Choosing a dedicated weather PC

Overview

This page is about choosing a PC to use as a dedicated weather PC – ‘dedicated’ meaning that the PC is not used for any other purpose than handling the weather data and ‘PC’ as shorthand for most kinds of desktop/laptop computer, other than tablets or phones. A few general comments to start:

First and to be clear, there’s absolutely no necessity to use a dedicated PC to work with data from a weather station. If you only wish to download and process data from the logger on, for example, a daily or weekly basis then having a dedicated PC would be an expensive luxury and total overkill. And, equally, there’s rarely any problem in using a PC for a limited amount of other basic work even though its primary job may be as a weather PC.

Then the second key point would be that the 6555 WeatherlinkIP (WLIP) version of the Davis data logger offers probably the simplest way for most users to upload weather data automatically to the weatherlink.com service on the Internet and to other weather networks such as Weather Underground. This WLIP logger is all you need, along with a wired Internet connection, to upload and to see your weather data online. But remember that the 6555 logger is higher-priced because free-for-life access to the weatherlink.com service is rolled up into the initial purchase price and also that the data presentation will have limitations compared to what is possible with a dedicated PC. Further details are available on the specific WeatherlinkIP page.

6510Bulletin600But for users seeking a more comprehensive or flexible or bespoke data presentation the picture starts to change. This is especially true if you’re planning to use the PC to download data from the weather station continuously, 24/7, or if you want to run a weather website with frequent uploads. If the PC is also used heavily for other work then it would be well worth considering getting a dedicated weather PC — there’s always the possibility that other software might interfere with operation of the weather software, at least by causing PC crashes or requiring reboots after updates, if not for reasons of performance. This is particularly true if the PC might also be used by other users with different logins, which typically wouldn’t be compatible with simple operation of weather station software.

But do remember that setting up and running a dedicated weather PC that is in any way different from your main PC (a Raspberry Pi unit, for example) will require some background knowledge of how to use such devices. This isn’t necessarily difficult to do, and for many users it can be an interesting and rewarding project in its own right. But for non-expert users looking for a simple, turnkey solution to getting data online without using their main PC then the 6555 WeatherlinkIP logger is probably the better option.

NB This page primarily deals with various types of PC hardware – there is also a choice of software to be made, appropriate to the chosen operating system of course (i.e. Windows software for Windows PC and Linux-compatible software for Linux devices) – see elsewhere for details. Remember also that if you already have a Windows PC that you’re happy to run 24/7 then by adding a 6558 1-year or 6559 3-year weatherlink.com subscription to the standard Weatherlink software you can have a system directly equivalent to WeatherlinkIP.

Selecting a dedicated weather PC

So, assuming that occasional connection only to a PC or use of the WeatherlinkIP logger are not going to be adequate solutions, which type of dedicated PC might be the preferred choice? Often there may be an older and otherwise disused Windows PC that’s available and this may well be the commonest answer; but perhaps reliability is a concern or it consumes too much power or is simply too large and clumsy, in which case a new PC may be needed. Some fundamentals when considering a newer dedicated PC include:

  • Weather station software is typically undemanding and will run on a relatively low-spec and therefore cheap PC;
  • A small modern laptop or SBC** computer has a very modest power requirement, even if running 24/7, and so has a minimal – even negligible – cost to run;
  • You may not need to use a conventional Windows PC at all – an SBC-based configuration may be simpler and more cost-effective;
  • Chromebooks are not suitable – don’t be tempted by their low price to buy one for use as a dedicated weather PC. The range of suitable weather station software for Chromebooks is small to non-existent at present;
  • Also, tablets and phones typically cannot receive data direct from a weather station. A tablet may be very handy as a secondary viewing device, but first requires a PC to generate the data presentation to be viewed on the tablet.

**SBC is shorthand for a Single Board Computer, which are miniature modern computers that come in a range of guises of which the Raspberry Pi is a well-known example. Different versions of such devices can nowadays be bought using either Windows or Linux as operating systems.

Overall, there are broadly four types of dedicated PC hardware to consider

  1. A ‘traditional’ Windows desktop or laptop PC. (Macs are another alternative but perhaps too expensive to use as a dedicated weather PC, unless you have an older one going ‘spare’);
  2. Small and inexpensive ‘net-top’-type PCs, such as Intel NUC or Compute Stick devices, which can in principle run either Windows or Linux;
  3. SBC-type computers such as the Raspberry Pi;
  4. A dedicated hardware device like MeteoBridge;

NB This is not a hard and fast classification – there are devices that arguably have features from more than one category, but it’s a useful starting point to understand the options. Remember also that some weather software will run only on particular operating systems (most commonly Windows) or has minimum hardware requirements and so inevitably there is a trade-off between hardware and software choices. Some further comments on each type can be found below.

Standard Windows desktop and laptop PCs

This is the most obvious and commonplace option, though not always the optimum solution. It will offer the widest choice of software (see examples page for illustrations). In recent years the price of entry-level PCs – which, as above, usually possess perfectly adequate performance – in this class has reduced markedly and is now often in the £150-£200 band.

HP Stream laptop
HP Stream laptop (£170)

Entry-level Windows laptops may be especially appealing as a compact, neat, all-in-one PC with few cables needed (one to the weather station and maybe one to a mouse, if preferred) and with built-in WiFi for Internet connectivity. Caveats about such laptops would include considering whether it’s a good idea to run the laptop continuously with its battery connected (may be better to remove the battery?); and a slight concern about the longevity of the eMMC memory with which such laptops are often fitted – as ever, a regular backup of weather data files is thoroughly recommended, just in case.

Small or net-top PCs

This category includes a diverse mixture of what might be termed miniature desktop PCs, sometimes called net-top devices, but which all share desktop PC characteristics (i.e. all main circuit boards in a case but with no built-in display, keyboard etc, unlike laptops) and in a very small form-factor of around 100x100x50mm.  There are a number of such devices made but here are three illustrations:

  • Devices like Intel NUC and Gigabyte Brix: While these can be bought in ready-to-go form, a more cost-effective option is to buy the bare-bones versions, which typically require memory, hard-drive and operating system to be added.
    Intel NUC device
    Intel NUC device

    This is in fact relatively simple to do, but is obviously more suited to users with a little experience in hardware assembly. The great benefit of this approach is that a quality product can be created but with a specification to suit the individual user, eg if you prefer to use an SSD drive for storage and Linux as the operating system then it can be achieved at a good price. The result will be a powerful but compact unit able to handle any amount of weather data processing that might realistically be needed.

  • Comparable, fully finished devices from e.g. Chinese factories that are sold under less familiar brand names such as Justop, Quantum Byte, Sumvision Cyclone, Minix Neo etc and available from Amazon amongst other outlets. These are typically sold at around the £100 mark with Windows 8/10 installed and often targeted at Smart TV or streaming media applications (though just as suitable for handling weather data). While these devices are reported to work well as weather PCs, there are some potential concerns about possible overheating of certain of the fanless designs, display driver compatibility and also again in the use of eMMC (rather than good quality SSD) for permanent storage.
  • Devices like the Intel Compute Stick, which is a still smaller (100x37x12 mm) analogue of the NUC described above and designed to mount directly into the HDMI socket of a suitable display monitor.
    Intel Compute Stick
    Intel Compute Stick

    In truth, the Compute Stick is not ideal having only a single free USB port and therefore really needing to be used in combination with a small USB hub to allow connection of weather station and keyboard/mouse. And, once again, the use of eMMC as memory is a minor concern. (Although either communication with e.g. a WeatherlinkIP via the WiFi link or use of the Compute Stick in a headless configuration would presumably work fine.) But the Stick is interesting as an example of one direction in which PC design is heading.

Overall, the ways in which the various PCs described in this section can be used will be diverse. But, in the main, the most likely configuration will be the familiar one with display, keyboard and mouse attached to create a standalone PC running Windows software of one sort or another. Equally, however, if the user preferred, the operating system could be a Linux variant, which would make it significantly simpler to run headless, i.e. with no display etc attached and with the PC being controlled from another device on the network.

It’s inevitable of course that PC design will continue to evolve and new small desktop PCs will launch during 2016 and beyond. So the above should be read simply as a summary at one point in time (Dec 2015) and with the expectation that other newer devices will always be launching into the market place.

Raspberry Pi and similar devices

Raspberry Pi 2 SBC
Raspberry Pi 2 SBC

Single-board computers (SBC) like the Raspberry Pi (RPi) have all of their components on a single small circuit board. (Other SBC examples include Banana Pi and Beaglebone Black along with many others.)

These SBC devices are really little different in concept from, for example, the miniature desktops described above and so are all part of the same continuum in functionality, but the further reduction in size and power of SBC’s does result in some significant practical differences:

  • SBC’s typically have lower component resources, eg slower processors, less memory etc. They are therefore still cheaper and consume even less power when running 24/7 but also, as a result, cannot effectively run Windows. They are therefore best viewed as Linux-only devices, which of course limits the range of compatible software to programs such as Cumulus MX and weewx. However, be in no doubt that even an SBC like a Raspberry Pi can be the basis of a highly capable weather PC and that a program like Cumulus MX is still full of powerful features.
  • Users previously familiar only with Windows will find it a minor hurdle to switch to Linux. However, the basics of learning Linux are fairly easy and once some basic configuration commands are understood then actually using the software is little different to a Windows environment.
  • One benefit of switching to Linux is that it’s pretty simple to run the device in headless mode, ie having full control of the device from another computer on the network. Thus the RPi only needs to have power, weather station and network connections made to it and so the installation can be made very neat and simple. Of course, it still also works perfectly well in desktop mode with display, keyboard etc attached – the choice is down to the user’s preference. (There are other benefits to Linux too such as the freedom from disruption caused by Windows auto-updates.)
  • The total cost of eg a Raspberry Pi shouldn’t be underestimated. While the RPi board itself is available for eg £20-30 (depending on exact version), by the time accessories like case, mains adapter, SD card, WiFi dongle etc have been added in then the cost could rise to nearer £60. The RPi is still excellent value but the price gap to other PC options is rather less striking.
  • Remember once again that the RPi uses SD cards for storage, which are likely to have only a finite service life. Backup of weather data files is an essential part of the daily/weekly routine.

MeteoBridge

The MeteoBridge family is described in detail on its own page, but in summary:

MB ProMeteoBridge is weather station software than can run on still simpler PC hardware which probably represents about the minimum specification that can still support highly effective data handling with Internet uploads.

 Although MeteoBridge (MB) is software, it is designed to be installed as the only active software on a dedicated hardware platform. The MB host device therefore effectively becomes a MB hardware device – this is its only role in life.
This means that the MB device is designed to be a fully self-contained PC that can carry out processing of weather data unattended for extended periods. For example, if mains power is lost then MB can automatically resume operation when power returns. And MB is designed to be operated headless (ie remotely) by default and at long distance if necessary – its host hardware usually has no display available anyway for interrogation/configuration. So MB has extra features baked into its code to allow its basic operation and its management from other devices to be as straightforward as possible – the configuration required for using default services  is minimal, for example.
The MeteoBridge Pro Red model even has a receiver built in for reception of wireless data from Davis wireless stations so a MB Pro Red unit plus a set of outside wireless sensors can constitute a complete self-contained solution for sophisticated handling of weather data.
MeteoBridge is ideal for users seeking a resilient and self-contained data source that’s as turnkey as possible and with minimal configuration, but which offers much more flexibility than the WeatherlinkIP logger.

Summary

It should be clear from the notes above that there are many options when choosing a weather PC but, in a nutshell:

  • If all you need is automated uploading of data to the Davis weatherlink.com service and are content with the limitations of that service then don’t overlook the WeatherlinkIP logger as a solution – remember that the price includes unlimited access to weatherlink.com;
  • One of the MeteoBridge models may also provide an excellent solution for resilient and self-contained data handling with much greater flexibility than WeatherlinkIP offers;
  • At the other extreme, any standard Windows PC will offer a wide choice of compatible software including programs packed with many features such as Cumulus or Weather Display. If buying a new PC then a small, cheap Windows laptop could be a good option;
  • A miniature PC such as an Intel NUC unit is small, neat and energy-efficient with more than enough power for crunching weather data. If fitted with a small (but genuine, ie non-eMMC) SSD for storage and Linux as an operating system then this might come close to an ideal weather PC;
  • A PC based on the Raspberry Pi 2 is likely to be the cheapest new PC option and still has more than adequate power for number crunching. But remember to back up data frequently.