A DIY dashtop computer
Why settle for the standard stereo or a GPS unit when you can have an in-car PC running off your car's battery to guide the way, watch the engine, and download tunes?
This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the May 2007 issue of Popular Science magazine and involves outdated technologies and services. For current advice, check our regularly updated story about apps with special car modes for safer driving, learn how to prevent your phone from distracting you while you’re driving, and figure out how to connect to your car’s on-board diagnostics port to see what its computer is up to.
For all the time you spend in your car, you ought to get something done along the way. With an internet-connected car PC stuffed out of sight and a touchscreen on the dash, you can email a pal to get a restaurant recommendation, read reviews online, plug the address into the GPS software, and watch last night’s Colbert Report while you’re waiting for your date. There are several ways to configure and install a system, and it’s easier than you think. We designed a system-in-a-box that easily moves from car to car and runs entirely from one cigarette-lighter socket. See our guide to the parts below and the steps on the facing page, and you’ll be a mobile info hub in practically no time.
- Project: install a carputer
- Cost: $1,000 to $2,000
- Time: 6 to 12 hours
- Difficulty: easy | | | | | hard (Editor’s note: 3/5)
What you’ll need
- We used: Apple Mac Mini ($600; apple.com)
- Any computer could work, but the simplest to install are compact PCs like Vizualogic’s VMOD ($700; vizualogic.com). We opted for a similarly sized Mac Mini since it runs both OS X and Windows. Like the VMOD, the Mini fits perfectly in the double-high slot where your factory stereo would go. Other ideal spots: in the glove compartment or under one of the front seats.
- We used: Mp3Car.com’s TRANS 7-inch VGA transflective ($680; store.mp3car.com) and RAM’s RAP-B-104-224U mount ($23; gpscity.com)
- A 7- or 8-inch touchscreen is big enough that it’s easy to control and read but small enough to stay out of the way. Position it away from the car’s other controls, and mount it securely. For a more factory-finished look, get it custom-installed in your dashboard. Prices start at around $500.
- We used: Carnetix CNX-P1900 ($100; carnetix.com)
- Your car’s 12-volt DC power can spike or sag to different voltages, so you’ll need an adapter to regulate it. Look for one built specifically for a car computer, such as the P1900, which can run extra components like a USB hub and can put the computer to sleep when you turn off the car instead of just abruptly shutting it down.
- We used: StreetDeck ($200; streetdeck.com)
- A number of software packages integrate navigation and multimedia playback. For a free option, try Road Runner (guino.home.insightbb.com).
- We used: Verizon USB 720 modem ($200 plus $80/month; verizon.com)
- For an always-on connection on the road, you’ll need a cellular data modem, which gets near-DSL speeds in most places. We plugged in a USB model and ran it to the monitor mount. You can also use the Autonet Mobile router, which turns the car into a mobile WiFi hotspot too. ($400, plus $50/month for service; goautonet.com).
How we put it all together
1. Wire the power regulator’s input side to your car battery and ignition so that the computer remains powered even after you turn off the car.
2. Connect the regulator’s output side to the computer. You may have to open the computer to bypass its power button. For a schematic, go to carnetix.com.
3. Plug the screen into the PC’s DVI-to-VGA adapter. To power the screen, plug it into a lighter socket, or just wire it directly to the regulator.
4. Plug a sound cable from the computer’s audio-out jack to the stereo’s AUX-in port, or use a tape adapter or FM modulator to hear the PC through your car speakers.
5. If you want, add a keyboard like the Mini-Key ($25; store.mp3car.com).
6. Install the car-PC software.
7. Plug in the cellular modem, install any required software, and hit the road.
3 killer apps for your internet-connected PC
Get music from home
Your car PC can connect to your home computer in real time and access all its media content. Use VPN software from Hamachi (free; hamachi.cc) to play music and podcasts from your iTunes library.
Find your way
Add a GPS dongle for satellite navigation on a screen bigger than that of most dedicated GPS units. Not only can you get traffic reports, points of interest, and Google Maps; you can also pull up simulated 3D images of your route.
Monitor your car’s performance
With an adapter ($130; scantool.net) that plugs into the PC’s USB slot, you can connect to your car’s onboard diagnostics port to get real-time data on speed, rpm, fuel pressure, temperature, and all those “check engine light” codes.