Mobile Video: In-Car Video Systems

Yes, you can watch Netflix on a road trip

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Retrofitting a vehicle with video so passengers can watch movies, TV shows, or content from streaming apps requires three components. You'll need a video source, a screen to display the video, and a speaker system to play the audio. The simplest solutions combine all three in a single device, but there are other viable configurations.

In-car mobile video device

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In-Car Video Sources

In car audio systems, the head unit is the brain of the operation. It 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 sometimes have built-in screens but also might include one or more video outputs. That can allow a single head unit to act as a video source for multiple screens.
  • Combination units: Some video head units are combination devices that include both DVD and Blu-ray functionality. Roof-mounted and headrest-mounted combination units don't have to be plugged into a head unit. These devices can include video inputs, which provide the widest possible range of entertainment options.
  • Standalone video players: A standalone DVD player can serve as a video source. These typically aren't installed permanently, and devices that aren't designed for automotive use might not stand up to the vibration of a vehicle in motion. Still, it's a low-cost solution.

Car Video System Display

Because 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 other options 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 have 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 with 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. However, 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 typically can 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. In contrast, removable units are strapped onto a headrest. They can be moved from vehicle to vehicle or temporarily installed in rental cars.

In-Car Video Audio Options

The options for audio are relatively simple:

  • An existing audio system: Audio can be piped through the existing sound system. Other video sources also can be connected to the existing audio system. However, this 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 can pick up with its radio tuner.
  • Wireless headphones: If a car video system has more than one user, 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. Some headrest screens and flip-down LCDs have output jacks for wired headphones.
  • Built-in speakers: Roof-mounted units and headrest LCDs sometimes include built-in speakers. Removable combination units typically have speakers. Built-in speakers are a low-cost option, but they might not work if more than one unit is being used. Even if both units use the same audio and visual source, the sound might be slightly out of sync.

Car Video Systems Aren't Just for DVDs

Beyond the ability to watch movies on the road, other benefits 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. With an in-car video screen that includes video inputs, you can hook up:

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