Laptops To Keep Your Program Running

Onboard laptops keep your race program running smooth; we've got the three best notebooks for the task. A "Tech Review" from our December 2008 issue

Sony Vaio 368

Courtesy Of The Manufacturer

If you've been thinking about ramping up your racing program with an onboard laptop, now's the time. The pricing, features, and capabilities of today's laptops are perfectly suited for smaller boats, and their usefulness to a race program is indisputable: navigation, tactics, crew management, sail and equipment inventory control, e-mail, and weather forecasts can all be managed via a laptop, which can help your program run smoothly both on and off the water.

No matter what you'll use your new laptop for, there are basic requirements for onboard use. First is processor speed, the minimum is 1.5GHz; anything slower and you'll notice the computer bog down when running multiple programs. Next is memory. You should have at least 2 GB of RAM, which is the very minimum for Windows Vista to run at an acceptable speed. If the computer you're interested in comes with less, don't buy more from the manufacturer because you can buy it from any number of online sources for much less, and install it yourself. Hard drives keep increasing in capacity, and there's a reason: operating systems such as Windows Vista use huge amounts of storage space, as will any charts you load, and any pictures or video. You want a hard drive that's at least 160 GB-get a larger one if you can afford it. The space won't go to waste.
While it may be tempting to go for the largest display available, remember that more power is required for such displays, and the laptop will be larger, thus heavier to tote around. A 13-inch screen is fine, and a 15-inch screen should be the largest you consider. Our preferred laptops are available with anti-glare or daylight-visible screens, which are essential, even if the laptop is mounted belowdecks.

WiFi capability is a must, especially as most marinas and yacht clubs now offer such services. There's nothing better than getting a last-minute forecast before you leave the dock. For extended range, consider a wireless network card, available from most cell-phone networks. Bluetooth, which is sometimes optional, is a must as well, as it will allow your laptop to sync with your cell phone, or even use a Bluetooth-capable GPS receiver for navigation, a great way to reduce wiring woes.

Speaking of wiring, a proper laptop will need plenty of USB ports. Wind and other data instruments can be ported directly into the laptop to provide information to the navigation or tactical software, as can information from XM and Sirius satellite radio and weather, and Internet access via satellite telephones. If the laptop is short on USB ports, a USB hub is an easy way to add more.

An external keyboard and a mouse are useful for a couple of reasons: you can keep your laptop tucked away safely, especially if you get a wireless keyboard and mouse, and using a trackpad and a laptop keyboard for long periods of time, as when navigating or route planning, can cause strain on your wrists, hands, and shoulders.

If your nav station is prone to an occasional dousing, and you intend to keep the laptop on the table, it's worth considering a "ruggedized" unit, such as the Panasonic Toughbook, but if it's relatively dry, save some money (ruggedized equals expensive), and take a look at a basic, sub-$1,000 laptop such as the Sony Vaio NR series, which offers everything you'll need at an affordable price.

If you're an Apple user, there's some great navigation software available for the latest Macs, and Apple's latest operating system, OS X, running on an Intel chip-equipped Mac, can run Windows software for those programs which require it, such as Expedition and Deckman for Windows tactical software.

Sony Vaio NR (shown above)
The Sony Vaio NR series is the lowest-price laptop the company has ever produced, but that doesn't mean it's lacking in features or performance. It comes with two 512 MB RAM chips, which should be immediately plucked out and replaced with two 1 GB chips, which we did at a cost of $30, and took all of two minutes and a small Phillips-head screwdriver. In addition to four USB ports, which are conveniently mounted on either side of the laptop, the Vaio also comes with one FireWire 400 port, one MemoryStick Pro reader, and one SD card reader, all of which allow you to download images and data from cameras and memory cards without using valuable USB ports. The dual core processors that come with the VAIO NR series provide more than enough performance for an average user, especially with the 2 GB of RAM. Sony claims battery life of the standard six-cell battery at 2.5 to 4.5 hours depending on how you use the notebook. We've seen about 3 hours using the notebook at half screen brightness, wireless on, and running a mixture of navigation software, web browsing and idling. You can get the optional large-capacity battery for an advertised 4 to 7.5 hours of usage time unplugged, but the larger battery adds about one-quarter pound to the notebook. The Vaio is able to handle everything we've asked of it, and is a heck of a deal at $799.

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Panasonic Toughbook 30
The name says it all. This is a combat-ready notebook built to survive just about anything, including spills, falls, and other tragedies that would kill less durable laptops. The Toughbook is heavy, weighing in at 8.4 pounds, despite its magnesium-alloy case, but with its shock-mounted hard drive and plastic bumpers at all corners and sides, the Toughbook is perfect for a small-boat environment. At 80 GB, the standard hard drive is small, but an optional 120 GB drive is available, and they're both easily removed, unlike either of the other laptops we recommend. The daylight-visible screen is a plus, as you'll be able to use this laptop on deck. There are only three USB ports. The rear panel, which is covered, like all the ports on this laptop, houses two USB ports, a port replicator, a VGA port, and audio-out jacks. Those still using RS-232 data input hardware (as older instrument systems and GPS units still use) will delight in the fact that there is also an RS-232 port in the back, also protected by a cover. The Toughbook notebook is not waterproof, but damp proof-it successfully resists moisture, such as rain and spray, but you shouldn't drop it in the water. The battery is designed for what Panasonic calls industrial applications, and lasts an amazing 8 to 9 hours.

Apple MacBook Pro
Although the 15-inch MacBook Pro is the base model of the Pro series, it's anything but base when it comes to features. This latest Mac is the height of Apple technology; fast, powerful, and loaded with features: 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB memory, 200 GB hard drive, 8X slot-loading Superdrive, Firewire 400, Firewire 800, and two USB ports, and integrated wireless, Ethernet and Bluetooth, and all those features are standard. The trackpad works with multitouch gestures. Navigators can use a thumb and forefinger to zoom in and out of charts-much like on the iPhone).

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With only two USB ports, a wireless keyboard and mouse would be good investment so as to keep the two USB ports available for input from other devices. The software that allows you to run Windows applications is included with the MacBook's program suite. The Pro is available with a glossy screen, perfect for office and home use, but you should swap that for the antiglare screen, which can be ordered at no extra charge. Another huge plus is the backlit keyboard, which is very useful for nighttime navigation.

Reviewers have given the battery life a thumbs up, averaging about 5 hours between charges, but your performance may vary. Finally, unlike the other two laptops we review, the MacBook uses a slot-drive DVD/CD, which saves on space, and cuts down on moving parts. For Apple-native navigation software, check out MacEnc, www.macenc.com