Initial Design for Outdoor PC

My first thoughts on a PC that can work outdoors:

  • I’m hoping the mere fact that it gets cold and then later warms up is not a problem.  Laptops get cold in aircraft holds and survive. Starting while cold will be a challenge.
  • I think moving parts may be a problem when cold.
  • I’m especially concerned about the rotating hard drive.
    • First, a cold component will have tighter fit and may bind, drag, or burn out.
    • Second, I am especially concerned about condensation or frost forming inside the drive mechanism, which I think would almost certainly destroy the drive.

So, my initial strategy is going to be to aim for a computer with no moving parts. Combining bits of several old machines, I’ve assembled and upgraded a recent-model desktop with the following features:

  • Running XP so all the relevant drivers work, and so the operating system footprint on the disk is fairly small (only about 30 GB).
  • Dual-core processor and extra RAM (3 GB) to ensure it can smoothly manage the cameras while still doing other chores. I don’t need a lot of processor speed, but I need it to be able to multi-task without thrashing.
  • Good quality wireless network link.
  • Temperature-controlled cooling fan so the fan won’t be trying to turn while cold.
  • Small built-in hard drive, which I’ll be replacing.

What I’m hoping will be the magic to make this work is that I have taken out the original hard drive and replaced it with a solid-state drive. So, when this machine boots, there are no moving parts. Once it warms up the fan will kick in but it will, by definition, be warm when that happens.

Because the solid state drive isn’t very large (they get expensive with size), all working document storage will go over the wireless link to a Network Attached Storage device in the house. I’m using a 64 GB solid-state drive, which should be plenty of space for the XP image, all of the relevant software, and the large databases used by the astronomy software.

I don’ t have a magic trick for the LCD display yet, and will wait to see how much of a problem it is. During the summer it should be OK. During the winter, I only need the machine functional enough to get it started, as I tend to do all the major interaction wtih the compture remotely from the warmth of my house.


Bootable Solid-State C-Drive

Getting the solid-state drive set up and bootable took a bit of time. It was easy to clone, but the machine didn’t want to boot from it.  Eventually, I found a formula that worked:

  • Format the SSD to empty, and replace the machine’s C-drive with the empty drive;
  • Mount the former, bootable, internal drive as a USB drive using a SATA-to-USB connector, and boot from it;
  • Clone the booted drive over to the empty C-drive using Acronis TrueImage;
  • Remove the former internal drive and restart.

The machine now boots off the internal drive.  Windows XP boots quickly. More important, the machine just sits there silent, no moving parts, until eventually it warms up enough that the fan kicks in.

Installing all the usual software (Firefox, Maxim, theSky, CCDAutopilot, PEMPRO, etc) took up a little less than half of the 64-GB drive, so there is plenty of room left for temporary files, paging, and even working copies of image files (although I plan to have image files sent straight to the network storage if that works).

Some installation problems moving MaxPoint, and I’m working with their tech support to resolve that before it goes outside.  (Update: Great service from their tech support tracked down the problem and fixed it with a registry update. Thanks, folks.)

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