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Apple Mac Mini Carputer

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Oblique console view Side view comparison
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Rear view comparison Armrest raised oblique
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Armrest raised side view Armrest raised low view
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FM modulator Power inverter
Old screenshot

discussion and comments

There's a discussion going on at Xterra Firma about this.

a what?

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 this (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

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Find a dead frequency Install the unit
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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 nearby sheetmetal.

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.

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