The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

Archive for the 'CarPuter' Category

Information about my in-car computer system

The Next Carputer Project

Posted by Deliverator on 14th August 2008

My car was broken into in the middle of the night a couple weeks ago. It was parked right in front of my house at the time. The thief broke in through the rear passenger side window and proceeded to remove most of my car computer system through brute force. The irony is that very little of the equipment removed is likely to be operable/sellable as a great number of cables had to be clipped in order to facilitate a hasty removal. I was planning to replace my carputer this year anyways, so I am not too put off about the actual theft, save for having my none too great faith in human goodness lowered a notch. My comprehensive insurance policy took care of the cost of the damage to the car, minus a $100 deductable, but it has taken the better part of the last two weeks, and a lot of leg and phone work, to get the car itself put back in order. Oh, and of course the equipment wasn’t covered without an additional policy rider, which I wasn’t told I would need. Safeco was less than proactive in working with me to get my life back to order and I will probably be redirecting my hard earned $ elsewhere in the near future as a result.

On the positive side of things, I get to build out a new car computer. My inclination, this time around, is not to go with discrete components, requiring a great deal of wiring, but instead to base the system around a UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC). I wasn’t too impressed with the first generation of UMPC devices. They were, by and large, poor performing with a lot of ill thought out hardware design and layout issues. A lot of the first generation of devices used the anemic Intel A110 processor. Couple this with 1 GB of ram, the bloated mess that is Vista and a much higher than projected price point made them non starters in the marketplace. I think this seriously delayed the production of a second, better generation of UMPC devices, mainly in favor of Netbooks like the all popular eePC. Unlike UMPC devices, Netbooks actually managed to meet their price points and were largely based around lighter weight OSes like XP and Linux. Unfortunately, a Netbook doesn’t meet my in car needs by a longshot. Thankfully, newer, more refined UMPC devices have recently entered the marketplace.

I was particularly attracted to the Samsung Q1 Ultra Premium. It has a lot of features that seem to make it ideal for the particular challenges of in vehicle computing. It has a LED backlit 1024×600 resolution 7″ display, which should both be brighter and higher in resolution than the pricey Xenarc 7″ previous mounted on my dash. While some people prefer the active, Wacom style digitizers found on a lot of Tablet PCs and some UMPCs, the Samsung’s resistive touchpanel is more suited to my use. With an active digitizer, you are forced to use a stylus, but with a resistive touch panel, you can substitute a fingertip in a pinch. While Samsung has done little to bring the price down to anything resembling Microsoft’s original vision for UMPC devices, they have greatly improved on the original concept. The latest Samsung models have split key qwerty keyboards (the original was just a slate), improved wireless and connectivity options, a faster processor and a choice of a tablet enhanced version of XP or Vista. I figured the Q1 UP was a close enough match to my needs that I ordered one via Amazon. Not much point asking which OS I chose…

Part of my reason for choosing a UMPC over discreet components was to have something which I can remove from the car and take with me. If there isn’t something in the car, its not bloody likely going to be broken into. I’m hoping the UMPC proves versatile enough to replace my laptop while on the run. Since I started carrying around my Nikon D80 (and lenses) around all the time, my backpack has gotten a wee bit on the heavy side of comfortable.

I plan on mounting the Q1UP using a bracket from Ram Mounts. Ram Mounts is a local, Seattle company which makes all sorts of clever vehicle mounting solutions for everything from cell phones to laptops. I’ve not used them in the past, but I’ve heard good things. Their product is also specifically designed for the Q1UP, unlike a lot of generic mounting brackets which have a tendency to block access to ports.

Once mounted, the chief issue becomes how to simply and easily interface the Q1UP to peripherals. One of my chief disappointments the last time I was revamping my car computer was that basically nobody made a reasonably priced car stereo with an audio input jack. I had to use the less than ideal solution of an in-line FM modulator to get my computer audio into my car’s stereo system. Now in these scary modern times where everything has to be able to plug into an ipod, virtually all car stereos have auxiliary input jacks on their front panel. I wasn’t sure I wanted to clutter up my dash with an audio cable, as well as potentially damage the audio connector on the Q1UP from overuse, so I began looking for other solutions. Turns out that some reasonably priced car stereos now can take auxiliary audio input via Bluetooth A2DP profile, as well as Bluetooth headset profile. The Q1UP supports Bluetooth 2.0, so I’ll probably get a new car stereo, even though the thief didn’t steal my current one.

I’ll probably use my Holux M1000 Bluetooth GPS unit rather than a USB GPS, to avoid cabling. For internet connectivity, I will be using a Cradlepoint PHS300 Wifi to Cellular router, with uplink via a Sprint EVDO expresscard. I’ve been using this battery powered wifi router / cellular card combo with my laptop (and Nokia N810) for several months now and have really enjoyed being able to go anywhere and have connectivity without needing to have an obtrusive dongle coupled to my laptop as a disaster waiting to happen. When all is said and done, the only thing I should need to plug in is power. If I start needing to plug in more peripherals, I may consider a wireless USB hub.

Well, the parts are on order. I’ll try and produce some followup to let anyone who is interested know how well (or not) everything comes together in practice.

Posted in CarPuter, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Rants and Raves, Tech Stuff | 2 Comments »

Holux 210 Dead

Posted by Deliverator on 26th May 2007

My Holux 210 USB GPS “mouse” has been acting oddly of late. On several occasions, after resuming the carputer from hibernation, I’ve had to “cold start” the gps to get it to lock on. On other occasions, I haven’t been able to get it to work at all and its usb->serial com port has been missing. Usually, power cycling the carputer or replugging the gps has been enough to solve the problem, but problems came to a head Yesterday.

Yesterday, I took a trip with my father and grandmother (driving seperate cars) down to Tacoma to deliver a car to a shipping company, which is going to haul my grandmother’s old Camry across the country and deliver it to my brother in Cleveland. His car finally bit the dust as a result of a bad head gasket/cracked head and he has been trying to muddle through life by biking everywhere for the past few weeks. My grandma was kind enough to donate her 10 year old, well maintained, low mileage Camry and used it as an excuse to buy a very swanky 2007 Camry XLE with all the trimmings (including GPS). Anyways, the GPS in MY car managed to get me to the dropoff location, but on the way back, it kept conking out and I kept hearing Window’s “new hardware inserted” noise over the speaker system. When I got home (thankfully we were close to I-5 and I know the way back from there), I started looking into the problem.

I unhooked the GPS from the car and first tested it on another computer. It exhibited the same problem of being detected for a while and then going dead. I cracked open the plastic shell to examine the GPS itself. The 210 is comprised of a double sided circuit board with metal rf shielding covering the circuitry on both sides and a little patch antenna attached to the top of one of the shields and an LED indicator light poking through a hole in the plastic. A couple little dabs of solder around the edge holds the shielding in place. The shielding was pretty heavily corroded with rust and it was obvious the water had gotten in through the area around the indicator light. I find this to be a particularly poor design given that this unit is designed to be magnetically mounted to the exterior of a vehicle where it is exposed to the elements. Once water is inside the plastic enclosure, it has no difficulty getting to the actual electronics, given that the RF shielding is only held in place by a few small dabs of solder instead of properly soldered around the whole periphery. I desoldered the RF shielding and sure enough, moisture had obviously gotten in and dried in the past (you could see residue markings on the board). I found that one of the surface mount capacitors on the board, mounted in a residue discolored area had cracked in half and I believe this to be the source of my problems.

According to my brain, the Holux 210 lasted ~2 years. With a little more care in the design of this unit or some additional waterproofing efforts on the part of the owner, I have no doubt that this unit could have seen several more years of productive use. Perhaps the 2 year design lifetime is exactly as intended by Holux. After I confirmed that my unit was dead, I threw it in the trash, spent a half second mourning and then jumped on eBay and purchased a new Holux from the same vendor. Yes, I purchased a Holux again, with no qualms.

I purchased a Holux model 213 which uses a new SiRFstar 3 chip. The SiRFstar 3 supposedly has a much faster “time to first fix,” can track more satellites simultaneously and works better in Urban Canyons. GPS, that multi-billion dollar miracle of late 70’s technology is now officially disposable technology. I think I might vacuum pack the new unit to give it a bit better protection, but if I get two years of reliable use out of it, I will be happy. I also went ahead and purchased a small battery powered Bluetooth GPS unit with integrated data logging for use with my Nokia N800 and Maemo Mapper. I will probably also buy the latest iGuidance for my carputer when it come out next month.

Posted in CarPuter, Portable Computing/Gadgets, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Carputer Upgrades

Posted by Deliverator on 20th September 2006

I have been contemplating doing some upgrades to the carputer for some time. I would really like to shrink the carputer’s footprint quite a bit, so that it can be moved completely out of sight (including cable runs) under the passenger seat or into the bulkhead space taken up by the stereo system. To accomplish this, I would have to shift to an even smaller components, such as a Via Nano-ITX motherboard, smaller powersupply, etc. I would particularly like to stop using shock damage prone hard drives for storage. Samsung has been shipping 32 GB solid state disks to OEM’s (noteably Sony, for use in their non-umpc umpc) for a while and TDK has been sampling their own solid state disks as well. It is only a matter of time until these trickle down into the consumer space. I would also like to replace my current touchscreen with a transflective model., from whom I have purchased a number of carputer components in the past (with great satisfaction at their responsive service), is selling a transflective kit for a reasonable chunk of flesh. I would also like to get a display with a more standard native resolution. I have seen a number of 8″ displays (only slightly larger than my current 7″ Lilliput) with 800*600 native resolution. My current display has a very non-standard native resolution of something like 808*480, which is not supported by the onboard video on my motherboard and makes for rather blurry fonts. Last, but not least, I would like to upgrade to iGuidance 3.0, which now has a version specifically for 7″ display equiped carputers and UMPCs. I have to mull things over a bit more, but will probably be making some preliminary purchases in the next few days.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »


Posted by Deliverator on 2nd March 2006

Made it down to Portland this afternoon. It is 1:30 AM and we are still working hard. Have to get up at 6 tomorrow to uncrate the robot at 7:45 tomorrow. We will be very busy with autonomous programming for much of the day. Here are some brief thoughts on the day:

-Mobile SWN nodes are cool! Had two passengers online almost the whole way to Portland. Students in Larry’s van were using it too, but they had to stay pretty close to get good reception. Might consider a roof mounted antenna in the future.

-Took my annual trip to Powells, although I only got to stay for an hour. Bought some books by Alastair Reynolds and Elizabeth Moon. Kept it to 4 this time around….a personal best.

-Brad Moore’s snores are likely to result in another federal disaster mismanagement probe in which everyone points at someone else

-The Courtyard Marriot is a big step up from the place we stayed at last year, but their wifi is abysmal and only availabe in a very small area of the hotel. They do provide wired jacks in the rooms, but I don’t bring ethernet with my PDA. Will have to investigate some of the portable wifi access points on the market. It couldn’t hurt to get a Socket Low Power Ethernet card, either. I am using my EDGE connection atm, so am very bandwidth limited. Will upload pictures from today when I get a chance.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Mobile Blogging, Titan Robotics Club, Wireless | No Comments »

Carputer Hotspot

Posted by Deliverator on 3rd November 2005

This entry comes to you courtesy of a rather long chain of connected technologies. I am typing this entry out on my Jornada 720. It is using a Socket CF WiFi card to connect to a Linksys WAP (simple ethernet to 802.11b infrastructure mode bridge) sitting in the rear window of my car. The Linksys WAP is connected via an ethernet cable to the ethernet jack of The Carputer. The ethernet port is configured with Microsoft’s Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) to offer any of the carputer’s several available internet connections. The carputer at the moment is connected to the internet via T-mobile’s EDGE service, courtesy of a D-link Bluetooth dongle and my new Nokia 6620 cell phone. So, to what do you owe this connection? Yeah, I am as confused as you are. It is impressive to me that products from at least 8 different companies are talking to each other to make this entry possible. Now that the carputer is a rolling hotspot, I think I will drive around a bit and try and find a wardriver to thoroughly confuse :)

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Carputer, now with more cowbell!

Posted by Deliverator on 2nd November 2005

Haven’t added any new bells and whistles to the carputer in a while, so it was about time. I reinstalled my D-link DBT-120 bluetooth dongle, this time using the bluetooth driver/stack built into Win XP SP2. I have had nothing but crappy experiences using the Widcomm (now owned by Broadcom) software with which this bluetooth dongle shipped. To be fair to Widcomm, D-link only provides a much out of date version of the software and only one minor patch revision on their site. I really dislike companies that drop all support for a product the second it is sold and it is a big factor in future buying decisions.

Anyways, the reason I reinstalled bluetooth in the car is for connectivity to my new Nokia 6620 phone. I set up the carputer to “dial” the phones EDGE connection whenever an internet connection is demanded. I am going to enable internet connection sharing on the connection and share out the connection via wifi using one of the spare wireless access points I have laying around. I might even download the OLSR client and have my car become part of Matt and Rob‘s MESH networking demo at Mind Camp this weekend. The connection seems to be pretty brisk, although I haven’t done any formal speed tests yet. I used it to download the latest windows update patches while I drove to Seattle Wireless’s Hacknight this evening. I am going to find some more “car appropriate” applications for the internet connectivity in the next few days. A GPS transponder system is definitely in the works, as is traffic monitoring and at a glance movie scheduling.

In addition to the internet connectivity, I plan to try out the new version of PhoneControl. What is it? Straight from the author’s site:

PhoneControl.NET is a software application that allows you to control your mobile phone from a standard PC.

PhoneControl.NET was designed around the CarPC concept allowing a user to make and take phone calls, view contact information, and send or receive SMS messages with ease while on the road. The intuitive interface was specifically designed for input via a touch screen monitor making it a perfect fit for any CarPC.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

One more go around…

Posted by Deliverator on 16th September 2005

I took some time yesterday to look into the problems that have been occuring with the carputer’s hdd. I did a scan of the drive using IBM’s drive diagnostic tools, which revealed a fairly large number of bad sectors/clusters. I headed up to Computerstop and purchased a cheap 40 GB notebook drive to tide me over until solid state flash disks become more affordable. At their current pricing, I could buy fifteen conventional laptop hard drives for the price of a single 4 GB flash drive. I fully expect the laptop HDD I purchased to meet a premature end, but when it does, I will just replace it and slap my disk image on it and be back up and running in short order. Yeah, replacing drives this frequently is a bit of a hastle, but until solid state drives see about a four fold decrease in price, I can live with the hastle.

My research into solid state drives did turn me on to one piece of tech that I may actually buy. Gigabyte is starting a “bare” PCI powered SATA ramdisk card. If that descriptio has you baffled, I will attempt to make it clear to you. The device accepts four DDR ram modules and presents this memory to your system as a SATA hard disk. The device gets its power from a PCI slot, but doesn’t use the PCI bus for anything other than power. You run a cable from it to your motherboard’s sata controller or a SATA addon card. The card has a small battery that will keep maintain the ram’s integrity for ~16 hours. With 120 MB/sec (i/o access patern independent) transfer rates and access times as close to zero as to make no difference, this ramdisk would make a hell of a boot/swap drive. I don’t know how trusting I would be of such a device. I would certainly make frequent point in time images, keeping as many as possible should some partial corruption occur. Still the sort of performance that such a device opens up is mighty compelling. Street cost for the bare card should be in the $125 range, with enough ram to build it out as a 4 GB disk costing another $350 or so.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | 1 Comment »

Solid State Disk Availability?

Posted by Deliverator on 13th September 2005

I am pretty sure the carputer’s hdd is going. I received a number of NTFS related blue-screens of late and attempts to reboot result in the bios not “seeing” the hard disk at all. I usually have to shut the computer down for at least a half hour before the bios will see the disk again. I have examined and reseated the eide cabling on the odd chance that there is an intermitent connection and will try replacing it next. Temperatures appear normal and the power from the Opus appears to be “clean,” so I am pretty sure the drive is at fault. This will be the third hard drive I have killed (although two were pulled from dead laptops). I have considered purchasing a Toshiba “Endurastar” drive, which is supposedly ruggedized in a number of ways. I have also been looking into purchasing one of Samsungs new NAND flash based solid state disks, but despite claims that they started selling them last month, I have yet to find a way to purchase one (or even a product that uses them). Solid state disks are really nothing new, but Samsung is a big enough player to bring enough of these to market to make them a viable alternative to magnetic hard disks in the consumer segment. In the meantime, I am looking at similar technology to Samsung’s from M-Systems. Their devices seem offer the level of robustness I am looking for, incorporating wear leveling, dynamic bad block reassignment, etc. They warrant their solid state disks for 8 years of use (3 years longer than any hard disk manufacturer), so it seems they are willing to stand beside their specs. I would still likely take some measures to try and minimize writes to the disk, but it seems like their technology would be viable for my uses. Now I just need to figure out whether their pricing is within my reach. Their sales pitches seem heavily geared towards use in military systems, which is not encouraging.

Posted in CarPuter, General | 1 Comment »

Nano-ITX, itsy bitsy size – BIG PRICE

Posted by Deliverator on 30th August 2005

Well, Nano-ITX motherboards are vaporware no longer – at least temporarily. Although these boards haven’t made it to retail channels in any volume to speak of, recently got their hands on a batch and are selling em for…wait for it… $450. I have been wanting one of these boards for quite some time, as its miniscule size of 12 cm x 12 cm would finally allow me to embed the whole carputer in a single din slot in my dash. I am almost willing to bite the $450 bullet, but I would need to buy some expensive SO-DIMM memory and would have to scratch my plans for cellular internet access, as the Nano-ITX boards lack the Cardbus and CF slots of their doubly large bretheren (and current carputer motherboard). the Via Epia MII-12000. In compensation, the Nano-ITX boards do have a single mini-pci slot, which opens up a number of interesting expansion possibilities.

Posted in CarPuter, General, Tech Stuff | No Comments »

Square Peg into Round Hole? Yes!

Posted by Deliverator on 12th August 2005

I ordered a compact flash to pcmcia adapter last week from eXpansys, a company that specializes in PDAs and the oddball accessories that tend to go with them. It arrived today. Although I wasn’t expecting it, the adapter is quite flexible, which is useful for keeping the card out of the way of anything that might be in an adjacent slot. I tried the adapter out in the carputer’s VIA Epia MII motherboard and am pleased to say it works just fine with my Senao 200 MW card. I was worried that the Senao might only operate on a 5 volt bus (CF only supplies 3.3), but it works just fine. So, the carputer can now accomodate a 16 bit PCMCIA card using the CF->PCMCIA adapter, as well as a 32 bit Cardbus card. This is great news, as I should be able to run both WiFi and a cellular access card simultaneously!

Posted in CarPuter, General | No Comments »