This spring we decided to replace our aging primary navigation computer, a Dell Vostro 1310 laptop that had served us well for some 7 years.
The Dell still worked, but toward the end of last season it started to get flaky on boot up, never a good sign, so clearly it was time for replacement.
In addition, the Dell was no longer upgradable and therefore stuck at Windows 7, and one thing I have learned over four decades in the high tech world, is that running mission-critical applications on obsolete hardware and operating systems is a sure route to tears, particularly since the latest version of Maxsea TimeZero (our preferred navigation software) is designed and optimized for Windows 10.
So the hunt was on for a computer that would:
- Run Windows 10. (Although we are total Mac fans for all other functions, we still prefer Windows for our navigation computer because there are more navigation software options available.)
- Have a powerful enough CPU and graphics processor to run TimeZero with absolutely no hesitation, since I'm convinced that being able to zoom and scroll instantly is a vital criteria for safe electronic navigation.
- Have a solid state drive (SSD). Yeah I know, some people express reservations about the reliability of SSDs, but I have been using them for some eight years without a failure. And further, in a previous life, I actually fixed early flying head mechanical disk drives—when you know what I know about how they work you don't want any part of one on a boat that's crashing around.
- Be as small as possible, since it resides at the chart table, which is also my office and already crowded enough.
- Have a reasonably good built in screen since we often plan passages at the chart table. (Our actual navigation is done on deck using a daylight readable second screen.) This requirement meant that a laptop made the most sense, although I did look briefly at black box computers like this.
- Be as power efficient as possible.
I didn't bother looking at ruggedized computers since they tend to be much more expensive and in over 30 years of having computers on boats I have never had a failure caused by the marine environment.
Also, we prefer to put the additional money that a ruggedized computer would cost into buying and maintaining a fully functioning spare (kept in a waterproof pelican case) that can be swapped out in minutes if the primary fails.
So Many Options
As I looked at all the usual suspects (Dell, Acer, Lenova, etc), it quickly became apparent that since I last bought a Windows laptop their product lines had split into three distinct laptop types:
- Very small consumer machines without the power to run TimeZero properly.
- Large consumer machines (15" screens and larger) with lots of computer and graphics power, optimized for gaming.
- Business focused laptops of the size we were looking for (13" screen or less) but expensive when configured with our required memory, graphics capability and SSD.
When I visited a store and took a look at some of these laptops it became immediately obvious that the intense price competition in the non-business Windows laptop world has resulted in a big reduction in build quality in the first two categories, and, as I have written many times, I’m not a believer in letting price drive my decisions when buying mission-critical hardware.
Refine The Search
Therefore I zeroed in on the laptops aimed at the business market. As I compared machines from different manufacturers with the graphics and CPU power required, as well as SSD and plenty of memory, the price climbed to at least US$1000, and on up to US$1500.
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