Monday, March 11, 2013

Budget laptop with Solid State Hard Drive

I belong to a Yahoo group called "LowCostVoyaging" which is inspired by Annie Hill and her famous book "Voyaging On A Small Income".    After Joining I found that a "small income" was rather a subjective figure.  There are some who would consider $2,000 a month to be a small income, but to me that is a lot of moola.

I am a subsistence sailor.. fitted out with recycled and sometimes cast off materials in a patched up factory boat that is more than 35 years old.  I started out cruising in a home built sharpie with no gadgets to speak of but this year I finally bought GPS and electronic charts for a laptop.

There are laptops packaged in cases to resist water and the elements but they cost a bunch.  I went looking on eBay and bought 2 identical laptops to use aboard.  They are ancient (2000) Gateway 9500 Pro laptops which have spent their life in somebody's closet.  1.2GHZ CPU,  Max of 512MB RAM  15 inch flat screen, USB and the battery outputs 12volts which allows me to bypass and power it right off the boat 12v electrical.  These are predecessor to the Acer Laptops.

The High end laptopsdesigned to be used in moving situations have a solid state hard drive.. like a massive memory card.. I looked for the drives and boy they are costly too.  Well I am saved by eBay again!

There is a small adapter that will allow one to use CF Memory as a laptop IDE hard drive.  CF has faster access time than SDHC chips and is available in up to 64 Gigabytes!  Cost averages about $1/GB

 The about $3 adapter (or less) is available in M/F plug types and looks like this

I have it and it is fantastic!  Software?  

Well there is a wonderful package for cruising sailors developed by cruising sailors called NAVIGAREIX,  Based on Ubuntu Linux it has everything you might need already installed.  Read below to see the myruiad of features and it all fits in about 4GB or on one DVD in a pinch.
Now Navigatrix has a small program that shuts off your hard drive and parks it if you have a regular drive installed and run from a stick memory.  But my CHEAPO Solid State CF hard drive does me one better since 80% will be reading and not writing to the memory chip.. and Reading charts off the DVD.

Navigatrix is a complete operating system for your computer. It is put together by people on boats for people on boats.

Navigatrix is a compilation of electronic tools for navigation, communication, information and security that you can use offshore, on shore, or at anchor. It is simple and lightweight and based on the best Debian/Ubuntu has to offer.

Navigatrix is the fastest, most efficient, and versatile Linux distribution for cruisers and navigators available. Installed on the hard drive it works on most any personal computer built in the last 12 years.

Navigatrix is nearly indestructible running on a 4 gigabyte, or larger, USB stick or SD card. It allows access to your hard drive data if you choose, and even works if your hard drive doesn't.

Navigatrix can also be installed on your hard drive for increased speed and versatility.

Download Navigatrix, install your charts, and test it out. You may find it is exactly what you've been seeking. Navigatrix is free to use and copy. If you have been charged, or you charge, more than a nominal copying fee it's not right.


Get the latest open source technology available for cruisers in one convenient download. All the important navigation tools preconfigured and ready to use. This will save your valuable time which you need so much to maintain your boat and enjoy sailing! This new version includes all the goodies that sailors want - tested on the ocean. We included all the features and software requested while maintaining everything as fast and energy efficient as possible with the same basic interface you are used to. This Backup Rescue System for your safety may help you when other things fail... here is what you get:

- OpenCPN 2.5.0 Chartplotter and all the plug-ins available for Linux
- *new* Chart Converter and Calibration Utility. Make pictures from your paper charts, calibrate them and use them inside OpenCPN.
- zyGrib 5.0.6 Weather Data
- GnuAIS Decoder 0.2.0 integrated into OpenCPN. Turns your old VHF into a fully functional AIS reciever
- PolarCOM 1.7.0 Full Screen GPS Display
- Matrix Mariner 1.0beta3
- Airmail 3.4.062 for HAM and Sailmail with the latest frequency list and added zyGrib support
- JWX 2.5 and HamFAX 0.8.1 to receive Weather Fax
- JNX 1.4 Navtex Decoder
- *new* JTides 5.2 Worldwide Tidal Calculator with the latest tide definition files
- WXTide 4.7
- XTide 2.11-1
- Astronomical Almanac 0.9.5-2 beta
- flDigi 3.21.36 and jPSKMail 1.4 to send and receive eMails over SSB without a Pactor Modem
- gpsd 2.95-12 supports many GPS receivers out of the box and needs no additional drivers
- gpsbabel 1.4.2 converts your GPS routes and waypoints to many different formats
- gpstrans 0.41 communicates with your garmin GPS receiver
- wvdial 1.60.3 ready to connect and use your Iridium Satellite Phone
- Stellarium 0.10.4 complete Planetarium for your actual GPS Location
- *new* Google Earth shows satellite images from the whole world
- hdparm 9.15 will turn off your hard drive temporarily while you run Navigatrix from a USB Stick or a Memory Card. This gives you full protection against permanent hard disk damage due engine vibrations and boat movement while under sail.
- redshift 1.5 sets the color temperature according to the position of the sun, click the red light bulb to activate nightvision for all applications, the color will change smoothly to allow your eyes to slowly adapt
- Calibre 0.8.23 Electronic Library ready to connect your eBook reader and convert/transfer all the books you like
- Easy to setup Full Live System Encryption. So nobody gets your sensitive data if you loose your USB Memory.
- wine-1.3.31 ... runs Windows Programs too! So you may also install your commercial navigation applications for windows (e.g. visual passage planner runs without a problem, just start the setup using wine and install it as you would in windows)
- *new* DSP enabled Kernel 3.0.9-dsp so you can use all the included SSB tools and OpenCPN with sound support which usually wont run under newer Ubuntu versions
- Capcode 0.9.5-2 beta, go to the terminal, enter "sudo /etc/init.d/gpsd stop && capcode" and give it a try
- Free online support
- and many more useful tools for Videos, Music, Pictures, Word Documents, Spreadsheets, Web-browsing, Email, Internet Telephony and Data Rescue....

This will save you a considerable amount of time because you don't have to configure or download anything else. And if there is something in the open source universe which could be helpful on your boat then its most likely included into this new release. In the best way possible. And if we missed something or you would like something more, then leave a message on the support forum and we try to take care of it.

I HAVE over 50,000 ebooks, several hundred movies, medical, educational and sailing resources on external hard drives.  You can download the complete Wikipedia for use offline (about 13GB) with the WikiTaxi front end.  I have WikiTravel and all the Lonely Planet guides as well.

My laptop is housed in a used RV ice Chest from a pickup camper.. you know the ones before refrigerators that took a block of ice.  It is mounted across from the head where the hanging locker used to be.. the dryest spot in the boat.  In bad weather with the door shut,  it is sealed in there away from any chance of moisture while i use my Garmin handheld GPS.  To use it,  I open the door of the 'frige like cabiet' and sit on a small folding camp stool.
Ohh my cost?  Well 2 laptops on eBay for around $50 each, the adapter under $3 and 2  32GB  CF chips..  at around $35 each.  (money is tight.. the 64GB chips are just under $70/ea)  My Total about $90 for each laptop.  Why 2?  I believe in having a backup and 2 identical systems makes it easy to switch over if one fails.  I did not buy batteries because I plan to use the laptops off of the boat electrical system.

Feel free to contact me if you want to do this yourself. 


  1. Hello Andrew,
    Excellent article on low cost eNav. Thanks

  2. Andrew

    The only other thing I can think of to speed up the system is to move the maps to a usb stick. In this manner, the system reads from the USB and processes off the SD card saving space and write time. Also on the stick, you have easy redundancy and backup, if not already on the T. Drive.

    Well done.


  3. Nice and very helpful information i have got from your post. Even your whole blog is full of interesting information which is the great sign of a great blogger.

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