anyone purchasing the product today. Their website also has animated demos.

JEPPESEN MOBILE

Jeppesen Mobile is a big product, with weather, an airport facility data, weight and balance, route planning, flight plan filing, FARs, FSS phone numbers and, depending on your phone, pen-based input.

I couldn't find the product on the Jeppesen Website until I called Sales, who sent me to www.jeppesen.com/mobile. I downloaded the program and a small sample database. It started without a hiccup. But I was turned off by a DOS-like main page filled with 12 function buttons, the borders of which turn bright yellow when I cursored over them. The button grid is under a bright red and green menu-like bar (which isn't actually a menu) at the top of the page. Use of sacrosanct red, yellow and green aviation colors for decoration is a mistake, in my view.

More problems ensued when I clicked on a function button. It trapped me, not letting me go back or forward. I called Jepp support. They bailed me out, but admonished, "Read the manual!" The 118-page manual is a 2.75 MB download.

Using the product reminded me of accessing weather at an FBO--too many clicks for too little data. Also, route planning and displays aren't available. There are pluses, like a weight and balance calculator, but my 1978 Cessna T310R isn't on the list of aircraft, despite being a popular model.

I downloaded the full database on the suggestion of tech support, only to see "Download Failed." A third call to Jepp got me up. But after eight hours, beginning to end, I gave up. For me, this product is too hard to use given what I can get from it. Jeppesen asserts that the majority of the users find the software easy and intuitive. They also reiterate that the best way to learn it is to read the manual or use the help files, which is something I only do as a last resort.

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GARMIN PILOT MY-CAST

When Garmin announced Pilot My-Cast in 2007, it sounded like my Holy Grail. I bought a Samsung Blackjack II so I could use it. But the download and trial were problematic, as was transitioning to a paid account. A route fix failed, saying, "GVO is not a recognized airport." It's not supposed to be; it's a VOR. Tech support fixed that but erased routes I had painstakingly entered. Finally, it worked. Until the GVO problem came back.

There are other nuisances. If my cell connection is weak, it takes 45 seconds to learn it's too weak for service to work. When it works well, it takes 15-25 seconds to start. It downloads data frequently during a session, each taking seconds. The user interface is off-convention in highlighting active commands and naming files to save.

I use Pilot My-Cast on just half my flights. Usually, I call FSS from my car going to the airport so planning takes no added time. That's sufficient when the weather is good, as it often is on my milk run between Santa Barbara and San lose, California.

Why then, might you ask (as I do), don't you just ditch Garmin? Because what I saw on first use--within minutes, without any usability help--blew me away. In some ways, it's better than my dream product. Its workflow design and 3D data Integration overlays METARs, PIREPS, winds aloft, animated NEXRAD, SIGMETs and AIRMETs graphically and textually on my route. It calculates route distance, wind-corrected groundspeed based on my planned altitudes and time and readies it with a single-click for DUATs upload.

Garmin never confused me. Features are self discoverable. There's no manual. Few companies under promise and over deliver, but Garmin did for me: Nothing touts adequately their features or value.

However, Pilot My-Cast has more weaknesses. It takes longer to get station weather than does AvWx or ForeFlight. There neither prog charts nor airport facility data. TAFs aren't color coded. A beta version of MyCast for iPhone is now available.

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For me personally, Garmin, augmented by AvWx, wins. If I wanted an iPhone, ForeFlight would win. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd add the design skills of ForeFlight to Garmin and the workflow and data integration skills of Garmin to ForeFlight.

All the vendors are pursuing the right path, though. Making weather and flight planning close by and convenient. Many pilots would be better off using any of these products over what they're using today. Because, in the end, everyone's Holy Grail is staying out of trouble.

CONTACTS

AvWx.net

Info@RamPage.net

www.avwx.net

ForeFlight

866-701-6529

www.foreflight.com

Jeppesen Mobile

800-621.5377

www.jeppesen.com/mobile

Garmin Pilot MyCast

www.digitalcyclone.com/products/pilot-my-cast/866-669-2278.

Frank Robinson flies a Cessna T310R and coaches teams in developing new markets and products..
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Title Annotation:DIGITAL PILOT
Author:Robinson, Frank H.
Publication:The Aviation Consumer
Article Type:Product/service evaluation
Date:Oct 1, 2008
Words:1597
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