How to fit a PC in your car

14th Apr 2008 | 16:16

How to fit a PC in your car

Give your car stereo the boot by installing a full PC

Cars are increasingly becoming computer controlled, but your only glimpse of all this digital power is likely to be a range estimation for the current petrol tank contents.

Most of your car’s computational ability is hidden behind the scenes. Aside from engine management, though, there’s a lot more functionality you can add to your vehicle by fitting a PC inside it.

Geek out your ride

Just as desktop PCs come in all shapes and sizes, there are many species of in-car PC. They can be hidden away in the boot, hog the glove compartment or go under the passenger seat like a stereo power amp.

You can even fit them in the space where the hi-fi would normally be. But two features they all have in common are the need for low power consumption (it could all be running off your vehicle’s 12V battery) and the limitation on space.

Fitting a glove compartment or boot PC is likely to be a fairly major work of car modification, but it does allow a slightly larger PC than dashboard installation.

If you want to put displays in headrests for rear passengers, installation is best left to those who install PCs in cars for a living, such as In-Car PC or InCarOffice.

However, for the less valiant modder, a PC that fits into an existing slot is the least painful option – although still in a league of difficulty far beyond building your own desktop.

In-car hardware

Considering that your in-car PC is likely to be expanding on the features of your car stereo, this is the most obvious location for the control interface. The DIN standard for car audio head units is ISO 7736.

This specifies a face panel of 180x50mm for a ‘Single DIN’ unit, and 180x100mm for ‘Double DIN’. In-car PC barebones are available conforming to either of these standards.

However, the ISO standard doesn’t specify a depth, so your chosen barebones may still not fit in your car. The only way to check is to measure the depth available and consult the vendor’s specifications, leaving plenty of room for cabling.

A larger PC will fit into a Double DIN box, but it will also be a little harder to install. Your car will probably only have a Single DIN car audio head unit installed, so adjacent space will need to be found.

Don’t expect to be able to buy any car PC and simply slip it in as you might a car stereo. Depending on your vehicle, you may need a different fascia panel and mounting kit, and to add amplification or conversion stages to the audio output.

What are the choices?

For a PC that isn’t located in the car stereo space, there will be also be plenty of cabling to perform. There are lots of options for the actual PC.

You can buy a chassis such as the VoomPC-2 and Mini-ITX VIA or Intel Mobile mainboard separately from the likes of www.cartft.com or www. kustompcs.co.uk.

Alternatively, a variety of barebones are available, such as the CALU-M Fanless or S631-C or HC. The HC version of the S631 is tall enough to accommodate a PCI slot riser, while the C version is around the size of a 5.25in optical drive.

Although a barebones will already come with many features integrated, including graphics, you will need a processor (in the case of Intel-based mainboards), memory, hard disk and optical drive.

You will also need to add an appropriate power supply which is capable of dealing with the wildly erratic DC supply from a car battery. However, the most expensive additional component will be the touchscreen, which will cost at least £200, plus more to mount.

This will either be secured onto your car dashboard, or can be mounted where the stereo would have been, either as Single DIN or Double DIN.

These can even include an audio amplifier, which is handy as otherwise you may have to purchase one separately. Alternatively, you can buy a complete ready-built car PC, such as the Single DIN unit available from ADS Shop, which has everything built in.

The best of the best?

However, the prince of car PC barebones is Infi ll’s G4 (€1,198 from www.cartft.com), which negates many of the cable routing issues. This is a Double DIN unit based around a VIA Mini-ITX board sporting a 1.5GHz VIA C7 processor.

Most functions are built in, including VIA UniChrome PRO II graphics and GPS. It has a built-in 6.5in touchscreen with an 800x600 resolution, too. This is motorised, and can be angled for comfortable usage.

So all you need to add to this barebones is RAM, an optical drive and a 2.5in hard disk. Another consideration is how you build and set up the operating system and software.

Car PCs are intended to receive a 12V DC input from a car power system. However, they don’t usually come with an AC adapter, or have any conventional desktop PC power connectivity.

The Infill G4, for example, simply offers bare wires for connection directly to the 12V DC supply in your car audio head unit bay. The S631 barebones do ship with a test AC supply, making them easier to configure prior to car installation.

Choosing your software

Windows is primarily intended to be used with a keyboard and mouse, but an in-car PC is not exactly a desk-based environment. This is why a touchscreen is a necessity, with a finger-friendly operating system to go with it.

The Infill PC comes with its own interface software, capable of driving the majority of its abilities, but there are other options that integrate virtually every function you’ll want into one environment.

Most popular is Centrafuse, which comes in three versions. The Standard Edition (€98 from www.cartft.com) offers media playing, radio functions, DVD playing, a TV tuner, a web browser and audio mixing.

It can also accept a feed from a rear camera and monitor information from your car’s OBD-II interface. The XE version (€119 from www.cartft.com) includes Bluetooth support.

Top of the range is Centrafuse XLE (€289 for the European edition from www.cartft.com), which has all the features of the XE version, plus GPS navigation.

Whichever version you choose, Centrafuse’s functions are held together by a simple main interface, which places buttons for the modules in the centre and media player controls along the bottom.

You can also try out Centrafuse for 30 days before taking the plunge. Once you have your car PC installed, as with any computer your options are limited only by your imagination.

Finally, what about GPS?

A GPS system is an obvious choice, as is a mini wireless or USB keyboard. An OBD-II interface (see ‘Monitoring your car’, above) will give you on-screen information from your car’s engine management system.

You can download a host of Centrafuse plug-ins from www. fluxmedia.net/downloads.aspx. But for a true taste of luxury automotive options, why not install a camera in the rear of your vehicle for £42.99?

The wiring will need to be routed to your in-car PC, but this will then provide a much clearer picture of what’s behind you when you park than any rear-view mirror.

Considering how much this option costs when purchasing a new car – and it’s usually only available on top-end luxury vehicles – installing a system yourself underlines how a car PC can add to your automotive pleasure.

So give your car its own PC and turn it into the perfect digital home away from home, or office away from the office.

Monitoring your car

With a PC installed, your car will have two computers – the other one taking care of engine management. It’s a shame they can’t join forces to rule the automotive world. Well, actually they can.

Since 1996 (in the US)  and 2001 (in Europe) a standard  interface called OBD-II has been  used for reading and writing data  to and from your car’s engine management system, although  there are a number of standard  protocols for the transmission, depending on the manufacturer.

You can buy an RS232 or USB adapter to connect the PC to your car’s computer via OBD-II. Prices start at £24.99 (www.ecufix.com) for a dumb interface, which doesn’t support the SAEJ1850- VPW, SAEJ1850-PWM or CAN protocols.

ELM327 interfaces that contain the circuitry to support every possible protocol cost more than twice as much, but provide the widest range of software compatibility.
The Centrafuse ELM327 even has the ability to display certain performance data within its interface.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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