The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

The Best Windows Computer For Navigation

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.

Specification

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.

Not Ruggedized

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.

Quality…Or Not

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.

My Choice

 

And then it struck me, if we were going to spend that kind of money on a new navigation computer, there was another option: a 13” Macintosh Macbook Air for US$1200.

But wait, I hear you say, you said that you wanted a Windows computer.

And you’re right, we did, and do…and the Macbook Air is simply the best Windows computer available for our specification.

Macs Running Windows…Like a Duck

A quick explanation for those of you who are not familiar: For the last few years Macs have used the same processors as Windows computers, and Apple has long supported a utility called Boot Camp that allows a Mac to run Windows native (not emulation). And when so doing, the computer walks like a Windows machine and quacks like a Windows machine…it’s a Windows machine.

Wait, it gets better. Boot Camp even allows you to have both Windows and the Mac Operating System (Mac OS) on the same machine and lets you choose which to run at boot time.

Not Virtual

By the way, there are also two apps that allow us Mac freaks to run Windows in a window under the Mac operating system. But, these virtual machine type applications add a level of complication, as well as overhead; and while they work extremely well, I prefer to keep things simple when dealing with a navigation computer. Also, Maxsea specifically advises against running TimeZero under a virtual machine. So Boot Camp it is.

Advantages

Let’s look at the the advantages of buying what is, at least in my opinion, the best Windows navigation computer available.

Performance

The Air runs TimeZero lightning fast with absolutely no zoom or scroll delays.

By the way, don’t be fooled into thinking the Air is slow by doing a simple CPU, graphics, processor, and memory comparison between the Air and other potential contenders. Sure there are laptops at the same price that will have better specifications, but in my experience Apple always adds a special sauce of design optimization that enables their machines to outperform others that may appear more powerful on paper.

Anyway, regardless of that, the Air runs TimeZero with zero hesitation, and that’s all that matters.

Clean Windows

Most Windows computer manufacturers add a whole layer of crap…err, programs…over top of the copy of Windows they preinstall. Most of this stuff is designed to try and make their computer look different from the others and/or sell you more stuff, rather than to do anything useful. Much of it is buggy and a lot of it runs in the background adversely affecting performance.

On the other hand, when we set up a Mac to run Windows on Boot Camp, we install a clean version of Windows downloaded directly from Microsoft—no crap.

This is a much bigger benefit than it might at first appear. Do you want some pop-up trying to sell you computer accessories coming up just as you are entering a tricky anchorage? Or worse still, some poorly-designed background program that crashes the whole computer at the worst possible moment?

Yes, you can clean all this stuff off, but it’s not easy—it took me an age to find and uninstall all of this junk on our old Dell.

Quality

This is a hard one to define, but there is no question in my mind that Apple products are, as a rule (yes I know there are exceptions), better designed and built and therefore more reliable than those from other manufacturers.

And this stands to reason since Apple have product differentiation going for them and so don’t need to compete as aggressively on price.

In addition, the same differentiation allows Apple longer product cycles, which in turn lets them concentrate on getting the design and manufacturing right in the first place. (Just look at the marine electronics industry to see the havoc that short product cycles and the pressure to constantly bring out something new wreaks.)

By the way, if you are still sceptical about Apple quality, go to a generic computer store and handle a few laptops, particularly the ones aimed at the consumer market, and then immediately walk into an Apple Store and play with an Air…see what I mean?:

  • The all-metal case.
  • The tight tolerances with everything fitting perfectly.
  • The touch pad that just works…yes, under Windows too.
  • The screen quality.

And let’s face it, Macs are just plain sexier.

Free Mac

And by buying an Air for navigation you get a free Mac…duh. Of course, if you are a Windows person you may not care, but for us it’s great.

By the way, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Windows person, but decide to buy an Air, do try out the Mac OS. If you come at it with an open mind, you may be pleasantly surprised by how much easier to use a Mac is, even now that the admittedly-much-better-in-this-regard Windows 10 is out…cue the maniacal laugh of the long-term Mac pusher.

Navigation Only

In addition, because the two operating systems are completely separate and only one is running at a given time, the other programs that we run on the computer under Mac OS can not possibly interfere or crash the navigation system.

This is in keeping with our thinking that navigation computers should be kept totally clean with no software installed that is not absolutely required to execute their primary function.

Size

As far as I know, no one can pack as much performance and pure elegance into a given size as Apple can, and on a boat that counts for a lot.

Power Miser

While I have not done an in-depth comparison of power usage, Apple have long been leaders in wringing maximum performance out of minimum watts. This is not just guesswork, since we are often running as many as three Macbooks (two Pros and an Air) on the boat doing AAC work, and the reduction in amp hours used over a day after we switched back from Windows machines was substantial.

Disadvantages

Of course, nothing is perfect, not even Apple, and there are disadvantages to selecting an Air to run Windows.

Software Installation

The flip side of a clean Windows install is that we must do it ourselves. This is reasonably complex with quite a few steps. On the bright side, Apple has good documentation on the process and in addition you can call their support line, which is several cuts above that of most manufacturers, for help.

Software Cost

Windows computers come with…Windows (another duh) but for a Mac we need to buy a Windows licence from Microsoft. (Windows 10 Home at US$119 works fine.)

That said, Microsoft upgraded us for free to Windows 10 when I entered a licence number for an old Dell computer we no longer use, so it might not cost you anything.

No Hardware Upgrades

This may come as a surprise to many of you from the Windows world, but Macs can not have things like SSD or memory storage upgraded after purchase. What you buy is what you get…forever. (This is one of the ways Apple makes their computers smaller, and probably more reliable, too) so make sure you get a powerful enough machine from the get go.

Ours is:

  • 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor,
  • Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz,
  • 8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3 memory,
  • 256GB SSD storage,
  • Intel HD Graphics 6000;

Runs fine with plenty of space for navigation and the Mac OS.

I made the Boot Camp Windows partition 120 GB and that seems to work well. I also strongly recommend the WinClone utility to make a backup of the Windows partition, which the standard Apple backup utilities like Time Machine don’t. WinClone can also be used to change the Boot Camp partition size.

Port Challenged

Another way that Apple makes their machines small is by limiting the number of ports. On the Air there are two USB and one Thunderbolt.

That said, this is a trend right across the laptop market, so unless you buy some physically huge laptop it’s unlikely that it will have enough ports to use for a fully tricked-out navigation computer anyway.

We use the ports as follows:

  • Thunderbolt port with an adapter connected to our external daylight readable monitor on deck.
  • First USB port to a SeaLevel 4-port USB to serial box that has our GPS, AIS and Weatherfax inputs.
  • Second USB port to a 12-volt USB 4-port expander—we have a model that’s not made anymore, so if buying today I would get one like this—that connects to our deck mouse and keyboard, and chart table mouse.

We bought both of these boxes years ago for use with the old Dell, but they work fine with the Air.

Of course, we could use Bluetooth or WiFi for much of this stuff, but given that this is a mission-critical system, we prefer to connect with good old wires.

Backup

As I said above, I’m a great believer in having a hot spare navigation computer ready to go in case the primary bites the big one, so I installed Boot Camp and TimeZero, as well as all of our charts, on one of our two Macbook Pros that we use to run Attainable Adventure Cruising, thereby getting, in effect, a free spare.

Obviously, if you are not a Mac user, this is not an option open to you and you will be faced with buying two Airs, but then if you are really going to have a hot spare, that will be the case no matter what computer you select.

The advantage of going the Mac route for the backup computer is that the programs we use day to day under Mac OS are firewalled off from the navigation programs running under Windows.

(While on the subject of backup, we also have an iPad in a waterproof case, and paper charts for most, but not all, of the places we cruise.)

Summary

Obviously, I did not look at every single laptop on the market that runs Windows 10 before settling on a Macintosh Air—I do have a life. And there is no question that I’m a Mac groupie who has drunk deeply from Steve Jobs’ jug of Koolaid—heck, I was an Apple dealer back in the day.

That said, I used Windows computers (UNIX too) exclusively and extensively for 15 years, so I have experienced both sides of the coin.

Based on that, I think that the Macintosh Air should be on everyone’s option list when shopping for a navigation computer to run Windows, since it delivers the best package of benefits for the price, and setting it up is well within the capabilities of most of us yachties; yes, even those who don’t have my technical background.

Come at the decision with an open and analytical mind and the Air may just surprise you.

And even if you don’t settle on an Air, I hope that the selection criteria I used will be useful to you in your quest to find a computer to run navigation software.

Further Reading

Comments

Selecting a computer to run navigation software is complex subject with a million details to parse. And the above is by no means intended to be the last word. So what computer do you use for navigation and what was your reasoning when selecting it? Please leave a comment.

One more thing, if you want to argue about the relative benefits of Macs and Windows, please take it some place else, since it’s really not relevant to this article and said debate always provokes high levels of emotion.

Disclosure

We paid the same price for our Macintosh computers and Time Zero as anyone else would and have no special relationship with Apple or Maxsea.

 
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