DIY Carputer Hardware: From Laptops to Raspberry Pi

Whether you want to build a carputer from the ground up, or buy a prebuilt unit and have a professional install it, you need to put together three basic components: some type of computing device, a screen, and at least one input method. Other than that, there really aren’t any rules or restrictions regarding exactly what you can use to build your own carputer.

The path of least resistance is to just grab whatever you have at hand, which can be anything from that old netbook or tablet you don’t use anymore to an outdated video game system, but that’s only scratching the surface of the options that are available. If you have a decent budget, you can even buy a head unit replacement that ticks all three boxes at once.

Since a carputer needs a screen and some type of input method, DIY carputer projects that involve laptops, tablets, and smartphones are the simplest way to go. In fact, both permanent and temporary tablet installations represent some of the most elegant carputer solutions available.

If you prefer to go another route, a dash-mounted touchscreen LCD is the easiest way to cover both the display and input bases at once. However, you can also opt for a keyboard, voice controls, or other options. Voice controls, in particular, are especially easy to implement if you have an Android device that's capable of running Android Auto.

Here are the most common types of computer hardware that you can use to build a DIY carputer:

  1. Laptops and netbooks: If you have an old laptop or notebook laying around, it might make a good carputer platform. It's easy to power laptops and netbooks from a car's electrical system, and it doesn't matter if the screen or hinges are broken, since you can just connect a touchscreen LCD monitor.
  2. Smartphones and tablets: You can buy a decent enough phone or tablet for cheap enough that this is a valid option even if you don't have an old one laying around. The added benefit is that all smartphones, and some tablets, have data connections and built-in GPS, so accessing map data, streaming data, and more can be accomplished very easily.
  3. Booksize PC: These are very small computers that you can easily hide away under a seat or in the glove compartment. You will also need an inverter to provider power.
  4. Single-board computers: These are less powerful than booksize PCs, but they're also much smaller. You can hide one of these almost anywhere, and if you use a popular platform like Raspberry Pi, you'll have an easy time finding power supplies and add-ons like GPS and Bluetooth.
  5. Video game consoles: This is more of a niche option, since there are only a few old video game consoles that allow the installation of a secondary operating system like Linux. You can install just about any video game console in a car, but the utility as a carputer will be severely limited in most cases.

These are the best options for DIY carputer screens: 

  1. Laptop or netbook screen: If your laptop or netbook has a functioning screen, you can use it. Either set the computer in a cradle that you can access from your seat, or take it apart and mount the screen in your dash.
  2. Tablet or smartphone screen: This is the easiest option, since mounting a phone or tablet on your dash is no problem at all. You can also permanently install a tablet in your dash so that it has the look of a touchscreen head unit.
  3. LCD screen: If you use a booksize PC, a broken laptop, a single-board computer, or any other similar device, you'll need a separate LCD screen. If your head unit has an LCD screen and an auxiliary video input, you can connect to that as well.

The final thing you need to think about is how you will interact with the carputer:

  1. Laptop or netbook keyboard and touchpad: This is easy if you're using a laptop or netbook, but it isn't convenient. There's no safe way to use this type of input to do anything when you're driving, so you'll have to wait until you stop or rely on a passenger.
  2. Tablet or smartphone screen: This is safer, and easier, and things like Android Auto make using a phone as a carputer a breeze.
  3. Keyboards and touchpads: You can use a wireless Bluetooth keyboard or touchpad with virtually any carputer, and it can be pretty handy to have them ready to go. However, they aren't easy, or safe, to use when driving.
  4. Voice controls: While voice controls can be a little touchy, depending on the implementation, they're one of the safest, and easiest, ways to interact with a carputer when you're driving. Consider basing your build around a virtual assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant.

Laptop and Netbook Car PC Hardware

A laptop in use as a carputer by the US Air Force.

U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nicolo J. Daniello

The easiest way to build a custom carputer is to use a device that covers all of the bases at once, which is why a laptop or netbook can represent a good jumping off point.

These portable computers tick off all the boxes at once, since they are capable of running all the diagnostic and entertainment software you might want to install on a carputer, and they include built-in displays and input devices.

There are some ingenious ways to integrate a laptop or netbook into your dash, but most DIY installs involve stowing the device in the glove compartment or under one of the seats.

That makes it difficult to access, which is why some laptop and netbook carputer projects include a secondary display mounted in the dash. Alternately, you can crack the laptop in half, install the base behind the dash or in the glove compartment, and install the display in the dash. For the easiest interface possible, choose a model with a touchscreen display.

Tablet and Smartphone Carputer Hardware

An iPad in use as a carputer.
Image courtesy of Yutaka Tsutano, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Like laptops and netbooks, tablets and smartphones are all-in-one devices that include everything you need to get up and running with a DIY carputer project.

Since these devices have undergone such rapid upgrade schedules in recent years, many people have at least one tablet or smartphone laying around unused.

While older tablets and smartphones often lack the raw processing power of other types of carputer hardware, they are often still up to the task of running various entertainment and diagnostic apps. It’s also a lot easier to integrate a tablet into your dash, and even simply using an off the shelf tablet mount will often suffice.

The other benefit is that all smartphones, and some tablets, include built-in data connections and GPS. These are both great features to have in a carputer, since they allow you to use navigation apps and stream media.

If your device supports it, consider building your system on Android Auto. This vehicle-friendly skin for the Android operating system provides a pretty fantastic experience right out of the box with very little tweaking.

Booksize PC Carputer Hardware

A Mac Mini booksize carputer.

James Duncan Davidson / CC-BY SA 2.0

Moving away from all-in-one devices like laptops and tablets, the booksize PC is another great platform to build a custom carputer on. While it is possible to build a carputer from virtually any computer hardware, traditional PC hardware is just too big and bulky for most applications.

Unlike regular PC hardware, these mini PCs are small enough to tuck away in a glove compartment, underneath a seat, or in a trunk, but powerful enough to do anything you might ask of a carputer.

The term booksize PC refers to the fact that these computers are roughly the size of book, and we’re not talking about your five pound Chilton manual here. This category of carputer hardware includes everything from the Mac Mini to small small PC hardware like Foxconn’s line of NanoPCs.

DIY carputer projects that use booksize PCs require separate display and input hardware, which typically makes them a little more involved than installations that utilize laptops or tablets.

However, that also leaves a lot more room for customization. It’s also possible to run a variety of different OSes and custom carputer software on systems that use booksize PCs.

If you're working with a decent budget, you can purchase a mini PC that's designed specifically for use as a carputer. Some of these minature PCs are designed to be installed in a glove compartment or under a seat, while others are fully functional head unit replacements.

Single-board Carputer Hardware

A Raspberry Pi that could be used as a carputer.
Image courtesy of SparkFun Electronics, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

While booksize PCs are compact, some single-board computers take that concept to an entirely new level.

Devices like the Raspberry Pi are truly tiny, which means they can be stowed just about anywhere. However, raw processing power is often diminished as well in comparison to larger computers.

These computers typically also lack built-in Wi-Fi support, though that functionality can be added in with a USB peripheral in order to interface with an OBD-II reader or other device.

Video Game Console Carputer Hardware

An old Xbox that could be used as a carputer.
Image courtesy of Collin Allen, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

While video game consoles are designed with a singular purpose in mind, it’s still possible to repurpose some of them as carputers. The added benefit of building a carputer on this type of hardware is that you’ll often end up with the ability to play video games and watch DVDs in your car as well.

Older video game hardware is a little bulky for the purposes of building a DIY carputer, which is often solved by taking the system apart and rearranging the components in a convenient space like the center console.

Hardware that already has a screen, like the Nintendo Wii U and Switch, are particularly attractive options, although cannibalizing an older Xbox One or PS4 that you're ready to upgrade from provides more options.

Carputer Displays

A flip-up LCD touchscreen carputer
Image courtesy of Andrew McGill, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Touchscreen LCD displays are common in both OEM infotainment systems and aftermarket head units for a reason: they tick off two important carputer requirements.

It’s also a lot easier to use a touchscreen on the road than it is to mess around with a mouse and keyboard. However, touchscreen support doesn’t work as well with some operating systems as it does with others.

Carputer Keyboards and Touchpads

A keyboard in use as a carputer input system.
Image courtesy of Andy, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

While one of the selling points of using a laptop or netbook as a car computer is that they have built-in keyboards and touchpads, these aren’t ideal ways to interact with a carputer. Keyboards, mice, and touchpads are better used as supplementary input devices, typically to perform tasks that are difficult with touchscreen controls.

Since there are a lot of tasks that are easier to accomplish with a real keyboard and mouse or touchpad, it’s nice to keep these devices on hand. In that case, a USB keyboard and mouse or touchpad will work with just about any system, but Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is easier if your system supports either one of those wireless technologies.

Carputer Voice Controls

Echo Auto mounted in a car.

 Amazon

Newer smartphones often come with built-in voice controls, though specific functionality varies. In the event that using an existing virtual assistant, like Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa, sounds like a good idea, then using a phone or tablet with the appropriate virtual assistant onboard is a fantastic starting point.

In most other cases, you’ll need to install additional software to make use of voice controls.

While voice controls are very convenient when you’re on the road, your actual experience will depend on a lot of different factors. Voice control also shouldn’t be your primary input method, so you’ll want to have a backup keyboard and mouse or touchpad on hand at the very least.

While this type of input method falls more on the software side of the fence, since the only hardware you’ll need is a microphone, many DIY carputer platforms don’t include a built-in mic. And even if your laptop or netbook does have a microphone, it won’t do you a lot of good if the device is stowed away in the glove compartment or underneath a seat.

Some types of DIY carputer hardware, particularly booksize PCs, include mic input jacks. However, some booksize PCs, single-board computers, and other devices don’t have mic jacks. In those cases, you’ll typically need a USB microphone if you want to use voice controls. In some cases, you’ll also be able to use a Bluetooth headset.

For a plug-and-play option, you might want to try Echo Auto. That gets you started with comprehensive vehicle-oriented voice interface right off the bat, and then you can add Alexa-compatible devices as you build out your system.