The PDA-based system, pioneered by AnywhereMap, is the least expensive of the three, because PDAs are the least expensive displays available. While a couple of PDA-based weather systems use other data streams, nearly all of them (and there are many from which to choose) today use XM for their weather stream. XM Weather is one of the most pleasant technological surprises to come along for general aviation in, well, ever. The system relies on the same satellites that XM uses for its XM Radio entertainment packages; the technological fit couldn't be any better. The high-powered signal delivers consistent coverage, and, unless you're parked in the hangar, you can get it from the ground up. XM's coverage is good only for the lower 48, so operators of long-range jets need to contract with service providers that can cover oceanic and foreign airspace.
While the small size of a PDA is convenient, these diminutive displays can be hard to see and hard to control in bumpy air. AnywhereMap and its competitors now offer larger-sized displays, too. Prices for PDA-based systems start at around $1,800 with an XM receiver, built-in GPS, PDA and power cables and other accessories, and you get a lot more than just weather for the money.
Systems based on a tablet PC platform harness the touch or pen-activated screen of the tablet. These displays are larger and easier to use than PDAs, but they take up more room in the cockpit, they use more power, and they're a great deal more expensive. Most tablet-based systems cost $4,000 or more.
But there's a lot of capability to be had. One tablet PC system offered by Seattle Avionics features XM Weather, a sophisticated moving map and flight planning, approach charts, terrain awareness utilities and more all on a beautiful TFT display for less than twice the price of the Garmin handheld.
Some pilots look to save money by doing the bundling themselves, combining a laptop (maybe one they already own), GPS receiver and antenna, moving map software and XM receiver and weather software. It's a completely doable proposition, and it can save some money while offering much of the capability, and some of the expandability, of other systems. If you eliminate the price of the laptop (assuming you're using one you already own), you can create an incredibly capable system for $1,000 or less.
Panel Mount Weather Solutions: New Airplanes
Every panel mount display that we know of that you can get in a new airplane has weather available as an option. Sometimes there's more than one choice.
By far the most popular MFDs with weather (because they're in the most popular airplanes) are the Avidyne EX5000, found in Cirrus and Columbia airplanes, among others, and the Garmin G1000, which comes in a growing number of new airplanes, including Cessnas, Mooneys, Beechcraft, and Diamonds.
Large business aircraft, from Challengers to the biggest Gulfstreams, have had costly satellite-based weather available for some time, but now light to light-mid-sized jets are getting in on the game, too, many of them using the same kinds of displays that are popular in small airplanes.
In addition to Garmin and Avidyne (companies that are both moving into the turbine market with products similar to those in their light GA offerings), Honeywell, Collins and Universal all offer new weather datalink options on their displays. It doesn't get much better than satellite datalink weather on a big LCD. In fact, the weather in these new airplanes is better than you can get in many mid-sized brand new bizjets, though that situation is changing as we speak.
Though the weather products you get with XM vary from display to display, in general you get Nexrad radar information, metars, TAFs, lightning, winds aloft, cloud tops (which show satellite cloud coverage), and graphic versions of the textual weather that you can display on the moving map screen. New products are being introduced all the time, including new icing forecasts, winds aloft charts, and cloud cover displays.
Retrofit Panel-Mount Weather Solutions
There are a number of really good retrofit display options for pilots looking to get datalink weather in the cockpit, and they come on a number of platforms, MFDs, electronic HSIs, integrated hazard displays and more. Popular options include the Garmin 430 and 530 navigators, the Chelton EFIS system MFD, the Garmin AT MX20, the Avidyne EX500 and EX5000, the Bendix/King KMD 250, 550 and 850 displays, and the Sandel SN3500 electronic HSI, just to name a few. And those options are sure to increase as time goes on, as new, even more powerful and capable displays are introduced into the retrofit market.
Regardless of their aircraft type or budget, the message to pilots is clear. Cockpit weather is here. Come and get it.