Esper now has three laptops on board. Three computers for two people on one boat. Bit excessive, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Since we bought the boat in 2005 I have been looking for an all-in-one 12 volt solution to our computing requirements and up until now I’d been struggling to find that holy grail.
Our On-board Computing Requirements
- To run navigation software (inc USB 2 powered GPS)
- To use as our media centre (inc USB 2 powered hard drives)
- To take ashore to download email, blog, upload photos and surf the net
- To avoid strain on the boat’s 12v power supply
Attempted Solution 1: Dell Inspiron 17″
This is the laptop we watch films on. More importantly it’s the one I use for photo editing and web development. Alas, as an onboard computer there are some flaws with this beast: it draws 4amps just to run and 6.5 to charge the battery. Not much use unless it’s used on a sunny day, powered by the solar panels. Also after three years of constant use the screen is going. Part of that wear and tear may be attributed to carting it on and off the boat, stuffing cables, mices, adaptors and power supplies into a waterproof bag when going ashore in the dinghy to track down a hotspot. When piped through the stereo it makes for a great cinema experience but we will need a bank loan to replace it.
With the navigation lights on and occasional radar use that infernal battery monitor would frequently tip 5amps
Attempted Solution 2: Acer Aspire 15″
On paper this was the solution I was after. As a chart plotter it has a decent sized screen and was the cheapest laptop on the market at the time, costing £330. The thinking behind the purchase was that with such a small processor it wouldn’t draw much on 12v, and at £330 if it got trashed it was less of a heartache to replace than the Dell. Unfortunately it wasn’t much use for night sailing. With the navigation lights on and occasional radar use that infernal battery monitor would frequently tip 5amps. I was also watching the monitor like a hawk whilst listening to music through it. With the laptop and car stereo running we were still drawing over 3.5amps, thoroughly spoiling our sundowners at anchor. Finally, with me spending so much time on the Dell, Liz was getting a little frustrated at not being able to check her email and so the Acer has since become ‘her’ laptop.
After two laptops and four years of cruising I still wasn’t satisfied with our computing solution. Our main problem is that as soon as the sun goes down we lose our source of power. Be it a night sail or an evening of entertainment at anchor, some kind of 12v power is required and the house batteries were taking a hammering to run either laptop. I need the Dell for it’s processing capabilities but we needed something that solved the power issue whilst being inexpensive. Up until now there just wasn’t anything on the market. Fortunately…
Considerations: The Netbook
…in the last year we’ve seen the growth of the netbook, defined by Wikipedia as “light, compact, highly portable, inexpensive, and energy efficient laptops”. Perhaps the most well known is the Asus Eee PC, which uses solid-state technology. This means it has no moving parts. The hard drive is a chip, a bit like a built-in USB memory stick. No moving parts on a rocking boat? Ideal! It could be the solution you are looking for if you just want it to run PC-based navigation software as the Eee PC’s compact and inexpensive benefits make it a serious contender. We know yotties who have gone for this netbook and are very happy with it. However there are two drawbacks to the original model that bothered me: the screen was only 8 inches and the hard drive was only 20Gb. There are larger screen versions now but this pushes the price up, outside of my price range (£300). After installing the operating system and necessary patches/updates there’d be little room left for the charting software. As for email and photo management, the hard drive would struggle to offer a scalable solution, whilst the rather cramped keyboard could bring on some serious RSI. I needed a bit more flexibility and a workable screen size.
Considerations: How Much To Spend?
I do believe that when buying a computer for on-board use one shouldn’t spend too much. I’ve heard of yotties spending over £1,200 on a laptop, just because it is ‘robust’ or has a fur-lined four-wheel drive double suspension hard drive. Waste of time, mate. Your laptop is likely to be the most delicate bit of kit on board your boat and it will get trashed. Also it will date quite quickly. It doesn’t take a degree in maths to work out who benefits from spending £300 on a cheap laptop versus £1,200 on a top-end one, despite the fact both will yield no more than five years service, tops. Mind you, what do I know? I’m the sucker who bought three laptops in the last few years! Despite that I think I’ve found my saviour…
Enter the Samsung NC10
I’d done my research and I’d read a lot of reviews on netbooks. The one that kept coming out on top of the pile in reviews, receiving 5/5 in customer feedback across the Internet, was the Samsung NC10. You’ll rarely read a bad word about this netbook and, convinced it was the right solution, I purchased one from Amazon for £308, got it delivered next day and had it up and running out of the box. This is a great bit of kit and I can understand why some of the reviews said things like ‘bought one for my wife and was so impressed I bought myself one too’, or ‘I bought one as back-up but actually use it more than my normal laptop’. With a full-sized keyboard it’s a synch to use and even with the standard 1Gb memory it performs all the basic day to day tasks with ease. What surprised me most, however, was how ‘big’ a 10” screen is. My father, aged 65, had no problems scrolling through and reading a Word document. I mention this point because I appreciate many yotties are of retirement age and may be suspicious of using a laptop with such a small screen. Think, if you are happy with your 7” chart plotter then this is no problem to work with.
- Bench tests have recorded over 7 hours battery life. Expect at least 6.
- Keyboard that’s almost full size (93% of a full-sized one, to be precise)
- 160Gb hard drive
- Three USB 2 ports, VGA output and SD memory card input
- Bluetooth (great for wireless mouse, gps)
- Installed speaker and camera – actually works well for Skyping, without the echos
- Complete mobility!
- No DVD/CD drive – it’s too small for that!
- Small touchpad, which I tend to avoid using at the best of times
- If you like to look hip with a slick-looking laptop you’ll be disappointed by the NC10’s pedestrian design
- Not spec’d for high-end computer games (I tried and it was like watching a film in slow-mo)
On a whim I also purchased a Logitech bluetooth mouse. With the NC10’s annoyingly small touchpad this is a real boon. When I use my laptop for navigation I frequently stand against the chart table with my arm down my side, using the mouse’s optical laser on my thigh. Try it, it’s very comfortable. The other thing I bought was 2Gb of memory for £15, to replace the 1Gb installed on the machine. I have just done a cursory edit of a large photograph in Photoshop CS3 and it didn’t trip up. In fact exporting the full-sized image (4000x3000px) at 100% didn’t take much longer than the Dell.
I’ve yet to install charting software or run a USB GPS, so we’ll call this a preliminary review. When I return to the boat in March I may follow up this review with a further report, but only if I encounter any problems. I don’t expect I will though – Samsung has created a killer bit of kit here and I’ve found it difficult to tear myself away since purchasing it. I can see myself saying ‘au revoir’ to the Dell.
As if to prove the point you should know I’m lying here in bed writing this article with the netbook propped up on my chest. After I’ve published this article I will watch a film. Then I might check my email, all whilst listening to some music. After I put the NC10 to sleep I will wake up tomorrow and continue on the remaining three hours of battery life. Capiche?
The NC10 may not be a complete solution to everything you throw at it, specifically if more than one of you wants to watch a film. I guess we still have the Dell to fall back on for that. However it’s going to see us through a night sail without breaking the boat’s batteries, is now my office for email, photos and blogging, and it’s a great little interface for our media centre. Also I look forward to simply slipping the NC10 under my arm and hopping ashore, rather than taking half an hour to pack and load into the dinghy all the gubbins required for a bigger laptop. This year I might just be sailing into geek heaven.
Further reading, where to buy and full technical specifications: