What is a Carputer and what do I need?
A Carputer, sometimes known as a CarPC, is a custom built PC system designed for use in a vehicle providing functionality such as DVD playback, MP3 playback, GPS navigation and much more. In reality, the only limitation is your imagination. One could even use a Carputer for Wardriving.
Opus will be releasing a screen specifically for Carputer application
Their intelligent PSUs are invaluable
With the low-by-modern-standards power requirements for any of the above, a Carputer needn’t be overly expensive or hard to cool. Handy optional extras will include the likes of a touch screen (otherwise a media center remote will suffice), a GPS receiver and a WiFi dongle.
The Casetronics Travla C134 fits perfectly in a car’s radio bay
Mini-ITX or Mini-ATX form factors are preferable, but you can use a full ATX system as long as you ensure the device will be properly mounted. A choice candidate would be the upcoming Asus F1A75-I Deluxe that we took a look at recently. When choosing a case, go for the smallest desktop (lies flat as opposed to an upright tower or a chunky cube PC) case you can. While a full ATX case is usable, you don’t necessarily want the large footprint taken by such a system. Ideal locations for a Carputer will be:
- Under the seat: While quite a tight fit with potential ventilation difficulties, the biggest issue here will be ease of access. In order to secure the Carputer in place, you will most probably have to remove the seat. Should anything ever go wrong with the system or you wish to upgrade it, have some Aspirin at hand for the headache which will ensue.
- Radio slot: The Casetronics Travla C134 will fit right in the bay normally used for a car radio. This may pose a security risk, but looks very sleek.
- Boot/trunk: This is the ideal place for a Carputer as it is out of sight and therefore out of mind of would-be thieves. You should be able to install the unit without it getting in the way, but wiring will be a challenge. Thankfully this is a once-off task.
A company known as Opus makes power supplies specifically for Carputers which will start your system and shut it down automatically as the car gets started and switched off. This 120w should be more than enough – remember that you won’t be doing any gaming or anything else intense on a Carputer and as such, power requirements will be lower than a standard desktop PC.
Furthermore, you will need a screen. A 23.6″ widescreen LCD monitor will look a bit out of place, so either CarTFT’s range or the upcoming Opus 7″ will be ideal, and both draw power over the USB port.
So how do I do it?
- First of all, familiarize yourself with your car’s electrical system and removal panels. Rather makes notes of that extra bit of seemingly-useless information now than spend hours trying to find out how to remove that last stubborn panel while your car is in pieces.
- Assemble the PC out of your chosen components. Keep in mind that using smaller components such as a laptop hard drive will not only make assembly less cramped and therefore easier, but you will improve airflow and possibly be able to fit an extra drive or two.
- Install Windows, all of your drivers, a CODEC pack, and your desired Carputer application. Between Google and browsing forums dedicated to Carputers you should be able to find an application which suits your needs (and taste).
- With the initial installation complete, copy your media to the Carputer. Either connect the machine to your home network or use an external hard drive to copy the data across.
- Now for the time consuming part. Install the Carputer in the desired location and start neatening wires. Cable tidies or Velcro strips will come in handy. You will probably have several items to stash away such as USB hubs, a GPS receiver or a WiFi antenna – space behind the dashboard can be useful but it will affect signal quality. Also make sure that you avoid any sources of heat such as heating elements as you don’t want to turn your car into a fire hazard. If you are putting the Carputer in the trunk, you will need to supply power, audio, video and USB feeds from the dash to the rear of the car. Keep power and data cables separated to avoid interference.
- The easiest way to stop the Carputer from sliding around and getting damaged would be to super glue large strips of Velcro to the bottom of the case. The Velcro can either stick to the carpeting or another piece of Velcro.
- You will need to secure your screen to your dashboard somehow. Your best bet is going to be to head over to Dashmount to find a custom bracket for your car.
- You will need to program your media center remote or touchscreen to work with your Carputer application. Download and install Girder, an application which uses scripts to replicate keystrokes when you tap your screen or press a button on your remote.
- Your car radio should have an auxiliary audio input. This will be your cheapest and easiest way to get your sound playing through the car stereo, but if you don’t have such a port you can use an FM Modulator – a device which will broadcast sound over very short distances on the FM band. All you need to do is tune your car radio to match the frequency of the modulator.
Windows XP will probably be your best choice for the operating system due to it being very light on resources. With RAM being so cheap as of late, Windows 7 will be a good second option if you have more than 2GB of RAM – especially if you go for Home Premium with the Windows Media Center. Linux is also an option if you want something free and you’re comfortable using it. Once the OS is sorted you can simply install a Carputer application. MediaCar is your best bet as it is highly skinnable, very powerful and has excellent GPS support. Media Engine is a good second choice, but the GPS support is lacking. For GPS mapping, take a look at Microsoft’s Mappoint or Destinator.
CarTFT also provides LCD displays for Carputer use
Remember to perform maintenance on your Carputer as you would with any other PC – they are also prone to viruses and crashes. Remember to be safe, it is neither sensible nor legal to blast down the highway while watching movies. Keep the visual entertainment for passengers and the music for yourself. Jonathan Horne