WSI Datalink: XM Still Wins on Value

Although we like WSIs unique data, its pricing is too complex. XM-based data from WxWorx is readily available on more portable platforms than WSI.

Afew years ago-summer 2002 to be exact-there wasnt a company better poised to offer reliable satellite weather delivery to the cockpit than Boston-based Weather Services International (WSI). WSI serves many markets with professional, sophisticated weather products and they are the sold provider of data to The Weather Channel, most of the major airlines, utility companies and marine markets, to name a few. In our view, WSIs boast of trusted on the ground and in the air is accurate advertising. WSI was the first to offer a reliable, satellite-derived alternative to the sluggish ORBCOMM systems pioneered by EchoFlight and eventually adopted by Garmin and Avidyne. As the ORBCOMM technology has faded, WSI is now left to slug it out with XM Radio-based WxWorx.

Frankly, although WSIs products and services are terrifically well-rounded, XM-based data is proving overwhelmingly popular because like PC clones of the 1980s, everyone is selling some form of it. WSI has its work cut out for it.

No Nonsense Hardware
Designing hardware for seamless retrofit into a variety of aircraft isn’t easy, especially when a company tries to tap a fresh market in which failed upstarts have muddied the water. Remember the Merlin datalink system? It looked like a winner but never made it into production, tantalizing what turned out to be a nave market. When WSI appeared, it initially got a chilly reception but the system proved itself quickly.

The geosynchronous satellite-delivered product was first tested as a portable system called the AV100, an easy test bed because with portable prototypes, certification hoops are non-existent. The AV100 remains available as an uncertified system, making it fair game for portable hook-up to a variety of EFBs, the iPAQ line of PDAs or for hardwire installation in experimental aircraft, where TSO issues arent a worry.

WSI got a big boost when UPSAT-prior to the days when Garmin bought it and renamed it Garmin AT-worked out an interface for the MX20 MFD, a strong seller then and now. This begat the certified and hard mounted AV200, an easy-to-work-with package sporting a slim 1.38 x 5.42 x 9.27 inch, 1.5 pound remote receiver made by Sandia Aerospace and a trim, and low-profile GPS antenna made by Comant. It was and still is a great alternative to the problematical fiberglass whip antenna used for ORBCOMM installs and the VHF antenna used with the Bendix/King ground-based datalink system.

The receiver talks with the various display interfaces through RS232. Worth noting here is that current XM receivers play we’ll with ARINC busses and for state-of-the art panel displays, we don’t see why you wouldnt choose ARINC unless there’s no other choice. Still, RS232 works, even if it limits growth potential, in our view.

WSI systems that we have used in everything from single-engine Cessnas and Pipers to high-flying turboprops perform flawlessly, with signal trouble never an issue if the installation is done correctly.

When the system was fresh out of production, FSDOs seemed surprisingly warm to WSI. We credit the FAAs liberal signing of early Field Approvals (among the first of their kind) to the effort made by WSIs engineers, who visited with FSDOs to explain the product in depth so the feds knew what they were signing when the installing shops showed up for an approval signature.Buyers rarely realize how much background effort goes into such approvals.

The WSI interface list has grown since it was initially introduced and WSI continues to expand the displays it will work with. These include the Garmin MX20, the L-3 Avionics i-Link MFD, the Chelton EFIS and Garmins GNS500 and GNS400 series with the AV200-5 receiver variant. Recall how Garmin was caught by surprise last summer when WSI suddenly announced it could deliver fast, reliable data to the GNS430/530 navigators. Garmins own GDL69 XM-based datalink had been announced but was slow out of blocks and is just now becoming available.

No partnership between WSI and Garmin exists and shops and customers were-and are-on their own when investing in the WSI/Garmin interface. WSI does, of course, support it, but there’s still worry about the interface being a dead end as Garmin revs up on its the long-awaited GDL69.

Although Garmin doesnt actively support the WSI interface, it doesnt make things difficult for customers who buy it, either. Whats unknown is this: What happens when owners upgrade their 430/530 boxes to WAAS? Will WSI again engineer a backdoor fix to make the AV200-5 play correctly? Or will Garmin insert a poison pill buried in the code somewhere to render the WSI receiver deaf and dumb? Frankly, we doubt the latter, given Garmins customer-centric smarts. But in truth, we just don’t know.

For the time being, if you have any of the displays the WSI will talk to, the AV100 or AV200 are serious contenders. We have found that the receiver is quick and easy to install, the software is stable and the set-ups are rarely troublesome, regardless of the display. In short, this is a well-designed, reliable datalink system.

But-and there’s always a but-buyers are increasingly examining Garmins XM-based GDL69 as an attractive alternative because its we’ll supported by a single manufacturer of both display and data receiver and there’s no doubt about datalink performance with a WAAS-upgraded Garmin navigator.

So, although the hardware is equal, it really isn’t because of the WAAS unknown. Then why buy WSI over an XM-based system? WSI argues that its weather products offer greater variety, better aviation focus and a nicer radar picture than that provided by WxWorx. For example, it provides NEXRAD imagery down to 2 KM resolution, which makes for a stunningly crisp weather presentation. (Because of limitations in the GNS430/530 display resolution, this fine-point detail is lost at lower scales, where the picture is blocky and ill-defined. But the WSI weather products shine on true MFDs, such as the MX20 or the higher quality EFBs.

On the other hand, although you get more from WSI than from WxWorx, you also pay more, depending on the data service you select. As noted in the sidebarat right, WSIs rate structure is more complicated than WxWorxs and making a value determination requires a sharp pencil. Bottom line: For typical GA use in small aircraft, we don’t think WSIs weather products are worth tilting the buying decision one way or another. Theyre better, yes, but not that much better. We think hardware should drive the decision.

Honestly, were not sure how WSIs future in cockpit weather will play out. They make a terrific product with good datalink services. But XM-based choices appear to us be like a gathering tsunami. Sure, WSI is clearly more experienced than anyone in delivering quality weather to many markets, aviation included, but XM/WxWorx offers functionally similar choices and, more important, the XM solutions are widely supported by third-party vendors packaging receivers and portable displays while WSI is not.

What should you buy? First, the portable market. If youre flying a high-dollar piston airplane with a big cabin and you like the EFB concept, we think WSI is the best choice. The hardware is designed to support EFBs and the weather display will be eye-popping on a high-end EFB. Weve heard from a handful of owners who have this set-up and they rave about it.

For budget portable weather, XM offerings beat WSI hands down, in our view. The portable receiver is less expensive, easier to install and the display options are broader. (See the May 2005 issue of Aviation Consumer for a complete review.)

If you own a GNS430/530, WSI is clearly an option right now. However, if WAAS is on your horizon, we don’t think WSI is a wise first choice until future interoperability is set in stone. Weve seen too many boxes orphaned to bet the farm on this.

At $5690 for the AV200-5 for the GNS interface and $4995 for the AV200 playing on true MFDs, the WSI system is on target and in line with XM hardware pricing. But WSI hardware doesnt offer the flexibility for playing the 130-plus channels of entertainment that the $5775 GDL69A dual audio/data offers, if thats a consideration.

Our view is that as good as the WSI system is-and its very good-the XM-based options through Garmin, WxWorx, et al, are simply better values, with more display flexibility and a future were more confident of. XM/WxWorx remains our top choice.

Contact – WSI, 800-872-2359,

Also With This Article
“WSI Hardware Choices”
“Prices and Products: Why WxWorx Enjoys Value Edge”

-Larry Anglisano is Aviation Consumers avionics editor. He works at Exxel Avionics in Hartford, Connecticut.