DIY Carputer Hardware

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Sorting Out DIY Car PC Hardware

DIY carputer hardware
DIY carputer projects can be as simple (or complex) as you want. Image courtesy of Yutaka Tsutano, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Choosing the Right Foundation

Every car computer needs 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just grab whatever you have at hand — which can be anything from that old netbook or tablet you don’t use anymore to an outdated video game system — but that’s only scratching the surface of the options that are available.

Since a carputer needs a screen and some type of input method, DIY carputer projects that involve laptops, tablets, and smartphones are the simplest (and, arguably, tablets represent the most elegant carputer solutions available.) If you 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.

DIY carputer hardware:

  1. Laptops and netbooks
  2. Smarphones and tablets
  3. Booksize PCs
  4. Single-board computers
  5. Video game consoles

DIY carputer displays:

  1. Laptop or netbook screen
  2. Tablet or smartphone screen
  3. LCD

DIY carputer input devices

  1. Laptop or netbook keyboard and touchpad
  2. Tablet or smartphone screen
  3. Keyboards and touchpads
  4. Voice controls
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Laptop and Netbook Car PC Hardware

laptop and netbook carputer hardware
Laptops and netbooks are both popular DIY carputer platforms, but netbooks are much easier to stow out of the way. Image courtesy of Ryan McFarland, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

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.

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Tablet and Smartphone Carputer Hardware

ipad carputer
Tablets and smartphones are probably the most suitable carputer hardware right off the shelf. 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 projects. And 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.

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Booksize PC Carputer Hardware

mac mini booksize carputer
Mac minis and other booksize PCs are small enough to fit into some very tight spaces, which is why they make good car PC hardware. Image courtesy of James Duncan Davidson

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, booksize 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, either). This category of carputer hardware includes both Mac Minis and 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.

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Single-board Carputer Hardware

Single-board carputer
Single-board computers are less powerful than other types of carputer hardware, but they make up for it with incredibly tiny form factors. 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.

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Video Game Console Carputer Hardware

xbox video gamecarputer
While that old video game hardware you have laying around might be a little bulky to use as a carputer, the internal components might fit nicely inside your center console or behind the dash. 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.

Some older hardware you can repurpose includes consoles like:

  • Microsoft Xbox
  • Sony Playstation 2
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Carputer Displays

Flip-up LCD touchscreen carputer
A flip-up touchscreen LCD is a lot of work to install, but it's one of the most seamless ways to integrate a carputer into your dash. 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.
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Carputer Keyboards and Touchpads

carputer keyboard
Keyboards and mice aren't ideal for controlling cars in racing games on your PC, and they can get in the way in real life too. 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.

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Carputer Voice Controls

bluetooth headset carputer voice control
If your carputer hardware supports Bluetooth and voice control software, you can interface via a Bluetooth headset. Image courtesy of Zoovroo, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Newer smartphones often come with built-in voice controls, though specific functionality varies. In most other cases, you’ll need to install additional software to make use of voice controls. And 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.