Search “weather” in the App Store and you'll be bombarded with an endless scroll of options—from radar imagery good enough for meteorologists to an app that shows you a different picture of a kitten every time you check the weather. Seriously. Weather kittens.
But if you're using your smartphone to plan an adventure, or even just figuring out when you should walk the dog, you're going to need more than just cute kittens. We spent a month testing dozens of weather apps on the iPhone in a variety of scenarios. I used them to plan hikes and bike rides in the mountains and surf sessions on the coast in an attempt to separate the good from the bad. And I learned a few things in the process.
Here are four things to keep in mind when you’re picking your next weather app, followed by our favorite WApps (that’s weather+apps) at the moment.
Radar is Everything
Forecasts are fine and dandy, but I don’t trust any forecast, especially in the mountains, without also being able to see up-to-date radar. Seeing is believing. The best apps give you radar imaging that’s current within the last five minutes. A couple will give you a “future-cast” that predicts the track of the storm over the next 30 minutes to an hour.
User-Created Input Is Fun, but Not Reliable
More apps are allowing users to input the weather around them to help dial in the immediate forecast in your area. There’s something satisfying about being able to report the conditions near you, but this user-generated info isn’t terribly useful, particularly in under-populated areas.
The World Is Bigger Than You. So Is the Weather.
Most weather apps focus on hyper local forecasting—what’s happening where you are right now. It’s helpful, but the best apps also give you a broader sense of the weather in the region so you know how your hyper-local forecast fits into the big picture. This info helps you forecast your local conditions beyond the next hour or two.
No Good Weather App Works Offline
You can’t cache weather data because weather data is constantly changing. Like every single minute. The best apps are updated constantly with new radar images and forecasts, so if you don’t have a solid connection, they’re not going to do you any good. So remember in the backcountry, red sky at night…
Best Weather Apps
Weather Underground (Free, iOS and Android)
How It Works: Most weather apps worth your data plan use NEXRAD’s radar data, (a network of next-generation radar stations operated by the National Weather Service), and WU follows that model too. But the app also uses a network of personal weather stations that are 200,000 strong worldwide. Each of those stations has a suite of weather-measuring instruments that gauge temperature, humidity, pressure, rain fall, and wind speed, and direction. So you get trustworthy radar imaging and real time reports from the station closest to your location.
Our Take: WU is the most comprehensive app we tested. It gives you a super-detailed hourly forecast as well as a look at the week ahead. You get radar imaging, but also a layer that shows the projected path of each storm around you so you can tell if that red and yellow blob is coming your way. If you add Storm, a separate app from WU, you can get their FutureCast radar, which shows you the projected path of the storm over the next five hours.
Our Favorite Feature: First light/last light. Plenty of apps tell you when the sun will rise and set, but WU tells you what you really need to know—when it will actually get dark, which is key if you’re out on a ride and wondering if you have time for a few extra miles.
Dark Sky ($3.99, iOS and Android)
How It Works: Dark Sky pulls data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s network of 140 radar stations spread across the U.S. but then uses some fancy math to forecast hyper-local weather. Their theory: while weather in a broad sense can be chaotic, you can see and predict patterns on a smaller, local level. The app also uses your phone’s pressure sensors to generate more local forecasts through a “report” feature allowing you to contribute data straight from your phone. The forecasts still rely on the NOAA radars, but the user reports add another layer of on-the-ground data.
Our Take: Dark Sky focuses on the here and now, so most of the data you get focuses on the next hour of weather in your area. There’s an extended forecast, but it’s pretty basic. Get this app if you want to know if it’s going to rain in the next hour. They’ll tell you what minute it’s going to rain and how hard. And it proved to be pretty accurate, forecasting rain on a number of occasions within a reasonable margin of error.
Our Favorite Feature: The global radar. Dark Sky has a slick global view that shows you broad weather patterns all over the world. Zoom in and you can see your country, your state, your town: I like being able to see how the weather in my backyard is part of a bigger system.
RainAware (Free, iOS and Android)
How It Works: Much like DarkSky, RainAware is focused on hyper-local, short term forecasting, which it calls “nowcasting.” The app pulls data from radars, satellites and surface stations and “extrapolates areas of precipitation to your location.” In other words, it predicts the path of local storms. Open the app and you get a detailed view of your weather over the next three hours. If it’s going to rain, the app tells you when and for how long. It also gives you a more general forecast for the next 24 hours, as well as a seven day forecast and up-to-date radar imagery.
Our Take: I like the detail on the radar imagery, which gives you the track of the storm up to a minute prior to opening the app. I also like how the app is constantly updating the forecast based on the movement of the storm. The forecasting proved to be as accurate, if not more accurate, than DarkSky. But there’s no magic here—any meteorologist will tell you that forecasting immediate weather is relatively straight forward. Forecasting weather days in the future is when it gets tricky.
Our Favorite Feature: Rain spotting. RainAware focuses on what's happening in your location in the next three hours, but the app can also tell you where the nearest rain is falling when you open the app. It’s handy if you’re planning a trip or tracking a storm.
Bonus for Weather Geeks: RadarScope ($9.99, iOS)
If you really want to geek out on radar, spend the extra cash for RadarScope, which gives you NEXRAD Level 3 and “Super resolution” radar data—the highest level of radar detail you’ll find for a smart phone. Private pilots use this app to navigate around storms. It’s overkill if you’re just looking for a weather app to tell you if it’s gonna rain in the next hour, but if you really want to get into reflectivity, velocity, and dual-polarization, RadarScope is the app for you.