It is becoming an increasingly popular pastime to add a new element to cars, a new hub for entertainment, GPS and communications. The carputer seems to have been inspired partly by TV shows such as Knight Rider and movies from the James Bond series as well as the progress of technology in the modern age.
While 20 years ago, a dashboard-mounted computer would have been heavy, slow and generally ineffective, thanks to the existence of slimline motherboard formats, mobile phones, tablets and netbooks, mounting a carputer has become extremely easy.
Using Your Smartphone
The beauty of the idea of a car computer – a device that provides a centralised hub for various in-car technology features – is that one can be set up with a minimum of fuss and effort. While you might prefer a more integrated option (in which case, read on) the use of a smartphone mounted on your dashboard/windscreen can provide a first step into the world of the carputer.
Power issues can be dealt with via the car’s cigarette lighter, while there are a variety of ways in which audio from the device can be wired to the car speakers.
Using your mobile phone’s GPS system you can get updates on your travel progress, with the help of mobile Internet, weather updates can be picked up by your phone and of course the device is equipped with a built-in MP3 player. Meanwhile if you prefer digital radio, many stations can be streamed through a free app such as Tune In Radio, available on all major platforms.
Audio can be wired through your car speakers in a variety of ways, with FM transmitters, analogue cables, Bluetooth and even USB among the options.
Mounting a Tablet Computer
The problem with relying on a smartphone for carputer tasks is that the display is probably a bit too small. What you need is something larger, like a tablet computer!
While mounting a smartphone is relatively easy thanks to various grips and holders, finding a secure spot on your dashboard for a tablet computer might be a bit trickier. Fortunately these tips can help you out of a hole, allowing you to focus on using the tablet as a carputer rather than worrying about how to reach it relatively safely.
With a GPS and 3G/4G equipped tablet you should be able to enjoy the same wealth of functions as with a smartphone, but with the added advantage of a larger display!
A Use For Old Netbooks
If you have an old netbook computer lying around, this compact notebook can be used as a carputer, enabling a variety of functions from GPS and media playback to even allowing fine tuning of your car’s on-board computer (ECU).
Mounting a netbook in your computer is best achieved by finding a way of embedding it into the dashboard column, taking up the space left by your existing radio while making good use of the in-car cooling system. However this is difficult to achieve which is why a dashboard-mounted stand might be a good alternative.
Netbooks can be taken apart relatively easily, meaning that the screen and motherboard can be easily compressed into a single unit while any keyboard/mouse interaction can be achieved with an external USB device.
The downside with a netbook solution is the requirement for a separate GPS device and potentially the use of a mobile Internet dongle. Additionally, although you’ll have an on-board battery, a power inverter will be required for powering the carputer from the car battery; alternatively a DC to DC power regular can be used.
The Mini ITX Form Factor
Probably the most popular carputer solution is the use of a Mini ITX form factor computer, used in situations where space is at a premium.
An actual computer in your car is potentially the most expensive solution, however, as it requires not only a power inverter but also GPS, mobile Internet and even hardware components such as a display.
While you might be able to use the display of an old netbook, custom-built touch displays are available, although these are quite expensive. You should also avoid optical drives and traditional hard disk drives in favour of flash-based storage or SSD.
The main part of a Mini ITX carputer – the case – can be stored with success under the passenger seat. In smaller cars, you might need to run some longer cables under the upholstery and keep it in the boot.
Instead of the mini ATX form factor computer or netbook, why not rely on that increasingly popular pocket-sized machine the Raspberry Pi?
Best used with a custom dashboard display, the Raspberry Pi has a wealth of input options and media management tools. While adding GPS and mobile Internet at the same time might prove difficult, there are several projects ongoing at the Raspberry Pi forum by enthusiasts taking advantage of this exciting device’s tiny size.
Given the low sub-$50 price tag, the Raspberry Pi might be the best option for the carputer built to a tight budget.
Although a carputer represents a great way for you to bring new functionality to your car, be aware that your local laws and statutes may prevent use of the device while driving, whether it is a device built into the dashboard or a smartphone on a suction cup. As such, use the device with care, when legal and drive safely. While it might be some time before you carputer starts talking back to you, these solutions will fit every budget!
Do you use a carputer? Have you used any of these solutions or found one of your own? Let us know your geeked ride setup!