Review: Netatmo Urban Weather Station

netatmo_urban weather_station_boxIt’s not very often that I find a product that mixes my career with my fondness for mobile technology and iOS, which is why the Netatmo Urban Weather Station caught my eye when I first heard about it. It is a set of two wireless environmental monitoring devices, one for inside, and another for outside your home. The indoor monitor tracks temperature, humidity, CO2, barometric pressure, and noise level, while the outdoor module covers temperature and humidity.

I work with commercial and industrial automation and monitoring products on a daily basis in my job, so I know what is available for that market, and how much higher grade versions of the same sensors cost. As such, I was interested in getting my hands on a sample of the Urban Weather Station to see how it stacks up against the products I am used to using. I wasn’t sure of what to expect because of my admittedly low expectations for such products. I’ve been left flat by the limited scope and scattered and proprietary nature of most consumer grade home monitoring and automation products to this point. In contrast to this, my industry has several web based automation systems that are compatible with thousands of different controllers and sensors, thanks to several open wired and wireless protocols that have become known standards.

The commercial and industrial systems that I have spent the last twelve years working on have the above features, so this isn’t anything new or revolutionary. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it looking at consumer oriented products. For some reason, companies like Google and ADT are hell bent on reinventing the wheel as they get more involved in this fledgling market, rather than taking advantage of mature technologies that are already n place. Despite this, here are some diamonds in the rough out there worth looking at. There are some cool “one-off” products out there, like the Nest thermostat, that work well, are accessible from the web and from popular smartphone platforms through apps. However, these products tend to be little islands or silos unto themselves. It just hasn’t all come together, yet.

The Netatmo Urban Weather Station is very much in the same vein as the Nest- a single product that is web-accessible and has smartphone and tablet apps available for iOS and Android. However, despite the facts that it has no control capabilities of it own, and that it doesn’t communicate with any other home monitoring products, the Urban Weather Station does bring a lot more to the table than I am used to. It is a great value for the price, and has some sophisticated features that are common in the products that I work with. Let’s take a closer look.

 

Design and Construction

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There is no shortage of consumer weather station products for the consumer market. However, how many would you actually WANT to put in public view inside or outside of your home? Thankfully, Netatmo did a really nice job in this department. The Urban Weather Station has a nice, clean, utilitarian style about it. It’s cool looking, but also innocuous at the same time.

Another obvious concern with any home monitoring product is durability. This is especially the case with the outdoor module. You can tell that Netatmo put some thought into this aspect of their design, as the main cylinder exteriors of both devices are aluminium, and the plastic end caps are UV-resistant plastic. I also like the fact that the outdoor module is battery powered. This makes positioning a snap, and also mitigates potential electrical issues due to exposure to wet weather.

Another design touch worth mentioning is Netatmo’s inclusion of a monitoring light on the exterior of the indoor module. The light gives instant feedback on the current CO2 level in the monitored space, showing either green, yellow, or red. It is triggered by touching the top of the module, which performs a manual data capture. This is necessary because, unlike the commercial-grade products that I work with, the Netatmo Urban Weather Station does not monitor in real-time. Instead, it captures data at a set interval of every 5 minutes.

 

Setup

20130626-201513.jpg I was very impressed at how simple the initial setup for the Weather Station was. It can be done either via a downloadable tool (available for Mac, PC, and Linux) with the included USB cable, or even with a smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth with Netatmo’s app. Just set up an account to access your data from Netatmo, and follow the prompts to log the indoor module onto your home’s WiFi network. Once that is done, information from your devices will be visible from the Netatmo web portal, as well as the company’s smartphone apps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The initial setup only takes a few minutes. Once it is complete, you’ll need to position your outdoor module, and verify that it is within range. Thankfully, Netatmo has also made this process very easy. There are signal strength indicators for both the indoor and outdoor modules, as well as the battery strength of the outdoor, shown in both the web portal and the smartphone app. I thought this was a very nice touch.

Netatmo included both a wall anchor and screw for permanent mounting, and a velcro strap for more temporary arrangements. The instructions recommend that the device not be directly exposed to sunlight and wet precipitation, so somewhere under a ledge, carport, or porch would be ideal. Here’s a pro tip from someone who handles design and sensor placement- try to avoid mounting on or near highly reflective surfaces. When the sun bounces off of them onto the sensor, the radiant heat can cause the instrument to read artificially high, often by several degrees. A covered area of the north side of a structure is always the first place we look to mount an outside air sensor. Also, try to put the senor as far away from the main structure of your house as possible, as no building is hermetically sealed. Even if the surface doesn’t reflect solar radiation, the house is always transferring heat one direction or the other.

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I put mine on the inside of a support post for my back porch, facing toward the house. It is out of the sun and rain, gets adequate air flow to measure, and doesn’t get any influence from the house.  So far, my results are consistently close to those of the National Weather Service for my city.

 

 

Sensors

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I’ll lead this off by letting you know that the Urban Weather Station sells for $179.00. This may seem high for a home monitoring product that doesn’t actually control anything, but hold that thought for a moment. In my world, you can get a wireless temperature sensor close to this price, and a wired one much cheaper. However, and humidity or CO2 sensor will retail for quite a bit more than the price of this entire setup. Now, bear in mind that I’m talking about sensors that have a tighter specified range (+/-2% instead of +/-3% for the Netatmo, for example), and that are designed for a system that reads in real-time. Then, there’s the fact that you have to have some kind of controller or system in place to read these sensors. Those can be QUITE expensive. With all this in mind, I was naturally skeptical that a device priced this low could read all of these values reliably. However, I came away very impressed after my testing.

I didn’t have a CO2 sensor handy to directly verify the Netatmo’s readings, but I can say that they are very reasonable for a space like my den, where the occupancy varies from 0 to 5 people throughout the day. The Weather Station’s value fluctuates appropriately. To insure that the value remains accurate over time, there are automatic and manual re-calibration processes built into the station.

As for the temperature and humidity, I have verified the outside air module with the National Weather Service many times over the last two weeks, and it has performed very well, usually tracking within 1 or 2 degrees and percent of their readings. As for the indoor, I verified it with a Fluke Digital Psychrometer that I know is accurate, and found that the temperature always read within a degree or two.

The humidity was a different matter, at first. When I unpacked the Weather Station, it read the indoor humidity at over 70%, which I knew wasn’t accurate. In fact, according to my device, it was around 15%-20% off. After a little reading on the Netatmo forums, I saw that this is pretty common when you first set up the Weather Station. The amount of error has gradually decreased over the last several days, and at last check, the indoor humidity is now reading within 5 or 6%. This is outside the stated 3%, but at this product’s price point, I’m not complaining.

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Another notable feature of the Urban Weather Station is the fact that additional indoor sensors can be purchased separately, and added to your setup. You can add up to three more indoor sensors, giving you a lot of flexibility to monitor environmental quality all over your home or office. Each sensor costs an additional $79.00, and they are available directly from Netatmo.

 

Software

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So we have a well thought out design, easy setup, and a good array of sensors for the money. Now for the software interface. In this game, three out of four won’t get it done. Thankfully, as good as the rest of the package is, the software is actually the real star of the show. I’ve used the web interface and the apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android, and found all of them to be intelligently designed, packed with information, and very easy to use. They really bring the whole package together very nicely.

 

netatmo-urban-weather-station-iPhone-app.jpgThe apps are all very similar, with the only real difference being the use of additional space on the tablet screens. The smaller screen versions use a clever up and down slider conceal and to reveal additional information about either the indoor or outdoor sensor.  In their default positions, we see all of the basic temperature, humidity, and pressure information, as well as outdoor Heat Index, and evaluations of the indoor and outdoor comfort levels. We also see graphic representations of the current weather conditions and CO2 level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

20130626-012544.jpgSliding the indoor section down reveals additional information about the outdoor sensor. You can choose between a 7 day weather forecast, a high-low temperature forecast, and rain forecast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20130626-012522.jpgSliding the indoor section upward reveals both the CO2 reading and the ambient noise level. There is also a toggle at the bottom of the page for toggling between additional monitoring units you may have.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20130626-203951.jpgThe feature that really grabbed my eye was the software’s trending capabilities. This is a primary feature of the commercial and industrial systems that I install, and is usually a factor that really differentiates them from consumer products. Since the smartphone’s screen real estate is fully occupied in portrait orientation, Netatmo made a good design decision here. A flip of the smartphone to landscape automatically brings up a graph, where you can toggle between the values of any of your indoor or outdoor sensors. You can see all of your data here, and even have the ability to zoom in and out to see each individual data capture.

 

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As good as Netatmo’s smartphone apps are, viewing trend information is where the tablet and web interfaces really shine. The greater amount of screen real estate is well suited to displaying trend information at a size that’s easy to read.

With the web interface, you have all of the same information available to you, but much more flexibility in what is displayed at a given time. You can turn graphs on or off for each indoor and outdoor sensor, potentially displaying all 7 sensors at one time. The web interface also has easy to use controls to help navigate to any point on your trend logs.

Here is where we get to both the catch, and another major selling point of this product. Remember when I said that the Urban Weather Station doesn’t read in real time? Well, there’s a good reason for that. It is because the interface and data delivery are completely cloud based, which is why your information is available remotely. The sensor array is just that- a group of wireless, Internet connected sensors that feed data back to Netatmo, who in turn makes it available to their customers.

The drawback of this setup is that if Netatmo ever goes away, so does your system. However, there are big positives of this arrangement, as well. First, this setup makes the low cost of the system possible. Because the processing and data delivery is happening in the cloud, the sensor array devices don’t have to have any on-board processing power, and all the cost and complications that come with that. Also, Netatmo has committed to giving their customers free, unlimited cloud storage of their device data. This is the real killer feature of the Urban Weather Station.

Two of the main purposes of the systems that I install are monitoring and analysis. Both of these tasks rely on the ability of the system to capture trend data over a long period of time. Then, the system has to notify the user of certain conditions (alarms), and allow the user to search through trend data to find meaningful information, track patters, and find the answers to questions about operation and energy usage. While Netatmo’s Urban Weather Station doesn’t have all of the same capabilities of a commercial system, it gets closer than any home product I’ve seen. Giving users the ability to track their home’s conditions in multiple rooms over months and years is deceptively powerful.

For example, the ability to track your home’s HVAC system year over year can help you identify unit capacity issues, performance issues, and energy inefficiencies, which allows the Weather Station to actually pay for itself if you use it to its  fullest potential. Netatmo has built trend display graphing into their web and app interfaces to do this, but they have also included the ability to export any or all of your collected data as a CSV file, which you can open in Excel or other spreadsheet programs.

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Using these third party tools, you are free to draw your own graphs and do your own analysis, and the possibilities are endless. There is no substitute for the presence of data before, during, and after a problem arises, and Netatmo is making that data available to their customers without an additional subscription fees. Suddenly, that $179 price tag seems a LOT more reasonable.

The last capability of the Urban Weather Station that got my attention goes back to the alarming requirement of commercial systems. We use trend data to find solutions AFTER the problem, but we also need to know when a critical issue pro first occcurs. The critical thing is the capability to get that information when you aren’t actively looking at your system. The Urban Weather Station handles this task by way of several notifications pre-programmed to notify you of certain conditions.

20130626-012619.jpgThese include Weather Alerts, Freeze notification, Pressure drop, Low room temperature, Very low room temp, High CO2, Very high CO2, and Humidty rise. Any of these notifications can be disabled, and Netatmo has also included the capability to set up custom notifications for user defined high or low values from any of the Weather Station’s sensors. Then, once you have your smartphone or tablet app set up, you can get these notifications delivered any time and place that you have Internet access.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

It’s hard to believe that all these features are packed into two small aluminium cylinders. However, there can be no doubt that Netatmo has a firm grasp on both hardware, and software design. Roll that together with a powerful cloud service and a price that is a great value for the included features, and you have a flat-out killer product in the fledgling field of consumer and home automation and monitoring. I am not at all surprised that Netatmo won several design awards at this year’s CES.

With all that said, the Urban Weather Station isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t actually control anything, like the Nest, so some potential buyers may fail to see the value. It is designed more for those who are looking to monitor the quality of their environment and/or those who are looking for a way to gather information with a mind toward saving energy. For those who are interested in either of these endeavors, take it from someone who knows monitoring and automation, the Netatmo Urban Weather Station is worth every penny and then some.

 

The Netatmo Urban Weather Station is available from Netatmo for $179. Additional Indoor modules are also available for $79.00.

 

Netatmo Urban Weather Station was provided by Netatmo for review on iSource. For further information regarding our site’s review policies, please see the “About” page.