As you drive down the highway this week (or last, or next) with the stations on your car radio fading in an out as you move between points of civilization, with a backseat full of kids kvetching or, even worse, reciting the mantra of the bored child ("are we there yet?"), you're probably kicking yourself that you didn't shell out for one of those portable DVD players - or individual iPods for each kid, at least.
What is it with kids today, anyway? I can understand their having a hard time on planes, especially these days what with the endless delays and the who knows what streaming down the aisle (http://tinyurl.com/2v4ngq). But on a car trip? Whatever happened to watching the world go by from the window of a comfortable, air-conditioned back seat? Singing old folks songs as the scenery passes by? Passing the time by playing the license plate game or other road trip games (http://www.roadtripplanning.com/road-trip-games.html)? Clearly, today's kids are a lot more spoiled than we were at their age, with their need to be entertained every moment of every day! Sorry - I was just channeling my mother there, who used to say that about my not so young generation. Which, I guess, just proves how much of an issue in-car entertainment is - and has been for a long time.
The difference is, of course, in those days passengers on a long car trip could do nothing but grin and bear it; car manufacturers were just getting used to the idea of FM radio and cassette tape players in dashboards, and the technological foundation for mini (or any) DVD players just didn't exist in 1975.
Considering how much time drivers spend behind the wheel (the average US driver is on the road between 500-1,000 hours annually, according to http://tinyurl.com/2q75vv), you would have thought major automobile manufacturers would have come up with a solution like the one by Ford (in conjunction with Microsoft), called the Sync (http://tinyurl.com/2mgwux), an all-in-one system that provides music, video and even a cell phone speaker in a single, integrated unit installed by the manufacturer (see video at http://www.syncmyride.com). Everything will be voice-activated (i.e. hands-free), with the system even reading text messages you get on your cell phone, and play back streaming Internet radio downloaded by wi-fi equipped cell phones or PDAs - as well as featuring a USB port to easily upload files to the system's memory via a disk-on-key. And, of course, plain vanilla AM and FM radio (not to mention satellite radio, where available). The Sync system will be built into several high-end 2008 model year Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles (they should be out in the fall). At $395, the Sync doesn't sound like a bad deal at all - if you can afford the rest of the add-on package (Ford Explorers go for in excess of NIS 200,000 in Israel, taxes and duties included).
If Ford and Microsoft are factory installing an entertainment system, can Apple and Mercedes be far behind? Not according to http://tinyurl.com/3c2gcp, which says that the two companies are working on a similar venture - but more advanced, since it will include other computer-type services - for installation in 2009 model Mercedes vehicles.
Clearly, integrated all in one factory installed video/audio/communications systems are the wave of the future. It might be awhile before India's Tata (http://www.tata.com/) starts installing them in their vehicles, but never fear; one day soon, in-car entertainment systems will be de rigeur in all cars.
Don't think you can hold out till 2012 or so? No problem, there are options available today that promise hours of fun for the kids and freedom from complaining for you. For example, there's the $500 Nextar Multi-Media machine. While not specifically marketed as a car entertainment system, it's highly regarded by car enthusiasts, and the Web site has photos of people watching a video on it in the back seat of a car (http://tinyurl.com/34n224). Although the Multi-Media Machine does not feature radio, it does play back many digital music formats (MP3, WMA etc.), with room for 10,000 songs, as well as video playback (AVI, MP4). And, it allows you to record directly from a TV (like a DVR) and save your show on the system's hard drive for playback. Note that the Web site says that the DVR is "for non-copyrighted materials;" it isn't clear whether the device has a built in Macrovision protection chip (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macrovision) that would detect and prevent recording of commercial TV shows.
Then there is the "carputer" - the computer you adapt for use in your car. Carputers are strictly a DIY thing, which means that you have to like tech - i.e., the challenge of putting wires and ports together, not to mention software - in order to get stuff to work.
Carputers have the advantage of being cheap, in that they are usually made of discarded or old computer parts with cheap LCD monitors and open source software to play back files. If you're interested in a carputer, you'll find plenty of help on the Internet to show you how to do it, with photos. See, for example, http://carputers.org, which has links to lots of carputer instruction sites, with the "manufacturer" posting detailed instructions on how to build it, with photos.
The cool part about a carputer is that it can be anything you want it to be - an audio- or video-based entertainment machine, a streaming Internet radio player or even a gaming machine with mice and joysticks to control the action.
One computer that lends itself to use as a carputer with no resoldering needed is the Mac Mini, which looks like it should fit right into a car console. Check out http://tinyurl.com/zonrb for a pictorial, step-by-step guide on how to convert one into a carputer.
But here's an even better system: Let's say you have an old laptop at home seeking employment. You don't want to part with it because it's a good machine, but you don't usually use it because your new laptop is so much more powerful. Why not "upgrade" your machine, from backup laptop to carputer? A carputer it can become - for only $24.99 - thanks to the CradleVue Laptop Travel Harness (http://www.vuegear.com/). "Are you considering a built-in 'entertainment center' for your car, SUV, or van?" asks the Web site. "Let's add up the problems with them. They cost a lot. They're extremely expensive to fix. Their sensitive LCD panels can get hammered by Death Valley heat and Minnesota cold." With the CradleVue, though, you can set up your laptop for commuting fun - since you're shlepping it along anyway - and take it out of the car when you're done. Probably helps reduce grand theft auto larceny type crimes, too!