High Tech Road Trip: Make Your Car A Mobile Media Center

Adding mobile Internet, HD TV, DVD, satellite radio, Bluetooth, and GPS to your ride can turn your car into a rolling entertainment center this summer.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

May 8, 2008

13 Min Read

Summer unofficially starts this weekend, and with it, the driving season. Forget about the price of gas for now. Even if your summer travel plans are abbreviated, you'll likely still be driving somewhere. We've gathered up some mobile gear that will transform hot schleps down the highway into joy rides.


Motorola's MOTOROKR T505 uses both Bluetooth and FM to connect your cell phone or MP3 player to your car's speakers.

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A growing number of states are enforcing hands-free initiatives when it comes to using cell phones while driving. Fortunately Bluetooth headphones have been around for a while and can be used to comply with these laws. However, there are also a growing number of products that connect your cell phone to your car's audio system, removing you from any physical contact with the phone, or even an earpiece.

Motorola's MOTOROKR T505 clips to your car's visor and uses both Bluetooth and FM to connect your cell phone to your car's speakers. The unit's built-in microphone takes over for the one on your phone. The T505 can also connect your compatible MP3 player (one equipped with Bluetooth) to play through your car's sound system.

Mobile Internet

One of the more active segments of the mobile communications market is full Internet access on the go. Sprint's Novatel Ovation U727 cellular USB card connects directly to your laptop's USB port and delivers (depending on coverage) broadband connectivity over EVDO-A. It also includes GPS, so you can run applications like Google Earth in real time, showing your location.

nexAira's NexConnect 3G Wireless Broadband Router can turn your car into a mobile hotspot.

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But now that everybody has their own Internet-connected laptops, Wi-Fi enabled multimedia players, and Skype phones, they all want to get online. nexAira's NexConnect 3G Wireless Broadband Router can handle both USB and PCMCIA Type II cellular modems. The unit comes with both a 12-volt adapter for the car and a 120-volt wall wart for the hotel, beach house, or campground. Plug your cell card into the router, turn it on, and everyone in the car can be online at the same time. Of course, cellular coverage being what it is, you may want to have multiple contracts and carry more than one modem. When you're out of range of carrier A, just swap out the modem for carrier B, and (if you're in range for carrier B) you're back online.

Autonet Mobile takes all the guesswork out of in-car Wi-Fi. The company is working with car manufacturers to offer its system as an option in new cars, and it is now available as a rental car add-on through Avis. Autonet Mobile handles the carrier connections for you, automatically switching to the most appropriate carrier for your location. The company monitors signal quality and takes care of keeping you connected wherever there is a signal to be had. Dash-Mount Entertainment System

JVC's new dash-mount entertainment system, elKameleon, is a beautiful combination of capabilities that can be mounted in your dash to replace that tired old cassette deck/receiver. It features a no-button, touch-sensitive, 3.5-inch color LCD control panel that can be removed when you leave the vehicle. When it's in place, it is also motion sensing, so that just passing your hand in front of the panel turns on the backlight. Connectivity options include HD radio, satellite radio, CD changer, and even a rear-view camera. And, you can connect your iPod via USB for sound and video playback.

Satellite Radio

XM Radio and Sirius are on course for a merger. While the Department of Justice has approved the combination, the Federal Communications Commission is still deliberating.

So, at least for now, you'll still have to make a decision. Your choices are likely to be driven by the content available on your chosen network, but indications are that, once the merger is completed, most content will become available on whichever service you've chosen. Since XM carries Major League Baseball, it may be the seasonal favorite, with the hope that the merger will be completed in time for National Football League season.

Delphi's Xpress RC XM receiver saves your personal top 10 playlist plus the most recent hour of XM audio.

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XM offers a lot of products, but the new XpressRC, made by Delphi, offers a color LCD with an easy-to-use dial control. In addition to the 10 favorite station buttons, you can save as many as 10 of your favorite songs in the device for replay later. The most recent 60 minutes worth of programming is saved in memory, similar to a DVR (but only audio), so you can back up to hear that last comment or song you missed while you stopped to pay that toll.

The "RC" in the name stands for the Replay and Color, highlighting the 60 minute buffer and color display. Of course, the remote control that comes with the unit, allows your back seat passengers to change stations for you, or for you to control the unit when you have it plugged into your home sound system.

When you eventually get to the beach (or the mountains, or the park), you can plug the XpressRC into the Belkin XM Audio System, a boombox that runs on battery or wall power, for some clear, loud entertainment.

TracVision's A7 lets you take satellite TV out on the road.

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Mobile TV, And DVD

Television in the car may sound like a frivolity, but it's the next logical step after DVD players to keep the kids entertained.

KVH's TracVision A7 is a slim bubble that mounts on the roof rack of your SUV or minivan to receive programming from a variety of satellite providers. If you already have a satellite service at home, you can add service for the mobile system at a nominal cost. The system feeds standard displays, but you're likely to have issues with space if you try using your 50" flat panel in the vehicle.

If you don't need the live TV and would rather watch movies, there are less expensive options like the Audiovox VOD102 widescreen flipdown with DVD player. This is a self-contained unit that mounts overhead and flips a 10.2" LCD down for viewing. It comes with two wireless headphones, game input, and a remote control. Just be sure to mount it behind the front seat... no watching while driving. GPS Devices

Gone are the days of pulling into the next gas station to ask for directions, most of which turned out to be wrong anyhow. For a few hundred dollars, you can avoid hours of frustration, not to mention recriminations from your significant other about poor planning or not stopping to ask for directions.

GPS devices are getting better and more agile every day. This particularly applies to units like the Dash Express that maintain a real-time Internet connection to a central database. By aggregating real-time data from your fellow road-mates, the system can alert you to traffic conditions that changed only moments ago and offer to route you around the problems. It connects via Wi-Fi or cellular services, depending on what's available at the moment.

TomTom's Advanced Lane Guidance alerts you to unique road circumstances, like unusual freeway exits.

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A similar, if not quite as instant, device is TomTom's new GO 930. TomTom's approach also aggregates information, but in this case, it's historical information taken anonymously from TomTom users when they update their units online. TomTom's Advanced Lane Guidance adds to the mix by identifying special circumstances, like expressway exits on the left, rather than on the right, and warning you to change to the appropriate lane. The unit also accepts voice address input and connects via Bluetooth to your cell phone for voice dialing.

Pioneer's AVIC-F90BT combines advanced navigation features with in-car entertainment. It is an in-dash system that connects to and manages a wide variety of entertainment devices via Bluetooth, USB, and SD memory. Connect your iPod, XM, or Sirius satellite radio, play CD and DVD video, and command the system with voice commands.

The system is intelligent enough to pick out commands from casual conversation so you don't need to speak in predefined phrases. The 5.8" WVGA LCD monitor is touch sensitive, and the color scheme is configurable to your taste. And if the base unit doesn't have all the components you want, you can connect entertainment devices through the unit's A/V input and a backup camera to the system's camera port.

Radar Detectors

While radar detectors have been around for many years, they are not all the same. Most have the ability to sense law enforcement radar from different distances. That's useful, but they may not be able to tell you whether there's one behind you, in front, or to the side. Even less useful is the radar detector that buzzes every time you pass your local supermarket, triggered by the automatic doors. In this case, you won't know that there's also a police unit sitting in the parking lot scanning you.

The Valentine One Radar Locator with Laser Warning covers all these eventualities and more. But of course, the best way to deal with law enforcement radar is to stay below the speed limit. Save not only on speeding tickets, but your gasoline bill, as well. Signal Booster

Losing your phone signal while in the middle of a call can be annoying and inconvenient, but dropping your cell connection while it's being used by three of your passengers to surf the Web, watch online videos, or make Skype calls might result in mutiny. zBoost's YX230 is a cell signal booster designed to be mounted in the car. It has two antennas; one for the roof and one for inside mounting. The unit boosts whatever signal it finds outside and rebroadcasts it inside the vehicle. It is a dual-band unit, meaning it supports most carriers (except Nextel) simultaneously.

Electronics Organizers

Now that you have your laptop, GPS unit, cell phone, iPod, and other toys in the car, you don't want to have to scramble to see and control them. RAM Mounts come in configurations to mount pretty much any kind of gear. Choose from floor mounted stands for laptops, or windshield suction mounts for smaller items.

But face it... you aren't in the car for the entire length of your trip. Hopefully, from time to time, you get out and experience your destinations. But, of course, you still want to have your electronic goodies with you. Even while you're in the car, you probably have several items like your iPod, cell phone, and digital camera that are better kept within easy reach, rather than put into the console or glove box.

The ScotteVest Essential Jacket is constructed with multiple pockets and internal wiring guides to hold all your gear. The good thing is that, because of its ingenious construction, it doesn't make you look like a tourist. And if the weather is too warm, you can switch to one of the similarly designed TEC Shirts and still keep your devices in easy reach.

If you need to power multiple 120-volt devices from a car lighter, choose the iGo Everywhere85.

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Power Up

Most of the items designed to be used in an automotive environment come with 12-volt cigarette lighter plugs. But powering your laptop and MP3 player may be a different story. For these type units, you need a converter to replace the standard 120-volt household adapter. iGo's products cover the gamut, ranging from the single adapter iGo Everywhere to the units like the iGo Everywhere85 that can power both a laptop and an MP3 player at the same time.

Proof Of Life

When you get back home, you'll have to be able to prove you were where you said you were going, For that you'll need a camera. DXG's 569V pocketable HD video camera records to SD memory, keeping the cost and complexity down. It can shoot both video and still images and you can slip it into one of your ScotteVest's pockets for quick access. At under $170, you may not be expecting much, but the images are sharp and clear, and the HD video looks great, particularly when plugged directly into your big screen TV.

Go Retro, Good Buddy

Finally, there's one more piece of gear deserving of a mention. That's CB radio, which has long been associated with the open road. Cobra's 29 LTD BT CB radio includes the standard 40 channels with a blue LED display and what might be considered a retro chrome and black front panel. It also includes Bluetooth connectivity that lets you connect your phone to the CB, using the 5-watt CB speaker and noise cancelling microphone for your cell calls.

Just to be clear, this IS your father's (maybe even your grandfather's) citizen's band CB radio of "10-4, good buddy" fame. But that doesn't mean that CB isn't useful in the era of cell phones and mobile Internet access. In areas where you can't get a carrier signal, a CB rig can come in handy.

But be prepared: To chat with truckers and other CB jockeys as you roll double nickels down the big road, you'll want to learn the lingo.

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