The Basics About 'Carputers'

Useful aspects of having a computer in your car

Carputer tablet on inside window of a car
Small tablets can form the backbone of DIY carputer systems.

Sawayasu Tsuji / Getty Images

The word “carputer” is a portmanteau of “car” and “computer," and it refers to a broad class of mobile computing devices that are intended for use in automobiles. Some carputers are specifically designed for that type of usage, including OEM infotainment systems and some high-end aftermarket head units. Other carputers are repurposed and heavily modified, laptops, tablets, and other mobile computing devices. On the DIY end of things, you can build a carputer out of pretty much anything.

There are three main types of carputers:

  • OEM systems
  • Aftermarket head units
  • DIY projects

The devices that fall into these broad categories all qualify as “car computers,” but they all offer slightly different functionalities, and some are better suited to certain applications than others. Since infotainment systems are still relatively new, they generally can’t be found or installed in older model vehicles. Similarly, replacing a modern infotainment system with a custom carputer may remove access to certain features — like GM’s OnStar, which you may want to hold onto.

In addition to those hardware components, each carputer also has a software or firmware component. Infotainment systems and most aftermarket head units use firmware that usually can’t be modified by the end user, though the manufacturers sometimes offer updates. In the case of DIY carputers, there are a number of different carputer software options that include:

  • Stock or modified OSes (Windows, Mac OS, Linux)
  • Media center software
  • Custom carputer firmware and software

Infotainment Systems

OEM infotainment systems are the most ubiquitous example of carputers on the market today. Every OEM has some type of infotainment system that qualifies as a sort of carputer, and they are available across the board in all types of vehicles. Some of the more advanced models also provide a good insight into the capabilities of a carputer. These infotainment systems often provide touchscreen access to the climate control system, multimedia entertainment options, navigation, and even hands-free calling via a paired cellular phone.

Since infotainment systems are often so highly integrated into the climate controls and other vehicle functions, replacing one with a regular head unit, or even a custom carputer, will often cause issues or cut off access to certain features. Some OEM systems offer features like expandable storage, and many of them can gain access to new features through firmware upgrades, but upgrading the hardware is typically an exercise in futility.

Aftermarket Head Units

Purpose-built aftermarket head units often provide a lot of the same functionality seen in OEM infotainment systems, and these devices can be installed in older model vehicles. These head units can offer features like:

These head unit carputers are typically less flexible than DIY projects, but they are typically much easier to install and use.

DIY Carputers

OEM and aftermarket infotainment systems can provide a lot of great functionality, but the functionality and capabilities of a DIY system are only limited by the imagination of the DIYer. These projects were traditionally built on portable laptop platforms, but netbooks, tablets, and smartphones are also popular options. There are also a number of highly portable Linux platforms, like Raspberry Pi, that are often used in DIY projects.

Some of the devices that are most commonly repurposed as DIY carputer hardware include:

  • Laptops and netbooks
  • Tablets and smartphones
  • Booksize PCs
  • Single-board computers
  • Video game consoles

DIY carputers can be hooked into a Wi-Fi network, access the Internet, connect to a local or remote media server, and even hook into a vehicle’s onboard computer. They can also function as navigation systems, provide access to mobile wireless TV, and even play video games. With Arduino integration, the functionality of a carputer can be extended even further.

A DIY carputer can take the place of a traditional head unit, in which case it may be coupled with a touchscreen LCD mounted in the dash, but these devices can also be used in concert with existing head units. Since there are no real limits on what a carputer can do, or even what one has to be, each installation is a little different.