Mobile Video: In-Car Video Systems

Yes, you can watch Netflix while on a road trip

Car headrest DVD player

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There are three requirements to retrofit a vehicle with in-car video so passengers can watch movies, TV shows, or content from streaming apps. Every in-car video system needs a video source, a screen to display the video, and a speaker system to play the audio. The simplest solutions combine all three components in a single device, but there are other viable configurations.

In-Car Video Sources

The first component that a car video system needs is a video source. In car audio systems, the head unit is the brains of the operation and provides an audio signal to the amp and speakers. Car video systems can also use the head unit for a video source, but there are other options.

The most common video sources include:

  • Head units: Some head units can play DVDs or Blu-ray discs. These head units sometimes have built-in screens, but may also include one or more video outputs. That can allow a single head unit to act as a video source for multiple screens throughout a vehicle.
  • Combination units: Some video head units are combination devices that include both DVD and Blu-ray functionality. There are also roof-mounted and headrest-mounted combination units that don't have to be plugged into a head unit. These devices can also include video inputs, which provide the widest possible range of entertainment options.
  • Standalone video players: In addition to video head units and combination devices, it's also possible to use a standalone DVD player as a video source. These typically aren't installed permanently, and devices that aren't designed for automotive use may not stand up to the vibration that occurs when a vehicle is in motion, but it is a low-cost solution.

Car Video System Display

The second major component that every in-car video system needs is a display screen. Since space is at a premium in cars, trucks, and SUVs, most car video systems use LCDs. The simplest system consists of a video head unit with a built-in display, but there are a few other options. Some of those include:

  • Head units: The easiest way to add a car video system is to install a video head unit that includes a screen. Many new vehicles include built-in touchscreens that can operate the infotainment system. However, there are also aftermarket options. Most of these LCD head units are double DIN, but there are also single DIN options that include screens that slide out and lock into place.
  • Roof-mounted screens: It can be difficult for some passengers to see an LCD that's built into a head unit, but roof-mounted screens are typically viewable by everyone in the back seats. These screens fold down from the ceiling and can be stowed away when not in use.
  • Headrest LCDs: Where roof-mounted screens solve the problem of visibility, headrest LCDs allow different passengers to watch different content. These screens can typically be wired into a video head unit, and some have built-in DVD or Blu-ray players.
  • Removable units: Both roof-mounted screens and headrest LCDs require some installation work. Removable units are strapped onto a headrest. These units can be moved from vehicle to vehicle, or temporarily installed in rental vehicles.

In-Car Video Audio Options

There's also an audio component to consider. The options are relatively simple:

  • Existing audio system: If a car video system makes use of a video head unit, the audio is piped through the existing system. Other video sources can also be connected to the existing audio system. However, the availability of that option depends on whether the head unit has auxiliary inputs. The other way to use an existing audio system is to transmit the sound with an FM broadcaster, which the existing head unit will be able to pick up with its radio tuner.
  • Wireless headphones: If a car video system has more than one player, the best option is to obtain a few pairs of wireless headphones. These are also useful if the driver doesn’t want to be distracted by the video system. Some headrest screens and flip-down LCDs have output jacks that wired headphones can be plugged into.
  • Built-in speakers: Roof-mounted units and headrest LCDs sometimes include built-in speakers. Removable combination units typically have speakers. Using the built-in speakers is a low-cost option, but it may not work if more than one unit is being used. Even if both units use the same audio and visual source, the sound may be slightly out of sync.

Car Video Systems Aren’t Just for DVDs

Beyond the ability to watch movies on the road, there are other benefits that come from installing a car video system. You can use in-car video to watch live or time-shifted television, play video games, and stream video from a mobile app or web browser if you have a cellular connection.

The key to unlocking the potential of in-car video is to use displays that allow you to plug in whatever you want. If you have an in-car video screen that includes video inputs, some of the options you open up include hooking up:

  • Game systems
  • Local television
  • Satellite television
  • Streaming video
  • Digital multimedia
  • Navigation systems
  • Backup cameras