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Put A PC In Your Car

Computing hits the road with this mini-ITX system.

In this Recipe, I'll show you how to build an in-car PC using mini-ITX technology. This automobile computer system features a compact footprint, road-worthy components, and some serious media capabilities.

For this Recipe, I'll feature both components that are built specially to handle the rigors of a road trip and those that can also work on the desktop. On the dashboard, here's how a typical build will look:

Pretty cool, right? Ready to get your clients in gear with a car PC? Then let's roll!

Why Mini-ITX?

Mini-ITX is an ultra-compact motherboard developed by VIA Technologies, a Taiwanese company known for innovation and high-quality manufacturing. The highly integrated features of mini-ITX mainboards are ideal for building systems that are powerful, quiet, and small. These boards also pack all the punch of a full-sized PC while running far cooler and more quietly. These features have made mini-ITX solutions the most popular choice for embedded applications and appliance computing—in short, any place where space is an issue.

We'll add to this compact, solid mainboard a road-worthy case, rugged hard disk, and a power supply built to handle special automotive needs, such as battery drain. Put it all together, and you've got one solid Car PC that's ready to hit the highway in ways that no desktop box or notebook could.

As with any technology, there are tradeoffs. So let's talk about the pros and cons of implementing a Mini-ITX solution for the road. I think you'll agree that the pros far outweigh the cons! Here's a brief summary of the highlights of working with a mini-ITX:

  • Ultra Compact: Offers a 170 mm x 170 mm (roughly 6.7 in. x 6.7 in.) form factor.
  • Highly Integrated: Boards carry an onboard processor and integrated I/O.
  • Power Efficient: Low power consumption, cool operation.
  • OS Compatible: Systems support Microsoft and Linux operating systems.
  • Modular: Integrates with industry standard components.
  • Secure: Mini-ITX boards feature onboard encryption technology.
  • Quiet: Smaller means less noise, and fanless mini-ITX offer less noise with greater stability.
  • Compatible Interfaces: Supports SATA drives, DIMM memory, PCI cars, and both USB and Firewire peripherals.

On the flip side, here are a few limitations on the technology which you should consider before implementing a mini-ITX solution:

  • Not Upgradeable: To reduce the cost of manufacture, CPUs are permanently installed on the mainboard. The ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket on most modern motherboards makes up a significant part of the manufacture cost. In VIA's EPIA (Embedded Platform Innovative Architecture) architecture, the company integrated the mainboard and CPU and removed the socket to streamline production and reduce costs.
  • Limited Expandability: Typical cases have limited real estate—that's the cost of going "small." Power supplies can be as small as 60 watts, limiting the addition of peripherals. Also, these boards have minimal PCI slots available.
  • Higher Cost: The cost for an integrated mini-ITX mainboard is likely to be higher than a comparable ATX motherboard/CPU bundle.

While there are certainly some cons to going with mini-ITX, I believe the technology is sound. That's why I recommend it as the virtual heart of this build.

Car PC Benefits

The public's attitude about what belongs in a car, coupled with technological advances that have made components like displays more compact and robust, have transformed cars and SUVs into rolling infotainment centers. Not long ago, a video display in a car would turn heads; today, it's commonplace. Global positioning systems (GPS) that were once deployed exclusively by the military now listen for bleeps from space from consumer dashboards. DVD players, surround sound, and video displays have all become popular selling features for auto makers. Add to that the high-end options: satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, rear-view cameras, vehicle diagnostics and sensor monitoring, Wi-Fi, smart alarm systems, and more. As a result, consumers seek new possibilities for their mobile computing needs.

Car dealers and makers of satellite radio, GPS and media players are targeting a growing consumer market with individual infotainment products. But a well-built car PC can run all of these and more. It can also help consumers with route planning, Web browsing, personal scheduling, gaming, and general computing.

System builders should consider consumers to be just part of whom you should pitch for offering a road PC. There are also hardcore mobile computing applications you could offer, such as digital video recording for police vehicles with broadband connectivity. Also, consider inventory and transportation tracking systems for trucking and delivery companies that provide businesses the advantage of being able to pinpoint where their products and materials anytime anywhere.

Let's take a look at some approaches to getting a PC on the road and choosing the right components. Then I'll show you how to put it all together.

Why Not Go With a Notebook?

In-car PC components are similar to those for notebook and desktop systems—power supplies, CPU, hard disk, etc.—but they need to meet much more rugged specifications. The operating environment in a car is vastly different from an office desktop. Notebooks, while closer in size and ruggedness, are still best for home or office use.

Can you simply mount a notebook or desktop and use it in a car? Sure, and many installers have done just that. But there are serious drawbacks. Desperate installers have mounted flimsy desktop cases in the trunk; used inefficient power inverters to supply power; and even have built elaborate trays for input devices. But size, cable runs and cooling requirements make the desktop approach cumbersome to install and unappealing to operate.

Where standard desktop boxes are awkward for the road, notebooks are a better fit. But their power supplies are not specifically built to handle the special demands of the starts and stops of an average vehicle. As a result, an unmodified notebook cannot be counted on for reliable in-car service.

In addition, both traditional desktops and notebooks are plagued with overheating problems and unexpected reboot issues. Inopportune reboots can occur as power fluctuates in a system designed more to provide power for a car's lights, wiper motors and fans than the smooth, constant voltage required for typical computing.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
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