Ultracompact PC recommendation for behavioral research lab?
September 16, 2014 10:07 AM   Subscribe

I work in a behavioral research lab. We use computers to record behavior from research equipment. Some of these computers are flaking out, and I'd like to get recommendations for replacing them with ultracompact PCs instead of the full-sized desktops we have been using.

The lab performs basic science research (read: rodents). We have a variety of systems used to record behavior, most of which use USB interfaces to connect to the computers. There is one system in use that may require a standard serial port, and another that uses an Ethernet connection, but the remaining systems are USB only. Some of these systems are still running WinXP, but we've verified that most (if not all) of the software runs fine under 32-bit Win7. All systems are currently mounted on carts to make moving them around easy. None of the systems are networked, nor do they need to be.

Unfortunately, the current setup is a mess - multiple OS versions, different brand and models (some Dell or HP, some locally-built), and despite my best efforts we still don't have everything running on all systems, so we often have 2 computers hooked up to control and record data for one task (one handles data for component A, one records output from system B, etc.), which is a waste of resources. Plus, we are beginning to question reliability of some of the computers. We can't do our research if we can't count on the data integrity.

My goal is to start replacing the existing computers (10 at last count) with ultracompact systems, to reduce space usage, simplify things by using uniform acquisition computers (allowing us to swap out systems in a pinch if anything goes wrong), and reduce power consumption (all systems are on battery backup, but full desktops would drain battery more quickly in an outage). Because these systems are used in areas exposed to dirt (animal dander, cage bedding, etc.) it would be best if they are ruggedized/cleanable. Think the same kind of system you'd want in a medical lab - they needn't be fully sealed and waterproof but it would be nice if the keyboard at least was impervious to filth.

I've found these systems from Stealth which look to be about perfect (including sealed keyboards!) but the price is more than we can budget. If we could find something that went for about half this price, it would be better. OS is not really an issue, we have site licenses for Windows, so OS-less systems are OK if that saves a few bucks (but coming with an existing OS is not bad, in my book). We definitely need Windows-based systems - all of the software we run for data acquisition and equipment control is Windows-only.

So, $500 range ultracompact PC, with serial ports, ethernet and USB, for research lab use. Any suggestions?
posted by caution live frogs to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
USB->Serial isn't an option? Real RS232 is rare now, and there are very few devices that don't work with a good (read: not Prolific) serial adaptor.
posted by scruss at 10:27 AM on September 16, 2014

Best answer: Here use these guys

They are sub $400 for this model (and have dozens and dozens. I can personally vouch for them. The unit linked is $375 includes 3 USB and 2 serial ports.... Can be customized with Bluetooth WiFi etc etc.
posted by chasles at 10:30 AM on September 16, 2014

CappucinoPC is their name BTW...
posted by chasles at 10:31 AM on September 16, 2014

There's also the Intel NUC

posted by Poldo at 11:24 AM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

HP Prodesk Mini or Elitedesk Mini or Dell Optiplex Micro. Lenovo is fine too, but I couldn't find an available small machine in the few minutes I looked. Ultra Small Form Factor is another keyword for these machines. The Intel NUC is also a good suggestion. None of these are ruggedized, but they fit the size and price requirement.

If you're using old machines, you probably don't need anything more than a Core i3 or a current generation Pentium. I'd skip anything with an Atom CPU. The absolute newest versions are OK, but anything older than the latest generation is too slow to be usable.

I've used waterproof, washable keyboards and they were terrible (took multiple key presses, had to press keys hard, etc.), so I don't have a recommendation there.

Edit - those don't have serial ports. If you must have serial ports and not a USB->Serial adapter, you might have to look at Small Form Factor PCs, which are larger.
posted by cnc at 12:38 PM on September 16, 2014

Well - lately (1.5 years or so), I have been liking Intel's "Next Unit of Computing" (NUC).

You can choose your RAM memory and storage options - and for what you want, probably the "mSATA" is the best route.

They are solid, well-built machines.
posted by jkaczor at 1:45 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although you don't have it now, will you require a support contract (e.g. warranty/replacement)? If so, the big manufacturer's will likely be easiest with your purchasing department. Otherwise, if you want to go the BYO route, any of the SFF pc's, e.g. Gigabyte/Asus, should be fine, and the Intel NUC based devices will be solid. You can easily get this for under $500.
posted by palionex at 3:28 PM on September 16, 2014

+1 on the Intel NUC. Quite a lot of features for not a lot of money. No on-board serial ports but there are plenty of USB-to-Serial adapters out there. That and they come with a VESA bracket to allow mounting it on the back of the monitor. Run ethernet, mouse & keyboard to it and then run a USB line to a more conveniently-placed USB hub for your connected devices. Separating the PC from the stuff likely to get messy might alleviate some maintenance issues for it.

But when you find the working USB-to-serial devices my advice is buy a BOATLOAD of them. Better to have plenty of spares on-hand rather than risk incompatible add-ons later...
posted by wkearney99 at 9:26 AM on September 18, 2014

Best answer: Thanks all. We are giving one of the models from Cappuccino a shot, and if it works out we'll order more. If not, we'll try one of the other options.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:26 AM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So far so good! Thanks again everyone.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:47 PM on December 18, 2014

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