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Put A PC In Your Car

Computing hits the road with this mini-ITX system.

Car PC's Require Special Components

A reliable in-car PC needs to use small yet rugged components whose size and shape allow proper placement, whether on a crowded dashboard, in or under a dashboard, or under the car's seats. The PC needs to be out of the way of the car's critical instruments.

A car PC must also be designed to be a real workhorse. It will need to handle heat and cold, exposure to sunlight, rapid changes in temperature and humidity, along with shocks and vibrations from the road. The system must also survive as an add-on to a power system that is frequently switched off, often for long periods, and that is prone to deep cycle discharging.

Automotive electrical systems—unlike the clean, steady household current from a wall receptacle—operate off a DC (direct current) storage system that is constantly changing. First, it discharges to deliver power to 'turn-over' a cold car engine. Then it charges the battery back to capacity as the car is driven. Car PCs must operate from power fully conditioned to remove the risk of low voltage during cranking and carefully regulated to prevent damage to PC components during charging.

In summary, an in-car PC must work consistently and meet the challenges of in-vehicle operability. It must be able to take a beating, have short boot times, offer power-saving features, and run its applications easily and safely accessible. The system must be mountable where it is easily visible but doesn't block the driver's line of vision or the path of airbags. The system also must be fastened securely so it won't come lose in a minor accident.

To meet all these challenging requirements, you'll need to choose the right components. In the next section, we'll look at your best choices for parts and how to source them.

Getting the Right Parts for a Car PC

Finding the right parts for your car PC is all about heat, power, vibration/shock, and operability. Let's take these in order:

Heat: Large power requirements and heat dissipation don't mix well with the confined space of a car. As a result, traditional desktops are difficult to keep cool in a car. Notebooks require less cooling, but mini-ITX boxes are even better. They're also easier to tuck into tight spaces. At just 17 cm. x 17 cm., a mini-ITX can fit into or below a dashboard, or even in a glove compartment. Special enclosures, like the VoomPC case, allow for optimal cooling and shock resistance while keeping a compact footprint; I'll discuss this at greater length later in the Recipe.

Power: This is the most challenging obstacle to computing on the road. Specifically, how do you supply clean power as needed? And how do you not drain a car system's battery when the car is unattended for long periods? Inefficient power inverters can covert the 12-volt DC typically used in car electronics into the 120-volt AC (alternating current) source required for a standard PC power supply. But there are a number of drawbacks. Most notably, inverters don't "know" when the car ignition is being turned off, so PCs won't shut down properly and will constantly be restarting on short trips. While notebooks use less power and can operate without an inverter (since they operate from battery power already), they can drain car batteries if left on or in 'hibernation mode' over long periods.

An excellent solution is a new breed of power supply that can make decisions about how to supply power and even signal a PC to 'hibernate' or 'shut-down' when warranted. It's called a DC-to-DC converter, and it can covert a car's 12-volt source into the 3.3-volt, 5-volt, and 1-volt outputs that computers can use. I especially like the M2-ATX. It allows for a user-selectable timer that lets the PC to remain on for a certain amount of time after the car is shut off before issuing a command to the computer to go to 'sleep.' Then, after a prolonged period of sleep, the power supply protects the car's battery by issuing a full shutdown command to the PC.

Vibration and shock: Components in a car PC are subject to all the same jarring, bumping and G-forces as passengers are. If all users drove luxury cars on traffic-free, freshly paved highways, then vibration and shock would be a non-issue. But in the real world, potholes, debris, curbs, and sudden stops and starts can all cause serious trouble for an in-car PC. As a result, hardware mounting, cable stress and wear, and choice of hard disk need to address the situation.

The PC's hard disk is the only constantly moving part, making it the one most sensitive to road shock and vibration. Fortunately, most of today's 2.5-inch notebook drives are designed to take a reasonable amount of abuse from motion, and most are suitable for all but the most rugged applications. I recommend the Seagate Momentus 7200.1, which has been rigorously tested for use in many mobile and notebook applications. For situations where you know your car PC will be heavily stressed, Seagate's EE-25 series drives are hardened specifically for automotive applications; they should hold up better in challenging applications.

Operability: Car PC users need to get to their applications fast and with a minimum of interaction. So keyboards and mice, while handy for occasional work in the car, are of limited use in a car. Instead, car PCs should rely on touch screens and software interfaces with "skins" that let users access their apps quickly and safely.

In car lingo, a touch screen works like a "head unit," providing access to music selection or a GPS. A major goal of a car PC is to replace the vehicle's head unit with a touch screen that will act as GPS, CD player, radio and the like.

Skins used with voice-recognition software can also provide safe and a mostly hands-free method of working with applications. Applications like RoadRunner and SKINbedder work with NaviVoice voice recognition to provide quick access to applications with a minimum of driver involvement. In the screenshot below, you can see how NaviVoice helps to integrate voice activated GPS with media playing and other applications, making GPS functions available quickly and safely with a one-word command:

With applications like Mobile Media Center, users can develop their own "skins" to access media and other car applications by touch. Here's an example:

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