The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

The Next Carputer Project

Posted by Deliverator on August 14th, 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.