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Observatory computer?

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#1 mclewis1

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Posted 11 April 2010 - 07:22 PM

I'm looking for suggestions for an observatory computer ... but before anyone gets all excited and says "that's easy" I have some fairly specific selection criteria.

The intent is a passive system, no direct interaction is required. All user access will be via a remote desktop application. The system needs to boot reliably and have the VNC server ready to go without any interaction.

Must run native Win XP SP3 - mandatory (no virtual machines, Linux, MacOS, etc.)
Small form factor ... miniAT or book shelf chassis at maximum
No monitor, preference given to being able to run without a keyboard as well
100BaseT connection ... or even better, built in 802.11a/b/g/n
Two USB2 ports
Solid state disk ... no HDD and preference given to passive (no fans) cooling
Ability sustain seasonal cycling between 100°F and -30°F without any failures.
And most importantly ... cheap, not more than $250 with the OS

Software required to run - TightVNC, ASCOM, SkyCharts 3.0, NexRemote, NSOL, PHD Guide, Nebulosity, Craterlet, wxastrocapture, Mallincam control, Amcap. Drivers for Canon 350D, Neximage, SPC900 webcam, DSI Pro, and a Dazzle video capture device.

Currently the leading candidate is a used Netbook with a 16GB SSD, physically modified to turn off the display and run reliably with the cover closed.


Thanks,

#2 RandallK

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Posted 11 April 2010 - 08:02 PM

Take a look at an ACER 4520 series Aspire Laptop. Although I run VISTA 32 bit Home Version on it, everything you list in your software is just about what I have. I control 2 cameras and a 4 port active hub. I use Ultra VNC Viewer to save my butt being frozen, or in the summer bitten by mosquitos.
This little lappy has 2 gigs of ram. I got it 2 years ago at Wal-Mart. It was the demo and I got it for 350.00. You might find one somewhere for sale used. It's NOT the fact that it was cheap. The fact is, is that it runs like a charm and handles all peripherls very well. It has the smallest of screens for a laptop. I'm very pleased with it.

#3 JAT Observatory

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Posted 11 April 2010 - 08:34 PM

That's easy...except for the fact you want Windows XP. Can you still buy PC's with Windows XP?

I also would be surpized if you had to do anything special to turn off the display. Usally toggle of the "F" keys does it. One of the nice things about netboots as servers, the screen size doesn't matter. When I access a netbook remotely via MS Remote Desktop I can display a full sized display. I assume the same is true with VNC (I haven't tried).

Since you plan to use SS drives I assume you are going to store your images off site on a harddrive some place, cause images tend to take up space quickly.

I have been running my desktop in my obs for a few years. It has harddrives. It doe have a monitor and keyboard but they are not needed for booting and are only there for when I'm in the obs. I never have any trouble booting it up in the cold cause I never turn it off.

#4 Galaxyhunter

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Posted 12 April 2010 - 06:06 AM

Software required to run - TightVNC, ASCOM,--------



FWIW, I used to use TightVNC, Now I use Ultra VNC. I found that the Ultra VNC has a better dynamic screen refresh.

#5 Lorence

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Posted 12 April 2010 - 08:49 PM

I'm building a remote controlled observatory. I looked at what you want to do with a netbook computer and what I am doing with two full sized moderately powerful tower PC's to control all my systems. All I can think of is one of us is doing something wrong.

Lorence

#6 mclewis1

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Posted 12 April 2010 - 09:39 PM

Lorence,

I'm not planning to do any image processing on the observatory PC, it's only going to capture images, they are being stored on a shared drive. The actual processing is being done by a more powerful PC. Camera management, mount control, planetarium software, and autoguiding are the functions I need. The Nebulosity s/w is really only for image capture and shutter management.

I believe that the software suite that I listed in the original post will run comfortably on a 1GB 800mhz XP system but I'll likely have 2GB of ram. I'm currently running it all very comfortably on a slightly more powerful laptop (2GB 1.6Ghz Core2 cpu) and there is plenty of headroom left. I've also successfully run the software suite on an 8 year old 1.5GB 800mhz Pentium system as well.

One thing that I'm not doing is using any Pinacle software for image capture off the Pinacle Dazzle video capture device. I will be using wecam capture s/w (Amcap or the like) to do this. The Pinacle s/w is very large and cpu intensive will lots of features that I don't need.

I'm also going to strip down XP, removing as much ancillary stuff as possible. This includes web browsers and the like. The OS build will be frozen at a specific revision level with no auto update capability. All the usual tricks are also applied, no screen saver, no wall paper, no power saving modes, etc.

Another "reality" in my case is that not all the s/w needs to be running simultaneously. There are basically two operating configurations, one is autoguiding mode with the image capturing and the other is remote viewing via the Mallincam. I've loaded it all up simultaneously but have never run it all together (with the hardware associated with each piece of software active).

#7 mclewis1

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Posted 12 April 2010 - 09:44 PM

FWIW, I used to use TightVNC, Now I use Ultra VNC. I found that the Ultra VNC has a better dynamic screen refresh.

Carl, Yes I've noticed that too. I keep trying different VNCs out to see what works best for me. Quite a while ago I thought that there was something about Ultra that I didn't like but with all the changes and evaluations I don't remember what it was. I may go back and have another look at it.

Thanks,

#8 psonice

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Posted 13 April 2010 - 04:25 AM

Mark: keep in mind that netbooks use Atom CPUs, which are a a lot slower than Core2 than the MHz numbers would have you believe.

I seem to recall an average netbook atom being equivalent to an 800mhz P3 (I might possibly be thinking of something else though!). I'd allow extra headroom either way.

#9 o1d_dude

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Posted 19 April 2010 - 08:36 PM

The newer Atom CPU's are pretty quick as netbooks go. Look for them in small/tiny entertainment center PCs soon.

#10 Silenti

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Posted 27 April 2010 - 08:20 PM

Look on the refurb market. Specifically companies which specialize in buying up a companies older computers when they upgrade. You can get a nice little smaller form factor business-class workstation dell with Pentium 4 level CPU for around $100 which probably even comes with windows installed. Use the extra money to drop in a SDD and you are off the ground running. I'll see if I can dig up a few companies I've used in the past (I run a 'geek squad' type business on the side and frequently use these sorts of computers for customers who are just looking for a low cost 'internet box' and I have never had reliability problems). Or assuming you already have a winxp license, it would be easy to build a custom pc from scratch (check out newegg for their 'combo deals', they usually are small form factor motherboard based)

#11 Silenti

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Posted 27 April 2010 - 08:29 PM

Or just pick from one of these:

http://www.newegg.co...ame=Desktop-PCs

#12 rboe

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 09:22 AM

The newer Mac Mini's run intel processors so you could install XP on them. I think the whole mac mini format is very attractive. Push come to shove you could even mount it directly to the scope mount.

Used ones can be picked up on ebay but they don't come quite as cheap as windows boxes. But hey, a small cigar box format would be hard to beat if you don't need room for expansion.

You'll even have the Mac OS if you ever see the light. :poke:

#13 mclewis1

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 10:12 AM

Silenti,

Thanks for the suggestions ... you seem to be thinking along the same lines I am. I've been poking around for a used small form factor unit but I haven't found exactly what I want ... yet. I've taken a look at a few used netbooks and I'm amazed at the value (ultra small form factor, passive cooling, etc.) ... I'd really like to find one with a broken case/display at a good price.

I hadn't seriously considered the "make your own". I always thought the smaller form factor stuff was less popular and therefore more expensive but given the small size of "regular" MBs today that may just be a good option. I also need to spend some more time on Newegg ... those combo deals sound interesting.

#14 mclewis1

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 10:23 AM

Ron,

The Macmini is probably the one unit that I've had in my mind as I considered the observatory PC requirement. It is however not an option because of running MacOS (see my first mandatory requirement) and price (the only cheap ones I've ever seen had ongoing or intermittent h/w problems, which is why they were so cheap ... sigh).

Ultra small size isn't really a requirement, just something smaller than a traditional tower PC. The benchmark though is a netbook in the closed position (which is tiny) tucked in a corner on a shelf.

#15 Silenti

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 10:40 AM

I know you said you wanted it to be winXP, but if you could use linux software (or the possibility of the windows software working under wine) you could also just boot and run from a thumbdrive or even a standard memory card like a CF or SD a la a camera. WAAAAAAAY cheaper than SSD if you can do without the obvious speed benefits. (I even think the CF format is actually a TINY ide and there might be adapters to normal sized IDE, so you might even be able to do a 'duct-tape engineering' RAID 0 with cheap CF cards! :rofl: but maybe i'm remembering wrong, I've been awake for 2 days)

Also, any pc should be able to run 'headless' though it might require going into the BIOS and changing some 'stop on' conditions (by default most BIOS are set to stop POST when there is no keyboard present). If the cooling in the system you pick isn't passive, as long as its not pegging 100% cpu for an extended time it should still be alright. Running speedfan (an app that amongst other things monitors system temps + even graphs it) and SuperPi (calculates pi out to some ridiculous number of decimal points, essentally keeps CPU at 100% as well as checks for calculation errors a symptom of overheating) overnight should fuss out any cooling issues. I'd personally be more worried about performance at 100* than -30*, people have built coolers for CPU which take them down to dry-ice temps. Nerds know how to hot-rod too baby WHOOO!!!


Man, its too bad I don't have access to more expensive and computerized astrogear to test, or I could start a side business building dedicated observatory 'blades' :-D
I'm excited to see what you come up with!

[edit: The easiest way I've found to customize the windows componants is via the slipstreaming tool nLite. It updates your windows install CD to SP3 + all current patches. If you play around with it you can even get it to do full unattended installs giving you any drivers AND any software you'd install. the drivers and software do require a solid day of tweaking to get working correctly, maybe not so practical for a one-off system, but when installing to several computer labs of dozens of identical systems each... lifesaver!]

#16 mclewis1

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 01:53 PM

Silenti,

I'd love to use Linux but the hardware driver requirements preclude this idea. I've looked into Meade DSI and Canon Rebel XT/350D device drivers for Linux, it isn't pretty.

I have an older P3 based Dell PC that is setup as a headless Linux system. I've used this system as a test platform for many of the ideas for the observatory PC, it also gets used as a storage server as well (bunch of external USB attached storage).

Passive cooling is preferred but small integrated fans are ok too. I'm just trying to stay away from having to have large fans on the CPU and power supply units. The kind of setup that if the fans get gummed up with spider webs and such won't go up in smoke.

Don't tempt me with the storage ideas ... my background was working with the teams that did things like the first commercial RAID6, the first full virtual enterprise class disk, Petabyte sized data protection and data archive systems, and stuff I'm not allowed to talk about.

Wouldn't it be interesting to build and sell "observatory blades"? Not much of a market unless they are also cost effective enough for use with any reasonable scope setup. Simple systems, supports all the popular hardware, optimized VNC (low delay), turn key and easy to manage.

I've seen the speedfan utility (or stuff like it ... but never used it), and I'm really interested in nLite ... thanks for the info.

I'll let you know how I make out.

#17 psonice

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 02:18 PM

A word of warning on the small form factor machines: we've had a lot of them at work (probably ~500), and the P4 ones in particular are VERY unreliable. Some run fine, but we've had an awful lot die. The problem is that the P4 processors get very hot, and there's not much space in there - it kills the capacitors on the board.

These are all dell units by the way. The possible good side is that they're fairly easy to fix if you're good with a soldering iron - picking up a dead one and repairing it could be VERY cost effective. Otherwise, I'd look for a P3, early core-based unit, or go for AMD. The P4 was famous for burning a ton of electricity for not that much power, while getting extremely hot doing it.

#18 rboe

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 04:03 PM

Ron,

The Macmini is probably the one unit that I've had in my mind as I considered the observatory PC requirement. It is however not an option because of running MacOS (see my first mandatory requirement) and price (the only cheap ones I've ever seen had ongoing or intermittent h/w problems, which is why they were so cheap ... sigh).


The intel versions can have XP loaded on it so that gets around your Windows requirement.

I have no comeback for your second concern since I have not looked that hard at the used market but that would be a big concern for me too.

#19 psonice

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 04:46 PM

2nd hand macs are pretty expensive. Quite often you can buy a new PC for the price of a 2nd hand mac that's a few years old!

That can be a good or bad thing - if you keep it for a year and then sell it, you'll hardly lose any money, it's just the initial outlay that's expensive, not the actual cost of ownership. If you aim to keep it long term, it's down to how long it lasts.

#20 Silenti

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 05:05 PM

Like Psonice said, try to avoid the 'prescHOT' processors (P4) if you had a choice. However you're requirements are pretty CPU-lite so you'd most likely not be pushing them too hard (might even get away with some underclocking, tho idk how much the dell BIOS will let you tweak such things).

You may even be able to find a used small form factor based on the celeron (intel's stripped down budget line) dual-core platform these days for not much cash, I don't believe they call them 'celerons' anymore tho.

For the horsepower at the P4 generation, nothing beats the AMD Athlon64's, but I don't think very many OEMS (dell, hp, etc) were making corporate-class SFF with AMD's.

#21 JAT Observatory

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Posted 28 April 2010 - 05:56 PM

[quote These are all dell units by the way. [/quote]

I think its just the *BLEEP* Dell machines. I have had more trouble with my 6 month old Dell laptop at work. Our IT group is running crazy replacing motherboards. They keep overheating and killing themselves. I know what laptop brand to never buy for home use.

#22 mclewis1

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Posted 18 July 2010 - 08:13 AM

Well I think I found what I've been looking for ... almost.

Today only (Sunday July 18th) Woot has the Asus Eee Box Nettop PC with Radeon HD Video & HDMI for only
$189.99. At $200-300 I don't think Nettop PCs are worth it ... but under $200 with a wireless keyboard and mouse? hmmmmm. Here's the manufactures site info - link

The downside for me is that the only video out on the box is a digital HDMI port. I'm planning to run the thing headless but there are times (setup, troubleshooting) where I'd like to run a cheap monitor on it. I'd like to even go below VGA to a composite video connection but the adapters and cables could run to 1/3rd of the total PC's price. One option is to open the unit and see what connectors are still present on the video card ... and bring an analog video connection out that way. Another option might be to pull the whole Radeon video card, sell it and replace it within the Nettop PC with a simpler video PCI card with the possible added benefit of lower power consumption.

If it doesn't work out I might simply do what the manufacturer originally intended ... add it to my home entertainment setup for web based streaming audio and video.

#23 psonice

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Posted 18 July 2010 - 11:28 AM

You'll probably find the video is built into the motherboard. In fact I doubt there are any slots at all inside it. They're more like a laptop motherboard in a tiny case.. pretty much a netbook without a screen or keyboard in fact.

#24 mclewis1

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Posted 26 July 2010 - 04:58 PM

I didn't pull the trigger on the Woot special (but was sorely tempted to do so ... it was a really great deal). I did a little more poking around and found that there are a few other similar options.

One that caught my eye is a slightly different version of the same Eee product. This one doesn't have as advanced video (no HDMI to deal with) which is better for my use but not as good for use in a home entertainment setup. It's also a bit more expensive. An example is here - $239 (with a rebate that lasts until July 31). Or here a little cheaper at ($218).

There are also options that don't have any OS, RAM, or HDD installed. This would be great if I could use Linux ...just add 1GB RAM, Linux OS, and a 40GB SDD and you'd have IMHO just about the perfect observatory or scope side PC.

I'm probably going to do one of these WinXP units and swap the HDD for an SDD.

#25 mclewis1

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Posted 17 November 2010 - 04:00 PM

Well I didn't go with an Asus Eee Netbox. I found something a little different. An ECS MD110 NetTop-3 system link to ECS product page

It's a small form factor unit, just a little thicker than the Eee Netbox but overall quite similar. It's about like a solid hard cover novel. The power supply is a 19v external brick, just like a laptop.
Atom 330 1.6Ghz dual core cpu
AMI BIOS
2 memory slots for DDR2 533 SODIMM (laptop) RAM (some descriptions incorrectly state that there is only 1 RAM slot)
Slim line DVD (included despite some confusion in the ads)
Slot for a 3.5" HDD, SATA controller
10/100 Ethernet
Intel 945 graphics controller - VGA connector
Onboard audio
PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors ... yes PS/2 so that old keyboard can be used.
6 USB ports
SD card reader
and interestingly a DB9 RS232 serial port (which will be really useful controlling the mount)
CD with the h/w drivers

What it doesn't have is a wireless 802.11 setup

The model that I bought is a barebones system (no OS, HDD or RAM). I've run it up with an HDD out of another PC and some old laptop RAM, everything seems to work fine. What I'm going to do is install a small SDD (30GB), 2.5GB of RAM and attempt to move a disk image with WinXP over to the SDD. Failing that I will attempt a re activation of a CD with a Dell OEM version that I have. Failing that I have an option to purchase a full retail version of XP Pro locally.

The idea is to build up a system that won't care if it gets frozen solid. The only moving part is a small system fan (CPU uses only a passive heatsink) and if that fails in the winter time I probably won't care.

Pictures and comments to follow once I get the SDD and the OS up and running (hopefully before the snow flies).


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