DIY Carputer Hardware: From Laptops to Raspberry Pi

Helping you choose the right hardware

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 interface or input method.

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. 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.

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Laptop and Netbook Car PC Hardware

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

U.S. Air Force

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

You can use a laptop as your main computing device, as well as a screen and interface. 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 a 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 on the dash.

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 the dash. Unfortunately, there's no safe way to use this type of input while driving, so you'll have to wait until you stop or rely on a passenger.

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Tablet and Smartphone Carputer Hardware

An iPad in use as a carputer.

Yutaka Tsutano / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

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.

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 easy to integrate a tablet into a dash, and a basic tablet mount will do the trick.

You can also permanently install a tablet in the dash so that it has the look of a touchscreen head unit, or you can purchase a mount. Using a tablet as a display is safer and easier than a laptop, and virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant make using a phone as a carputer a breeze.

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.

An 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 easily.

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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 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 a 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 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 use laptops or tablets. You will also need an inverter to provide power.

However, that also leaves a lot more room for customization. It's also possible to run a variety of 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 miniature PCs are designed to be installed in a glove compartment or under a seat, while others are fully functional head unit replacements.

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Single-Board Carputer Hardware

A Raspberry Pi that could be used as a carputer.

SparkFun Electronics / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

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

Devices like the Raspberry Pi are tiny, which means they can be stowed 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 with a USB peripheral to interface with an OBD-II reader or another device. You'll also have an easy time finding power supplies and add-ons like GPS and Bluetooth.

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Video Game Console Carputer Hardware

An old Xbox that could be used as a carputer.

Collin Allen / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

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 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.

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Carputer Displays

A flip-up LCD touchscreen carputer

Andrew McGill / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

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 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

A keyboard in use as a carputer input system.

Andy / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

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 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

Echo Auto mounted in a car.


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 convenient when you're on the road, your actual experience will depend on 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 a comprehensive vehicle-oriented voice interface right off the bat, and then you can add Alexa-compatible devices as you build your system.

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