Netatmo: Monitor the Weather While You’re Not Home
Last month, I was loafing round the house with my phone wondering how cold it was outside. Being the ridiculously technology-glued person I am, I started searching for a weather station that integrates with the Web, tablets, and smartphones. Obviously, stepping into the sun was out of the question, because I’m a vampire — they’re real! After a few clicks, I found the Netatmo, a very slick looking solution to checking the weather when you’re not in a walking mood.
The very idea of this may sound ridiculous, I know. However, there is a purpose for everything and I decided to give Netatmo a try. After all, Wired and Time wouldn’t feature it unless there is something more than the basic weather station. Or so I thought.
I didn’t expect Netatmo’s setup to be that difficult, but it gave me some small surprises. First, it uses Bluetooth to connect to the device if you’re on a smartphone. This isn’t bad, but the included manual makes it seem like you have to use your computer to get started. It depicts a two-step setup process, first telling you to plug in the indoor model and insert the batteries in the outdoor one and then to head to a website. A QR code would be nice for this, but otherwise the webpage is perfect. It sends you to the Play or App Store to download the app for Netatmo.
On a mobile device, Netatmo’s app will ask you to first sign up for an account, then activate Bluetooth and connect to the device wirelessly. This is much better than the tethered computer setup (more on that in a minute). The app will then ask you for the WiFi network and password you’d like to use — it runs through your network. Overall, mobile setup is very easy.
Setup on a computer is quite easy.
If you use your computer to set up the device, you’ll need to plug the main station into it. At first I thought I did something wrong, because configuring the weather station on a mobile device was effortless. If you’re setting up a convenience device, you shouldn’t have to plug it in, especially if it supports Bluetooth. After all, every modern computer includes this wireless technology. Upon plugging in the device, setup is just as easy as on mobile.
My main complaint about the setup is not that it takes too long, but that it isn’t explained very well. Online documentation is hard to find because it’s buried in the Web app, not on the homepage of the developers website. If you need help, you are asked to contact Netatmo, which is based in Paris. The company puts a lot of the weight on the support team here. To find all the documentation, Netatmo requires you go to one of their apps and browse the Help section. It needs to be more straightforward. A little pamphlet doesn’t do the job.
The indoor base station.
The main reason I considered Netatmo is because it looks like an Apple product. The hardware is very minimal, taking up only a few inches of space on your living room or kitchen counter. It looks very modern, too. In fact, it’s so attractive that your friends will inquire about the device, whereas they wouldn’t even care about any other weather station. The Netatmo stations give the impression that you are a high-class individual who cares about his home and wants to make sure it’s a healthy and comfortable environment.
If you don’t have a smartphone or a computer at hand and want to know what the temperature is outside, Netatmo’s clean design will let you down. Unfortunately, each station is not much more than a sensor. The indoor unit has an additional touch sensor on top to provide an instant measurement, including CO2, which is reflected by the large light on the front of the device. Other than that, you can only rely on this weather system to provide temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and CO2 readings. Sadly, the company doesn’t offer a wind meter.
The outdoor unit.
There’s no true “live reading” offered by this station. It posts updates every five minutes, which means the temperature may have changed by the time you look at the report. Even the on-demand measurement takes a minute or two to post.
CO2 isn’t too bad.
At first, I wondered why CO2 was even important in a home environment. Netatmo’s constant alerts that my CO2 level was above 1000 ppm gave me more reason to question its significance. It sent me an alert for this at least once a day, which made me wonder if placing the indoor module in my personal bedroom was a bad idea. So, I moved it to the kitchen downstairs and performed an on-demand measurement with the touch sensor. It faded in an orange color, telling me the CO2 was higher than normal. In the app, I found that it spiked, hitting 800, so I re-calibrated it. This didn’t fix the notifications so I had to create my own with a different trigger at 1500 instead of 1000.
You may have noticed that the indoor device is always plugged into the wall in the photos. Why? It doesn’t have a battery. So, if you have an island in your kitchen or want to put the device on a coffee table in the dining room, you’ll need to find a way to plug it in. That isn’t as convenient as it should be. I have another $20 weather station at my house that takes batteries to remain completely wireless. Then again, it doesn’t use WiFi or connect to the Internet.
Speaking of batteries, the outdoor model requires two AAAs. (The indoor model is always plugged in to the wall so you don’t have to worry about keeping it powered.) Rather than connect to the network, it seems to use a low-power radio frequency to report to the main station, yielding great battery life. After using it for three weeks the app still showed the outdoor unit had a full battery — to be fair, there isn’t a percentage, so it could be inaccurate. Going by this, I’d expect it to last at least six months on new batteries.
If your Internet is down, you can’t talk to the station locally. It has to go through the developer’s servers first.
This weather station is special: it doesn’t work without apps. Whether you’re on a PC, Mac, Android, or iOS device, there’s an app available. For Mac, Netatmo doesn’t offer a native app, but does recommend a $2 third party menu bar one called Baratmo. It has far less information than the Web app, but claims to be more convenient for some users. On PC and Linux, setup apps are available. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a Web app.
Forecasts are not generated from the device, but from a French weather service.
Before I talk about each app, there’s a bit they all have in common: forecasts. My question when I first got this station was, “Does it predict the weather on its own?” Alas, it’s not that advanced, which is surprising because even cheap standalone stations use a barometer to predict the next three to five days. Netatmo uses something different: forecasts from Meteo France. Since this is a Europe-centered weather provider, it’s unlikely that their U.S. information is very accurate.
Okay, let’s go over what’s available on each platform.
Initiating a firmware upgrade after setting up Netatmo.
Setup is the same on all devices, but the Android app quit before I could even reach the sign in page. After a few crashes and a full reboot of my device, I was able to sign in to Netatmo’s Android app and start using it to monitor things. The main screen’s design behaves like cards, one of them being the outdoor module and the other the indoor one. By default, they will be split to each use half the screen and provide equal amounts of information, but if you swipe the lower card down, the outdoor forecast is revealed. Likewise, swiping it up will reveal the air quality and decibel level of the indoor environment.
Navigating the Android app isn’t difficult, but the card layout isn’t the best way to present the data. It would be better to have a scrolling page, much like what Yahoo has done with its weather app. A button at the top to toggle whether indoor or outdoor info is being displayed would also suffice. One nifty feature is the graph, which can be found when you tilt your phone into landscape. Netatmo lets you view a fullscreen graph of the temperature, humidity, pressure, CO2, and decibel level of both modules. You can scroll back and forth to see what time the measurements were taken at.
The main screen on Android.
Graphically, everything is quite clear on my Moto X, which has a high-definition 1280 by 720 display. Navigating from one thing to another is snappy, too. I did have some problems with the Events screen, which displays the notifications the station posts. When the CO2 was over the designated threshold, a red alert would be displayed at the top of the Events screen, along with a More Info button. Typically, this button would only be displayed to check on an alert from the national weather service. It turned out being one of the little bugs, but got me thinking: why not include a recalibration option after the CO2 has peaked a few times? After all, the unit could need to be reset.
Tilt the device to view a graph of the activity.
In my use, the Android app wasn’t half as bad as I expected. For one, it actually worked. Its interface is modern and doesn’t use elements from pre–4.0 Android, which makes it much more pleasant to use. Setting up my station using the app was easy (once I got the app to stay open) and my only real complaint about it is that the Settings are only available on a webpage, which is embedded in the app. It doesn’t feel fully native when the account preferences are on a mobile website.
The iOS and Android apps are almost identical. I was surprised how little difference there was between the two platforms. While this makes things easier to use across the board, the app maintains its own design standard, which can confuse users in places. Navigation, for example, is not like your typical iOS app. Rather than a menu at the bottom or in a drawer to the side, there’s a one-screen approach to things. Outdoor weather is on the top and indoor is on the bottom. You can swipe the indoor pane up and down to view it or the outdoor one.
The iPhone app has multiple (confusing) layers.
I personally don’t think this navigation approach is the most intuitive. For one thing, it always resets your viewing preferences. That means if you had the indoor pane hidden, it will be back to normal when you exit and return to the app. I found that annoying, but I expect the developers to fix some of these issues when they redesign the app for iOS 7 (which, hopefully, is happening soon).
The iPad app is perfect: you can see everything on one screen.
On iPad, the Netatmo app is a different story entirely. It makes use of the screen size very well and I very much preferred using the service on a tablet. The design stays the same, but there’s no need to swipe up and down to view all the information: it’s available on one page. The user interface as a whole is very rough around the edges, but I really enjoy being able to see everything at once. In fact, it makes me think that the best way to display this information on an iPhone is with a scrolling interface. Since the screen space is limited, why not make it a short page to scroll through? That’s what most weather apps do and it’s a good way of displaying data.
The app keeps reminding you about graphs.
Overall, the iOS app works, but is very unpolished. It didn’t crash as often as the Android one, thankfully. Despite its upsides, I find myself wishing there were alternatives, because it’s not a joy to use. It seems that the company put the good designers on the hardware and left the software in the cold. It’s quite a shame, but going by their update history, the developers do care about their users. We can hope for the best.
It’s not the prettiest thing, but Netatmo’s Web app gets things done. If you need to check the conditions at your home while you’re traveling, you can do so on any computer with Internet access. There’s a lot more available in the Web app, though. It lets you view the graphed history of the temperature, humidity, pressure, CO2, and sound (in decibels) of your indoor unit, as well as the 7-day forecast, temperature, and humidity of your outdoor one. This can be great for reference and it’ll go back as far as you’ve had the device.
Browsing the weather in a browser.
The Web app also lets you view all the alerts your station has posted. So, if you don’t have your phone with you and need to know if your home is okay, heading to my.netatmo.com and signing in to your account will bring up all the goodies. Clicking the small notepad icon in the top right opens the app’s notifications panel, which will have CO2, temperature, and even national weather alerts. It’s handy, but you can’t click the National Weather Service alerts to see what they say. When I could see snowy clouds approaching, the alert read, “Winter Weather Advisory issued November 20 at 2:42PM PST until November 21 at 12:00PM PST by NWS”. That’s not helpful when I can’t view the whole report.
Lots of graphs.
Idiosyncrasies are common in the Web app. Overall, it feels like a stretched mobile website — without responsive design. If you head to the settings screen (the gear icon in the top right of the screen), you’ll be reminded of the mobile app. Navigating this on a computer feels strange. Otherwise, the Web app is very useful. It displays the same amount of data that the mobile ones do without the need to download anything. I would like to see some desktop notifications for Safari on OS X Mavericks and Chrome on Windows, but otherwise the Web app isn’t too bad. It’s nice that the developer made a website to access your weather data on any device.
A Nifty, but Unnecessary Luxury
Nifty, but there’s a price.
During the three weeks I tested it, I noticed my usage of Netatmo had significantly declined since the novelty of having the device wore off after the first few days. It reminded me that it existed when I got alerts about CO2 in my house, but other than that I didn’t find it as useful as I had hoped. For five years, I’ve been using a cheap $30 wireless weather station that requires two double-A batteries. It’s never failed me. Sure, it doesn’t offer all the fancy statistics that Netatmo does, but do we really need that?
Netatmo is a superfluous little gadget. It has a very slim set of features and, while it gets the job done, there’s so much more to ask for. If the price is $180, why not include a way to measure wind speed and direction? All the other “dumb” home stations out there include this and other advanced features. Netatmo provides an elegance they don’t, but when it comes to weather, most people want functionality first. A representative from the company told me that Netatmo does plan to release a wind meter “at the beginning of next year”, which is good to hear, but expect it to cost extra.
This device barely scratches the surface of the weather industry, but it pioneers a new one. It could be one of the first steps into personal weather that syncs to your phone. Right now, though, it’s not going anywhere and it certainly isn’t worth the hefty price.