Free In-Cockpit iPad Weather: We Fly Stratus

Flying is first to fly and report on this ADS-B receiver.

Stratus

Stratus

** The new Stratus ADS-B free-weather receiver**

When Appareo, Sporty's and ForeFlight launched Stratus, an all-new free-weather ADS-B receiver for the iPad at Sun 'n Fun, we couldn't wait to review it.

As it turned out, we didn't have long to wait. Yesterday, I flew Stratus with ForeFlight co-founder Tyson Weihs to evaluate the unit so we could answer the question we've been hearing from our readers since the day Stratus was announced: "Should I buy it?" At $799, Stratus is not a small investment, but if it works as advertised, it would pay for itself in around a year and a half, not to mention the obvious safety benefits of having weather in the cockpit.

Tyson and I scheduled to fly on Wednesday out of my home airport, Austin Executive, and a couple of days before the flight, it was looking like a dicey call because of the weather. Not because the weather was threatening to be bad but because it was threatening to be too good.

Luckily, when Wednesday dawned there were already storms brewing up north of Dallas, so we launched in that direction to see how ADS-B weather stacked up against XM, the gold standard but one that requires a subscription. ADS-B weather is free.

As we reported previously, Stratus is a lightweight, low-profile, battery powered ADS-B/GPS receiver that connects to the iPad completely wirelessly and provides extremely accurate GPS position in addition to ADS-B weather.

Stratus' battery will power the unit for up to eight hours, says Sporty's, and our flight bore that out. We flew from Austin Executive to Stephenville just southwest of Dallas, which took around an hour, and accidentally left the unit on while we headed to the Hard 8 for lunch. When we came back, the unit still had plenty of juice for our return flight.

ADS-B is a ground-station-based system, so how good your reception is depends on how high you are, where the nearest ground station is, and whether there are obstacles between you and the station. We began getting reception as soon as we got away from the FBO building and got in the airplane. You can add an external antenna to the unit (around $50), but we didn’t use one and got great reception the entire time we were flying, at 7,500 on the way to KSEP and at 4,500 on the way back to Austin. If you’re scud running, ADS-B will be spotty. If you’re over 1,000 feet AGL in the flatlands in most places, you’re likely to get good reception. At typical cruising altitudes, reception will be great.

There are several types of ground stations that transmit different kinds of weather products, but the end user doesn’t need to know that. You just connect the iPad to the receiver wirelessly (the iPad recognizes Stratus as a Wi-Fi hot spot; connecting the first time is nearly automatic; after that, it is automatic) and away you go.

As I said, Stratus gives you ADS-B weather, which offers a surprisingly wide range of products. Of course, NexRad is the app everybody wants, and ADS-B radar is pretty good. It’s certainly not as good as XM’s radar, in part because bandwidth for ADS-B is limited compared to XM. So you get your weather products parceled out. And because you only get weather within a certain distance of an ADS-B station, you don’t get the entire nation in hi-res. That said, there are some stations that give you the national picture, though in a lower, blockier resolution. It’s still very useful, especially compared to having no radar.

There are also graphical metars, textual weather, winds aloft, airmets and sigmets, TFRs, Pireps and TAFs.

The beauty of ADS-B weather is only achieved thanks to ForeFlight's brilliant integration of it on its ForeFlight Mobile iPad app. Click here to check out a gallery with a number of shots of the kinds of weather products you get with Stratus and how ForeFlight integrates them into the app. One example: ForeFlight Mobile populates the weather tabs on the airport pages using ADS-B weather, and it's all transparent to the end user, just as it should be.

Stratus is not only a terrific product, but it’s one for which I’d give a very strong “buy” recommendation to our readers. (You can order it directly from Sporty’s.) There are other ADS-B solutions out there, but they’re more expensive and less elegant. Moreover, ForeFlight’s integration of ADS-B weather seals the deal. And while we love the iPad solution for XM weather — XM’s weather products are superior to ADS-B’s — Baron Services solution to the receiver, antenna and hot spot require a lot of wires, and XM, as I said, requires a subscription.