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Outdoor laptop or WiFi?


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After a lot of effort 'tuning' the HEQ5 pro & still finding I'm really limited to ~ 1 - 2min unguided photos, 3mins if I'm happy to bin 50% of them (which I'm not!), I've taken the plunge & purchased a ZWO120mm / mini guidscope package :-).

Dusted off an old laptop, installed PHD2 & did some test exposures. For the 2nd session I installed ASCOM & experimenting with the guiding assistant etc. Appeared to be making some progress until the high cloud set in.

Tried to switch on my laptop the next day, to have a look at the log data etc, to discover that 2 short sessions outdoors has caused the demise of said laptop! ūüėě

So back to the Title question. What are peoples thoughts on 1. New bottom of the range £200 laptop, for guiding purposes only. 2. Some kind of WiFi hub & running from my 'good' (i.e. not going out in the cold) indoor laptop!

Concern with the WiFi option, is that for sure you need to be outside for the initial set up, alignment, focus, triggering the intervalometer (Using a DSLR) etc, so would be needing to take the laptop outside to begin anyway, which kind of seems to defeat the purpose. I'm not looking to add extra 'remote' capability, just looking for the lowest cost option to get started on the guiding...

Cheers,

Rob

 

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Well, if you end up going laptop again, what I do is to put the whole lot inside one of those plastic lidded crates with holes drilled for the cables. Once I've done the "outside" stuff ie PA etc I put the laptop in the crate and pop the lid on and I've never had any issues. The box keeps the main cold/dew off the kit and I guess to some extent the thing running in a closed space keeps it warmish too...

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I bought a second hand Panasonic Tough-Book. ( re-furb).

They come it at about £300 for a Win10pro with a SSD drive.   They do survive many a night out under the stars with condensation and rain thrown in for good measure.

Just make sure you get one with enough USB ports, preferably USB3's.

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48 minutes ago, Robculm said:

So back to the Title question. What are peoples thoughts on 1. New bottom of the range £200 laptop, for guiding purposes only. 2. Some kind of WiFi hub & running from my 'good' (i.e. not going out in the cold) indoor laptop!

Concern with the WiFi option, is that for sure you need to be outside for the initial set up, alignment, focus, triggering the intervalometer (Using a DSLR) etc, so would be needing to take the laptop outside to begin anyway, which kind of seems to defeat the purpose. I'm not looking to add extra 'remote' capability, just looking for the lowest cost option to get started on the guiding...

Cheers,

Rob

 

Well, there’s a growing happy band of Raspberry Pi/ Astroberry Server users you could join. You need a RPi4, with 2GB will do but 4GB is better, a 5V power supply, and a 32GB microSD card with a free download of the Astroberry bundle.

There’s a FaceBook group and plenty of information on websites and forums. Perhaps start with www.astroberry.io for information about the software package, and the PiHut etc for the hardware.

All is controlled by WiFi from the Astroberry hotspot so you can be nearby at the beginning to do your polar alignment and set the image capture controls, and then go indoors and monitor (and control) from the warmth. If the WiFi link fails for some reason, the RPi carries on doing its jobs independently.

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I use a small USB3 hub attached to the mount along with my cigarette lighter adapter and that way apart from one USB cable to the laptop all other USB cables only "go" to the mount. My cigarette lighter adapter is fastened to the mount too and that powers my camera, focuser and mount so all power cables only "go" to the mount too. One external USB and a mains adapter for the power thingymajig are the only external cables that I have to plug in each time.

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I have done 3 second hand laptops, refurbished with Win 10 and SSD, kept in a box outside with no issues, recently had a cable issue so shortened cables to 3 m and works a dream, i then sit inside with my mac via chrome remote and control everything from the sofa.  Because of my mount I only have one trailing cable which is for the main imaging camera and just make sure there is no where for it to snag..  Recently had a friend who went down the mini pc route and he has mounted all on his scope, again running win 10.

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I have used a laptop outside which was fine even when very cold (-10 or so) providing I put the transformer for the 12v supply and the PC transformer in the same plastic box. This generated enough heat to keep everything frost free. However, unlike the kit, I do not like getting frozen so I changed to a 15m active USB 3 cable back to the house which I have been using for about a year without issue. This connects to a 12v powered USB hub which controls everything on the scope. I also have a 12v power distribution box that I made out of a small junction box, so the only trailing cables are one for power and one for data. I know a lot of people are not keen of the USB cables - but personally I have been pleased with the results.

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No  one who  frequents this  forum  will be  shocked that I  endorse  the astro-Pi idea. Advantages:

  • Cheap
  • Can be an extremely capable observatory-control¬†system
  • Small, light weight, very low power consumption
  • Versatile

KStars/Ekos has everything from planning (including automated generation of mosaic jobs) to control of just about every astro device you can think  of. The Pi is easy to run off mains, but will last all night with even a pretty inexpensive battery powering it and your mount. For my CEM25P, I used to use a 14 Ah deep cycle sealed lead-acid. Lasted WAY longer than the battery in any laptop I've ever had!

If you spend US$50 on the turnkey StellarMate OS software, you can use a dedicated app on a mobile device at your scope to set up, then retire inside to run everything with your regular computer. Or you  could spend maybe $120 on a touchscreen HDMI  display and a Bluetooth keyboard and use that at the scope.

The Pi stands up  a short-range WiFi hotspot if it can't sign in to a local WiFi network, or you can run an Ethernet cable (I use a 30m one) out to the scope. If the network goes down, or your computer  goes to sleep, the Pi doesn't care, it just keeps on  imaging.

The versatility really appeals to me -- I can run KStars/Ekos on my MacBook or Windows laptop and plug directly into the equipment for testing, or set up the Pi and remote into it with a laptop, tablet, or  even a phone  and have exactly the same interface at a remote site.

 

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6 hours ago, rickwayne said:

No  one who  frequents this  forum  will be  shocked that I  endorse  the astro-Pi idea. Advantages:

  • Cheap
  • Can be an extremely capable observatory-control¬†system
  • Small, light weight, very low power consumption
  • Versatile

KStars/Ekos has everything from planning (including automated generation of mosaic jobs) to control of just about every astro device you can think  of. The Pi is easy to run off mains, but will last all night with even a pretty inexpensive battery powering it and your mount. For my CEM25P, I used to use a 14 Ah deep cycle sealed lead-acid. Lasted WAY longer than the battery in any laptop I've ever had!

If you spend US$50 on the turnkey StellarMate OS software, you can use a dedicated app on a mobile device at your scope to set up, then retire inside to run everything with your regular computer. Or you  could spend maybe $120 on a touchscreen HDMI  display and a Bluetooth keyboard and use that at the scope.

The Pi stands up  a short-range WiFi hotspot if it can't sign in to a local WiFi network, or you can run an Ethernet cable (I use a 30m one) out to the scope. If the network goes down, or your computer  goes to sleep, the Pi doesn't care, it just keeps on  imaging.

The versatility really appeals to me -- I can run KStars/Ekos on my MacBook or Windows laptop and plug directly into the equipment for testing, or set up the Pi and remote into it with a laptop, tablet, or  even a phone  and have exactly the same interface at a remote site.

 

I second this. Although I’m new to the Raspberry Pi scene, it has changed my Astro experience considerably for the better. It just works.

My scope is situated around 20m or more from my router yet I can still access it via VNC over my own network, failing that I could do the same using its own hotspot. All in all including the pi4 (2gb), case and memory card, the solution cost me less than £100 (Astroberry is free but I also made a donation too) and it all works from my Halfords power tank (which was around £60 but I already had that).

It works great, and has been said already, it’s standalone, so should WiFi or electricity fail, the RPI will carry on and finish its job.

Oh, and you can go to bed while it does it! Bonus!!! ūüėÄ

 

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15 hours ago, Robculm said:

1. New bottom of the range £200 laptop, for guiding purposes only. 2. Some kind of WiFi hub & running from my 'good' (i.e. not going out in the cold) indoor laptop!

Things I try to avoid in astronomy are equipment with moving parts (excluding mounts, obvs :) ), domestic quality connectors and software that can be changed / altered / updated. In general to keep the number of things that can possibly change, under control.
So for outside use I dislike computers with fans, cheap USB, power (in particular cigar lighter power connectors), and network RJ45 or RJ11 plugs and sockets. All of these are designed only for indoor use. None of them handle dirt or moisture well. The connectors also do not like being moved or tugged. And software that can "spontaneously" change its settings or helpfully update itself with neither permission nor warning is a particular bête noire. All of these detract from reliability and therefore waste time.

So in this case my preferred solution would be a small computer such as a Raspberry or Brix / NUC type, in a weatherproof enclosure with an ethernet line run to the house. If you are rolling out a power cable to the telescope each night (or thinking of installing permanent power cables) then an extra cat 5 or cat 6 is not much extra effort. Although if your telescope will be close enough to the house to have a reliable and strong WiFi signal, then that would be a usable second choice.

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Another Pi fan here, they are excellent little devices for this purpose and whilst it does have a few minor niggles, like not liking poor quality power supplies/cables and the USB 2 and 3 ports being a bit close together causing some frequency interference if you want to use things like USB 2 GPS / WiFi dongles (though that could be as well down to poor shielding jobs on cables that a few wraps of grounding tape from touching the plug metal to about 5cm up the cable and two minutes will solve) and the Pi 4 bottlenecking a bit if using an SD card over a USB drive.  For the price / performance view on them, they are as good as any budget laptop but fully tooled about half the price; and as with what Pete said above about the software updates, without doing a full Linux install on a laptop, that's a pretty strong pull for me as well especially in a control system environment.

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Many thanks for all of your input & suggestions. It's really interesting & as with all aspects of Astrophotography, it appears there are a multitude of different approaches!

Longer term, I can certainly see the attraction of the Pi solution (or possibly a ZWO Air Pro? which appears similar unless I'm mistaken?). But I guess I'm struggling with fear of the unknown! Being a newbie & definitely no expert when it comes to 'computers', I'm trying to advance little by little. Getting to grips with the image stacking & processing side has already been quite a challenge. Now moving in to autoguiding... But still very much feel I need to be 'at the telescope', at least until I have a better understanding of how everythings working.

I think for me, it's therefore going to be a new budget laptop, get familiar with PHD2 & hopefully bag some decent images, then maybe explore EQMOD or suchlike to start controlling everything from the computer... If I can get the hang of these things through the warmer weather, maybe next winter will be a nudge towards considering a more remote approach!

 

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I tried and failed with Astroberry/Pi so went for a cheap micro PC off ebay, W10 SSD, 6 USB ports and WiFi . I Run APT, PHD2, ASTAP (for plate solving) and other bits and pieces. It has no monitor or keyboard = "headless". Controlled via RealVNC (remote desktop type thing) over WiFi from either my cheap android tablet (outdoors) or my Laptop (indoors). It runs warm enough that it's self-protected from frost and damp.

Works well and didn't cost an arm and a leg.

image.thumb.png.3b695f6227791bb5d73fa9415de94c1c.png

 

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You might be interested in the ASIAir Pro then. Much more expensive than snapping together your own Pi, but you get a nice metal case, a 12V power input and a couple of 12V outlets, and a carefully curated, simplified app experience instead of the extensive, feature-laden desktop-computer interface of Ekos. (StellarMate, as I said, also provides an app to streamline use of their stuff).

The AAP limits you to the ZWO ecosystem, although they also support Nikon and Canon DSLRs. I like ZWO equipment, but have a Pentax DSLR too, so I'd be leery.

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