A rugged, modestly priced laptop

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Dell’s ATG series notebooks have an outdoor-viewable screen that’s perfect in the pilothouse

Dell’s ATG series notebooks have an outdoor-viewable screen that’s perfect in the pilothouse

A laptop with a large, high-resolution screen displays charts, radar and fishfinder images with a brilliant clarity and a wealth of detail far exceeding waterproof chart plotter screens. However a laptop, no matter how “ruggedized,” running navigational software cannot practically be used in a location exposed to weather. And even in a pilothouse, the screen requires a black visor or hood, since the glare — whether it’s sunny or overcast — washes out the image.

Ruggedized laptops with outdoor-viewable screens are quite expensive. Recently Dell introduced the attractively priced ATG D60 (ATG stands for All Terrain Grade), which I tested running Raymarine RayTech navigational software on board Maramor, my Grand Banks 42. On Maramor the ATG laptop is networked to a Raymarine E-Series sunlight-viewable color display on the flybridge. The Navionics chart chip is inserted into the E-Series, and the chart and radar images are sent to the laptop by way of Raymarine’s SeaTalk High Speed, a plug-and-play Ethernet-based network.

The local area network (LAN) cable from the E-Series is the same type you use on shore (RJ-45) except that it is shielded to prevent interference. Since all the data from such instruments as the GPS, depth sounder and anemometer come down to the ATG via the LAN connection, the cabling to the ATG at the helm consists of only the power supply cord and the shielded LAN cable for a handsome and uncluttered look.

If you have no need for a networked system on your boat, the charts can be loaded to the ATG from a USB reader. The ATG has a serial port for the input and output of data in formats such as NMEA and Raymarine’s proprietary SeaTalk protocol. The serial port, usually not available on modern laptops, eliminates the complication of having to use a USB-to-serial converter. Maramor has NMEA and SeaTalk instruments, and the data from them can be input directly to the ATG’s serial port via a Raymarine PC/NMEA/SeaTalk interface box.

The RayTech software has a built-in utility so you can easily choose between a LAN configuration with the E-Series display or a serial port configuration. If you have an autopilot, either one of these configurations is necessary for navigational instructions to be given by the laptop to the autopilot.

The E-Series displays are popular because they are bright, clear and very intuitive to use. The E-Series controls can be mimicked on the laptop screen and manipulated with the mouse. However, in my opinion, this convenience is too high a price to pay for the decreased screen area available for the chart, radar and fishfinder images. The keyboard and right-click mouse menu provide an alternative. With the tab key and the shift + tab keys you can zoom in and out, and the RayTech software has a utility to “program” the laptop’s keyboard so you can define your own keystrokes. I use “t” to clear tracks, ctrl + “f” for find ship, ctrl + “w” to display and go to my waypoints, and ctrl + “r” to clear a route. The possibilities are legion, and the ATG’s keyboard is dust- and spill-resistant so it can be used in the pilothouse on a trawler and at the nav station below on a sailboat by the skipper coming off the deck with wet hands and foul weather gear.

The ATG is the perfect laptop for the pilothouse. It is built to a military specification (MIL-STD 810F) for durability and is designed to be used in a work environment where it will be subjected to vibration, rough handling, dust and moisture. The chassis is magnesium alloy with reinforced steel hinges. The removable internal hard drive is shock-mounted in a magnesium alloy case. The most important feature is the shock-mounted, outdoor-viewable 14.1-inch WXGA (1280 x 800) screen with anti-reflective coating.

In fact, I am writing this article on the ATG, sitting at the galley table on Maramor. It is early morning on a cloudless day, with the sun streaming through the pilothouse windows and directly onto the screen. The sunlight is so bright that I am wearing sunglasses, yet the image on the ATG is crisp and clear. I love it. To put numbers on it, the flat panel screen in your office is probably about 185 nits (cd/m2), while the ATG screen is 500 nits.

Nighttime navigation presents different challenges for a laptop. The chart image needs to be adjusted for color and minimal brightness so as not to interfere with night vision. The RayTech software adjusts the image for color with day, dusk and night settings, and the laptop controls the brightness. The innovation on the ATG is red LED task lighting for the keyboard. The two LEDs at the top of the screen provide just the right amount of light for the keyboard and mouse for navigating at night.

My new BlackBerry has broadband service, and while writing this article at anchor in Long Island Sound I have downloaded for reference the spec for the ATG from Dell’s Web site (www.dell.com). I am now going to log on to the VPN in my office and e-mail the article to the editors at Soundings. Broadband service via the BlackBerry is now an inexpensive add-on to regular service and, depending on your point of view and circumstances, either detracts from the experience of being on the water or provides the means to spend more time with Mother Nature.

There is one caveat I must mention: RayTech software isn’t compatible with Microsoft Windows Vista and won’t be, according to Raymarine, until sometime this fall, when a new version of RayTech will be available. Order your ATG with Windows XP or with a dual-boot of XP and Vista, and you will be very pleased with this excellent laptop and navigational software. Pricing for the ATG with the shock-mounted hard drive starts at around $2,500, though Dell often offers “instant savings” and other specials.

In addition to running the Navionics vector charts, download the free raster charts for your boating area from the NOAA Web site (www.chartmaker.ncd.noaa.gov). The RayTech software will run the vector and raster charts simultaneously, and you can flip between them. You will find the raster charts at times to be very useful. When you remove your ATG from the nav station you can read Navionics or C-MAP vector charts with a USB chart reader, or just use the free raster charts from NOAA on your hard drive, which is what I do.