Friday, 15 December 2017

Laptops for data collection

Over the years, a number of people have asked me about what I would suggest in the way of a computer for fieldwork, or research work in dusty libraries without internet or convenient power sockets.

Fieldwork computers tend to have a hard life, carried about repeatedly, bounced about in trucks, and always at risk of the wet, either as rain or spillages, or from dust and dirt.

My advice has always been to aim for the longest battery life for the lowest cost to keep the replacement cost down. Also these devices don’t need to do a lot - run a spreadsheet to record data, some sort of note management program and a text editor.

I’ve tried the cheap android tablet and keyboard combo. and that’s pretty good for straight note taking or even creating structured text (eg markdown) but tends not to shine for creating tabular data. Which is a pity as they are cheap enough to be treated as a consumable.

So recently I’ve swung back to the refurbished netbook or laptop with linux, and a combination of basic tools. The software base of linux is so large that you can find just about anything, but I tend to favour CherryTree for notes management, Gnumeric for recording tabular data, gedit or kate for basic text, and perhaps something more specialist such as ReText for structured text, although kate’s syntax checker is pretty good.

If you want something for writing up draft reports, Focuswriter is fast and lightweight.

The downside is that battery life is poor. Two hours, three hours at most. Not enough for a decent session.

However, there are a number of these cheap eMMc memory based  windows laptops available. Mostly I’ve avoided these as the amount of storage, typically 32Gb, is too small, given that Windows will take around 20Gb, depending exactly how it’s configured.

Add a few extra programs and a bit of data, and there’s not a lot of headroom there. However devices with 64Gb storage are beginning to appear at a price that’s reasonable, for example the Lenovo Yoga 310-6K can be picked up from the usual suspects at around $400 - 450 from the usual suspects, which is about the midway price for a refurbished laptop.

But there’s two downsides to the refurbished laptop route - firstly if you want to keep windows, you’ll probably end up having to pay for a Windows 10 upgrade, and secondly battery life won’t be great. And if you go for an older or cheaper machine it’ll probably have a 5400 rpm SATA drive, so you won’t be getting lightening disk performance anyway.

These cheaper eMMc laptops come with Windows 10. Versions of CherryTree, Gnumeric, and Focuswriter are available for windows. There’s always notepad or windows Codewriter as an editor, and if you need something a little more flashy for structured text there’s Typora, or which will cost you around US$15 for a licence key.

What of course you’re getting is the longer battery life. You also get the bonus of being able to use the device in tablet mode, which makes showing people images - be it of plants, finds, sites, or handwritten text - much easier than on a laptop. The other bonus is OneNote, Microsoft’s note management tool.

I didn’t use to like OneNote - it seemed clumsy and slow compared to Evernote, but since working on the Dow’s Pharmacy project I’ve warmed to it.

Evernote remains the best ragbag management tool ever for categorising snippets garnered from everywhere. OneNote really isn’t good at imposing structure on chaos. What it is good for is building up a collection or collections of related notes - a subtle difference but an important one.

And of course you can have the best of both worlds and have both Evernote and OneNote on your machine.

So, what would I choose?

A few months ago I would have gone down the refurbished laptop with linux route, and if we’re talking about clever stuff like using R or iPython notebooks for on site data management and analysis I still would. For pure data collection, I’m not so sure. The increased storage and longer battery life certainly makes these eMMc based devices an interesting option ...

Update 16/12/2017

I've ignored iPads - deliberately - simply because they have the same problems as using an android tablet, the lack of a decent software base for data entry

1 comment:

Arthur said...

WHy not just buy an ipad? Would give 10+ hours battery life and covers all the basics fine. Shove a rugged case on if needed. Cost for the base model the same as those windows laptops and the experience will be a lot nicer.