Posted on April 7th, 2015

GTM – What is the Best Computer to Use in the Geospatial Industry?

Often times, the events of my life inspire the topics I cover in my monthly articles, and well this Geospatial Tip of the Month (GTM) is no exception. For the past six months, my trusty Sony Vaio laptop was on its last leg, so during the slow-down that is common in January, it was time to find a replacement machine. And as you can imagine, when you are required to connect to the Interwebs in order to get your job done on a daily basis, having any downtime is just not acceptable. So in this GTM, I will share some of my experiences searching for the best computer as well as a few software tips that might help you get your job done quicker and more efficiently.

What I Needed in a New Computer

Working with satellite and aerial imagery requires a powerful computer given the typical file sizes of these datasets (i.e. from 400 megabytes to 20 gigabytes [GB] and up). As such, unless you want to spend a lot of timing waiting for files to load, pan across the screen, etc., you need a powerful machine. Here is what I was looking for in a new laptop:

  • A Windows-based machine – as many geospatial software packages only run in Windows
  • Lots of memory – at least 8 GB of RAM and 1 GB of video RAM
  • A powerful processer – a quad-core motherboard running at 2.5 gigahertz (GHz) or more
  • Light and portable – with a 13.3” monitor and lighter than 4 pounds
  • Extensive disk storage – at least 512 GB
  • Reliable – my last Sony laptop lasted 3.5 years of extensive daily use, the new laptop should match this

My First FAILED Experience – An ASUS Zenbook

After hours of research and many a conversation with my Apollo Mapping team members, I settled on a 13.3” ASUS Zenbook. The ASUS I selected meet or exceeded all the expectations set forth above, though admittedly I was concerned about the Window 8.1 operating system having used XP and 7 for the past years. I was very excited when the new Zenbook arrived in a single day and I spent Friday and the weekend installing my files and required software. Well, on Sunday, just two days after receiving my new ASUS, the PCIe SSD hard drive failed and the computer was inoperable – ugh!!

As you can imagine, I was rather upset that my new ASUS failed so quickly, but hey, lemons happen so I was fully prepared to return the broken laptop for a replacement model. This is where the “fun” starts… On Monday, I spent nearly two hours on a combination of hold (the vast majority of the time) and actually speaking to people at ASUS; and after three calls, I was no closer to resolving the issue than when I started. When Tuesday midday hit with not a single call back from ASUS, I transitioned from being annoyed about a lemon to simply pissed off, so it was time to seek out another laptop solution!

Before moving on to the solution I settled on, I need to close the loop on the nightmare with ASUS. On Thursday, I finally received a call from ASUS customer service where I was told I could not return the computer. Well that was not the answer I wanted to hear, so we instantly stopped payment with ASUS and sent the computer back to them – unreal that a company would not take back a clearly defective product. In the end, two weeks later, I received an email that my return was accepted and that a credit would be issued, but seriously, avoid ASUS products at all costs!!

An Ideal Solution – A MacBook Pro Running Windows 7

The title pretty much says it all. After much considerations and several calls with very knowledgeable and friendly Apple employees, I settled on a 13.3” MacBook Pro with a Retina display, 16 GB of RAM and a 3.0 GHz processor. I had considered an Apple product in the past but I was concerned that programs like ENVI would not be able to harvest the required serial number from the motherboard in order to license the software. Well, my experience with ASUS and the positive one with Apple, the lack of any other similar powerful and transportable laptops and the fact that they use Intel chips now said it was time to give a Mac a try – and thank goodness I did, I could not be happier!

Here are a few tidbits of knowledge I can share from the start of the installation process in Mac’s OS X Yosemite operating system:

  • Do not use FileVault 2!!! Avoid it like the plague. When I started the setup process on my new Mac Pro, one of the questions was using the file encryption software called FileVault 2. It seemed innocent enough to me and since more security is a good thing, I opted in. In the end, the encryption process failed and after two calls to (again) very knowledgeable and friendly Apple technical support employees, I had to format hard drive and reinstall my entire operating system. Which was a breeze given the internal recovery mechanisms built into all MacBooks.
  • While I was willing to give a MacBook a chance, I was not willing to use OS X. But thankfully Apple makes it easy to install a copy of Windows on your new MacBook with a program called Boot Camp. With the help of a 4 GB USB drive, I was able to install a copy of Windows 7 Pro on my new laptop, so off and away I went installing software and copying over files!

Some Software I Cannot Live Without

Now that I have given you my feelings on the best computer to use in the geospatial industry, a MacBook Pro, it is time to share a few of the software packages and add-ons I could not live without!

  • Avast – this is the most robust and lowest ‘memory hog’ of any active antivirus software I have ever tried out.
  • CCleaner – this software will clean up temporary files and other unnecessary files that are missed by most other disk cleanup utilities.
  • Dropbox – this program is an automated cloud storage system that lets you sync files to multiple machines as well as stores changed and deleted versions of your files as an added bonus.
  • ENVI Output to Tile– this ENVI Classic add-on lets you output a raster file to a set of tiled images, super handy and the only tool like it that we have found!
  • ET Geowizards – an invaluable add-on for ArcGIS loaded with tons of commonly needed tools for vectors and rasters.
  • FastStone Capture– a great freeware program that lets you take custom-sized screengrabs of your screen.
  • Glary Utilities – a self-fix program that will keep your Windows operating system working as fast and smoothly as possible.
  • Google Chrome Tab Saver – this browser add-on will store your open tabs which saves time if you often open the same set of websites.
  • Intel Driver Update Utility – this software will keep your Intel graphics card, modem, etc. drivers up to date with a single button push.
  • KatMouse – this lightweight program works well with Windows 7 and lets you mouse-wheel scroll through a program window on your desktop even if it is not active; which is super handy if you have a bunch of windows open and are copying data from one program to another.
  • KoolCal – this calendar application is lightweight and super easy to use, I would forget every major event on my schedule without it!
  • Malwarebytes – this tool removes viruses that many other programs miss.
  • Thunderbird Quicknote – this Thunderbird add-on lets you draft an email with a keystroke which saves time if you send form emails out commonly.
  • Thunderbird XNote++ – and this Thunderbird add-on lets you add sticky notes to emails as a quick reminder of where you are at with things.

A short YouTube video showing you a few of the programs I could not make it through a day of work without as well as turning on XP DPI Scaling.

Dealing With High Resolution Monitors and Low Resolution Software

Many new laptops come with extremely high resolution monitors, such as the 2560 x 1600 Retina display on MacBook Pros. While this extra resolution sounds amazing, practically speaking few software packages or websites take full advantage of the extra pixels. And the software/websites that do not take advantage often look quite wonky on your monitor, be it on my Retina display or the high res monitor on ASUS Zenbooks.

The solution I found is a combination of changing your monitor’s DPI as well as a function called XP DPI Scaling – in the video that accompanies this GTM, I will show you how to turn these on in Windows 7 Pro. I am currently using a 150% DPI setting and it produces crisp fonts and menus of appropriate sizes (or at least it usually does – nothing is perfect after all). Originally, I tried a 156% DPI scaling but in many cases menu items blurred together and text was not well centered. I have noticed that XP DPI Scaling forces programs to have tiny, yet crisp text and icons; for some users, these items might be too small. In this case, you might try to disable compatibility DPI scaling which forces programs to use larger text and fonts but creates a fuzzy appearance. You can read more about DPI scaling here and here; this resource gives you more tips on making Windows look nice on high res monitors; and finally this is more of a developer’s take on DPI issues.

Do you have an idea for a future GTM? If so, let me know by email at brock@apollomapping.com.

Brock Adam McCarty
Map Wizard
(720) 470-7988
brock@apollomapping.com

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4 Responses to GTM – What is the Best Computer to Use in the Geospatial Industry?

  1. Mike Newman says:

    I’m just glad to see someone else making similar choices and having similar issues. I’m not the only one trying to use workstation-class software but not willing to lug a 15 pound monster around all the time. I too considered the MacBook dual-boot option but wasn’t willing to pay the Apple-tax when the windows-based options are about half the price…. sigh.

    I was recently on this same quest, in January actually, for a fast powerful GIS laptop. I previously was using a Dell 17″ Precision M6600 mobile workstation. It was plenty fast and I was happy with the M6600 but when I started to bike to work everyday it was literally a drag. I settled on an ultrabook: the ASUS Zenbook ux303ln. Its not quite as powerful as the m6600 but I can carry it all day everyday. I haven’t had any problems with the SSD HD but have had lots of issues with the DPI scaling issue under Windows 8.1. Most software was OK but I couldn’t come up with a usable set of scaling factors for ArcMap which is my primary application. In particular I’ve had the most difficulty using an eternal monitor via an Asus docking station. I ended up running my display at a non-optimum resolution instead.

    Keep up the good work on the newsletters!
    .mjn

    • Admin says:

      Hi Mike – thanks for the awesome comment! Apples are definitely expensive computers, you are correct there; and glad your ASUS is working well for you, I am guessing I just got a lemon. I just could not look past the customer service issues with ASUS to try out another Zenbook. The DPI scaling issue is frustrating at times for sure, but all is all, the extra resolution is pretty cool too!

  2. Pam says:

    While I’m glad you found something that works for you, I really don’t think this is sensible advice. If something goes wrong, Apple computers are notoriously hard to repair, they really don’t use top-of-the-line hardware and though their screen tech and aesthetics are nice, they never run to the full capabilities of the hardware they do have. Also, running a dual boot is not a good idea unless you’re in a field where Linux is a requirement.

    Finally, for the price of an Apple computer and the inconvenience of having to set it up to run Windows, there are even more powerful options available. Many gaming laptops are fantastic as workstation replacements, I’m very surprised at how rarely they are recommended. And they really don’t have to be huge, as Mike Newman seems to think they all are. My current laptop (a dying Sony Vaio SVF15A) weighs 5.5 pounds, and a top-of-the-line Origin EON15-X weighs 7. It’s heavier than mine, but for the power it packs, I’d gladly carry around the two extra pounds. That’s a very heavy duty gaming laptop, though. Most common workstation replacements today have weights even lower than mine. The Dell Precision M3800 weighs 4 pounds, for example, and would probably meet your requirements.

    Anyway, I hope this didn’t come off as too abrasive. I just thought it might be useful for anyone who arrives at this site to know that there are other good options available.

    • Hi Pam! These are great comments – thanks for sharing, and they are not too harsh at all.

      Here are some thoughts back:

      (1) We run Boot Camp so it is not a dual OS that is open, that is a different way of setting up your Mac. My PC mode is actually the fastest computer by the rating system Windows uses that I have ever had.

      (2) We have actually had an Origin before. We used it for our production computer. It was poor quality and only lasted about 8 months.

      (3) I used to use Sony Vaio products but Sony is no longer involved with Vaio – it is it’s own company now. I have not tested them for reliability again but honestly I have considered trying them again.

      Have a good day!

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