What Are In-Car Media Servers For?

Bringing all your digital content on the road

Young woman in a car using a laptop with children strapped into their seats behind her

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A media server is a type of computer that stores and delivers audio and video content. Home media servers are often used to distribute video and audio content to a variety of locations throughout the house, but the scope of in-car media servers is typically more focused. These servers are typically designed to deliver content to the head unit. However, an in-car media server can also serve a wider purpose to deliver streaming media to a variety of devices that are all connected via a wireless network.

Some head units include an SSD or traditional HDD, and others have USB connections or SD card slots that allow storage to be added. Others are directly compatible with media servers, and some can be hooked up to a media server through an auxiliary input. In most situations, you'll end up having to put together a DIY media server yourself, which allows for a tremendous amount of customization.

Media servers can include:

  • Solid state or traditional HDD storage
  • Optical drives
  • USB storage
  • SD card storage
  • Network connectivity

Some types of in-car media servers include:

Vastly Expanded Entertainment Options

There are a number of different types of media servers, and every system works a little differently. The most basic functionality of in-car media servers is the storage of one or more digital files that can be remotely accessed by a head unit or computer. This can be accomplished through direct audio and video connections or via a network connection, and the most basic media server consists simply of a network attached storage (NAS) drive that a head unit or computer can pull content from.

More complicated servers are essentially computers that perform that same function. In the case of head units that weren’t designed for use with media servers, the media server can send audio and video data to an auxiliary input. These media servers are typically hooked up to an LCD and are controlled through a touchscreen or alternative input method. Some purpose-built aftermarket media servers also include optical drives and other options.

When you put together a DIY in-car media server, you have a lot of leeway. For instance, you could repurpose an old laptop, or hook up a small computer to an inverter, and stream media to your head unit, phones, tablets, and other devices.

OEM Multimedia Server Availability

A number of OEM infotainment systems include some type of media server functionality, though they typically don’t include a separate server unit. Ford’s Sync, Kia’s UVO, and other similar infotainment systems are capable of storing and playing back audio and video files. Other infotainment systems don’t include any built-in storage, but they do allow you to access your digital content via an SD card reader or USB connection.

Adding a Media Server to an Existing Car Audio/Video System

If you want to add a media server to your car or truck, you have a few options. The easiest solution is to buy a purpose-built media server. If you’re not averse to upgrading your head unit too, you can also buy a video head unit that is designed to work with a media server.

The other option is to build a DIY server. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but you’ll typically need some basic components like:

  • Some type of computer
  • A display
  • An input device
  • Connections for the audio system

If you have an old laptop laying around, you may be able to repurpose it as an in-car multimedia server. Other easy options include tablets and smartphones. However, you can also consider building a new system or using a low-profile, bare-bones bookshelf type computer. There are also a number of tiny, low-cost, Linux-based computers available.

Some of the slickest DIY media servers use touchscreen LCDs, which takes care of both the display and input device requirements. In that case, the audio can be piped through an auxiliary input on the head unit while the touchscreen is used to display video content.

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