Car PC – Quick Introduction

Before things get too interesting, I wanted to make a quick note about my next “major” project. I’ll be building a Car PC in the next few weeks/months —  Most of the worklog posts on the blog will be Car PC related. For those of you unfamiliar with Car Computing in general, the forums at mp3car.com is an excellent resource. “Back in the day,” Car PCs were hacked together with various PC components, and interfaced to the car via the stereo. User input is generally done through a 7-8″ touch screen and maybe a small handheld wireless keyboard. The shape and size of these PCs were extremely variable, but in more recent history, the form factor that’s most commonly adopted is miniITX. This is a motherboard roughly the size of a common kitchen napkin. Pretty small, right? Well, the CarPC I am looking to design ideally will fit entirely inside the dash/center console, so it’s actually too big. In a very recent development, my project (that I’ve been putting off for a few years now) has become a lot more simple.

Former Challenges

One of the reasons I’ve put off this project for so long is the complexity of the build. I’ve got a spare radio cage for my 2003 VW Golf TDi, and I’ve been doing some very loose test-fitting of the hardware I’ve got on hand set aside for this build. It is EXTREMELY tight, and to do this project right would leave me with only millimeters to spare. Most people locate their PCs in the trunk of their vehicles, but I wanted to have everything in the dash as one of my design goals. The Power Supply Unit (PSU) was the other major design consideration I had to make — while my motherboard is plenty powerful for a car PC, it is low profile and low power consuming, but confined in the dash of a PC, it’s likely I’d run into heat issues after a long drive. Enter the Intel NUC.

Other Design Considerations

Before discussing the NUC too much, I want to touch on the goals of my build, and why/how the NUC simplifies my life. In a sentence, the NUC is a modern/powerful PC with hardware competitive with a MacBook Air in a smaller form factor than a Mini ITX motherboard.

Things that I plan to do with my Car PC

  • Needs to be self contained in a Double DIN shelf
  • Needs to be easily removed for servicing and/or adding media
  • Bluetooth Capability – Data sharing, calls through the car stereo, etc
  • GPS navigation
  • Optical drive input (optional)
  • Dash/Backup Cams
  • USB hub/input (ease of media transfer, charging, etc)
  • Mobile Internet
  • Mobile Internet Radio

The Intel NUC – Fixing my Car PC design issues

The biggest challenge I faced with my miniITX build was simply size limitations. A mini ITX motherboard will BARELY fit in a Double DIN radio cage. Once you add in the touch screen (even stripped down), you’ll run out of space in a jiffy. The way I would have had to get around this would have been to expand the cage, but the only space that was spare in the cage was the cavity for the old-style VW cupholders. This wasn’t a viable option, as I was planning to mount a slot-load slimline DVD drive in that slot for optical media. While the optical drive will only be used on rare occasions, it’s one of those things that I’m not really willing to sacrifice on. Maybe I’ll change my mind about that in the future.

When I initially read about the Intel NUC, I thought “that’s a cool device, but I’m not sure what I could possibly do with it…” After coming back and deciding that my Car PC was going to be my next major item to focus my attention on, it quickly became apparent to me that the NUC was going to be my next major purchase. The only downside to this is that the NUC has a fairly limited (but awesome) I/O available to it. The NUC has a few USB ports, and depending on the model, 2 HDMI ports w/ GbEthernet, OR 1 HDMI, 1 Thunderbolt, and a few USB ports. Coupled with a low-voltage Ivy Bridge i3 with reasonably good integrated graphics, the NUC already crushes the hardware I had set aside for my build (A Dothan style Pentium M). The NUC also has mSATA and mPCIe slots on it for an integrated SSD and wifi module, and all this incredible hardware is in a 10cm^2 (4″x4″) package.  Since the IO (specifically video) is all digital, I am forced to buy a new screen. The touch screen monitor I already had set aside for this project was a standard VGA input. SUCKS.

While there’s a little bit of growing pains with shifting directions on this project, I think the actual build and test time for the NUC based Car PC will be extremely simplified and shortened. I think what was once an enormous project became an extremely doable project. The cost easily tripled, but I’d rather spend less time to get a usable product and move onto something else. After the Car PC, I think I’ll be posting a lot more microcontroller based work 🙂

Until next time (with hardware pictures!), JD

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