Sunday, November 25, 2012


Those Crazy Computers! Part I: Choosing an Astro-puter

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all! Hope you and yours had a great one full of turkey, football, Black Friday madness, and whatever else floats your boat. Me and Miss D? We did did a change-up this time. We've spent many a wonderful Tnxgiving at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans, but decided it was time for something new for 2012. Long and short? Unk had his Thanksgiving dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings. You'll hear all about that week after next. For now, it's them crazy and sometimes maddening computers...

Crazy Computers? Yeah, you know, “astro-puters,” computers used in amateur astronomy. Unk was a young man during the microcomputer revolution, and is more than old enough to remember a time before everybody had a PC on their observing table. I will admit small computers have improved amateur astronomy immeasurably, but that don’t mean I always like ‘em, muchachos.

Despite the fact that computers (specifically Unix computers) are a big part of Unk’s day job with the U.S. Navy, don’t get the idea he necessarily gets along with ‘em all the time. As his colleagues will attest, it is not at all unusual for Unk to start saying real bad words in the direction of a formerly friendly Sun Workstation.

I suspect most of you are about the same. And not just those of y’all with a few gray hairs. Unix and Linux and even Windows and OSX can be confusing for anybody, even when all you want to do is write an email to your Aunt Lulu, and downright infuriating when you are trying to use the dang things to send your telescope on go-tos. So, this morning let’s talk about how to navigate the rocks and shoals of computerized amateur astronomy.

If you’re gonna have a computer at the telescope, you gotta have a computer, right? It’ll probably be a laptop or laptop-like machine since you’ll want to run it on battery power, but that still leaves a lot of choices. Operating system? Traditional laptop or a netbook or ultrabook? How about a tablet? How big a screen? How big a hard drive, if any? How you gonna power the dadgum thing into the wee hours? What kinda software you gonna run on it? We will answer at least the first couple of these questions, “Which operating system?” and “Which computer?” right now, friends.

The starkest choice before you is “Windows or Apple?” There are other OSes, including the aforementioned Linux (like Unix), but astro-ware is pretty paltry once you stray from the big two, so even if you still love and use CP/M for all your other computing needs, you will likely want Windows 7 or Apple’s OSX on the telescope field.

Hokay, which then? I used to be very hesitant about recommending a Macintosh for use with a scope. Not because the Apple’s performance or reliability wasn’t what it oughta be, but because of the lack of astronomy software for the Mac. There were a couple of planetarium programs, mainly Voyager and TheSky, and there was a planning program, Astroplanner, and that was about it. Oh, there was also a CCD/imaging program or three, but imaging is not our subject this time. All we want today is a computer that will send the go-to scope to sky objects.

There didn’t used to be much astro-ware for Mac. That’s changed. Over the last couple of years, the Macintosh has made tremendous strides in astronomy and everything else. The first breakthrough was when Apple changed from the Power PC processor to good old Intel chips, just like in PCs. That meant it was a much simpler proposition to run Windows programs on a Macintosh if necessary.

The biggest change has been in the number of Apples sold over the last decade. Lots of folks are turning to The Other Guys these days, maybe because they’ve got comfortable with Apple after using iPhones and iPods and iPads. There is now a big enough user base to impel developers to write more astronomy software for the Apple Corps.

Almost all (but not all) major astronomy programs are now available in Mac flavor: Cartes du Ciel, Stellarium, TheSky, Starry Night, not to mention that huge iOS hit SkySafari, which has been ported to the Macintosh. This is not only good in that it gives Apple troops a wider choice, but because it makes the transition from Windows to Mac a lot easier for former Win users. You can boot up friendly CdC or Stellarium on your new toy, and, despite a few changes to embrace, begin using your software productively from the get-go.

Despite the pluses of the Mac, there’s little doubt most of us will still choose a Windows machine. Not only because the number of astro-softs available for Win is still by far larger, but because some of y’all are, like your old Uncle, cheap. Yes, comparably equipped Macintoshes and PCs cost about the same, but you can find perfectly useable Windows computers for as little as three hundred dollars, a lot less than what you will shell out for any Mac.

So, you’ll probably get a Windows machine. Which Windows O/S version will you run on it? You’ll probably run Windows 7.  Windows 8 is out, but not too many folks are that impressed, and most of us probably won’t try it until we buy a new machine with 8 installed. Yes, some of the worthies down to the club will advise you to get a copy of Win XP and get rid of 7, but there’s no reason to do that anymore. The only point of using the older O/S in preference to 7 or its predecessor, Vista, used to be that there were problems running older applications under the new OSes.

It was usually not that (fairly recent) software wouldn’t run on Vista and after—I only found one program, Starry Night Pro Plus, that absolutely wouldn’t boot up on Vista (it runs fine on Win 7)—it was drivers. Lots of drivers for various gear had a real hard time with the 64 bit versions of Vista and Win 7, especially. In other words, most of the problems came when you tried to hook up a CCD camera.

Today, the driver conundrum is over, and even when it wasn’t, what we’re trying to do this Sunday, just hook a telescope to the PC and send it to objects, mostly worked fine. Windows 8? Who knows what that will bring, but your (up-to-date) planetarium program will probably work fine with it.

“Up-to-date” is the key to avoiding a lot of grief when changing OSes. Download fixes/updates as your publisher issues them, and always at least consider upgrades to newer editions of the program you’re trying to run, even if you have to shell out some $$$ to do so. A recent version will almost always have a better chance of working under a new operating system than a program that was last updated during the time of Windows fracking 98.

Once you have decided on the operating system of choice that still leaves a huge decision. What sort of Win PC or Mac? The choices are fairly simple with Macintosh. You can get a MacBook Pro, which is a standard sort of laptop with a hard drive, a nice big screen, and other hardware features like you’ll find in Windows laptops. OR you can get a MacBook Air.

The Air is much like the new Windows ultrabooks. It is a very thin and light computer with a screen smaller than that of the Pro and a flash (solid state) disk drive rather than a hard disk. It is really that last that is the sticking point. Do you want and can you live with a solid state drive or not?

The top Air has 256 GB of solid state disk drive (SSDD). The SSDD is good in that it is fast and uses less power than a hard disk drive. It’s bad in that 256 GB ain’t a lot these days. It will probably be enough for astronomy use, but many folks who pay this much for a computer, about 1600 dollars for a top o’ the line Air, want to use it for all their needs. If you’re one of those people, make sure 256 GB is enough space.
In addition to the Air itself, you’ll also need to purchase an external DVD player, since one is not included. If you don’t want to play DVDs or load up software from CDs and DVDs, you could do without one, I guess, but do yourself a favor and get the outboard DVD.  A DVD drive may also come in handy as a place to stash files if the SSDD begins to get cramped.

All told, you will be paying almost four times what Unk paid for his astro-netbook, which has a smaller screen, but has a 256 GB hard (disk) drive. But there is no question the Air is a pretty little thing with a screen large enough to be useful, good battery life for astronomy—as much as seven hours—a speedy processor, and plenty of memory (4gb) for the top Air.

The more normal Mac laptop, the Pro? It’s even higher in price, in the range of the top Win machines. The one I’d choose for astronomy, the mid-range Pro model with a 15.4-inch display and a 500 GB drive, will set you back 1800 simoleons. The most expensive Pro, which sports a 17-inch monitor and a 750gb hard drive? 2500, give or take. Battery life is good on the 15-incher, up to seven hours.

All the Pros are gorgeous and perform very well. B-U-T… At those prices I begin to get nervous about throwing a computer in the back of the truck for a run to Chiefland where I’ll subject it to nightly dew baths on the Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field. Still, yeah, gorgeous, stylish, computer astronomy with élan.

Choices in Win-land are more complicated in that you have oodles of manufacturers and three types of astronomy-suitable machines to choose among. In addition to laptops and the Air-like Windows ultrabooks, there are still plenty of netbooks around. PC pundits and city-slickers keep pronouncing the humble Win 7 netbook dead, but people keep buying them in more numbers than they do the way more trendy tablets—though that seems to be changing, even down here in The Swamp.

What the heck is a netbook? They started out as small laptops, usually with small amounts of solid state memory instead of hard disks, no DVD drives, small screens, a little RAM memory, and slow processors. They were mainly intended, as their name suggests, for browsing the ‘net and emailing and not much else. Twarn’t long, however, before their manufacturers began competing fiercely with each other and upgrading their netbooks to get a leg up, adding more memory, faster 1ghz range processors, and hard drives in the 250 GB range.

I scoffed at netbooks for astronomy when I first saw ‘em. That tiny screen? How in the hell was I gonna do anything with the computer out in the dark if I had to squint at the (typical) 10.1-inch postage stamp size display? And that pokey processor? And no DVD drive. Huh!

But then my much-loved (and powerful) Toshiba Satellite laptop died. I needed a new computer immediately; I had a Chiefland Astronomy Village expedition in the offing. Another Toshiba? Jump ship to Apple? Something else? What if I at least looked at netbooks? The prices sure were right, and one might do till I could figure out what kind of REAL laptop to get.

To make a long story short, I wound up with a cute little red Asus. It, an external DVD drive, and a case set me back all of 500 bucks (and you can do way better than that today). The screen? I found out it was reasonably useable. I’d had to wear reading glasses to decipher the Toshiba’s, too; so what if I had to go up one magnification factor for the Asus?

One thing that had worried me? Screen resolution. As delivered, the resolution on most of netbooks tops out at 1024x600, which means the windows some programs display may be cut off at the bottom. Thankfully, I found most of these machines can be kicked up one notch in resolution, sometimes with a utility program, or, as in my case, sometimes by changing a line or two of code in the Registry. At the higher resolution setting, circles on my Asus’ screen are somewhat egg-shaped, but that ain’t no big deal. No windows or buttons get lopped off.

How about the processor? The Pine Trail CPU ain’t no speed demon, but most astroware don’t need a speed demon. I have not yet found a planetarium that will not run well enough, including that trio of purty ones, Starry Night Pro Plus, Stellarium, and TheSky (6). It’s not the subject for this time, but I have also been able to run imaging software like Nebulosity entirely satisfactorily.

The biggest draw of a Netbook for me? Battery life. I was oh-so-tired of powering my Satellite with a trolling motor (marine) battery. The Toshiba’s internal battery MIGHT get me an hour and a half (the Satellite was made just before the advent of “mobile” processors). Miss Dorothy and I checked the specs of every netbook in BestBuy, and found one that claimed to achieve 11-hours of battery life. It may not go quite that long, but I have never exhausted the Asus’ battery over the course of an “all-nighter” (though I gotta admit that at my age “all nighter” is “till 3 a.m. if’n I can make it”).

The Asus worked fairly well for me for a couple of years, but there was no denying the screen was a little small and low in resolution and the processor was a little on the poky side. It’s now possible to improve on that without going to the size of a standard laptop. Ultrabooks are similar to Apple’s Air: thin, light computers with solid state drives and larger-than-netbook (but smaller than laptop) displays.

Is an ultrabook right for your observing table? I dunno. One might be. There are some models, whose specs are comparable to the eminently useable Air. Some ultras now come with 14-inch class displays and 256 GB SSDDs for prices around 1500 dollars. I’ve not yet seen a Win Ultrabook with a 15-inch screen like the one on the Apple, though. And par for the ultrabook course at the moment is a 13.3-inch display, a 1.7 GHz processor, and 128 GB of solid state drive. These are yours for from a number of brands including Asus and Samsung for as little at 800 greenbacks.

How well will they work for astronomy? Their processors are good enough, no doubt about that. Battery life? 6 – 9 hours, which should be fine for just about any run. Couple of USB ports, sometimes even one USB 3.0. Every ultrabook display I’ve seen has resolution high enough that there are no worries in that regard. Finally, most weigh in at 2 – 3 pounds so they are a joy to tote around. The single caveat? That solid state drive.

Most Win ultrabooks still max out at 128 GB. Is that enough? For astronomy? Probably. Hell, my wonderful Toshiba, which I used up until two years ago, had an 80gb drive. If all you do is load up with astroware, maybe a couple of planetariums, planner, perhaps an imaging soft or two, and otherwise use the computer for a little word processing and net-surfing/emailing, you will be OK. When might you not be OK? If you have a large chip CCD camera and are saving many images, or you have a high-speed/large chip planetary cam and are producing big .avi files.

Even if you are doing mucho imaging and saving large files, an ultrabook with a 128 SSDD might serve. As with the Air, you will need to buy a USB DVD drive for the thing so you can load up software that’s on discs, and that would make it possible to burn image files to a DVD as you go along, freeing up the SSDD. Bit of a pain, but workable, I reckon.

My gut feeling about ultrabooks? WAIT. I expect prices to fall and drive sizes to go up. No, I don’t think they will soon be as inexpensive as netbooks, which are now down in the sub-300 buck territory, but cheaper than they are now, anyway. I also expect most to soon sport 256 GB drives, and at least some to get 14 – 15-inch displays. I don’t think this will take long, and that is a good thing. Given their good battery life, processor power, and larger than netbook displays, I believe ultrabooks will soon be the astro-puter of choice. Plus, they are pretty; some of ‘em are damned near as pretty as a Macbook Air.

Now we come to the traditional astro-puter, the Windows laptop. No real surprises here. They are pretty much like they have been over the last five years: 15 – 17-inch screens, “normal” hard drives, built in DVDs, decent keyboards, couple of USB ports. The change is that you get more of everything for your money now.
Even bypassing the lowest of the low HPs (shudder), you can get an amazingly powerful lappy for few dollars. Like a Toshiba 15-incher with a 500gb hard drive, 4gb of memory, and a 2.3ghz processor for—get this—three-hundred-odd freaking George Washingtons. What’s not to like? Not much. The battery life is a little shorter than that of the ultrabooks at around 5 and-a-half hours, but if you need longer than that a jumpstart battery and a small inverter will run a machine in this class for as long as you’ll want to go (remember, if it's cold at the observing site your battery life will be about halved).

All in all, it’s hard not to say a Windows laptop in this size/price range is the perfect astro-puter. For the less high tech among us—like your old Uncle—anyways. Yes, I loved my Asus netbook, but when I ran across a Toshiba with a 17.3-inch screen for less than 350 clams, I jumped.

Of course, there is always that elusive More Better Gooder when it comes to computers, and there always has been. Some folks will tell you all of these machines, even the Macs, are yesterday’s news and need to be put out on the curb like yesterday’s papers. What you want is a tablet. An iPad or one of them Android thingies.

Do you? Maybe. iPad versus Android is kinda like a replay of the Windows – Mac battles, and it is far from clear which is “better” or which will be better in the long run, anyhow. One thing to consider before choosing either is that both the iOS operating system and Android O/S are still fairly new and not compatible with anything. Capable software, especially capable astronomy software, is just now beginning to appear.

What astro-ware is there? Most of all, there is SkySafari. There are a few other decent softs for iOS and ‘Droid, but SkySafari Pro is the first planetarium for the tablets comparable to what you can get for a PC or Macintosh, sporting 15-million stars and 740,000 deep sky objects. Go-to? For the Apple iOS version it is easy and proven, via either a wi-fi or wired setup. Android? Some ‘Droid phones and tablets can manage wi-fi control of a scope, some can’t.

Would I choose a tablet as my astro-puter? I probably wouldn’t, not yet. I want a couple of apps that either haven’t appeared for ‘em yet, or are just appearing. I need a good planner, and I need a DSLR/CCD imaging program. On the other hand, if all I was interested in was a planetarium for sending my scope on go-tos, I could do very well with an iPad. Believe me, SkySafari running on the latest ‘Pads, even the new Mini, is sweet, real sweet, even sweeter than it is on my iPhone. The iPad is fast and responsive for astronomy and has an incredibly beautiful display.

Caveats? While you should be able to get as much as 10 hours of battery life with the iPad, that and the screen’s performance will be degraded if the iPad is used in temperatures approaching freezing, something the Yanks among us are likely to do. You also have to get used to the thing. You may find the paradigm of holding a tablet and swiping a screen perfectly to your liking. Or you may not. You can get keyboards that work with the iPad and holders that prop it up like a laptop screen…but if you are gonna do that, why not just get a laptop in the first place?

How about an Android? The main inducement for buying one instead of an iPad is price. Most of ‘em are “almost as good” at anything as the iPad, but not quite as good. The main problem, however, is that not all Androids are created equal. As above, some can, for example, set up a wi-fi network to enable you to send your scope on go-tos, but some cannot. Like PCs, they are made in a wide variety of models from a wide variety of manufacturers. SkySafari Pro is now available for Android, and on the right Android machine, is very nice. But it has to be the right Android tablet. Apple is still the safest bet.

So, you’ve got a shiny new astro-puter set up next to your shiny new Meade LX80 (or whatever). What now? How do you get the cotton picking things talking together, much less working together? That, muchachos, is the subject of Part II, which I hope to present to you Real Soon Now.

Next Time:  Unk's Messier Album III

Uncle Rod, I disagree on your analysis of Linux. If you are trying to get the most bang out of your buck, Linux is a great choice.

Right now Best Buy and the other Office Stores are offering $300 laptops for sale. Most of these are running low end AMD or Intel Celeron chips. When you get it home you will find they run like crap.

More specifically Windows is a resource hog. These laptops don't have enough RAM and the CPU are too slow for Windows. What ends up happening when a computer doesn't have enough RAM, is that it writes the info in the least used areas of RAM out to the disk drive. Unfortunatly, disk access is like 1 million times slower thaen RAM. And with the amount of RAM available on these computers it has to write it out and then read it back in continually, bringing the computer to a virtual stop.

But if you took this same laptop, blew Windows away and installed one of the popular Linux Distributions you would find that the performance was more then adequate. I am going to recommend Linux Mint running the Mate Desktop. It's not a fancy desktop, similar in fuctionality to XP then to Windows 7. But it is very usable. It will come with the LibreOffice, a nearly feature identical replacement for Microsoft Office and with Firefox Browser and Thunderbird E-Mail client.

Now for Astro Software, there are several good Planeterium Programs to choose from. Specifically, SkyChart (Cartes Du Ciel), Xephem, Stellarium and KStars. For running Astro-Planning programs the choices are much slimmer, they are virtually non existent. But most Windows apps will run under Linux using the Wine Windows Emulator. The app will be slower to start then Windows, but once running will run faster then if it were still running Windows OS using these cheap laptops.

Unfortunately I haven't tested any of these apps. I took a different route and wrote my own. Basically I load my list from a Excel Spreadsheet into a MySQL Database and from there my app can use it. And even better my app talks to SkyChart, so I choose the object on my program, click on a button and SkyChart displays it. I don't normally use a laptop to control a telescope, but SkyChart is supposed to have that functionality. But again, I haven't tested it. My personal feeling is staring into a laptop sceen (even with a red filter on it) impairs night vision and therefore I prefer to work from a report.
Linux is a great operating system...but. The problem is the software. Yes, there are applications that, for example are "almost" as good as TheSky X or SkyTools 3--or Microsoft Word. I want my choice of the best astro-ware out there, though, and that means OSX or Windows. Windows 7 works terrifically well for me. My cheap laptop runs Starry Night Pro Plus like a dadgum speed demon. Yes, you could use emulators, but why bother if all you want to run is Windows software? I salute you for taking the Linux path, but it is NOT for most of us. ;-)
There are two main subgroups of amatuer astronomers. Those who have money and those who don't. I am one of those who don't. So, I prefer to spend what discretionary money I have on telescopes and eyepieces then on computers and software. I spend about $500 on my computers and then I get a lot of use out of them, often using them for 5 years or more. I wouldn't sell LibreOffice short, it is very very good. I also have multiple good choices for e-mail clients and Web Browsers. If you haven't used a Linux Computer recently, you would be surprised at how good they have become.

I used Linux for a while, but eventually decided there was no reason to continue with it. The software is just not there. :-(
In fact, let me add that I think we should be looking beyond even Windows and OSX now to Android and iOS and similar operating systems, which is what most people will be using at the telescope in five years. Yep. You heard it here first, campers. LOL.
I have an Acer Timeline 4810T which I bought a couple of years ago. It's not the most powerful laptop out there by a long way but it it's light, thin, HAS a DVD built in but will run for about 10 hours on the battery. Buy a spare battery and you can run for a whole day literally.
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