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?

Install a Carputer
****Cost:
$1,000-$2,000
Time: 6-12 Hours
Easy | | | | | Hard

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 e-mail 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.

WHAT YOU NEED:

COMPUTER
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.

SCREEN
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 seven- or eight-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.

POWER
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.

SOFTWARE
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
).

INTERNET
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 Wi-Fi hotspot too. ($400, plus $50/month for service; goautonet.com).

To see how we put it all together, turn to the next page.

  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.
  8. Once you’ve finished, turn to the next page to learn how to make your carputer do what you want with some great applications.

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 3-D 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