custom truck mods
Apple Mac Mini Carputer
|Oblique console view
||Side view comparison
|Rear view comparison
||Armrest raised oblique
|Armrest raised side view
||Armrest raised low view
discussion and comments
discussion going on at Xterra Firma about this.
I had plans to set up the factory kit to accomodate an Apple iPod. Then I got to thinking,
the iPod I'd need to hold all my songs hasn't been made yet - a 60GB iPod Photo would just
barely make it. At that cost, it's actually cheaper to buy a Mac Mini... I know, there
are a lot of additional costs with the latter, but work with me here. The ideas started to
flow; music, movies, GPS, WiFi browsing and Email,
video recording... My mind was made up pretty quickly. Another nice feature is that I
can pull into the driveway and sync up to the server to download new MP3s via WiFi and a
custom rsync script. As an avid photographer, having some place to dump tons of images from
a Flash Card or Microdrive without worry of having the laptop handy is icing on the cake.
I was one of the first to get one (though last one left in the store!) after announcement
and as such had to get an off the shelf model (sans Airport and Bluetooth) or face waiting
another 2-4 weeks for a BTO (Build To Order) version to ship. Of course this wouldn't do -
so I added the necessary components later to bring it up to spec. It's now the current
top-of-the-line Mac Mini with a 1.42GHz CPU, an 80GB drive, Airport, Bluetooth, CD/DVD Combo
drive and 256MB of RAM (for now). I'm pretty sure I won't be burning CD/DVDs in the truck,
so I opted not to get the SuperDrive and I'll bump up the RAM eventually.
Initially I'm loathe to rip out the factory system entirely, as I'd have to pick up
some more hardware, lose some current hardware, give up the steering wheel controls and
stealth of a stock setup. Not to mention I'd have to re-wire the amp/speaker setup. Ugh.
I'll do this down the road - I just want to get this working first. Think fast and cheap.
On a strictly geek note, the Mac Mini is running
OS X 10.4 (Tiger). I'm using ShapeShifter for a custom theme (Makki-X) which is all yellow
to match the truck along with a custom desktop image. The mobile user automatically logs in and
all the common apps are in the Dock, and when launched are maximized on the screen. Hey, it's all
in the details, right? I may overclock it to 1.5GHz, but I'd rather have it run cool than a tiny
bit faster, especially in this application. I plan to use some thin open cell foam around the base
so as to minimize dust and moisture ingestion when the fan kicks off.
how to make it work
Getting the Mac Mini was the easy part. Now for all the other bits that'll actually make
it work in an automotive environment. I didn't care for wireless transmitters to get the
audio from the Mac Mini to the head unit and amp
so something wired was called for - to get the best quality. Sadly the stock head unit
doesn't have pre-amp inputs which meant the only real option I had was an FM modulator.
To provide power, I chose to go with a regular 100w power inverter initially. This will be
replaced with a
CarNetix CNX-P1900 power supply once everything is in place. This way the Mini will
properly power up/down and sleep without my intervention, and will power both the Mini and
the LCD, not to mention losing the big ol' power brick for the Mini. For now the inverter
was quicker, cheaper and easier to implement.
Which brings us to
the last piece of the puzzle - the LCD. For this task I've chosen the Lilliput 8"
touchscreen LCD display. There are Mac OS X drivers available for the USB touchscreen and
it's reasonably priced, making it a shoe-in. To support the LCD screen I chose to use a Pyle
gooseneck arm, allowing for the most flexibility for both driver and passenger, and to allow
for adjustment in odd lighting. I'd much rather have the LCD real easy to reach and read than
mount it in-dash (which also limits size). This makes for the basic initial setup.
expansion of the system
I don't necessarily require a mouse or keyboard, but I'll probably keep a Bluetooth mouse
and keyboard (the foldable, PDA type) on-hand just in case. While I have
an Applescript to pop up the Keyboard Viewer (virtual, on-screen keyboard) this would
get old for typing anything more than an artist, album or maybe a song name. No cords means
easy stashing. I briefly thougt about a Fingerworks or a Happy Hacking keyboard for their
size, even one of those rubbery, roll-up or virtual laser keyboards. But being USB and having
a cord, they're too much of a hassle (and uncool) to deal with! This way, both the mouse and
keyboard can be tossed in the glove box, console or anywhere else - and work up to 33 feet away, heh.
It should be noted that if the surface area of the center of the steering wheel were bigger, and
that virtual keyboard both wireless and cheaper... It would be fully bad ass. I'll revisit. ;)
I plan to add a
Griffin Technology RadioShark and hack the hardware to allow me to use the standard
AM/FM antenna of the truck and also reduce its size from 7.5" tall to almost nothing,
easily stashed. This way I can pretty much remove the factory head unit at this point,
I can lose the FM modulator and plug right into the amp
and use the tools in Mac OS X to control, modify and shape the audio. You can set the
balance from left to right, but there's no way I know of off-hand to fade from front to
back. I suppose I could use an
external audio device to provide Dolby Surround and adjust the individual speakers that
way somehow. At this point it's getting too complicated and once set at the amp for
proper front/rear balance, really wouldn't need changing too often.
I've thought about using my
Griffin Technology iMic and a microphone to allow for audio input, and setting up
the Mac Mini for voice recognition... "Xterra, radio on." "Xterra, skip track." This
might work well for some tasks, but if you're playing MP3s and/or have passengers this
most likely won't work out too well. I suppose a Bluetooh headset might work, but for
now this idea is on the backburner.
Product placement, much? I may use the
Griffin Technology Powermate that I have for volume and simple control functions.
It's quite programmable on a global or per-application level and the possibilities
are intriguing. Most of the time, you really just need to control the music, and
this is the easiest way, not requiring visual interaction - important when driving!
There are other options here as both Griffin Technology and Keyspan offer multi-button
remotes. One such product from the former I could actually Velcro to the steering
wheel. Too bad it's white and would look quite ghetto.
One concern will be the Airport (WiFi) reception. As mentioned earlier, one goal is to
be able to pull into the driveway and sync up with the server. With the PowerBook I get
pretty decent reception. With the Mac Mini mounted up somewhere, it might not be so
good. There are a few options for antennas that I can use, including a
27dB gain antenna
from QuickerTek that has a range of A MILE. Wardriving anyone?! If there's an access point
anywhere nearby, you're aces.
Of course it goes without saying that I'll add GPS at some point. The software I'd use
is still up in the air, but there are
a couple of decent options available. One such
example is MacGPS Pro. I can use
satellite and topographical maps combined with waypoint mapping and have a pretty serious
map of an offroad trail. The receiver options include both Bluetooth and USB and I'd
probably opt for USB since it wouldn't require batteries and I don't plan to move it
once installed. Definitely beats having a plain old Garmin hanging off the dash...
Finally, I plan to tap into the OBD-II interface on the truck to gather stats and perhaps
tweak the computer. The problem isn't so much that the only available OBD-II -> PC links
are just that - PC. While the interface is a standard 9-pin serial connection, the software
necessary to deal with that is Windows-only at the moment. This would require running
VirtualPC or some other emulator, etc. I did follow a few leads, and I belive there are
some OSS projects that may be of assistance here.
where to stash it?
If I add the RadioShark, the factory head unit becomes pretty much useless, so I could
use the resulting double-DIN opening from that to mount the Mac Mini. The only problem
is that this location isn't terribly stealthy. It would make a nice spot, especially
with an in-dash LCD. Short wiring, everything in once place, nothing to build...
So where else to put this thing and the gadgets? I couldn't put it under the passenger seat,
as the amp resides there. The glove box
is just about useless to begin with, and inside the console would've worked except it was
missing about a 1/4" of space or so. Quickly running out of options, it suddenly dawned on
me. Duh! So I placed the Mini where the armrest is and the sizing couldn't be much better.
Fabricating a framework to seat the Mac Mini into and upholstering the whole thing whe
finished would be a very simple, sano solution. Easy access, hidden wiring, up high to
protect it from water intrusion in the cabin and all kinds of room in and under the console
for other bits.
I basically have to come up with a drawing of the new armrest that'll house the Mini and
see how that plays out. I figure a short length of tall (3-4") moulding about a 1/2" thick
should do it. Most likely I'll use melamine for the top and bottom, finally rounding it all
off and padding it - then covering it with grey vinyl to match the rest of the interior. A
full custom console would be nice, but I don't really have the need at this point and right
now, I just want to get everything working.
If I decide not to stash it and say, embed it into the headliner or something equally bizarre,
I suppose I can send it off to ColorWare
and get it painted "Caution" yellow for $99 which looks something like
(though the color is off in that rendering - it looks more like this iPod).
Then again, for $5 I can do it myself with a rattle can... But you get the idea. There are
even vinyl stick-on "skins" for the Mac Mini, effectively covering the white plastic top with
various designs, ranging from cool to downright nasty. Those are only $20 or so.
I even thought out the aesthetics of everything, in a way only a Mac owner could love. Since the
Mac Mini is aluminum, I could spring for a Xenarc 800TSV LCD screen, which has an aluminum frame
and get an aluminum dash kit for the truck. However, the available dash kits are kind of funky
and if the Mac Mini is hidden, what's really the point?
So now to decide on a location for the Mac Mini... And get to hacking! Decisions, decisions.
installing the FM modulator
|Find a dead frequency
||Install the unit
|Test with the PowerBook
||The resulting input...
Installation of the FM modulator is pretty straightforward. The first step is to find a
"dead frequency" on your radio. Depending on the particular FM modulator, you'll usually
have several options. Tune your radio to the various offerings and find the quietest,
static-free frequency you can find. Set the FM modulator to that frequency. Mine happened
to be 87.9MHz.
Once that's taken care of, you can go ahead and install it - there's an antenna
port and plug, which goes inline from your antenna to the head unit (it inserts itself
in between the two) and then your standard 12v positive and ground leads. The positive
gets its power from the "accessory on" lead, leading into the head unit - that is, it is
only powered when the radio (and everything else) is. A grounding point is stolen from
Right now there's a standard L/R RCA plug connected to the FM modulator, and terminates
on the other end with a standard 1/8" stereo plug. This plugs right into the Mac Mini,
a PowerBook, an iPod or most any other audio device. For now, it's on the side and ready
to use until the installation progresses further with the power inverter. When the time
comes to dump the stock head unit, the RCA patch cord can go directly into the amp,
eliminating the FM modulator as well.