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Review of the South African Weather Service Premium Subscription

Well there has been a lot of controversy, primarily on the forums of this site as to the South African Weather Service’s decision to start charging for it’s products. Personally I have been a frequent visitor to the SAWS website since around 2002, I’ve been through the numerous site design templates that were implemented over the past few years, and I too was along the batch of those disappointed in the decision to charge for products which have been free for so long. I understand the need for funds, every business needs a way to cover their costs and to make a profit or else it will no longer function. Though I definitely think that the pricing is a bit steep, well actually way too steep. Personally I think more effort needs to be put into achieving better funding from the Government, and considering the important in severe weather to both every day people and the Government, I don’t think it should be too hard of an issue to sell. Though I will resist going into another full-fledged verbal rampage against the methods used for achieving finances in the SAWS. Needless to say though, for those who haven’t visited the South African Weather Service site in a while, you may find yourself deprived of products you used to get for free.

First let’s take a look at the current pricing structure, there are 4 basic subscription options on the South African Weather Service site:

Free (Free)
Basic (R30 per month)
Premium (R180 per month)
Pro (R300 per month)

Just glancing over that sends chills down ones spin, R300?! Are they serious? This is more pricey than an ADSL line, nearly as much as DSTV?! The premium price of R180 per month is no pocket change either. R30 sounds just right, it is a reasonable amount of money to pay for a service.

Now you’re probably thinking, R30 p/m for basic sounds decent, I don’t want to do much on the site anyway, I just want to view some static radar data. Well, I’m afraid you’re fresh out of luck. The R30 basic subscription option offers no static radar, in fact the whole list of aviation permissions for the basic user can be counted on 1 hand, well… 2 hands if you want to be precise, but regardless it is a mere fraction of what used to be available for free.

Instead of listing each and every ability available for each of the subscriptions I will forward you to the SAWS’s subscription comparison table : HERE

Now as you probably figured from the title of this article, I subscribed myself to the premium subscription recently and I thought I’d share just what is available, so you guys don’t need to risk spending money on something you’ll regret. I will basically go through the primary options available to me and rate the services on terms of functionality and usability.

TABLES: The tables is one of the best new features on the SAWS site, it’s your simple weather forecast but it includes wind speed forecasts and wind direction as well as percent chance and amount of rainfall forecast. This product is available to all of the subscribers and even to unregistered users. I quite like the layout of this feature, it’s easy to understand and visually simple on the eyes and the mind, there’s no digging through 20-odd links to get to it.

48 HOUR GRAPHS: Quite a nice tool for those interested in seeing what time thunderstorms are most likely to develop, and a pretty nifty little product. The product consists of a graph with a temperature on the Y axis and hours of the day on the X axis. Plotted on the graph are lines of different colour representing ‘Usual Max’ (Typical average max), ‘Usual Min’ (Typical average min), ‘Temperature at Location’ and ‘Dewpoint’- though there is also a shaded area called the ‘Range in Grid’, from what it appears- this seems to be the potential temperature range for that area, though I am not positive that is what it is. Overall the graph can be very useful for a graphical representation of when dew points will peak in the day. This is a product that is only available to subscribed users.

MAPS: Under the maps tab you will find a map of South Africa with a dropdown for several products: Storm Tracking, Lightning, Rain, Wind, Fog, Overview, Fire Risk Factor, Fog, Temperature and Frost.
Storm Tracking – One of my least liked products, the storm tracking function provided on the maps is nothing more than a basic representation of storms with a ‘Now’, ’30 Min Forecast’ and ’60 Min Forecast’ display. These maps are definitely of little use to storm chasers as there is no indication of how strong the storms are or their actual structure.
Lightning Strikes – The lightning strike map animation is pretty cool, I won’t deny that- you get real time graphical display of lightning strikes that have just occured, there seems to be around a 5 hour period in the animation, that is to say if you view it at 10am, it will run the animation from 5am to 10am.
Rain – The rain map is of little interest to anyone outside of the general public, while it can be useful for every day issues, it doesn’t help the weather enthusiasts much with no indication of rainfall amounts.
Wind – While also catering more to the everyday person, the wind map offers more potential to chasers by seeing which way the winds have trended over a past few hours, which can often be used in deducing where storms will develop.
Fog – A basic map representation of fog presence, there are colours representing how dense the fog is and the visibility.
Overview – Basically it’s everything in one, well cloud cover, max temperature, forecast conditions etc.
Fire Risk Factor – A pretty cool new product where you get a graphic display on the potential of fire outbreaks in an area.
Temperature – Graphic display of the maximum and minimum temperatures for the day.
UV Index – Graphic display of forecast UV index.
Frost – Graphic display of the frost potential.

Storms and Radar: Now we’re getting into the meat of the site, for us chasers this will obviously be one of the most important pieces of functionality. Basically you have 4 options on screen as a premium member, you have the useless storm tracking product again. But below there is the new radar product. You will have access to a country and provincial animated map with radar overlay. This is the same radar that is used on the static images, represented in dBz. This is where you will probably be looking as a chaser, though I know some prefer the old static. The product itself is not bad- some of you may remember when me and a friend of mine worked on an animated radar using the SAWS’s static radar and our own map overlay, this product worked perfectly too and we also archived our radar data. The one problem I have with the South Africa Weather Service’s animated radar overlay is that they’ve done a bit of a lazy job for a product one has to pay for. There are only 2 layers to the image, the map and the radar, this creates a problem when you have storms moving over town names, the radar image reflectivity blocks them out, you lose the ability to see where a storm is in regards to your town.

Warnings: The warnings have always been a good product from the SAWS, and it’s still there and as far as I know it’s free too which is good. Basically you can expect to see severe weather warnings here. They have also recently adopted the typical global ‘Warning’ and ‘Watch’ difference in the warnings.

Forecast Mix: A pretty cool page showing one an overview of the tables, a 48 hour detail, a temperature graph, a wind speed graph, a humidity graph and a pressure graph.

Aviation TAFs: Another product often viewed by us chasers and watchers is the aviation TAF forecasts, though at the time of writing this I am receiving database errors for this product from the site.

Thunderstorm Probability: One of my favourite products is the thunderstorm probability chart which displays the probability of thunderstorms for that particular day, though I am extremely disappointed in the idea that only Pro subscribers are able to view the thunderstorm probability for the following day.

SigWx Chart: Another good product which has always been a favourite to me, the sigwx charts display cloud location as well as the type of cloud it is, along with such information as squall line presence, rain, hail, turbulence. A very useful tool in weather watching and storm chasing.

Convective Cloud Base: One of the few products from the Aerosport section of the aviation part of the site available to non-pro subscribers the convective cloud base graph is another very vital piece of information in looking for convection potential. Though I’m disappointed to see that only pro subscribers get to see the thermals forecast.

Basically that’s it for the main site products. As you can see there isn’t too much extra from the old products which were offered for free. Yes there are some nice products available, but for the price I’m not sure it’s worth it. I would say the functionality a premium subscriber gets is worth around R50 a month, but not R180. I’d like to see the following price structure, it would make much more sense if they need to charge: R25 basic, R50 Premium, R80 Pro.

I’m not going to tell anyone to not subscribe, but you can make up your own mind given the information I have provided above. I am hoping with time that the SAWS drop their prices for their products or at least move some of the other products down the line of subscriptions. If you have any questions regarding this review or any of the products, feel free to contact me.

 

UPDATE:

I feel it is necessary for me to add a little bit of an update, at the time of the original article I had not yet been able to experience what the text message alert system does exactly, though today we had some nice thunderstorms pass by and I must say I’m very impressed with the way the alert system works. When you become a paid member on the site there is an option to receive severe weather alerts and storm alerts for your town. Today I got my first storm alert at 5:50am. I find the system to be extremely useful in case of unavailability to radar. The system sends you a text providing you with information on the storm, it’s current location, how long it’s expected to be near you, it’s heading, the speed and the strength of the storm in dBz, I definitely recommend this particular product for those who can’t be watching radar all the time.

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