A Laptop To Study Monkeys By
October 8, 2012 2:10 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for a relatively rugged laptop (or tablet?) that I can use for data entry, word processing, internet browsing, and music playing while in the US, and then use for data entry, arcGIS, and music playing while in the rain forest in West Africa. It would be wonderful if it was less than $700. I do not want a Mac. What should I be looking into?

Since I'd be carrying it back and forth to campus while in the US, I'd like to keep it of manageable weight and relatively small of screen (less than 15 inches). Long battery life is a plus. I don't anticipate particularly stressful conditions for the laptop in Ivory Coast - I'd be storing it in a box with dessicant gel when it is not being used, and it'd stay at my lab rather than be bumped around in my backpack all day. My Samsung netbook did decently for three months, but I wasn't there for the rainy season.

Right now, the best option I can find is Thinkpad - should I be looking at something else? Should I be considering a tablet? My primary concerns with data entry in the forest aregetting my GPS points off of the GPS and into arcGIS, and getting other data into Excel. I have no idea what sort of GIS capability there might be in a tablet, and I don't know how easy it is to transfer large files between the tablet and a regular computer when I get back to the States.

(There is basically no Apple support in Ivory Coast and I don't want to be unable to enter my data in the field because of computer troubles).
posted by ChuraChura to Technology (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Used Panasonic Toughbook?
posted by jquinby at 2:13 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can search for Rugged laptops if you want ones with toughened cases, etc.
posted by empath at 2:15 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

My colleague who goes to the Amazon carries his Toughbook everywhere.
posted by knile at 2:24 PM on October 8, 2012

Best answer: Wouldn't you know it, I was just in Côte d'Ivoire a couple of months ago, using ArcGIS on a laptop. The office gave me a Dell XPS 13, which seems to be Dell's answer to the Macbook Air. It's small and very light (13 inches) and has a solid state HD, which makes it pretty bump-resistant. And it's quite fast - it handles ArcGIS better than my (crappy) desktop computer. It's a little above your price point, but under $1000.

Biggest downside is that it doesn't have a lot of normal ports - you need a USB adapter just to plug in a regular Ethernet cable. If you've got WiFi at the lab then that's no big deal.

IMO, you don't really need a hardened laptop or Toughbook unless you're like, skydiving into the field. (On second thought, that might not be a bad idea considering the state of the roads out there.)
posted by theodolite at 2:25 PM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I would like to point out that the toughbook is 8 lbs. It is not what you're looking for.

I have had mixed experiences with the Lenovo Ideapad I just bought. I bought it because it's ultralight, had a monster harddrive, and tons of RAM, and although the sale I bought it at is over, you can still sometimes find them in the outlet.

The reason I'm hesitantly recommending it is because recently (last week), I took off running and forgot my backpack was unzipped. The Lenovo fell out of my waist-height backpack and bounced a few times on the concrete, before sliding to a stop, along with the rest of the contents of my backpack. No, it didn't land flat. I watched in horror as it bounced on one corner, then another, and finally flipped, sliding into a building to finally stop.
The corners were ...well, one corner had been removed by the concrete. The other other corner was dented and the lid was scratched. I opened the lid, expecting all hell to be broken loose, because it barely weighs in at 4 lbs, and has a 15-inch screen. There was dust from the crushed corner all over the keyboard. But the keyboard still closes smoothly and locks, and for the last week the laptop has functioned perfectly. You'd never know I even sneezed on it, except for those times it snags my sweater with that corner. Which is pretty wild considering it's build to be light, not tough.

The reasons I can't wholeheartedly recommend it are that I hate the trackpad---I like one offcentered to the right, because otherwise I'm always triggering something, and I hate the keyboard. Really really loathe it. I keep triggering some hotkey I think, and I really desperately, wildly miss the number keypad and function keys. No backlit keyboard (though I don't care). The screen is dim and the colors aren't even close to natural. Aside from that, it's great! I love the ethernet port, but am not so wild about the lack of optical drive, but that was a measured tradeoff for weight, and if I really need one, I have one that functions by USB.

This guy in your outlet is under your budget and under your screen specs.

And bonus, it's a color. I would have killed for that option, but their super-sale didn't include the ones with fun colors last year.
posted by thelastcamel at 2:27 PM on October 8, 2012

Nthing the Panasonic Toughbook. I buy computer equipment for a living, and I tell you this is basically the top of the line when it comes to durability - it can function perfectly after being chewed by a tiger, stepped on by an elephant, and even boots up after being shot by a low caliber bullet. (Although hopefully none of those things will happen to you in the rainforest, I'm sure it will at least be comforting to know that your Toughbook will survive.)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:33 PM on October 8, 2012

I'm going to add the caveat that while I would buy another Lenovo in a store, I wouldn't order one. They messed up my order in several batshit ways, knowing I had a wildly, vital need for this laptop and didn't have the time or the money to throw at the problem. That was a very unpleasant and stressful two weeks. Their customer service reps DoNotCare. I worked enough tech to watch that change happen industry-wide.

Anyway, they have good sales, and sometimes better sales on their outlet, but be wary of ordering. They are not communicative if and when problems happen and they also will not guarantee you a ship-by date. I"d be more interested in finding a local shop that does refurbs if that's the way you want to go rather than new.
posted by thelastcamel at 2:36 PM on October 8, 2012

Following up -- the laptop I mentioned isn't "rugged" in any sense (aside from having an SSD), but a decent case goes a long way. I think you're better off getting a laptop that suits most of your needs (light, portable, cheap, fast enough to run GIS without headaches) rather than a Toughbook which is certainly rugged but fails every other qualification.
posted by theodolite at 2:57 PM on October 8, 2012

Best answer: I've used a lot of rugged computers and tablets and toughbooks (even broken a couple) and you don't need one. What you need is a cheap laptop and 2 separate rugged back up drives that you use on alternate days to back your data up and that you store separately. That way you only lose one day of data if you, say, drop your computer in the ocean*. You also need several SD cards for your gps and an adapter so you can dump the SD cards directly to the external drive if your laptop biffs. I'm assuming you can write everything but the gps data on a piece of paper and enter it later in an emergency so that should cover you.

*which will kill a toughbook.
posted by fshgrl at 3:06 PM on October 8, 2012 [6 favorites]

Btw, don't buy a tablet. Entering data into excel on a tablet is like doing it drunk with socks over your hands.

Realistically even on a laptop it sucks and you will make many more mistakes, if possible bring a real keyboard!
posted by fshgrl at 3:09 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Data entry? Tablet? No. Go try a tablet in a store and see if you can quickly and accurately enter the data you'd need to input. Probably not. Tablets are great for displaying data, but not great for entering data. We did some pilot testing of a tablet solution - top of the line stuff and users who wanted it to work. They all went back to the keyboard if they needed to enter more than a few keystrokes. You'd need to be a Very Special User to do heavy data entry on a tablet.

I have an Asus Zenbook that I really like, but abuse without mercy - dropped it, toss it in my handbag which I slam around. It's still going strong. Solid state hard drives rock and then roll onward.

You also need a robust plan to back up your drive everyday. No amount of durability makes up for an off-site backup.
posted by 26.2 at 3:40 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd say Thinkpad. A Toughbook would not really fit the scenario you describe -- their overriding design goal is indestructibility, and everything else (performance, price, weight) suffers for that. They do make some "semi-rugged" models which might be closer to what you're looking for, but I think you'll still find them heavy and pricey.

And, as everyone has said, backup. A USB key is a reasonable way to do this if your dataset is small enough to make the price reasonable.
posted by pont at 4:00 PM on October 8, 2012

Have you considered a smartphone or tablet with a dock, keyboard, and mouse?
posted by jsturgill at 5:14 PM on October 8, 2012

Do you need to get on the internet and do you know how to do this from the Ivory Coast? Don't assume anything will be as you are used to in West Africa - try and get info about that before you go (it took me 2 months to get online in Nigeria, which I'm actually used to, so try and get at last some internet stuff set up before you go, or find out how. For me it turned out to be phone cards and a little dongle thingy, but the beaurocracy was amazing.) I've read somewhere there's only one under-sea cable connecting West Africa to the rest of the internet and all sorts of things might disrupt transmission.

I think fshgrl has good advice. Don't go for anything too fancy so it won't hurt too much if you have to replace things. And backup like hell - maybe sd cards?

I'd say get a netbook anyways.

On preview I see you've been out there already so you probably have connectivity sussed. But yeah, the rainy season is very hard on material things.
posted by glasseyes at 5:28 PM on October 8, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, you guys - this is incredibly helpful.

I think that a toughbook may be a little more intense than what I need, but I like the idea of good case (pelican case, maybe) surrounding a computer matching my other requirements and very durable hard drives.

I will not have internet access. If I'm lucky and my advisor gets the grant he's looking for, I may have a solar-charging battery to plug into, otherwise I'll be maneuvering with some solar panels and adapters. If I'm really lucky, the satellite phone will work!
posted by ChuraChura at 5:40 PM on October 8, 2012

Fshgrl is exactly right in my experience. Your backup strategy is probably more important than which device you pick. SD cards die, drives die, things get dropped and wet. Take multiples and make a couple of copies. When we go into the field, we replicate photos, gps tracks and data sets between everyone's computers and a hard drive or two every night.

And tough books aren't worth the money. Way too heavy, expensive and slow.
posted by bonehead at 6:26 PM on October 8, 2012

Best answer: Do you have cellular data in the field? If so, I have more specific recommendations.

I'd go cheap and decent instead of rugged. Google Nexus Seven tablet. With the tablet, you've got built-in GPS which may simplify your GPS data collection. Or go even simpler and just use an Android cell phone as a disconnected, tiny and ultraportable tablet.

Alternately, a subnotebook by a decent maker, like ASUS. Something cheap enough if you drop it you're not crying too hard over lost hardware (only lost data).
posted by zippy at 1:12 AM on October 9, 2012

Ah, I see you may have satellite data. With the solar deal, I'm leaning even more towards cell phone as tablet. Super low power use in airplane mode (a Nexus One can go for days and days when the radios are all off).

If you're doing a lot of data entry, get one with a slider keyboard.
posted by zippy at 1:14 AM on October 9, 2012

God please do not try to enter data on a phone even if it has a "keyboard". You will make many, many errors. Future you will thank you.

Not to mention that mobile arcGIS is barely functional or that the accuracy of your GPS points may be questioned if you use a phone.... just no.. don't do this.
posted by fshgrl at 12:23 PM on October 10, 2012

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