My attempt at getting a PC or Mac into my 2003 WRX wagon.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Latest Developments ...

Well, the first incarnation of the PC in my car actually happened on the 28th of May.

On Friday night I picked up a VIA EPIA M1000 motherboard from Fry's Electronics for 170$. On Saturday the enclosure for the LCD arrived from TMZ Engineering. I'd decided to go with the 7" Lilliput screen in lieu of the Xenarc mainly because this enclosure existed and hence would save me many hours doing putty work trying to get the LCD to fit into my center console.

So ... the two main components arrived. I had some extra memory just lying around accumulating dust, a 200 GB hard drive doing the same, and a 250W power supply doing the same. I also picked up a small inverter from Fry's on Friday in order to test my setup before taking the plunge and purchasing a dedicated power supply.

The LCD arrived on Friday and I began disassembly of the unit the following Saturday afternoon. By Sunday early morning it was all up and running in my car. The instructions on TMZ's site were useful but the newer Lilliput units are a little easier to dismantle because some of the wiring is connected via connectors instead of being soldered straight on. Also, instead of desoldering the cables used for the power adapter I instead cut through the plastic casing of the Lilliput case thus leaving all of the wires and connections intact. I did however modify the case from TMZ by removing the notch that covers the power connector and also gives access to the RCA plug. I eventually also did the auto-power-on hack by getting to the administrator's menu so that I wouldn't need to use the remote control or the buttons to turn the display on so that it powered on as soon as there was current going through the circuit.

I intially used Windows XP and had a hell of a time getting the touchscreen to work. The drivers are a little difficult to use ... and it's not exactly easy to update the firmware (who has a floppy drive anymore?) for the motherboard. But I did get it working, in the end. I also purchased a crappy GPS unit and software from Delorme just to see if it would work, and it does, but it's horribly inprecise and the directions it gives are *TERRIBLE*. I'll be sending this unit back to Delorme ASAP.

After having prototyped things by using PC speakers, a power inverter, an 250W ATX power supply the next step was to make my own VGA connector. The amount of space between the motherboard and the firewall is quite small and hence it isn't possible to fit a regular VGA connector here. L-com makes some right angle HD15 (VGA) connectors which will make up my permanent solution but in the meantime I needed something so I ripped apart an VGA gender bender and made my own connector; it's not shielded and I have at times experienced some interference. It's just a temporary solution but will do, for now. The connector from l-com is backordered and won't ship until the end of the month so ... until then it's going to have to do! They also make a right angle DB9 serial connector which will be used to hook up my OBD II unit.

So, although this setup was quite quaint, it needed some work. Time to order some more stuff ... including a mini usb keyboard, a 120W OPUS power supply, the PowerMate control knob, and a Creative Labs Audigy 2 NX USB sound card (for cheap: 70$!) from

The power supply arrived on Friday, the 3rd of June (one week after the initial install was complete) and I spent the next eight hours, quality time, with my soldering iron, trying to wire everything up for use in my car. I also got myself a basket to match the audio connector for my radio from a local audio shop which I then used to attempt hooking up sound and as a spot to get a hot wire for use in starting up the computer when the key is inserted into the ingition.

In order to protect the power supply from shorting out I decided to build some kind of enclosure. I didn't have access to all the sheet metal tools I'd like so I tried to fashion something with some aviation snips and using the edge of my table as a brake but ... that didn't work terribly well so in the end I ripped apart an old CD-ROM drive and used it's enclosure as a case for the power supply. It's way to huge for this purpose will do the job, in the meanwhile.

On Sunday I re-dremmelled (what a great verb!) the center panel such that the LCD would sit more flush with in the console. It worked but sadly I scratched up the panel a little bit during the process so I'm either going to try and paint it or grab yet another one from a scrap yard (or as they call them here a "pick'n'pull".)

So, I removed glove box and hid the power supply and 3.5" hard drive behind it. It's a *VERY* tight fit. I will eventually be changing the hard drive and using a laptop drive that's designed to take a bit more abuse such as the Hitachi Travelmate or Endurastar models. I also hope to find a smaller enclosure for the power supply.

The next thing for me to fix will be sound. As expected I can't hear a thing with my current setup. I think the mini jacks output from the PC is about 0.5W ... that needs to be amplified. So I'm shopping for a 4-channel amp. that will be a good compromise between price, power, size (I want it to fit under the passenger seat and be concealed from plain view) and, of course, quality.

One of the bigger problems still unsolved has to do with brigtness of the LCD. The touchscreen film that lies on top of the LCD causes it to be horrendously reflective. I hope to do two things to remidy this problem. For one, I hope to find some kind of film or screen with which I can remove some of the glare and I also hope to eventually brighten the display using a solution such as the one outlined here. Currently the system is effectively only useful at night or in dim lighting. I knew before I started this project that this would be a problem but in truth it's even worse than I expected! It's what you might call a show-stopper IMHO!

Looming on the horizon for other developments are:

  • USB AM/FM radio from Griffin

  • Fan Monitor and control unit

  • Wireless keyboard/mouse/windows media player remote control

  • USB XM PCR Radio (out of production but still available on eBay from time to time)

  • wireless internet + war driving

  • bluetooth ... for dial-up access with my cell phone, maybe for use with replacement GPS unit ...

  • speaker upgrade

  • microphone

  • slim DVD-ROM, maybe DVD writer and card reader for use with Compact Flash card reader and digital camera

  • software!

  • front and/or back USB cameras

One big change since the initial installation has to do with the motherboard. The M1000 board has MPEG-2 hardware accelleration so it can play DVDs (self-authored stuff which I've copied onto the hard drive) smoothly but it can't handle the audio. So, I upgraded to the VIA EPIA SP 1300 which seems to do the job very well and is just plain better overall. Get this board. The folks over at BlueBone PC had one of these in stock (along with a copy of Windows XP Media Center) so I swapped out the board and there's been no looking back since. I can now zoom in and out of the maps via the Delorme GPS software acheiving acceptable frame rates and have programmed the Griffin PowerMate to work as a zoom dial when using this application. It's really quite cool.


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