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In search of the ideal weather app

Weather can be a great equalizer. It also can be a way to make conversation with just about everyone.

No wonder, then, that the weather forecast is one of the pieces of information many of us crave when starting each day – and that weather apps are among the most frequently used programs on smartphones.

Weather apps aren’t all created equal, though. The built-in apps on iPhones and Android phones are perfectly serviceable, offering glanceable forecasts for as many cities as you want, and they’re tied into the phones’ virtual assistants. But weather technology – both the creation and presentation of forecasts – is evolving quickly. It’s worth checking out the options.

For prettier backdrops, Yahoo Weather is hands down the most gorgeous app out there. Weather Underground’s app is for budding meteorologists who want to dig deep into weather conditions, and Dark Sky’s mesmerizing globe of animated weather patterns is a great party trick.

In the end, though, finding the right weather app is really a matter of personal taste in the design, how much information you want and, crucially, how much you trust the forecast. And there is a bit of a philosophical difference brewing in terms of how those forecasts are created.

Now, weather apps are often powered by one of a few sources of information, including the Weather Channel and Weather Underground (both of which are owned by the Weather Co.), and Weatherbug and AccuWeather.

The forecasts coming from those services combine data from the National Weather Service, weather balloons, satellites, NASA and local stations dotted all over the country, as well as various other sensors. All of that raw information forms a rough picture of what’s happening in the atmosphere at any given time.

Then, a meteorologist usually comes in to interpret and analyze the data and, based on a mix of experience and education, chooses the information on which to base a forecast.

The data and forecasts created in that way power many weather apps. The Weather Channel provides Apple’s built-in forecasts, for example, while Weather Underground provides data for Google’s weather and powers Yahoo Weather.

Those data and forecast providers all have their own apps as well. The Weather Channel app, for example, offers useful information like airport conditions and flu outbreak updates by region, while Weather Underground has the richest (and geekiest) information. For my taste, Weatherbug is the best app offered by the main providers, because it offers niceties like the ability to sort your forecast by whether it’s a good day for golf or one that is likely to cause dry skin.

But the folks behind Dark Sky, a popular and visually stunning weather app, are doing things a bit differently. That company formed about three years ago to create a new kind of forecast that would use radar data to predict whether it was going to rain – or stop raining – in an immediate location and within the next hour.

No one was really doing that, said Adam Grossman, a co-creator of the Dark Sky app. So the company had to build its own computer programs for figuring out radar data for that one example: Is it going to be raining an hour from now in this one, specific spot?

That work evolved into longer-term forecasting, and led to a separate product called Forecast. Grossman says the weather predictions all come from computers; no meteorologists are involved. Algorithms compare predictions from various stations or weather sources with historical accuracy and spit out purely statistical predictions.

Perhaps my favorite new weather app is TheVane, which gives you the forecast along with wardrobe suggestions (women’s only, for now) and even links to buy the outfits pictured. It will suggest outfits for travel based on location and long-term forecast, and even generate a packing list.