The computer in your car

Driving along the road, with just your stereo for company, it's easy to get lost in your thoughts and drift away.

Driving along the road, with just your stereo for company, it's easy to get lost in your thoughts and drift away. Of course, you pay attention to traffic - but the other cars are just part of the background scenery. Some drivers just slip into a "bubble" - it's just them and the road. That's one way to approach lone driving. The other way is my way - checking out what the other drivers are doing. That old adage is true; be careful what you do while you're in your car, because there may be someone watching! And on one of my recent "observational" drives, I nearly got into an accident when I saw what was going on in the car waiting at the red light next to me; the guy was watching a video! Talk about dangerous driving. But on second look, I calmed down somewhat; it wasn't the driver watching the screen, prominently located under the rearview mirror, but a kid sitting in the back seat. My first thought was, "well, that was a relief." And, like a true gadget addict, my second thought was, "hey, that's cool! How can I get one - cheap?" You see, I've been around long enough to know that you can have anything in our wired world, for a price. The trick is to get the goods by paying as little as possible - using ingenious techniques and tactics to do it yourself, without, of course, getting too geeky about it. And in-car video is set to be the next big innovation in auto marketing, according to the auto manufacturers themselves. The original idea was to provide a larger screen for GPS display applications, like larger maps, etc. But if you've got the screen already, manufacturers reason, why not use it for other purposes? Video - actually DVD - is the most obvious use for flat LCD displays that are now available for use in cars. Mercedes, for example, is making available a full GPS/DVD system with screens up front and in the back seat as an upgrade option in a number of 2006 models. The full option package costs about $3,000 (with various cheaper permutations), but if you can afford to buy a Mercedes S-Class model, it's probably small change for you. Naturally, you're not going to watch the screen while you're driving; the important thing is to keep the kids quiet in the back while you concentrate on your driving. The absolute cheapest way to go is with a small 5" or 7" portable DVD player, such as this one ( manufactured by Coby, a name well known to aficionados of bargain electronics. Recently available for as little as $100 on-line, it's bound to keep the peace in the back seat for the hour and 40 minutes or so movie running time; and in my experience, after everyone gets their head position comfortably adjusted (it may take up to three minutes of deciding who should hold the device and in what direction it should be pointed). After that, it's smooth sailing (or driving). Most of these portable players come with rechargeable batteries, and can also be plugged into your car's cigarette lighter port. If you like your video smooth - i.e, built into the car's mechanics, as opposed to floating around in the back seat, you might look at something like the Pioneer AVHP5700 DVD/CD Receiver with 6.5-inch LCD monitor and Built-in Amplifier (), which isn't cheap, but will entertain you and everyone else in the car with radio, MP3s, DVDs, and other abbreviations too numerous to be described here. But forget entertainment; people like us are much too busy to watch movies, and most of them are pretty second-rate anyway. How about having a built-in computer that can do it all? With a PC, you get music, video - even wireless Internet connections if you're driving around in the right neighborhood! Believe it or not, there are already a number of Web sites and companies dedicated to helping you make your Mac Mini a part of your driving experience. Once again, the versatile little Mini proves that it is the right machine for the job, as its diminutive size (6.5 inches square and two inches high) fits right into the spot car stereos go in many cars. How to set it up: There is already a Japanese company selling a special Mac Mini-sized "auto dock" for many models (; note that the site is in Japanese). From the looks of it, though, the dock is basically a cage that allows you to insert and remove the Mini from the car, and comes with a screen and a bunch of connectors. At $1,600, it's no bargain, but you're guaranteed to be the only person on the block with a computer in your car. But as with most things, there's a cheaper way to do this, if you're willing to put some elbow grease into it. Http:// is a whole Web site dedicated to dissecting and reassembling PCs of all types to allow installation of DVD and MP3 players, and even more exotic equipment. The user forums especially have a great deal of information on how to configure computers for use in cars, and judging by the thousands of posts in the user forum, this do-it-yourself hobby may be the Next Big Thing. While any PC can be reduced to the sum of its components, a Mac Mini is ideally suited for use in a car; its power supply fits in well with most autos' 12 V power connection, and with the Mac Mini's bluetooth connections, you can use a bluetooth enabled cell phone to connect to the Internet. The site has an interesting blog displaying the progress of an ambitious Volkswagen Beetle owner who installed a Mac Mini in his dashboard (do a search for "New Beetle - Mac Mini Install" at the site). Adapting a PC is not a project for everyone, but who knows - with a little practice, you'll become an expert in the field, and get yourself in on the ground floor of what could be the biggest thing to happen to cars in the coming years. [email protected]