The arrival of the Macintosh Mini made in car computing with the OS X operating system a reality. This guide will show you how simple it is to install a Mini in your car and guide you through the process of doing so.
OS X's stability makes the Mini a no muss, no fuss machine with few, if any, issues reported with USB recognition on wake -an area of difficulty for some machines. Small in form and factor, even the low end Mini provides plenty of power and punch for car applications. In addition, the price is competitive with PC based systems of similar size and the Mini compares favorably in terms of price/performance. Intel based Mac Minis can run Windows operating system and programs.
There are several cons, however, to putting a Mac Mini in your ride. The PC platform has a several year head start on the Mac and its larger market share will always mean that it has a more complete software suite than the Macintosh. This is particularly evident in the GPS arena with Route 66, RouteBuddy as the only current Mac friendly navigation software. However, the ability to run both Windows and OSX on the Intel Mac Mini has narrowed this disadvantage considerably. You may now run both operating systems and switch between the two, permitting the use of both OSX and PC applications on the Mini.
Other software that is lacking is an integrated front end, a program the pulls control of the various functions together into a touch-screen friendly format that makes control easy and safe while on the go. While front ends for the Mac are under development (AMP is a good example), Front Row is an Apple sponsored program that is free and can be used to control music, video, photos, and DVD's with either a remote control or using keyboard hacks that can control the program. The Intel Mac Mini's can run Windows operating systems and front ends as well.
The actual hardware required to install the Mini is trivial. You need only 3 things:
1. A Mini. Pick your favorite model. Many users equip with bluetooth to allow wireless mouse and keyboard, and a built in Airport card to permit connecting to hotspots for internet access while on the go. Current models of the Intel based Mini come with these options built in.
2. A screen. The Mini is capable of driving many different screens and resolutions, including the most popular choices by in car PC enthusiasts - the Lilliput and Xenarc 7" and 8" touch-screens. Touch-screen drivers exist for the Mini and work relatively reliably. Drivers are usually shipped with the screens but can also be found [here].
3. A power supply. Powering a computer of any type in the car environment is considered one of the trickiest parts of the setup. Fortunately, you have two choices here: Inverter or DC-DC power supply. Inverters convert DC power into AC power so that you can plug the Mini's white power brick into it just as you do in your house. The power brick then converts the AC power back into DC power. While this is inefficient and generates unnecessary heat, sometimes introducing noise into the audio system, installations using inverters have been successful and it is a legitimate way to go as inverters can be found inexpensively.
DC-DC power supplies take the native DC power from your car and step it up or down to the voltages that the Mini requires. In the case of the Mini, it requires 18 volts and 13 volts to operate. Since your car voltages range from around 11 to about 15 volts, the DC-DC power supply has to both regulate the voltage coming in from your car to ensure a smooth and stable input to the power supply, which then outputs 18 and 13 volts of smooth and conditioned power to the Mini. Currently, there is only one supplier of DC-DC power supplies for the Mini - Carnetix, which manufactures the P1900 DC-DC power supply.
Pros of using an Inverter 1. Cheap 2. Easy to connect
Cons 1. No automatic startup and shutdown of the Mini. You will have to remember to select shutdown each time you get ready to turn the ignition off. You will also have to boot your Mini from scratch each time you start the car - a process which takes approximately 90 seconds before you can use the system
2. Most computers running on an inverters will not survive cranking the car engine ("survive crank"). That is, if you have the Mini operating and pull up to the gas pump, stop the engine but keep the power in the car on, the computer will not continue to operate when you restart the car. It will reboot. (SOME inverters will survive crank. Many people like the Coleman inverter and report that is survives crank but your mileage will vary).
3. Your Mini will not be able to sleep when the car is off. This is important if you want near instantaneous start up of the system (approximately 5 seconds)
The Carnetix P1900 DC-DC power supply eliminates the cons listed above.
Making a Car PC out of a Mac Mini
There are three simple steps to installing a Mini in the car: 1) Install screen 2) Install Mini 3) Connect power. It's a Mac, so there's nothing to build. Of course, steps 1 and 2 are more complicated than that, but they aren't any different than accomplishing these tasks for a PC based car computer. If you need help understanding the steps involved, search this wiki for more information.
Step One: Hook up the Power
This is the trickiest part of the installation. The simple route is to use an inverter. The more complex but better solution is to use the Carnetix P1900 DC-DC power supply.
If you are using an inverter, hook the inverter up to your car and plug the white 110 volt AC cord into the inverter, connecting the other end to the Mini and you're set. If you're using the Carnetix, you'll have to do a little bit of wiring, but it's well worth it. You'll get automatic start up and shut down of your Mini, PLUS the ability to sleep the Mini, which will bring it online about 5 seconds after starting your car.
If you are using the Carnetix P1900, it takes a little more work but it in my opinion, it is worth it.
The Carnetix site has full instructions on how to connect the P1900 . The main disadvantage to using the P1900 is that it requires you to cut the output cord in order to patch it into the P1900. It's not that scary. Here's how. This leaves you with a cut cord leading out of your power brick. I'm sure Steve Jobs would disapprove. However, all is not lost. Simply put a 4 pin male molex connector on the power brick end and the Carnetix output and a 4 pin female connector on the end that goes into your Mini and you can still use the Mini in both the house and the car. Make sure you install the power supply in an area you can access and that it is properly fused and in an area that allows it fresh air for cooling.
Step Two: Find a spot to place the Mini
The Mini is extremely small, about the size of a single DIN car stereo head unit.
Many members have installed the Mini in the glovebox of their car, the armrest, in place of the head unit, and in the trunk. Under the seat of the car is another option.
Just remember that when the Mini fan switches on, it intakes air from the BOTTOM of the unit and exhausts it out the back. However you choose to install the Mini, make sure the vents on the bottom are not blocked and that the rear exhaust grill is open to a reasonably well ventilated area.
You should probably monitor the temperature of your Mini during the initial operation of the unit. Unfortunately, the Mini does not have built in temperature sensor on the CPU. However, it does have a temperature sensor built in to the 2.5" laptop hard drive inside the unit. A shareware app such as Temperature monitor lite is a shareware application that monitors the temperature of S.M.A,R,T, devices is useful for checking the temperatures of the hard drive. While that doesn't translate directly to your CPU temps, it will at least give you an idea of the changes and trends inside the hard drive.
Keep in mind, too, that the Mini has the CD/DVD drive built into the front of the unit, so you'll need access to the front of the box if you want to play CD's and DVD's on it. Of course, you can always hook up a USB or firewire CD-ROM/DVD drive to the Mini's ports and remotely locate them but since the drive is already in the box, it duplicates the existing functionality.
Step Three: Hook up the Screen
The Mini's video output is DVI, designed for a high quality digital output to LCD panels. This doesn't mean that the Mini cannot connect to VGA monitors. In fact, it comes with a DVI-VGA adaptor that allows the user to plug a standard VGA cable into the Mini. This works quite well although it does tend to stick out the back a good 6 inches or more, so you should allow for that when you pick an installation location. With the requirement that the fan exhaust exits the back of the Mini, this is probably not a factor for most people. However, if space it tight behind the unit, aftermarket DVI-VGA cables that turn a right angle can be found.
Powering the screen from the P1900 is recommended as it will provide clean, regulated 12 volt output for your screen, protecting it from nasty voltage spikes and dirty power that can potentially damage the second most expensive component of your system.
As stated, the Mini works fine with the most popular brands of screens from Xenarc and Lilliput, both 7" and 8" sizes. In addition, the touchscreen works identical to the PC. Simply load the drivers for OS X [insert link here], reboot, and plug the touch-screen into the Mini. You can touch an icon to open/launch it and click and drag an item around the screen.
You cannot, however, control-click an item (equivalent to clicking the right button of a two button mouse) without having a keyboard handy. In that case, you probably ought to have a mouse out and simply do it with the mouse anyhow. Also, the OS X interface is made for a computer and clicking exactly on the close, expand, shrink buttons on a window can be pretty challenging on a 7" screen.
The dock is the logical solution to this problem, although my favorite feature, auto-hide, can't be accessed with the touch-screen. Auto-hide requires you to drag your mouse down to the bottom to trigger the showing of the dock. This is all but impossible using your finger. Leaving the dock visible is, of course, an option but it takes up precious vertical screen real estate.
Okay, It Works. Now What?
The Mini already comes with all of the software you need to have an impressive in car computing experience. iTunes works well at managing your music and providing you with controls that keep your eyes on the road. With keyboard equivalents and Applescriptability, iTunes can be controlled in a number of ways that keeps you from having to use its interface.
One of the best is the Griffin Powermate. Using the Powermate, you get 6 different inputs to control your Mac (the Powermate also works on PC's). Click, long click, left/right and click rotate left/right can be mapped to different keyboard equivalents through the Griffin preferences software. Best of all, the Powermate can be set to change it's behavior depending on which application is at the forefront.
For iTunes, I set mine up as follows:
Click - change song Long click - Pause/Unpause Left/right - Increase/decrease volume of iTunes Click rotate left/right - (i.e. hold down and turn left or right) Increase/decrease Mac Mini global volume
You can also map your own pushbuttons to keyboard shortcuts using products like the iPac-ve The iPac is a keyboard emulator that plugs into your Mini and appears to the machine as a keyboard. It has connections on it's PC board to allow you to interface your own custom switches to the iPac, allowing you to control your apps via those switches.
If you have bluetooth, try Salling Clicker software to allow you to control your Mac using your cellphone as a remote control. Also check into the Bluephone elite software to see about allowing your Mac to use your phone as a data modem on the go.
More car specific software is available on the PC than the Mac. More variety, more functionality, more options, and more support from mp3car.com members. The Mac as an automotive platform is relatively new and has less software written for it. The size of the Apple market for car PC applications is probably so small that even if every Mini user bought a copy of a GPS program written for the Mac, the numbers would be only triple digits.
That means that the Mini is an experimental platform. If you want a turnkey solution, you'll have much more success putting a PC in your car. If you want to be on the leading edge of a new and promising platform for the car, then the Mac is for you.
First, there are a nice set of links to software and resources stickied in the Mac Car forum.
GPS - Route 66 is the only viable option for the Mac and it is dreadful in comparison with the many PC solutions. On the other hand, it does work and provides the only native Mac solution. Other options are to use Virtual PC to emulate the PC on your Mac, and run a PC GPS program on your Mini until a decent solution comes along. You'll need a gigabyte or so of RAM to do this effectively.
MP3 - iTunes seems to be the choice of most folks. Of course, iTunes cannot be skinned for a customized look and feel. It does work pretty reasonably as a player and song organizer and includes a visualizer and album artwork, tagging, etc. In addition, iTunes is highly Applescriptable, allowing you to use Automator or to write your own scripts to interact with the program.
A bonus is that iTunes will also catalog your video files and play them back in the GUI.
DVD - The Apple DVD player does a great job of
Front Row the new media center application for the Mac has been hacked to run on the Mini and provides a serviceable front end, especially when combined with the Airclick remote.
"Aren't Apples expensive?" your PC friends will usually ask? For in car computing, the Mini is very competitive with similar form factor options. My former car PC was an Epia M10000, one of the most popular motherboards for car PC'ers. By the time I outfitted it with 512mb of memory, a 2.5" laptop hard drive, a CD-ROM/DVD drive, and a wireless card, the price was identical. If I had purchased a case for the Epia, it would have been more than the Mini and the Mini has bluetooth as well.
Let's face it, though. Most folks loyal to the PC market won't be swayed by the Mini for a variety of reasons including lack of software, limited expandability and a non-existent aftermarket segment for hardware. Mac users just don't have the ability to pick a motherboard and build a Mac from scratch. So the PC route is more flexible and can be done more cheaply than the Apple solution.
The M10000 plays mp3's and DVD's reasonably well but can stutter under some circumstances and the onboard sound isn't known to be very good. While I'm not audiophile, I could tell that the sound from the Mini was fuller and clearer, while the whole system lacks that sluggish feel I would sometimes get with the Epia.
Which is not a knock on the M10000. It's probably unfair to compare a board that has been out for a few years with a contemporary and probably an even grosser distortion to compare one operating system against another.
Let's suffice it to say that the Mini has plenty of horsepower to easily handle multimedia from video to mp3 whether straight from the hard disk or on a CD/DVD disc.
The Mini is as easy to install as they come. It's an all in one package with everything you need in the box. Just add a screen and a power supply and you can be crunchin' bytes while on the move. But it's not for those who want a status quo machine. It definitely falls in the experimental category and is for those who don't mind the fact that the software on the PC platform is more full featured with greater variety.