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  1. Hardware Review: Element 7" Touchscreen Display

    by , 01-25-2012 at 09:40 AM

    What is it?

    The Element is a 7" Touchscreen display which features HDMI, DVI, VGA & composite video connections.

    The Verdict:

    The Element 7" display is a well-received competitor into the small touchscreen genre. In its first revision, it seems to incorporate most of the criteria which makes a touchscreen device usable in the car. Those looking for a budget display device with great quality and community recommendation should look at the Element as their device of choice.



    What’s in the box?

    The Element comes with the 7" Touchscreen monitor, power supply, a remote control, and a 3.5mm to composite video connector. HDMI is not included, however because the Element uses a separate mini-USB connection for the touchscreen, any HDMI cable will do.

    Please note at the time the photos were taken the Element monitor came only in open frame form. A case is now available for the device.


    Description:

    Every once in a while, sites like ebay turn up a gem for the small market Car PC world. Such is the case with the new Element 7" touchscreen monitor, a device that community member RipplingHurst found while sifting through the items available on that website. His intrigue, which lead to this massive thread of information regarding the device, inspired me to contact the displays creator to review the device's uses for Car PC.


    With that massive thread in mind, lets summarize some of facts regarding the Element display. It is a 7" Samsung monitor with LED backlighting, overlayed by a resistive 4-wire "sunlight readable" touchscreen input device. Note that it is not transflective, but it does a fairly decent job in high sunlight conditions. I would put the device right on par with the high brightness Lilliput displays of recent years in terms of the amount of screen visible when the sun is bearing down.


    The controller for the device supports the famed 800x480 resolution from any video device which supports it. This means sticklers car PC pixel perfection can use their compatible video cards with the Element without the hassle of custom resolutions or firmware hacks. Oddly enough, the device supports many different resolutions all the way up to 1920x1080, far higher than most Lilliput and Xenarcs dare go. Now, most people wont ever use a 7" monitor at that high a resolution, but the ability to do so is worth a bragging right or two.


    Another built-in feature that was kindly considered is the ability to auto switch to composite AV1 on signaling. This request has become more popular with the installation of rear cameras in car PC setups. Auto-on/Auto-off and input resume are all there as well. The creator as definitely done their research in regard to what car PC hobbyist are looking for from their touchscreens. They've even done away with the dreaded "blue screen of boot" no signal screen. Instead of retina burning bright blue, the screen is a subtle black.


    The display quality of the Element display is darn nice at factory settings. Colors are rich and deep, and there's not any noticeable "pixel effect" or ghosting at low resolutions, no matter what input you choose to use. The only poor aspect of the viewing quality was the off-axis viewing angles. Colors quickly turn dark when viewing at modest angles. Unfortunately this is a trait of near all resistive touchscreen monitors, and the Element makes no strides in this regard.


    Installing the open-frame Element in to your car shouldn't be any more difficult than normal. The device will fit into mp3Car's double-din kits available, albeit with some minor controller mounting and cable interference issues. The display fits nicely into the opening of the bezel, with only a minor smidgen of touchscreen white-space showing through. The developer for the device kindly included a long strand of cables connecting the controller board to the button panel, meaning the buttons can be neatly tucked away, or the IR sensor for the remote can be mounted away from the dash panel.

    A minor matter of contention I have with the Element is of personal opinion. The device uses separate USB and HDMI cables, meaning there is one additional wire required to tuck into the dash and extend out to the PC. The benefit to this is the ability to use any HDMI cable, instead of the stiff and often difficult to replace HDMI-to-HDMI/USB cables found with Lilliput and Xenarc monitors.

    The Positive:

    • Above average sunlight readability
    • High quality display with extremely rich color and contrast
    • Includes features car PC installers demand
    • High selection of available resolutions
    • True native 800x480 support
    • Buttons can be easily mounted elsewhere for space saving in installation


    The Negative:

    • Requires a mini-USB wire for touchscreen
    • Uses proprietary touchscreen drivers
    • Height of controller and angle of connectors mean some hacking required for double-DIN kits
    • Poor off-axis viewing angles



    The Verdict:

    The Element 7" display is a well-received competitor into the small touchscreen genre. In its first revision, it seems to incorporate most of the criteria which makes a touchscreen device usable in the car. Those looking for a budget display device with great quality and community recommendation should look at the Element as their device of choice.

  2. What would the mp3Car community like to see at CES 2012?

    by , 01-05-2012 at 09:55 AM

    One of the largest "tech" events of the year is nearly here! The mp3Car team is rolling out to the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) next week in Vegas

    That said, what do YOU all want to see from CES? What rumored devices would you like discussed and/or demoed? Use this thread to discuss what you would personally want to see at the event and perhaps what you'd like to have mp3Car spotlight from the show.

    I'm a smartphone/tablet junkie, as well as a gamer, so I'll definitely devote some video time to the latest Android/Windows Phone 7 gear and be ears up at any Microsoft product announcements.

    So if you're not planning to attend CES 2012, help me overfill my agenda. What news and info would you like?
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  3. Hardware Review: OBDLink MX Bluetooth OBD-II Reader

    by , 01-03-2012 at 02:10 PM

    What is it?

    The OBDLink MX is the smallest & fastest bluetooth capable OBD-II device available today

    The Verdict:

    The OBDLink MX makes it all too clear that there's a large difference in effectiveness between generic and high-end OBD-II adapters. It's fast, small, and installs in seconds to any OBD-II capable automobile. Fact is, the OBDLink MX is the best OBD-II option to date.



    What’s in the box?

    The OBDLink MX comes with the OBD-II adapter, start guides for windows and android applications, and a licensed copy of Scantool.net OBDWiz software.


    Description:

    In 2007, I ventured into the OBD-II adapter market in search of a simple device to read as much data as my car was capable of providing. There were many options, mainly of the USB variety, which did nothing in my opinion to differentiate themselves from a generic "cheap" reader. This idea in mind, I went on good old Ebay and purchased a generic ELM327 OBD-II module. To this day, it still works. It doesn't update any more than 3 sensors per second, is not compatible with my newer secondary vehicle, and isn't anything I'd show off at all, but it works. It wasn't until I got a hands-on demo of the new OBDLink MX that I realized the world of difference a high-quality OBD-II reader is capable of.


    The very first thing that jumped out at me is how small this device is. In my cramped Acura RSX cabin, the generic reader does its best job at poking my leg every time I go full throttle. With no heavy gauge wire protruding, and being just a smidgen over the size of the OBD-II connector itself, the OBDLink MX gives me no problems in this arena. I will note that the indicator LEDs (four of them, each a different color) on the device's face do somewhat light up the underside of my dash a bit at night, but the positioning of most OBD-II connectors will mitigate this small issue.


    Equally as impressive as the size of the OBDLink MX is just how fast it is. Despite my primary vehicle sporting the ancient ISO protocol, the OBDLink MX provides PID updates at a noticeably faster rate than my generic ELM module. It's not real-time, but the information i want from my OBD-II system comes at a rate that is 5 times greater than the generic device. When you consider that this increase comes over a bluetooth virtual serial port versus the higher bandwidth USB port of the generic unit, that's darn impressive. Connecting the OBDLink to my Android smartphone is equally as easy as installation with a windows PC, and seems to make the PIDs update even faster, though some of that may be software manipulation at work. Either way, the device provides OBD-II data at a far greater interval than the PLX Kiwi Wifi OBD-II device I reviewed some time ago.

    To attempt to truly gauge the speed and compatibility of the OBDLink MX, I borrowed a buddy's later model Mazda RX-8. Utilizing it's medium-speed CAN bus protocol, the OBDLink MX provides data in an absolute fury. This is the absolute manner in which I envisioned receiving OBD-II values back in 2007. Using the OBDLink over CAN bus appears real-time, indeed.

    On top of these benefits, the OBDLink creates a solution that several other OBD-II devices ignore. When connected, other OBD-II adapters will drain your battery while the car is parked. The OBDLink MX is programmed to automatically shut off if activity is not detected on the bus for 10 minutes. This is feature that should be considered invaluable to a person who wishes to install this device permanently but frequently leaves there car parked for days at a time. The device also has built-in encryption methods which deem it "unhackable" by its creators.


    It is hard to find a fault in a device which does what it intends to faster than it's competitors with a smaller footprint. The small quips I've encountered with the OBDLink MX include its current incompatibility with iPod devices, including the iPhone and iPad. I was unable to connect to and poll data from the MX despite using a variety of apps. The only other nitpick I discovered in testing isn't really a fault to the creator at all, but the Bluesoleil bluetooth stack. The device at times will have trouble reestablishing a connection after resume from hibernation. The windows bluetooth stack showed no problem what so ever however. Based on other experiences, I will chalk that up to a Bluesoleil problem.

    The Positive:

    • Fastest OBD-II device I've encountered, even with outdated protocols
    • Smallest bluetooth capable device on the market
    • Easy one-touch installation method
    • Fully compatible with PCs and android (without root)
    • OBD-II software included with visual gauge support and logging
    • Can be easily removed and swapped into any OBD-II vehicle
    • Battery saving technology built into the device
    • Hack-Proof encryption


    The Negative:

    • Resume issues with Bluesoleil stack
    • Not currently compatible with iPod product line
    • Bit of a light show in the driver foot well at night when connected



    The Verdict:

    The OBDLink MX makes it all too clear that there's a large difference in effectiveness between generic and high-end OBD-II adapters. It's fast, small, and installs in seconds to any OBDII capable automobile. Fact is, the OBDLink MX is the best OBD-II option to date.

  4. Car Computer Install: Wiring The Amplifier Overview

    by , 12-14-2011 at 03:15 PM

    Embed this video


    Sean Clark, from mp3Car, shows us how to connect the amplifier in your vehicle, an essential component to any car computer install. The 12 volt positive power cable is wired directly to the positive terminal on the battery, with a fuse in line as close to the battery as possible. The negative wire is also run directly to the battery to prevent noise from being introduced into the system. The ACC wire and the speaker wires are connected to the factory wiring harness using an adapter made specifically for this vehicle purchased on the web.
  5. Hardware Review: Car/Droid Double Din All In One Car Multimedia System

    by , 12-14-2011 at 02:10 PM

    What is it?

    The Bybyte Car/Droid is a fully featured double DIN multimedia system with a detachable 6.5" Android Tablet.

    The Verdict:

    As a whole, the Bybyte Car/Droid is a feature packed multimedia system giving you the bits of the best things a car PC has to offer. The device harnesses the power of a standard head unit with the power of Android, and sprinkles in a little iPod connectivity on the side. When viewed separately, the double DIN head unit still manages to incorporate most of what the device was made to do, while the Android tablet is crippled by its hardware limitations.



    What’s in the box?

    The Car/Droid comes jammed packed with every cable needed to connect the system to your vehicles audio wiring harness and other support devices. Included is the double DIN radio, the detachable Android tablet with case, a separate 12v power brick for the tablet, external GPS, a proprietary iPod connector, radio wiring harness, and a host of cables for optional accessories like rear DVD and rear camera support. An instruction manual is generously included, but strangely omits information regarding the head unit.


    Description:

    A double DIN radio, created to house an Android tablet with the backing of the popular Android Market. What's not to love about it? The idea behind the Bybyte Car/Droid is quite clear up front. The device can be used simply to play music, allow hands free phone usage in the car, or allow the kids to watch a DVD through a rear screen (not included). Bring the tablet with you, and do all of this, as well as just about anything that an Android device can do. Stream Pandora, listen to Sirius, or perhaps play a game. When factoring all this with the idea that you can easily connect your iPod device and control its music playback all through the 6.5" touchscreen the tablet provides, it seems that the creators of the Car/Droid have considered everything. Heck, you can even easily connect your built in steering wheel controls to the Car/Droid and configure their usage right from the tablet's interface.


    Sounds like everything that anyone that doesn't want to hack into a dash would desire from a multimedia vehicle system. The Car/Droid is technically just that, but beyond the surface is where you could find the device is not the dream system that non-hobbyist yearn for.


    Let's start with the good. The "Car" portion of the Car/Droid device is rather satisfying in itself. While not particularly modern looking or stylish, you do get a head unit that is absolutely jam packed with available features. In fact, the only features that the head unit does not allow for is the use of the included GPS receiver, and the rear camera connection. Because there is no touchscreen, and save for the small VFD on the face, no screen at all, you could hardly use or control a navigation system. The head unit will obviously allow CD playback, but will also accept a DVD and feed it to a rear screen, or you can connect a TV antenna and feed that through to a rear screen. You can accept phone calls with the device and speak through the built-in mic port (that surprising works well), and will even accept a micro-SD card for auxiliary playback.


    On the rear of the head unit, you'll find connections for all of the optional accessories, as well as your standard looking wiring harness for your speaker and power connections. There's also a fan which keeps the unit cool under the wildest of temperatures ensuring you have all features regardless of the weather conditions. The creators of the Car/Droid were wise in considering the mounting depth of the device and making sure the wiring will not interfere with installations in cramped DIN openings.


    The face of the head unit is sprawled out with control buttons for all of the media device options. You get six presets for radio, and can control Radio/TV/DVD/Audio with the same sets of buttons. Again, the device doesn't look as fancy as most aftermarket radios out today, but it at least has all of the controls needed without having to do too much hand surfing. Below the tablet dock mount are the volume and mute buttons, a source/power button, a host of buttons for some of the advanced features like phone and "pad" mode (more on this later), as well as the built-mic and IR receiver for the included remote control.


    The obvious key feature of the Car/Droid is the Android tablet dock, and plugging the tablet into the dock is done without fuss. Once docked, the Android tablet instantly displays your main menu in a touch friendly interface that I will call "radio" mode. Here you have options to change instantly between sources like Music, Radio, iPod, and Phone. While the main menu works well with the head unit to present you with whatever source you want, here is also where the first problem is presented. The Android tablet, at its best, displays a 800x480 resolution. To us car PC users, this is pretty standard, but the "radio" mode of the device does a very poor job of utilizing that resolution to its fullest. The main menu, and each screen under this mode uses colors and gradients you could easily find something manufactured by ColecoVision in the 80's. It's obvious that more work should have been done in the interface design of this mode.


    The alternative mode is "pad". Pressing the pad button on the head unit instantly transforms your tablet into a standard Android-style tablet. You get Android 2.1.x with the "Droid" portion of the Car/Droid device. To this date, the latest publicly released build of android is in the 2.3 range, so the Android tablet which comes with the Car/Droid is a few years out of date on the software side. Aside from the touchscreen friendly Home, Menu, and Back buttons which always display in the notification area on the tablet, it appears to be a "vanilla" Android experience. Still though, with Android comes the power of Android applications. With the Android market, you can download a host of applications which enhance the tablet's ability to act as a vehicle multimedia system. Google Maps can use the head unit's external GPS for navigation (internet is still required however). You can get better music applications, download Facebook, and most anything else you'd want to do while driving in a car. Because of the version of Android available to the tablet, some pretty large enhancements are not allowed. You can not use the popular Google Music streaming service, you can not get Adobe Flash. Good luck flinging your angry bird around.


    The top of the tablet has buttons for Android functions Power, Menu, and Back, as well as the button which releases the device from the head unit. The side of tablet has connections for power, USB, USB-Host, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and strangely enough an HDMI output. It's odd to see an HDMI output on a device which such small resolution. A plus of the tablet is that it too has a micro SD port for external storage. It also charges while docked into the head unit.


    Despite the appeal of the head unit, the centerpiece for the Car/Droid is the tablet and it's touchscreen. Sadly, you're restricted far too much by the tablets specifications to actually enjoy using it anywhere other than the car. For starters, you are limited by a restrictive touchscreen, which is particularly hit-or-miss when it comes to presses and debilitated when scrolling. It is also extremely reflective to sunlight or other light sources.

    The other specifications for the tablet aren't as impressive either for the most part. Inside you get a 720mhz processor, 256MB of RAM, and 8GB of internal storage, most of which is occupied by Android and pre-installed applications. Also of note, the battery life of the unit I tested was very poor. In fact, in the amount of time needed to post this review the battery meter went from 90% to 40% with minimal use. While the tablet is removable and this is a pro, i'm afraid you won't get much use from it outside of the car.


    The Positive:

    • Device capable of doing everything a All-In-One is made to do
    • Detachable screen ensures portability and security
    • Offers a very good hands-free phone experience
    • Head unit automatically controls and powers tablet when docked
    • Tablet can use the GPS connected to head unit while docked
    • Head Unit is feature rich and can do most of what the device does without the tablet installed.
    • SD Card ports on tablet and head unit allow for abundance of storage options
    • Simple iPod hookup and control


    The Negative:

    • Tablet is running outdated version of Android and is not upgradeable
    • Tablet specs limit the effectiveness of the Android experience in the car
    • Included controlling application uses poor resolution and poor graphic interface
    • Tablet as tested had a poor battery and is not replaceable
    • Low resolution and sunlight readability


    The Verdict:

    As a whole, the Bybyte Car/Droid is a feature packed multimedia system giving you the bits of the best things a car PC has to offer. The device harnesses the power of a standard head unit with the power of android, and sprinkles in a little iPod connectivity on the side. When viewed as separately, the double DIN head unit still manages to incorporate most of what the device was made to do, while the android tablet is crippled by it's own hardware limitations.

    For more pictures on the device, please check out my album.