AVSIM Commercial Utility Review

 

Rating Guide
Publisher: Calibre Software Solutions
Description:  Microsoft Flight Simulator - Weather Generation Software

Download Size:
5.8 Mb

Format:
 
Download

Simulation Type:
FSX

Reviewed by: Paul Middleton - Senior Staff Reviewer - June 24, 2007

Introduction

To some of us, weather is not important. In fact, all that white puffy stuff can get in the way of admiring the view on the ground, especially now that Ultimate Terrain for FSX has been released! So some would prefer to use the FSX weather setting "Blue skies, sunshine, and a light breeze but not enough to get the windsock excited", and know that their flight will never be spoilt by Mother Nature.

At the other extreme are the "Real Pilots". Leather jackets, goggles, preferably an open cockpit so they can spit their tobacco juice out into the slipstream (and that's just the women), they are probably bush flyers as well. They thrive on bad weather. They are satisfied with nothing less that a departure in a 45-knot crosswind with hail and windshear, a journey illuminated by constant lightning, and a landing in fog so thick that they can't see their own sheepskin gloves on the joystick. They go for the FSX setting "The Perfect Storm - ya feelin' lucky?".

But there are many of us in between who like to take the weather as it comes. We might look at weather.com and spot a place that has some "interesting" weather to fly through, but most often we will take what comes. In other words, we'll go for Real Weather, the sort where we can take off from our local airport and hope to see something like the view from our house. If it's nice weather, that's nice. If it's not so good, that's all the more interesting. But, like most climate zones, it's never the same two days in succession, and we occasionally get a surprise that keeps us on our toes.

So what are the options for getting real weather? Well, there's the FSX option, where we can get a snapshot of the weather now, or one that is updated every 15 minutes, based on real-world weather reports. Alternatively there are products in the market that will do the same thing, hopefully better. One of these is Weather Maker RX.

Why not stick with the default FSX Real Weather? Well, it certainly has improved with each succeeding release. In the early days, you could fly along and at the boundary between two reporting stations a load of clouds would suddenly appear, or else disappear. Wherever you looked, there was the same uniform cloud coverage. Or else there would be rain but no clouds. So it has come a long way since then. But there are still problems in FSX, like very abrupt shifts in upper-altitude winds, or reported weather that doesn't match what the other reporting services are saying. So for those of us who like their weather to be as realistic as possible, a third-party product offers a potential improvement over the default.

Installation & Documentation

Installation is by a 5.8Mb download, giving you an executable which is then unlocked by the product key that you've paid for previously. Installation is then very straightforward and provides you with a shortcut on the desktop. If you then look at "Start" - "All Programs" you'll see a program group that contains, amongst other things, the product manual in 3 parts, and 4 tutorial videos; English only. When you look through these, it will tell you that you need to have FSUIPC installed, if it's not there already, although the free version will suffice. There is a possible plan to move to SimConnect in the future.

The documentation is reasonably simple to understand, with one exception. There's a Configuration option called "Render Realistic Visibility". The explanation is not very clear, and whether it is realistic or not is a matter of taste. Tick the box, and on the ground it very effectively creates the poor visibility when there are embedded thunderclouds around. Unfortunately at 4000ft you climb above FSX's very sharply defined visibility layer, and that spoils the total effect. But that's more of a problem with FSX's weather depiction than this product.

"Render Realistic Visibility" option set "on". Effective portrayal of embedded cumulonimbus from the ground....

....but above, an unrealistic "sandwich" of haze below, distinct clouds above, and lightning in the middle

Apart from that, configuration is very straightforward. There aren't a load of options. Basically all you need to do is specify Lower or Medium or Better Graphics, depending on the strength of your graphics card, and this essentially varies the number of cloud layers that might be shown at any one time.

Systems Manual

Configuration screen

Support Forum

if you are having any problems, there's the active Weather Maker Support Forum here at AVSIM, where the developers respond to comments in a timely fashion.

What it does - and doesn't do

Test System

Computer:

Core2Duo E6600 processor
2048Mb RAM
NVIDIA GeForce 8800GTX 768Mb video card
400 Gb Hard drive
22" Widescreen iiyama LCD monitor
TrackIR 4
CH Yoke and Pedals Windows XP

Flying Time:
14 hours

Because there are a number of similar and related products around in the market, some of which are integrated with each other, I think it's important to make it clear what Weather Maker RX does do, and what it doesn't do.

What it does do is to detect where your aircraft is, then go to a weather report server to pick up the local and surrounding weather reports, and depict this weather around your aircraft using FSX's weather engine. As you move along it will pick up other reports along your route, so that you are consistently surrounded by real weather. If you prefer to use the real weather from an earlier day, then if you've previously stored that weather file it will allow you to use that.

What it doesn't do is:

- load its own textures for clouds, sky, sun or moon. It will load whatever you have in your "textures" folder. For example, the textures in these screenshots are not FSX default but are actually from Active Sky Graphics, a completely separate product.

- darken or lighten ground textures depending upon weather conditions.

- overcome any of the limitations of FSX's weather engine and / or graphics technology, such as rendering "mist lying in valleys" with those horrible sharp edges.

Weather Maker RX is a very focused and straightforward product that will depict the weather around your plane, subject to the limitations of the FSX weather engine, and the textures that it finds in your system.

So how well does it manage that?

Getting started

The first point to make about getting started is that you need to start up FSX first, otherwise what it will do is very limited. Which is unnecessary, and a nuisance because sometimes we might want to just look at the weather before deciding whether to fire up FSX and go flying; or else we might want to check out the weather while FSX takes all that time to load.

Let's look first at the Configuration Screen. Hang on, didn't we just do that? Yes we did that, but unfortunately the choices we made before do not persist, so we have to go through them again every time we start up the program. Irritating, but easily fixed I'm sure.

Next we come to the Menu screen. This allows us to do three things.

We can select our FSX Flight Plan file, in order to get a Weather briefing. The briefing is pretty minimal, conditions at departure and arrival airports only. No en-route winds to help with fuel planning and route timings. No en-route weather to stop any thunderstorms out there coming as a bit of a surprise. That's not quite true, there is a way of checking out the route but it could be easier.

The other two options are to select weather from an earlier time, so you can try out last winter's white-out when you are in the middle of summer; and to select today's weather for your aircraft position but get the program to find some nice weather, or rainy weather, or whatever, in the vicinity if you'd prefer to fly in that.

Configuration screen, again.

Menu screen

Weather briefing

By selecting the appropriate button, the Menu screen becomes a Radar screen. This is where you can select the weather parameters you want to look at - precipitation, winds, temperatures, there are about 10 in total. This is also where you would look to check out conditions along your flight. It's quite comprehensive, but there are a couple of areas that need improvement. There are '+' and '-' buttons for zooming in and out, but the complete range is only 60 to 120 miles which is barely enough for a GA flight and certainly not enough for a commercial one; you have to keep using the arrows to move the display along. The other thing is the Winds display. A set of numbers like "32512" doesn't easily give you a good picture of the wind patterns around you - what's wrong with an arrow of the appropriate size and direction, like most weather displays?

Weather radar - precipitation

Weather radar - hail

Weather radar - winds

In the air

So how good is Weather Maker RX at setting the weather around you as you fly along?

Now I won't begin to pretend that I've done a rigorous series of test flights on all continents and in all climates and seasons, comparing what I see with the weather reports from all the local stations. What I did instead was to use the product in my regular FSX flying, checking summary weather forecasts beforehand and mentally noting what I saw against what I expected. And my conclusion? Well, it never did anything completely silly, like snowstorms over Arabia or heat waves in Alaska. And generally speaking the results were pleasing, because unlike FSX's real weather with its (often) single layer of cloud, I got up to three layers, all different, and so looking quite complex, like the picture at the top of this review.

However, there were times when I didn't feel I was seeing what I should be seeing. OK, maybe the weather report was being updated from the one I had seen earlier, with conditions changing rapidly, who knows? So to try and pin down my intuition, I did a comparison test flight.

I chose an evening in late spring, when there was a moist airstream over Western Europe, so that thunderstorms were popping up sporadically over the main land mass. Based on a BBC weather report, I decided to fly from Ajaccio in Corsica to Lyons in France, from a place where the weather was settled and fine to one where clouds were building up and thunderstorms could be expected. I made the flight once using FSX's Real Weather (not updated), and then repeated it with Weather Maker RX using the weather report file from the same time as the previous flight. So, same flight path, same weather reports. How did the results compare?

The BBC cloud chart. Flight path marked in red - from clear skies to clouds

A close-up on the BBC precipitation report; the flight path heading north into heavy precipitation

As you can see, the BBC weather site suggested that the weather would be "interesting" near Lyons. So what were FSX Real Weather, and Weather Maker RX reporting?

FSX

Weather Maker RX

FSX of course only reports the weather at the current plane location, in this case, Ajaccio in Corsica; calm winds, light clouds. Weather Maker RX confirmed that, but was also reporting rain and thunderstorms near Lyons.

So what did I find en-route? In the sequence of pictures below, FSX Real Weather is on the left, FSX with Weather Maker RX is on the right.

On the runway....

....in Corsica

The actual METAR report was for a few clouds at 3000ft and scattered clouds at 25000 feet, so WMRX looks more realistic on the ground.

Departing....

....Ajaccio

On departure, FSX looks closer to the actual report; WMRX is a bit heavier with the clouds.

Approaching the French coast ....

....at Nice

As we approached the French coast at Nice, the weather stations were reporting clouds over the coast to the east and over the Mediterranean Alps, just like the BBC cloud chart. FSX Real weather shows this reasonably well, WMRX does not.

Further north ....

....over the French Alps

Over the French Alps, reports were of reduced visibility on the ground - both products show similar pictures.

Approaching Grenoble and ....

....starting our descent

Approaching Grenoble, the reports were of better visibility on the ground, but more cloud. WMRX shows this better.

20 miles out from Lyons airport....

....so where are those Cb thunderclouds?

Approaching Lyons airport, I was expecting to see Cb thunderclouds in accordance with the actual weather reports. FSX had some slightly threatening grey clouds that might just develop in another hour. But Weather Maker RX? Hardly a cloud in the sky, in spite of its own report of rain and thunder. So in this instance, it's not a timing issue with weather servers, it is just not visually representing what it itself is reporting.

In case you think this is a bit demanding, or that Cb clouds are a bit "difficult" to do, see this last screenshot. It's FSX, using weather reports from exactly the same time as the test flight, but depicted by Active Sky X. Now this is not a review of Active Sky X - another AVSIM colleague is currently working on that one - but it does show what is possible, and what I should have seen with WMRX as I approached Lyons. Look at those towering Cb clouds! (And there was lightning from the base, although I wasn't quick enough to get a screen capture!)

That's more like it! Towering Cb clouds and lightning with Active Sky X .

So my conclusion from all that? Well, the first point to make is that FSX's own Real Weather has improved by leaps and bounds from the early days. It's by no means perfect, but it's certainly a lot better than it used to be, and it's an increasingly "hard act to follow". This does therefore challenge third-party software developers to provide a significant improvement, with weather that really does match the reports all the time. The test flight I carried out above is representative rather than exhaustive, but it does suggest that when depicting the weather outside the cockpit, Weather Maker RX needs to do more to distance itself from "out of the box" FSX, not to mention compete with other third-party weather products.

Summary

At $19.95, Weather Maker RX is not an expensive product, and less than half the price of more sophisticated competitors. It provides a weather radar that can be used both in pre-flight planning and weather avoidance in-flight, and real in-flight weather based on real-world meteorological reports. Whilst this is not always as accurate as FSX's own Real Weather, it does allow you to go back to historic weather, and is a platform for further developments. Particularly if and when Calibre Software Solutions migrate from FSUIPC to Simconnect. In some ways this is perhaps more of a product for the future, but it does avoid the complexities of more sophisticated alternatives, and certainly will not empty your bank account if you decide to buy it now.

To buy this product, go to  Calibre Software Solutions

What I Like About Weather Maker RX
•  Inexpensive
•  Good documentation and support
•  Straightforward to get up and running
 
What I Don't Like About Weather Maker RX

•  Briefing screens could be more usable
•  Radar screen range is far too limited
•  Does not always portray the weather that is being reported

 

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