Members' Online Book: Navigation and Marine Electronics, Chapter 14 of 21

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

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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