January 26th, 2008

Good Deal on Powerful LapTop Computer For Chrono and Ballistics Applications

These days, if you want to do serious load development and ballistic testing at the range, a laptop is becoming more and more useful. While a hand-held PDA can calculate come-ups and even handle a spreadsheet, having the large screen and full keyboard of the laptop is very handy.

Currently, many of the better chronographs, including CED, PACT, and the PVM-21 offer optional direct-to-PC interfaces that allow you to track and archive shot and string data, as well as perform various data comparisons. The PVM-21 has a very sophisticated program that tracks multiple bullet design and ballistics variables.

Thanks to a donation from Joe F. in California, we recently acquired a new Windows laptop computer to use for field testing and doing research for stories. The performance and features of the computer, a Dell 1500 Vostro, were good enough that this editor wanted to recommend the product for those of you looking for a low-cost Windows-based computer for home and field use. (NOTE: Apple Macs are great and the latest versions will run Windows natively using separate partitioning and the “Bootcamp” software. However, for a variety of reasons, including cost and backwards compatibility, we wanted to stick to the Windows platform.)

QuickLOAD software running on the Dell laptop:

The Dell 1500 computer arrived fully charged and every port and switch worked perfectly. The machine was immediately stuffed with three ballistics programs, software for three brands of chronographs, plus QuickLOAD, QuickTARGET, QuickDESIGN, Excel, Firefox, GIMP, and PhotoShop. All that software ran just fine.

Here’s what I like about the Dell Vostro:

GREAT Value: Given its feature set, the Dell 1500 is very inexpensive. The base promotional price (before a few upgrades), was $549. This price included 2.0 Gigs of RAM, built-in Wi-Fi, a 250 Gig hard-drive, and a 1.4 gHz dual-core Intel processor. For you non-computer geeks, that’s a very healthy configuration for the price.

Easy Networking: Conventional networking proved incredibly simple and trouble-free. To connect to the office computer I merely activated networking on both machines, then plugged an ethernet cable from the router into the laptop. Voila, I was networked. No muss, no fuss.

Effortless Wireless: The wireless networking is amazing. I opted for the best Intel “next-gen” extended range 4965AGN Wi-Fi card (a $79.00 upgrade). The impressive Intel software found my network all by itself the first time I turned on the machine! The Dell comes with a switchable (on/off) radio unit that automatically scans for networks. I basically was able to access the internet within minutes of turning on the machine for the first time. I later set up secured wireless access, which required reading my router manual, but there were no glitches. I want to stress how easy it was to hook up to a wireless network. And I can even access the ‘Net away from home if I go to a “hot-spot” with Wi-Fi (or pay for a roaming plan). Again, the computer does all the work–it finds the Wi-Fi channel and simply asks “Do you want to connect?”

XP Available: I went with Dell because it is one of the few vendors that will sell you a laptop with XP instead of Windows Vista. Compared to XP, I’ve found that the Vista OS typically takes twice as long to boot up and Vista runs many applications 20-30% slower. Vista also still has serious incompatibility issues with some programs and drivers. With the XP OS, every application and all peripherals worked flawlessly.

Versatile Hardware: The Dell has the full range of ports, including an 8-in-1 Memory Card reader port. This means that I can take pictures and video with a camera, and simply remove the Flash data card from the camera and plug it right into the computer, which reads the card as a separate drive. Fantastic. Because the wireless transceiver is all internal, I still have an open port for a 54mm Express Card. I can also pipe Video from a camcorder directly into the computer.

No Bloatware: I run NOD32 for virus protection and prefer FireFox as a browser. The Dell 1500 did come with Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and Microsoft Works installed, but other than that, it ships with very little annoying, junk software that takes hours to remove.

Good Performance: Battery life is good. Even with the basic, six-cell battery, I was able to run the machine 3.5-5 hours between charges. Run time depends on screen brightness level and how much you access the hard drive. A larger nine-cell battery is available at extra cost. I don’t have any system to meter the processor performance, but when browsing the web with an ethernet hook-up, pages displayed instantly. Some programs actually opened faster than my desktop computer.

Tough Construction: The unit is pretty heavy (6.5 lbs. with six-cell battery), but it is nice and sturdy. It has a magnesium frame and there’s no flex around the screen or the keyboard. Key “feel” is very good and the touchpad is one of the best I’ve tried.

What are the negatives? The screen is average. Brightness is good, but there’s no separate contrast control. I opted for the low-glare, standard screen after reading many complaints that the high-polish “True-Life” screen produced annoying reflections. It would be nice if the computer were smaller and lighter, but if you want a smaller format, Dell offers the Vostro 1400 (14″ diag. screen) for less money. I’m happy with the 1500 with its 15.4″ diagonal screen. That lets me view the AccurateShooter.com Forum at full width, and still see two rows of program icons on the left.

So… there you have it. If you want a good, rugged laptop for under $600 that will run any Windows program, even arcane chrono and ballistics software, the Vostro 1500 is worth a look. And if, like me, you prefer XP over the slow and troublesome Vista, Dell is one of the few companies that will sell you a Windows laptop with XP. For under $600 (base price), I think the Dell is a heck of a unit. Dell even threw in free shipping! I do recommend the Intel Wi-Fi upgrade — it has better range when the signal is weak, and can transfer data faster when the signal is strong. You can spend more for a faster processor and higher-RPM hard drive, but I think the base unit with 2 Gigs of RAM is plenty fast.

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