Home > Opinion > Opinion: Finding the perfect carputer is still a…

Opinion: Finding the perfect carputer is still a nightmare

car computer running windows XP desktopI figured it would be fun to see if I could buy an older car, trick it out, and end up with something amazing for a fraction of the cost of a typical supercar. My initial idea was to take an older (1997) Jaguar XK-8 and drop a modern, tricked-out Camaro engine in it, but this started looking like a $60,000 project, and that’s too close to the cost of a Nissan GT-R.

So back to square one.

I ran down a newer Jag (2004 Supercharged XK-R in very rare Coronado Blue) and went looking for the ultimate “carputer” stereo. I wanted something fast, but also technically cool. Having been part of the early carputer testing group in the 1990s (it didn’t end well), my hope was I could find something far closer over a decade later.

I’m far from done, and still waiting for the stereo to arrive, but I figured it would be fun to look at what I ended up ordering. Unfortunately, I apparently wasn’t alone coming to this conclusion, as the damn things are massively backordered.

My requirements

I wanted something that reflected this century, so the key was getting a stereo that either provided a way to use a tablet on the dash, or could act similar to one (touch interface, good Internet connection through a smartphone, not too much custom work, and pleasing to the eye). In short, I didn’t want a PC in the dash, I wanted an iPad-like experience in the dash. But I didn’t want the pain of actually using an iPad. Given how long Android has been out, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to find one or two that fit the bill. I was very wrong.

Ca-Fi

I’d heard about this Ca-Fi stereo some time ago, and it seemed ideal. While it wasn’t made by anyone I’d recognize, the cool thing about this product was that it was basically an Android tablet built into a good-sized stereo head unit. The nice thing about Android is that when you get a new phone or tablet and sign into Gmail, all of your stuff (including applications and settings) magically shows up. That means my Amazon and Netflix movies, music, and some of my navigation destinations would already be in the box.

Cool, sign me up! Where do I get one? And there was the problem.

While folks have been talking about this thing for around a year, apparently it hasn’t actually made it to the US yet, and so it didn’t do me any good. So great; some obscure company built one but hadn’t figure out how to import it yet (which didn’t bode well for how well it would work when it arrived).

Pioneer AVIC-Z140BH

Generally thought to be the pinnacle of technology with strong 3D interfaces and a sleek modern design the AVIC-Z140BH (could they have a more annoying name?) appears to be the best follow-up choice.

pioneer AVIC Z140BH in car computerNo, it wasn’t the dash-mounted tablet of the Ca-Fi, but it did have good expansion, would run Aha Radio off of my Android phone wirelessly, and Pioneer remains one of the best names in car audio. My first Jag was a Jaguar XK-E. I had put a great floor-mount Pioneer auto-reverse cassette deck in that car, loved it back in the 1970s, and have been a fan of that brand since.

However, I have a Pioneer receiver with iPhone compatibility, and it clearly has iOS teething issues, so I rarely use the Apple interface. In addition, in talking to folks that had used the product, apparently Pioneer went cheap on the processor so it is annoying slow. I’d had one of the first and only AutoPCs (the first commercial attempt at a carputer) years ago, and slow in something like this isn’t your friend. The end result was my wife constantly threatening to rip the deck out and throw it either at my head or into the street, so the Pioneer missed the cut as well. (Largely because I value my physical and mental health highly.)

You’d think that in a near $1,500 deck, Pioneer could afford to use a fast enough processor. Evidently not.

Kenwood Excelon DNX9990HD

After reading the online for ums, talking to people who had both installed and used both decks, and reconsidering whether I wanted to leave the stereo in the car (which is a nice older Alpine Jaguar head unit optically connected to a full Alpine speaker set), I ended up with the Kenwood DNX9990HD. This deck had the best Garmin navigation built in, Navteq real-time traffic updates and lane assist, Bluetooth hands free (that worked) and A2DP music transfer to pull music from the phone, HD radio, Aha Radio, twin iPod control (no more just listening to wife’s iPod music), anti-glare tilt (important in a convertible), and built in Pandora support. And it is designed for OEM steering wheel input.

Kenwood Excelon DNX9990HD in car computerWith a fast processor, screen interaction isn’t annoying, and it is an attractive deck. Apparently so attractive that it is massively back ordered, which is why I’m telling you about the selection process and not about how the damn thing actually works. (I’ll do that in a later post, after I rip and replace the existing Alpine system, which I’m sadly getting kind of fond of.)

The perfect carputer still doesn’t exist

I know folks who have built PCs for their car (this is one of the best), and have seen folks install iPads in their dashes (here is one of the best). Both are too much science experiment and risk, and too little enjoyment for me at the moment. iPads tend to glare out in cars and high-quality audio from an iPad is an oxymoron. Yes, you can do it, but the resulting distractions will likely end up putting you in someone’s trunk, or the ground. To work, this stuff really needs to be designed for the car. I thought that by now someone would at least be shipping an Android-based system I could buy.

Until then, this Kenwood Excelon DNX9990HD, on paper, is as close as I’ll likely get. I’ll post how this all turns out at a much later date (or shortly after the deck arrives) with full pictures. Pray for me as I have little doubt this installation will have issues.

So I’ll likely remain in search of the perfect carputer. If you have any suggestions I’d appreciate them!

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.