When I bought my new car in September 2007 I knew I would be keeping it for a few years, so I decided that I was going to take the plunge, and build a Car PC like those that I had read about on the MP3Car.com forums. The computer would replace the standard audio system, and add MP3 playback, video, GPS, GPS tracking and internet access to my car
After months of dreaming about such a setup my Car PC is finally installed. I’ve had the computer on my desk for over 3 mths now but time and money kinda pushed it WAY forward to this day. Since my dad was off work for the Australia Day holiday, we decided it was time to tackle it.
First off the computer. It’s has the following specs, including prices paid for the components and where I got them:
* Intel D201GLY Motherboard US$69.95 (~AU$78) (MP3Car.com)
* Intel Celeron 1.33Ghz (Integrated onto motherboard)
* 1GB RAM – AU$35 (local PC shop)
* 250GB 3.5″ HDD – AU$85 (local PC shop)
* Sound Blaster Live! PCI (4ch output) – had lying around
* USB WiFi – AU$40 (eBay)
* USB BT AU$15 (eBay)
* USB GPS – AU$70 (eBay)
* USBFever Mini USB Keyboard – US$24.99 (~AU$28) (online store)
* Griffin PowerMate USB Controller – US$49.99 (AU$56) (griffintechnology.com)
* Griffin Radioshark v1 – AU$23 (eBay)
* 7″ Lilliput LCD (running at 800×480 via PowerStrip) – AU$100 (member of AussieMagna Forum)
* M2-ATX 160W DC-DC PSU – US$89.94 (~AU$100) (MP3Car.com)
(NOTE: Mobo and PSU were US$207 with shipping to Australia)
The motherboard was chosen both for it’s size and cost reasons. The Mini ITX boards based on the VIA chips were a bit out of my price range, and having used the Intel on my desk for a while it’s definitely up to the job. It has no problems with high-res DivX files, whilst simultaneously running GPS. For $69.95 it was an absolute bargain!
RAM is cheap, so 1GB was a no brainer. 2GB is overkill (my MacBook Pro has that much!), and 512MB too weedy. The system needed to be able to run both GPS and Video/Audio simultaneously.
I decided to go with a full size HDD because I wanted the storage space. There is the concern that the vibrations and high-temperatures in a car would damage the HDD, but it doesn’t have any critical data on it, so if it does die one day, I won’t lose any sleep over it.
The SoundBlaster soundcard was a last minute decision. I was going to use the onboard sound, but then remembered the SB that I had lying around. Popped it in, loaded up the drivers, and now it outputs 4ch to the 4ch amp!
The WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS adaptors were bought on eBay. The WiFi adapter is mounted in the parcel shelf (between the rear speakers) and the Bluetooth and GPS adapters behind the back seats. The GPS antenna is right at the back of the parcel shelf.
The USB Keyboard is a miniture one from USBFever that fits perfectly in the glovebox, and it easy to use whilst sitting on my leg in the drivers seat (not while driving, obviously :P).
The Radioshark software worked perfectly, but I quickly found the reception to be rather poor. Until I work out how to wire it up to the car antenna, it’s in a drawer.
The PowerMate was added shortly before installation, and it’s brilliant. I have it setup to control the volume when turned, scroll through songs when playing music (aka. next/previous), and skip forward/backward when playing video. Every car PC install should have this.
The display I bought off a member of both MP3Car and AussieMagna, as he was changing his Car PC setup and didn’t need it anymore. It’s a 7″ Lilliput with a USB touchscreen, perfect for controlling RoadRunner, the frontend I’m using. Using PowerStrip, I have the display running at 800×480. For some odd reason the 800×480 display will not display that resolution properly without some tweaking from PowerStrip.
I’ve found RoadRunner to be pretty much perfect for me, as it works with MapMonkey, and works well with the PowerMate and RadioShark (when I get it working).
The system spent about three months on my desk before being installed, for several reasons.
1. Wanted to get it all configured before bolting it down in the car.
2. Was progressively buying the pieces when I had the money to do so.
Reason 1 was prevalent right up to installation.
Reason 2: I finished buying all the bits in early December.
Reason 3: Uni, work, travelling and Christmas in NZ all conspired to push installation till January 26th (Australia Day!). Ok, the travelling and NZ trip we’re great, definitely worth the delay
My original idea was to install the PC into the glove box, but some testing a few days before was started the installation showed it just wasn’t possible. The glovebox wasn’t going to be big enough to accommodate the motherboard, PSU and a 3.5″ desktop HDD. Time to move to Plan B, install the PC in the boot. This actually was a better idea anyway, since the glovebox is a very confined.
My dad and I installed the system over a 2 day period. To entertain during the instal, I had the iPod going in the background.
Along the left side of the car are all the power cables for the PC, Amplifier, turn-on wiring, display and power button (necessary for when Windows crashes).
Along the right side is the VGA cable and USB extension cable. The USB extension cable runs to the glovebox, where it meets up with a 4-port hub to connect the USB touchscreen, Powermate knob, the USB Keyboard, and a spare USB for either a mouse or USB memory stick.
All the wireless radios went in, behind the back seats and under the parcel shelf. These locations were selected to get the best signal out of the car without adding antennas outside.
We built the computer case ourselves using a cheap metal-look briefcase ($20 of cheap wood and metal-look plastic sheeting) and a bathroom vent. Total cost was $25, and it came out quite well. The case has more than enough room for the mobo, PSU and HDD. Whilst I haven’t had any trouble with heat, I will likely add two PC case fans to increase airflow.
Powering the speakers is a 4 channel 500W Sony amplifier. Certainly not the best in car audio, but will serve me nicely until I have the money to improve on it. Sounds just fine for AU$168!
The PC case and amp are mounted on a plank of wood that is bolted to the original carpet. It’s not attached to the chassis, but it’s wedged in tight, it’s not going anywhere!
During the screen install the dash looked like a wreck! Glovebox was out, kick-panels out, dash out, almost everything out! All went back together just fine, but oddly (and somewhat worryingly) I had several screws left over
The Powermate USB knob is attached to the centre piece with velcro, and the USB cable runs up to the glovebox.
With all the cables run, everything connected, the seats bolted back down, and the panels back on this was the result:
Two days ago I altered the icon on the GPS app that represents the car driving along the road. Now shows the back of my car driving along hehe
I’ve also setup a digital speedo, that uses the current speed reported by the GPS program.
I am currently in the process of adding a reversing camera. Decided against drilling into the boot/number plate where I was originally going to install it, instead going for the much simpler and less destructive route of using the boot key hole. Removing the lock was easy, just two bolts and a plug.
And the finished result!
The photos make it look somewhat messier than it really is (and my car dirtier :-P), going to clean it up a bit now it has set. I used some automotive sealant stuff to hold the camera in the right position (pointed slightly inwards to get a semi-centred image of behind the car) and foam behind it to make sure it doesn’t fall out. Took it through the carwash today with no ill-effects.
The camera has several LEDs around it to illuminate whatevers in front of the camera when it’s dark, which has the unintended but cool effect of lighting up the sealant in a cool blue glow at night.
Camera worked great in the garage, but after that things didn’t work so well. Retrospectively, the problem makes sense really. The light outside is so much brighter than this $12 webcam would normally encounter that the image is completely white. Can’t see anything.
I’m going to try placing some tinting in front of the lens to decrease the light getting in. Placing some sunglasses in front of the lens helped very slightly, you could see a couple of shapes but still useless.
I’ve been using this system for several weeks now and it is working beautifully. Apart from the odd crash (unavoidable since it’s running Windows :-P) it’s fantastic, can do anything you can do on a regular computer. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody, since there are various issues to contend with (Windows crashing, Windows locking up, Windows not hibernating), but if you are willing to persevere with them (and they only happen occasionally) it’s great fun!