Rolling your own Car PC

In-Car PCs are something you usually see in luxury vehicles of the rich and famous, acting as a single neat package that allows them to play MP3s, navigate via GPS and watch movies. However with a bit of DIY work - none of which requires ripping out the dashboard of your brand new car, we might add - you too can have a CarPC.

We've built three CarPCs thus far, and seen the technology evolve in leaps and bounds over the past three years. In 2003, there wasn't so much as a readily available or affordable DC-DC power supply, so what we originally used was based on a laptop computer using a power inverter plugged into the car cigarette lighter. The computer was set to hibernate when power was removed, and to boot when the power was restored. As well as the rather ad-hoc hardware setup, one had to use Windows Media Player for music on the go, which is far from an ideal setup while you're trying to drive.

CarPC technology has come along quite a way since then, and today there are numerous front ends and hardware solutions available to fit the particular needs of an in-car PC.

Our Second CarPC

Even when we did the second CarPC, things were much better than the first. For this system we opted for the VIA M10000 motherboard with integrated C3 1 GHz CPU, M1-ATX Power Supply Unit, and a tView 7" touch screen. We wanted a removable case that would fit snugly into the glove compartment, and so made the case out of Plexiglas. We then used a 9-pin Molex connector to power the unit, the screen and the startup controller, allowing us to remove the system at will. For example, we could take out the PC when bringing the car in for service, so nobody would be tempted to help themselves when we weren't looking.

We molded the screen into the dash where the two center vents used to be; by cutting the vents out, we gained the room that we needed in the dash to mold the screen in and make it appear to be an OEM installation. We then cut two small slits on the sides, next to the screen, and re-routed some of the air from the vents so that there wasn't a complete loss of AC or heat.

Since this was our second system, we knew more about what we were doing, but it still took a full month of long days to get it working. Boy was it worth it, though! To have all the features of a CarPC, from navigation to MP3s and beyond, was the greatest feeling. Sure you could get a GPS handheld, or an MP3 player, but this is more versatile and more importantly - way cooler! This system worked without a change for about a year and a half until we sold the vehicle, CarPC and all. We hope the system is still running strong and making its new owner happy.

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