By Charles Haddad At my house we follow the weather the way sports fanatics keep up with their favorite teams. But I don't watch much television, and neither do my wife or my 13-year-old son. Instead, you'll find each of us in a different part of the house with a laptop tuned to an Internet weather site. At the first sign of tornado activity, tracking the weather becomes a communal experience. We race to the basement, where we each keep a beach chair outfitted with books, blankets, and our favorite snacks. We do a lot of family bonding during the spring in stormy Atlanta.
We three weather connoisseurs have between us sampled hundreds of sites. And in the end we always return to the same site: Weather.com, the online sibling of the Weather Channel. No wonder it remains the 800-pound gorilla of Internet weather information, receiving 12 million to 14 million unique visitors a month.
At first glance it's hard to see what makes Weather.com so great. Underground Weather, a spartan site that eschews graphics, runs faster and is easier to navigate. Accuweather is more fun, offering a cool feature that lets you follow live storm systems across a colored map. But neither of these top sites can match the scope of Weather.com, which features 13 minutes of new audio and sound clips each day, plus a library of about 70 special reports.
TIRED SNOW PHOTO. At Weather.com you find not only the latest weather reports but also information about weather-related issues such as the spread of the flu and airport delays. Plenty of other weather sites offer at least one of these features, but none has them all. And, of course, no site can match Weather.com when it comes to news. Although run independently of the Weather Channel, Weather.com draws freely on its older sister's vast resources. The two share the same suburban Atlanta office complex, where are housed the Weather Channel's arsenal of weather-tracking computers, its 100 meteorologists, and its crack news staff. Indeed, Weather.com posts continually updated video and sound clips generated by the TV side about the latest breaking weather conditions.
While good, Weather.com has some irritating weaknesses. Its presentation of weather information isn't very exciting. Sure, it continually updates stories but uses the same tired photograph of blizzard conditions week after week as the icon for weather reports out of the snowy Midwest. CNN.com wouldn't be caught dead leading with the same photo for more than a day, let alone a week.
Even its extensive use of video isn't as good as it appears on the surface. On close examination, it turns out that the clips play in a tiny screen and the sound is often murky. Worse, you're forced to watch a 15-second ad before the start of any clip. That doesn't sound like a lot of time, but it feels long -- long enough to make you stop the video and move on to something else. I know that Weather.com, like most Internet sites, is eager to show advertisers that people look at ads, but this is a bad move. No one wants their access to weather news blocked by advertising, especially during the kind of big storm that makes the site's traffic spike. On the Web, people want this type of information fast.
THE BEST SKIING. Until last week, Weather.com's last redesign had been in 1998, a year equivalent to the Ice Age in Internet time. The old Weather.com looked particularly dated in comparison to snazzier rivals such as Accuweather.com, which now offers local satellite views and animated lessons in meteorology and weather history. That's why Weather.com launched its big upgrade.
In the new version that debuted on Feb. 9, most of the changes are designed to make information easier to find and use. You'll be able to check the weather at one of 77,000 locations worldwide by just typing a city's name into a new search button on the top left corner of the homepage. Or you can type in the word skiing and the site will generate a list of places worldwide with the best skiing conditions at the moment. Locations are ranked from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.
While Weather.com's designers tried to emphasize ease of use, they just couldn't resist adding a ton of new information to their site. Now you can learn weather conditions hour by hour for virtually any city, including such details as heat and wind-chill index and the probability of precipitation. I know of at least three weather afficionados who'll be checking the probability of thunderstorms on a regular basis come this spring. Weather permitting, Atlanta correspondent Haddad hits the road to cover companies throughout the southeastern U.S.