Carputer Part 3: Installation

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the next exciting installment in the Carputer series!


Yes, yes. Anyway, I would like to –


Ahem. What?


Yes, but wait, what? This is just about the carputer itself, the trip is discussed elsewh-


Okay, just keep going. I think this time you actually won’t stop until you get to the-

Zach: I think it’s finally ready.
Zach’s Mom (V.O.): Now you take it easy out there, son. You’ve been working on that thing all day.
Zach: I’m so close I can… I can taste it.
Zach: Okay, let’s do this. (deep breath)
(sound of engine starting)
Zach’s Dad: (approaching) You got it working?
Car (V.O.): Welcome, Zach.


(sound of car driving away)
Car (V.O.): Turn… left… in… 500… feet.

Actually, that was pretty cool how you talked all big like that. Although if a person installing electronics in his car is movie material, we are an entertainment-starved culture, to be sure.

For those of you just joining us, I have previously described how I realized a carputer would be friggin’ sweet, so I built one, then put all the awesome software on it that I wanted. I will now describe Step 3 in the carputer process – getting all the aforementioned pieces in the car and connected so they work.

The Master Plan

The plan in a nutshell: fused power wire running on right side from battery to trunk. Mainboard with power supply under passenger seat, touchscreen in dash (powered from power supply, not battery), foldable keyboard stowed under the seats when not in use. GPS receiver on back deck. Wi-fi antenna mounted on hood in place of previous radio antenna. Audio running down left side from carputer to trunk. Accessory wire run from previous stereo’s connector to power supply to serve as power switch.

The plan outside of the nutshell looks like this:

How did that ever fit in a nutshell?

Exciting eh? Turns out the insides of nutshells are boring and leave out a lot of words, like articles and linking verbs. Let me give you more juicy details from outside the nut.

First, the touchscreen. As I said, my plan was to remove the existing head unit,

You served me long and well.

move the climate controls down lower,

Also, shaken but not stirred.

then cut out the plastic divider between them,

A river runs through it.

in order to use the entire space for the touchscreen. As it turned out, my plan could not have been more awesome.

Midway through the above, I held up the touchscreen to the slot and discovered that there was also a metal divider inside separating the two DIN slots (see above) that had to go. It was too integrated into everything else to remove, so I just Dremeled off the front inch or two.

Go go Dremel Mototool!

PRO TIP: cutting metal in a very confined area surrounded by other parts, including fairly important stock wire bundles is not the simple task that being able to write about it casually in one sentence might make it seem. To be. Yeah, it was more like that sentence – difficult.

Hint: it is.

After that, there was enough space for the touchscreen!

Touchscreen is actually the same word as kitchen sink in my native language.

The next thing to think about was how to attach said touchscreen. For help in brainstorming, I held the screen in place and held the trim piece over it.

By nifty, I actually mean nifty. Allow myself to introduce... myself.

And – it looked great. It was the perfect size for that space; when I screwed the trim piece back on the screen was held securely in place by just pressure and friction! No crazy jerry-rigging necessary.

“That’s awesome!” exclaims Attractive Girl, ever supportive of that which is awesome.

Next step: THE POWER. I mentioned how I had purchased an 8-gauge Kicker wiring pack, which made this step fairly simple. I simply ran the cable from the engine compartment back to the trunk, following the car’s existing wiring channel. The trickiest part was finding a way through the firewall, but I was able to locate a little rubber bushing about the right size that was unused in my no-power-options Vic, and pushed it through that. Again, that was one sentence, but it required the help of another person and took quite a few minutes and exploratory feeling and prodding. From there, it was a simple matter of unscrewing the “running boards” and prying up some carpet and plastic trim to expose the wiring channel, then running the cable down that into the trunk, where I cut off the excess wire.

By Edgar Allen Poe-dunk

I did need to spend a little time adding in a T connector near the passenger seat, where I would be running a smaller power line over to the carputer. I waited until I had installed the power cord almost exactly where it was going to be, before pulling a little slack in the cord, cutting a little hole in the under-seat carpet, and running the cord under the carpet over to that hole. Only then did I cut the power wire and splice in that T connector.

“Right, so you’ve got power going under your seat and to the trunk, and you’ve got a completely unconnected touchscreen sitting nicely in your dash. When do we get to the juicy stuff we saw in the preview?”

Trust me, I felt the same way. Next, it was time to get down to business and connect all of the many things that needed to be connected to the carputer itself. So I took out the passenger seat, and attached the carputer to the carpet, using the case’s handy peg-mounting system. (Pro tip: don’t try to drill holes in carpet, you’ll make a mess. Just slash little holes in it with a knife.)


Now I had nine wiring tasks ahead of me:

The Nine Wiring Tasks

  1. Power to the Opus power supply. A cinch: just had to run a few wires from the T connector to the Opus’s power wires.
  2. Grounding the carputer. Also fairly easy, since the seat bolted directly to the frame. I could just stick the ground wire from the Opus under the washer before tightening the bolt for a very solid, direct ground.
  3. Connecting the Opus’s power-on line to the car’s accessory power for automatic power-on and -off with ignition. This is one of the very cool things about the Opus. Since I was no longer using the previous head unit connector, I simply located the accessory wire in that using a voltmeter and ran a wire from there.
  4. Power from the Opus to the touchscreen. The Opus system came with additional power out for the screen, which is excellent because it means the screen will turn on and off with the carputer. It also means the screen is protected from under-/overvoltage like the rest of the carputer, which it would not be if I wired power to it separately. To do this, I had to remove the wallwort-style plug from the monitor to expose the wires, then connect the power out lines from the Opus to that. It was a little tricky because the wires from the screen were quite small. I just guessed which was hot/ground based on color, but it works so I guess either I was right or it didn’t matter. A circuit is a circuit no matter which way the current goes, I suppose.
  5. VGA from the carputer to the touchscreen. I can’t recall at the moment, but I think I didn’t even need a VGA extension cable for this. I ran both this and the touchscreen’s power wires together under the carpet, popping up through a small hole directly in front of the carputer.
  6. External antenna from the wi-fi card to the hood. I had one of those handy-dandy magnetic antennas specifically designed for sticking on cars, and fortunately the cable was long enough, so I was able to run it under the carpet (trying to keep it away from the power line as much as possible), through the unused bushing for wires I didn’t have going to the passenger door, then up and out through the gap between the windshield and the hood. It’s not as nice as a directly replacing the previous radio antenna, but it’s still pretty nice and the 1” of wire that shows is quite inconspicuous.
  7. GPS receiver from carputer USB to the back deck. I mentioned earlier that this is one of the last things I did (other than audio). Until I bought a USB extension, it was sitting on my dash with unsightly wires dangling around. But I finally got the extension, and then I could run the wire down the right side and behind the back seat, finally popping out in the center of the back deck, where the GPS could happily sit and cook on hot days.
  8. RCA audio from the Opus’s RCA outs back to the trunk, where it would eventually connect to the amp. I would have loved it if the Opus had SPDIF out, but alas, only RCA (and a bit noisy at that… I discovered after installing the audio system that the mobo’s onboard audio is not super clean).
  9. Remote-on Yay. switch from the Opus to the trunk, to connect to the future amp. Another super awesome feature about the Opus is that it has a remote-on line, like head units which are designed to work with amps have. This line simply sends a signal to the amp telling it to turn on or off, which is a good idea because a) you don’t need to run switched power to the amp, which would be a pain, and b) the head unit turns on the amp after it is already powered on, thus avoiding the loud POP that could otherwise happen. The Opus has this capability, like a good head unit, so I was happy to take advantage of it.

Tools You Need To Do the Same

  • Screwdrivers/wrenches/sockets of whatever kind you need to take apart your car.
  • Wire cutters/crimpers
  • Voltmeter
  • Flashlight
  • Dremel Mototool, including wheels for cutting metal (you’ll use up at least one of those wheels).
  • Utility knife (for trimming 8-gauge wires and cutting carpet)
  • Wire fasteners (I recommend picking up a kit of various gauge connectors)
  • As I recall, I made use of a clamp and needle-nose pliers as well, but I don’t know that those are strictly necessary.

Sound like a lot of wiring? That’s because it was, and it definitely didn’t all get done in one day. All wires were run neatly down existing channels or under the carpet, tucked and fastened in various places so as to minimize risk of both chafing and signal interference.

Then, almost as an afterthought, I connected the keyboard.


Finally, everything was connected, exactly as in my plan. I was ready to throw the switch and see if it worked the same in my car as it had on my dining room table.

You can't handle the truth!

And you know the rest because the preview kind of gave it away. Great job Movie Preview Man.




And it runs, to boot. The eight satellites told me so!

Friggin’ sweet! You have no idea how satisfying it is to start your car, hear it say “Welcome, Zach,” and then watch it acquire a lock on 8 different satellites.

“What about audio?” complain some nearby teenagers, completely expectedly.

Never you fret, my good teenagers. Do you think that I, a musician, could possibly design a car system that did not include audio as a primary consideration? Impossible! Well, possible… but immensely improbable. The fourth and final article in the Carputer series will describe the installation of the audio, possibly in some kind of cinematic fashion. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the main villain in this particular post, who swore vengeance on the carputer in a very prophetic manner, died – but kind of vaguely. Like, he could have actually lived, possibly even gaining some additional powers or something. Yeah.

The Carputer! (Part I: Assembly)

As promised long ago, I need to detail the process of building and installing the carputer, my faithful companion and aide for my bajillions of miles of driving.

The Carputer (of Love?)

Why a Carputer?

Besides the obvious reason that it’s friggin’ sweet, why install a carputer in a 1987 Ford? First of all, consider the fact that I was planning on spending who-knows-how-many-hours in said Ford on this project, driving all over the country. Then consider the fact that I would be driving to a lot of people’s homes that I had never been to before. I may also ocasionally have to find a way to access the internet to figure something out. Then consider the fact that all I had in my car for audio was a measly Clarion 12-disc CD changer powering Pioneer speakers. Ok, so that’s actually pretty nice, but still, I would listen all the way through the first batch of CDs in the first couple days of the Tour. And with the changer in the trunk, switching CDs isn’t something that can be done while driving.

Conclusion: a carputer is awesome (and approaching necessary for my Tour) because 1) GPS navigation, 2) as many mp3s as you can fit on your hard drive, 3) wireless internet, and 4) it’s friggin’ sweet.

So let’s talk about the carputer. I think that in order to effectively cover a process so involved, I’ll need to break it down into sections. Four ought to do it: Assembly, Software, Installation, and Audio. For today, Assembly.

Part 1: Building the Carputer Itself

The Plan

Where do you install a computer in a Crown Vic? Well, here’s my plan in a nutshell.

The computer itself would go under the passenger seat. It’s usually not a recommended location for electronics because of the potential for spills and tracked-in slush/junk, but the trunk is too far away to easily connect the keyboard and screen.

Speaking of the screen — the only actually visible component of the carputer — I thought that would fit nicely right in the middle of the dash. Let me give you a visual aid: a Crown Vic dashboard looks something like this:

Dashing, no?

That’s not from my Vic, because I forgot to get a picture of the dash prior to ripping it open. (Wait, I found one! Kinda. Here it is.)

On the way to Kansas City.  Picture by Mina Kang.

Anyway, you can see that there are two DIN slots there in the dash — the upper one for audio (there’s some crazy aftermarket head unit there in the above pic) and the lower for climate controls. It was my plan to remove my existing head unit, move the climate controls down lower, cut out the separator between the two, and use both slots combined for the 8″ touchscreen.

Power will run down the right side of the car (conveniently, the battery is on the right), with a small branch off for the carputer and continuing into the trunk to power the amp. Audio signal will leave the carputer and travel down the left side of the car (it’s not good to wire audio and power close together) to the amp. Speakers will be mounted in semi-stock locations.

Choosing The Hardware

After a lot of research and lurking on highly informative forums like, I had decided on a few things I wanted for sure. I didn’t want some old desktop computer case strapped down somewhere in my car. I wanted something sexy. I also did not want to get a power inverter to convert my car’s DC power to AC, just so it could get converted back to DC by the computer’s power supply — what a waste. That meant a DC-DC power supply, and at the time the talk around the web was that the best of these was the Opus.

Much more poking around later, and I had found the package I wanted: the Opus 70.

Meets all criteria, including sexiness.

Not only was it made by one of the most respected names in carputing, it came with the exact motherboard and power supply I had decided on, and had a nifty custom aluminum case. Plus other very useful options were available like extra power out for running power to a screen, an adaptor enabling me to connect a laptop hard drive to the motherboard’s IDE connector, RCA audio out, and additional USB connectors.

The Breakdown

From the back.  I'm trying to decide which is the more appropriate descriptor: 'chic' or 'svelte'.
Enclosure: The Opus 70 system comes in a sleek brushed aluminum case. It’s a very simple design, vented on the sides, with a single fan in the back to draw air. It fits under my passenger seat with plenty of room to spare. It’s remarkably space-efficient, too, with the motherboard attaching to the bottom and the power supply and hard drive attaching to the top.

This is one bad mobo.  Er, mofo.  Er, mug.
Mainboard: The Via EPIA MII12000G is tiny, able to generate very little heat and consume very little power, and has a host of connectors, including slots for PCMCIA and CompactFlash cards. It also has additional onboard connectors for expanding your options with additional USB or audio connections, which the Opus 70 takes advantage of.

This is the smallest power supply I own.
Power Supply: The reason I even found the Opus website to begin with was because of their reputation as making the best DC-DC power supplies for carputers around. The system I got came with a DCX3-120-H, which is to say, a 120-watt power supply with a host of features, the most important being configurable intelligent switching for automatically turning the carputer on/off with ignition, and protection to prevent damaging or rebooting the system during engine cranking (when voltage to the rest of the car drops considerably).

This is the only decent picture I could find.  I got mine in black, however.
Touchscreen: In my eBay searches I came across a reseller selling SkyPro DL-800‘s, which are cheap 8″ TFT/LCD touchscreens made in Hong Kong, yet with seemingly superior features (higher native resolution, markedly brighter) to the most commonly-used touchscreens I read about in my research (namely, those by Lilliput and Xenarc). I felt a bit nervous about this particular decision, but my worries ended up being needless.

My hard drive came with (but not on) a silver platter.
Hard Drive: I had been waiting and waiting for laptop hard drives to be available in sizes larger than 160GB, because I just knew the instant I got the 160GB drive they would release the 200+ giggers. At the time I was researching components, perpendicular recording technology for laptop drives was just hitting the consumer market, and the drives were still pretty pricey. Thankfully, that was before I went to Korea for my first year of teaching over there, and by the time I came back to the US in the spring of 2008, prices were more reasonable and — AND — there was a Seagate Momentus laptop drive available in 250GB, which I promptly ordered from Newegg. (I only buy Seagate hard drives. WD always offers the best price per GB, but after my second WD drive failed — exactly one week after the warranty expired — I switched to Seagate and haven’t looked back.)

This is exactly what mine looks like.
Wireless Internet Solution: The problem with most peripheral options for wireless solutions is that when they are placed in the trunk of a car, or under a car seat, which happens to be where a lot of carputers reside, they don’t get good reception for some reason… Certain PCMCIA wireless cards, however, have a connector for an external antenna, and the standard carputing wireless solution seemed to be the Orinoco Gold PCMCIA wireless card (which I believe is now sold by Proxim) with an external antenna of some kind. So I eBayed such a card, along with such an antenna. A PCMCIA slot for this purpose is part of the reason I chose Epia’s MII motherboard.

You can roll it like sushi!
Keyboard: I love full-size keyboards, because as a programmer I use the numpad all the time for navigation. Problem: most of the time the keyboard would be tucked away under the seat, so the keyboard can’t be a big long unyielding rectangle. It should also be water-resistant if not waterproof. Solution: the flexible rubber keyboard! It can actually sit on the floor between the seats, contouring itself to the driveshaft lump. I also picked this up on Newegg for a very reasonable price.

Mine looks just like this.
GPS Receiver: I eBayed myself a USB GPS receiver. I don’t remember the brand, but it had specifications that seemed to be equal to the tasks I expected of it. I wanted this to go on the back deck, which meant I also had to get a USB extension cable for it, which I didn’t get until Minneapolis (it was just sitting on my dash until then, with an unsightly cable dangling around). Buying cables from Best Buy is expensive!

CD/DVD Drive: The computer doesn’t have room inside it for an optical drive, so I had to get an external one. Problem: I only have one USB port to spare, and most external DVD drives require two — one for signal and one for extra power. The solution I found was a handy-dandy enclosure from Meritline featuring a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The battery supplies whatever power is additionally needed, and recharges from the single USB connection whenever the drive is idle. I bought it with a Sony CD+-R/DVD+-R laptop drive pre-installed, thinking I was getting a slot-loading drive (awesome for carputers) but instead getting a regular tray-loading drive (not so awesome). If I planned on using the drive for much besides installing software and occasionally ripping audio CDs, I could have probably made a stink and gotten it swapped back, but I am not stinky.

This is the exact wiring kit I got, although mine didn't come with a watermark for some online store floating over it.
After getting all of those essential components, there were just a few things left, mostly consisting of wires and tools and extensions for things. I visited Stereo West, the local car audio mecca, to get advice on wiring and choosing an amp/speakers (which you’ll hear about later). They talked me through wiring options and gave me some good recommendations. I picked up an 8-gauge Kicker wiring kit while I was there. They were nice and threw in a handful of random wires from around the shop for me too, saving me an additional trip to the hardware store.

The Testing Facility, a.k.a. “Dining Room Table”

Once I had all the parts, it was time to see how the parts played together. I connected the essential parts together, borrowed a 12v battery and a monitor from my dad (normally used to help jump-start cars), and held the Opus’ power wires to the appropriate places on the power plug, which was a bit tricky.

Testing, testing, 1, 2 aww dangit.

Once I figured out which lines all needed power, the computer whirred to life, and I was able to start installing software.

Part 2 (up later): Software.

The Touroflovemobile

a.k.a. my car, a.k.a. a major reason I haven’t left yet. It really does need a cool name, though. It’s a Crown Victoria, so the ideal name would have something about Vic, and of course Love. But the name can’t be “The Love Vic” because that’s just stupid. It also seems like some kind of pun about “vehicle” could be done, but I’m drawing a blank. Any suggestions?

Anyway, here he is:

Vicmobile of Love?

1987 Ford Crown Victoria. The last year of this body style (and my personal favorite body style for this model ever). Some call them “grandpa cars,” some call them “boats”, and a friend once aptly called it “a couch with a V8.” Well, let me tell you something about grandpas: they know what’s up. I got this one from a grandpa — the original owner — with only 114K miles. (On the car, not the grandpa. He had much more.) He kept it garaged, gave it regular maintenance, and pretty much just drove it to the grocery store, so it’s in great shape.

“If it’s in great shape, what’s the holdup?” asks a nearby attractive girl. Well, attractive girl, my answer is “Where did you come from? May I date you?”

“No,” she replies. “I’m here as a narrative device.”

“Oh. I’ll answer your question then.”

My car, awesome as it is, has a few quirks which need to be unquirked. Also, in accordance with my Master Vehicular Plan, there are a few enhancements which need to be… er, enhanced.

What a huge engine bay! Parked in front, 2nd battery (of 3) charging.

Quirks to be Unquirked

  • Top on the list: the A/C doesn’t work. No way am I driving through Arizona in August with no A/C. The car is in the shop as we speak. Yes, I know we’re not actually speaking.
  • The cruise control is non-operational. It’s a broken cable. Sadly, shops are unable to procure this cable anymore. Looks like a trip to a junkyard is in order. Sadly, it looks like it is in order after my first Leaf.
  • That’s it! Thank you, previous-owner-grandpa, for keeping this car in such great shape.

Three quarters view, a.k.a. $0.75 view.

Enhancements According to the Master Vehicular Plan

    Car = cool.
    Car + computer = DRIVING EXCITEMENT.
    But seriously, why? Hmmm… I feel a sublist coming on!

    • The current sound system is a Clarion ARX-7170 system with a 12-disc changer in the trunk, and a 9-band programmable EQ/DSP under the front seat. But man, 12 CDs is totally not enough selection for a nationwide road trip. How about… 90GB of mp3’s? Yeah, that’s more like it.
    • What if I get lost? What if I miss a turn but don’t know it until I’ve driven half an hour in the wrong direction? (This has happened to me before, in Iowa.) How about… GPS navigation? Yeah!
    • How can I quickly and conveniently access the internet on the road? How about… a wireless a/b/g card with external antenna? Allowing you to access the internet from the touchscreen in your dash? In turn allowing you to access the weather, cheapest nearby gas stations, and check your IMAP email? Friggin’ sweet.

    Those are the main reasons for a carputer. Of course there are many more; for example, 1) it’s cool, 2) it’s awesome, and 3) it’s friggin’ sweet.

  • A component sound system.
    With a carputer, it doesn’t make much sense to use a head unit, particularly when you’re putting the touchscreen where the head unit goes. So, I figured I’d get an amp to take the signal from the carputer and drive the speakers. But I wasn’t going to buy any old crappy amp, and then I realized I couldn’t run a nice amp into the stock 1987 speakers. Sigh.

My old Crown Vic (yeah, that's me in high school)

Current dequirking progress: 15%. Probably jump up to 50% tomorrow when the shop calls and says “Hello? Is this Zach Brandon?” and then I say “Yes, that’s me” because it’s not worth it to correct him, and then he says “We have fixed your air conditioning for only $10!” and I say “Awesome!” And that will be that. Cruise cable has to wait.

Current carputer progress: 90%. Parts acquired. Computer assembled and tested on my dining room table. Power run from battery to under the seat. Head unit removed, climate controls relocated, screen mostly mounted. Left to do: install the computer itself. Wire everything together. Enjoy.

Current stereo system progress: 40%. Parts ordered. So far, other than the wires, only the amp has come in. And what a great amp it is.

“I want to know more about the awesome carputer and stereo stuff!” says the attractive girl. “I want to see pictures!”

“I could say the same about you,” I reply, winking.

Oh yeah, narrative device, right. I have deliberately not given many details about these things because they are awesome and deserve their own post.

NEXT POST: Carputer install, Part I.

For now, give me suggestions on the nickname of my car.