The Saga of a Carputer

Filed Under Gadgets & Hardware, Geek on 2008-08-11, 19:34

Carputer In Living Room

As technology advances, soon you find that your homegrown solutions are readily available in prepackaged purchasable form. Almost 10 years ago I started building carputers. They were exactly as their name sounds, a computer in a car. Back then it was absurd to think of mp3s in a car as many people didn’t even know what mp3s were. The only real in-dash product on the market back then was the Empeg Car, a linux based unit that payed mp3s off of a laptop harddrive to the tune of $1,000+. Rather than save up the cash for one of these units I decided to build my own based on what I had laying around. My carputer started as an old Packard Bell 66mhz machine that used DOS and a command line mp3 player to supply my car with tunes. It had no display and instead I had a list of songs in my library, and typed them in with memorized keyboard commands. It wasn’t fancy, but the fact that I could take me couple of gigs of music on the road with me was exciting.

Old Packard Bel Carputer

Over the years, I watched as the mp3 + car community grew. exploded and soon was a wealth of knowledge as others around the world had similar ideas. My carputer also grew and morphed as I upgraded things, still refusing to spend a ton of cash on it, and instead using what I could find laying around. Laptops, desktops, inverters, multiple cables, power inverters, and more random equipment passed through my car. At one point I had an old eMachine 400mhz machine and an 10″ IBM PS/1 monitor that I think may have just been able to support 640×480. When I turned on my car, the chorus of beeps from inverters, monitors, and computers was kind of ridiculous and the number of fuses I went through must have had the local auto shops wondering.

Of course all this hardware was sitting in plain view in my Honda CR-V along with a rather large bandpass box, and as to be expected my car was eventually broken into and someone made off with my equipment. Luckily the bandpass box, being too heavy to carry more than 15 feet was found at the end of the parking lot, intact. And with the help of insurance, I was able to upgrade my machine to the last revision.

This final revision was comprised of the following parts:

    Lilliput 7″ touchscreen
    An 80GB harddrive containing music, maps, and software
    A Buffalo wireless card with external attenna (for loading new stuff on the computer without running a cat5 cable out to the parking lot)
    A simple Deluo GPS receiver with a strong magnet so I could stick it on the roof when I needed a better signal

I went through various software solutions, ranging from stripped down Windows 98 + Winamp, to full-featured front-ends like MediaEngine and Frodoplayer. I always had a couple different versions of mapping software available, whether it was Destinator (nicely integrated into most front-ends) or Delorme Street Atlas.

When the motherboard came, I was so excited to get to work on this project, that I just used the box it came in as a case and had to repeatedly short the pins with a screwdriver in order to boot it because I hadn’t ordered an On switch. Eventually I realized a CD-ROM would be handy, so I upgraded from the EPIA box to the Kikwear shoebox. Four and a half years later and it’s the same shoebox (with some extra electrical tape to hold it together) that I’m retiring.

>Shorting the Carputer Motherboard to boot it
Carputer in Kikwear shoebox

In San Francisco, it’s highly unintelligent to keep anything of value in your car. Cars are broken into so regularly that you see signs inside windows stating there’s nothing of value. After making the long roadtrip moving here from Chicago and utilizing the carputer one last time, I pulled it out so that it wouldn’t be temptation to anyone walking down the sidewalk. Now I have phones that can stream internet radio, more handheld GPS devices that I can count, and should I ever want a full carputer back in my car, multiple options on the market.

Looking back though, it was less about having mp3s and maps in the car, and more about a project that was rewarding. Putting together a carputer was definitely not without it’s challenges and pitfalls. I remember embarrassingly having to pull over on the highway, somewhere between Ohio and North Carolina, to “reboot” my car because Windows had blue screened at 80mph. Shortly afterward, I wired a switch in the dash to power-cycle the machine so I didn’t have to do that again. The hours of frustration trying to reduce engine noise in the audio lines, struggling with horrible Lilliput drivers that occasionally allowed the touchscreen to work (if you were lucky it was calibrated right too), and of course always having to wait for my car to shutdown before I turned it off.

On the flip side, there was all the times that I got to show it off to people who found it fascinating, the hours and hours on the road that I never had to flip through a CD book to find the next hour of music, never being lost, watching TV on my lunch breaks at work, and of course all the chicks that I got. Well maybe not so much the last one. It was a great project and I kind of miss not having it to work on. Luckily I have other current and future projects to satiate these geek desires and occupy my time.

Unfortunately I can’t find a good pic of the actual carputer _in_ my car, other than this one from the roadtrip from Chicago to San Francisco and a couple taken by my Sidekick:

Carputer on SF Roadtrip
Carputer in Honda CRVCarputer in Honda CRV

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