Upgrading My Computer for Astrophotography
The past 48 hours have been a whirlwind of software downloads, driver updates and even a last minute run to the computer store (for a new USB to RS232 cable)
I am happy to report that the journey was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time to advance my progress in this incurable addiction we call deep sky astrophotography. As I write this – my camera is recording impressive unguided 2-minute images of the North America Nebula using the new PC.
NGC 7000 – 26 Minutes of Exposure Time (13 x 2 minutes)
The new computer has inspired me to bring my old equatorial mount out of retirement, and the above photo proves she can still hold her own. (unguided!) But first, let’s take a step back and look at how I got here.
Upgrading My Computer for Astrophotography
The computer I’ve used for astrophotography until now was a Sony VAIO with USB 2.0 ports, 2GB RAM, and a severely outdated processor. With new astrophotography hardware products hitting the market that demand faster and more capable machines, I knew the old Sony’s days were numbered.
The most recent of these products being the impressively small and powerful Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box. I had some issues connecting to the device early on that I am convinced are related to my aging computer with USB 2.0 ports.
My aging laptop computer for astrophotography
The USB drivers are a complete mess on this old laptop. I probably could have wasted a few more nights under the stars troubleshooting the issue, but instead decided to channel the experience as a catalyst for a new machine.
(It’s amazing how certain situations in astrophotography result in the necessity for new equipment:)
Controlling the Telescope, Camera, and Mount
I should state this right out of the gate, so there is no confusion about this post. The computer I recently upgraded to is for controlling my camera and telescope mount, not for processing deep sky images.
I use a more powerful (and much less portable) computer for photo and video editing, as I am sure many of you do. (It’s an ASUS ROG GL752 for those interested.)
The computer I’ll be discussing in this post is destined to spend countless nights next to my telescope. It needs to be lean and mean, so I can rely on it produce consistent astrophotography images with my equipment.
It must be able to withstand the elements and connect to all of my current and future imaging cameras and devices.
My old computer for astrophotography on a cold night in March
A truly efficient computer for astrophotography will ideally only have the essential applications needed for camera and telescope control installed. A jack-of-all-trades machine that includes image-editing software, multimedia, and other unnecessary applications can slow down PC performance and introduce potential headaches.
The perfect astrophotography computer should be a no-nonsense PC with only one purpose, to reliably control your telescope and collect images. In this post, I’ll do my best to compare the most popular choices against the solution I ended up pulling the trigger on.
Options for Deep Sky Astrophotography
In July of 2018, I reached out the AstroBackyard Facebook community for advice on a new PC to control my telescope mount and camera.
The popularity and availability of portable “Mini PC’s” piqued my interest, but the thought of not having complete control of the device accessible at all times raised a few questions.
- What are the advantages of a “stick” PC for astrophotography?
- How do I Install and update software on a mini PC?
- What are the advantages of a dedicated astronomy control unit?
Needless to say, I had some serious decisions to make about the way I will be controlling my imaging sessions over the next few years.
After some great advice, I began leaning towards a high-end Intel Mini Compute Stick. Naturally, I loved the portability and size of this option, as it’s hard to imagine getting an astrophotography computer smaller than a pack of gum.
Mini PC Sticks
The ASUS VivoStick and the Intel Compute Stick are 2 popular “mini PC” options for running the Windows operating system. Raspberry Pi mini computer systems are also quite popular, but I won’t be covering these as I don’t have any experience using one for astrophotography.
The Intel Compute Stick (pictured below) had the most attractive options for someone in my position. The model I was drawn to included a pre-installed copy of Windows 10, 4GB of RAM and an integrated wireless adapter. These specs already topped those of my previous imaging laptop at the size of a USB drive.
The Intel Compute Stick with a Core m3 Processor
However, the price tag of the high-end CS325 model competed with laptop computers with similar specs (that include an integrated keyboard and mouse). I understand that the power and convenience of such advanced technology in a small size comes at a premium.
The slightly larger Intel NUC mini PC was referred to me by several happy customers, but again, the price tag is steep if you’re looking to get the model with high-end specs. The Core i7 version I was interested in included SSD/HHD bays but did not include any onboard storage out of the box.
The Intel NUC with a Core i7 Processor
In the end, I concluded that a mini PC was not critical to my astrophotography configuration. My setup is non-permanent and having a single cable running to a powered USB 3.0 hub on the mount does not bother me. (for now)
My need for a new computer to control my astrophotography sessions was instigated by outdated hardware, not a desire to reduce the size of my imaging footprint.
Dedicated Astrophotography Computers
A number of astrophotography control computers have hit the market over the past few years, with the Prima Luce Labs EAGLE Core becoming a household name. (Well, in my household anyway).
I’ve seen the results of the Eagle Core control unit used by Sara Wager of Swag Astro, and Corey Schmitz of Photographing Space, and they both had great things to say about this product. As Prima Luce Labs puts it, this control unit is “much easier than a computer”. In fact, I had a chance to talk to the owner of Prima Luce Labs in April:
Eagle Core Astrophotography Computer Control Unit
The ASIair is another interesting computer control option, and another product I first saw mentioned at NEAF. The ASIair can autoguide, plate solve, and of course capture images. It’s extremely small.
What I found interesting about this option is that ZWO specifically mentions that the ASIAIR was designed for wide-field astrophotography. In all of their demos and product images, they show a compact APO refractor on a GoTo mount.
The ASIAIR imaging control unit
I’ll keep an eye on this one as it is a brand new product at a reasonable price. I know there is a huge market for these types of units and I expect future iterations to follow.
My Final Decision
After digesting all of the helpful information provided by vendors, peers, and fellow imagers, I finally landed on a decision to control my equipment I could live with.
I had a clear vision of the best astrophotography computer for my needs. Another Laptop.
Perhaps I am just too stuck in my old ways to embrace the incredible new solutions available for deep sky astrophotography. Or maybe I just like the thrill of a great deal.
The replacement for my beloved old Sony VAIO laptop is a Lenovo ThinkPad 11e. Just a quick note, this is an older generation model that has since sold out, but the link listed is the closest comparable model I could find.
As cutting edge and impressive as the Intel NUC and Compute Sticks are, the lack of integrated display and steep price tag lead me to explore more options. I enjoy controlling my mount from inside the house on Team Viewer as much as the next guy, but I also want to be able to have complete control over each software tool while sitting next to my rig.
When I found a no-nonsense laptop with speed and performance in a small package on Amazon, I pounced. The Lenovo ThinkPad 11e has a 128 GB Solid-State Hard Drive – which means there is no fan to make noise or fault in the extreme temperatures of my backyard.
It also boasts a respectable 8GB of RAM, an Intel Celeron N2920 processor and an internal wifi adapter. All this in a highly portable 11.6” package – for $250 (CDN). The model I ordered was certified refurbished – which certainly helped reduce the price.
Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Specs:
- 1.86 GHz Intel Celeron N2920 Processor
- 8 GB RAM
- 128 GB SSD
- 2 X USB 3.0 Ports
- HDMI Port
- 11.6-inch HD LED anti-glare Display
- 1366 x 768 HD Resolution
- Integrated Wireless Network Adapter
With a clean slate on a Windows 10 machine, it was time to download each and every software tool I use for astrophotography.
This proved to be a great opportunity to share the current software tools I use for camera and telescope control, as I had to reinstall each and every application on a brand new laptop.
- Astro Photography Tool
- PHD2 Guiding
- Pegasus Astro Power Box Software
- Pegasus Astro Focus Controller
- Team Viewer
- iOptron Commander
- ASCOM Platform
- USB to RS232 Prolific COM Driver
- ZWO ASI Camera Driver
- Altair Astro Camera Driver
To summarize, the new laptop will control virtually every aspect of my deep sky imaging sessions using APT, PHD2 and the Pegasus Astro software. My early tests using the Pocket Power Box have been promising. So far, I’ve utilized the temperature sensor, onboard 12V outlets, and even the dew heater controllers.
A More Organized Approach
My goal for the remainder of this year is to get my imaging rigs organized in an effort to save time. With new telescopes and cameras to test and review each month, I have grown tired of scrambling to make things work under the pressure of a rare clear sky.
I’ll have two rigs ready to go that can be controlled using the new Lenovo laptop. Here is the new computer in use for an imaging session on the North America Nebula.
The new computer in use with my camera and telescope
I’ve still got some bugs (and cable management) to work out on my “ready for anything” rig that involves the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 equatorial mount and Explore Scientific ED 102 telescope. This setup includes the Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box and Motorized Focuser.
This kit will be deployed for wide field deep sky astrophotography on nights when lugging the big CEM60 and a large telescope isn’t possible.
I captured 26 minutes of unguided subs on the Lenovo ThinkPad 11e laptop with this rig as a test to make sure everything was working properly.
Capturing NGC 7000 using APT on my new imaging computer
The bottom line is, invest in the type of imaging control solution that works best with your style and equipment profile. For example, if you have a highly-automated imaging setup in a permanent observatory, an onboard mini PC connected to a wifi tablet is probably the most convenient option.
The EAGLE Core and ASIAIR offer an impressive user experience for amateur astrophotographers that want to control everything from their smartphone. This option may seem like the obvious best choice, but for backyard astrophotographers without a permanent setup like me, it’s nice to have the practicality of a traditional laptop computer.
I spend a lot of time outside with my rig while it’s running. It will be interesting to see if the new mini PCs and dedicated control units like the EAGLE Core are the preferred choice for beginners getting into the hobby. Anything that can streamline a complex and involved process is sure to be a hit with consumers.
Having been in this game for nearly a decade, I guess you could say I’m “old school”. If you’ve used a mini PC or any of the specialized astrophotography computers mentioned in this post, please let me know how it’s working for you in the comments.