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
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:
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;
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.
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: Verizon USB 720 modem ($200 plus $80/month;
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you want, add a keyboard like the Mini-Key ($25; store.mp3car.com).
- Install the car-PC software.
- Plug in the cellular modem, install any required software, and hit the road.
- 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