Well, I think I've finally talked myself in to putting an MP3 player in to the Sterling. For those who are unfamiliar with MP3s in general, here is a crash course. MP3 files are songs recorded in to computer files. If you have a CD, you can record that CD in to MP3 files and keep them on your computer and play them at a later time. You can also then send them over the internet to friends, or even share them with the rest of the internet using MP3 sharing programs like Napster. MP3 is a fun and easy way to get free music, although there is a curent debate (and legal battle) over whether MP3 file sharing should be legal.

Now that MP3s have become more popular and computer prices have dropped, many people have put MP3 players in their cars, although it hasnt gone mainstream yet. Mostly people who really like gadgets and have a knack for technical workings have tinkered with them. However, there are a few companies that sell MP3 car players, like the EMPEG. I've taken to building my own system.

What does this comprise of? Well, for starters, you need to build or buy a computer. I found it cheaper to buy a computer and just take out the parts I needed.

What I started with was a eMachines 366Mhz computer with 128MB of RAM and a 4.3GB HD. I was able to get it cheap ($230 off of uBid.com) mostly because it had such a small HD. 4.3GB isnt going to store a lot of data or MP3s. But seeing as a standard HD doesnt take too well to shock, I had plans to replace it with a Laptop HD anyway (bought a 12GB one for $170 from buy.com). So above you see a standard computer CPU like you'd see under someones desk, except in this case its dissasembled. I took out the 1.44MB Floppy drive, as its rare I'll ever need to get files *from* the computer. I left in the DVD/CD which will allow me to transfer files *to* the computer and to watch DVDs while I drive, which is always safe. :) I took out the 56k modem and got rid of the bulky case. Now I just need to build a new smaller case that fits nicer behind the seats.

My orignial plan was to put the whole machine behind the seat, but it took up too much room. Here you can see pictures of me trying to fit it back there.

So once I had it all dissassembled, I put back just the parts I needed and tested it out. It worked just fine and the DVD even played.

As you can see, it fits much nicer in the car when you only have the bits and parts that you need to have.

The monitor that I'm going to get will be a 640x480 VGA TFT Color 6.4 inch monitor. This is the same size used in some custom vans. Many vans use 5 inch screens, but some use 6.4. The yellow paper indicates the size of the unit, while the black marks indicate what the actual screen size will be. With the size of what is left of the computer, its feasable that I could mount it all under the dash, which I may do. My only concern would be for interference with other wires behind the dash.

So, heres the whole plan. I have to get the adapter kit to make the laptop HD work, which is fairly simple. Then I need to get an FM tuner card which will allow me to get FM stations on the computer. They also make AM/FM/TV cards so that you can get TV stations as well. They are only about $100 as opposed to $70 for the FM cards, but a lot of them seem to have a lot of junk on them that I dont need. I'd rather keep this simple as much as possible. I'll then use the software that my company makes for playing MP3 files. The software is free for downloads if you'd ever want to try it. www.eTantrum.com

The neat thing about having a computer in the car is what else you can do with it. With the color screen, you can get a RoadMap / GPS program quite affordably. You can also set up systems that monitor the cars functions like fuel economy, gallons left to empty, and temps and speeds. You could also control functions like lights or wipers through the computer.

If I get it all in and working and playing music, I'll be happy. :) Once I get that done, if I get the urge, I might put in a GPS, and from there, who knows.

The tally so far in what I've spent is as follows:

Item - $cost ($shipping) - bought at
Computer - $230 ($30) - Ubid
12GB HD - $170 ($10) - Buy.com
Adapter for HD - $8 ($7) Cables On Line
Finger Trackball - $15 ($7) Coolerstar
5.6" NTSC TV Monitor - $159 ($5) - Custom Audio (eBay retailer)
FM/TV tuner card - $50 ($3) - Symmic
Jaton video-out card - $47 ($5) - eBay
Sold my 4.3GB HD on eBay - $46

Total - $531 ($67) = $598
$600 is what you could easily spend on a nice headunit, and I'm fairly comfortable having spent that much considering what I have ended up with.

Update - 9/15/00
I've finally found the cable adapter to make the Laptop HD work with the desktop machine. Pretty easy stuff. All I had to do then was format it and load up Win98. I installed the FM and TV card and the remote control that came with it works awesome!! Not that I need a remote in such a small car, but it will be nice to have buttons rather than just a mouse. The only snag that I've run in to is that I cant get my sound to work. It worked before when I hooked it up, but now it doesnt. I think I might need to have my speakers plugged in when I install Win98, because its telling me that it doest detect a system speaker. Other than that, its all coming together nicely.

I also decided to go with a different monitor. The one that I wanted was a 6.4" VGA monitor from Earth Technologies. These people really do seem to have the lowest prices on monitor kits. Trust me, I looked everywhere!! I was insistent on having a VGA monitor rather than a TV monitor, because I was concerned about the resolution. But after I saw the MP3-Cav with a 4 inch monitor that had good resolution, I figured anything above that would work just fine, rather than paying $700 for a 6.4 inch VGA monitor. It seemed like standard 6.4 inch screens were going for no less than $340, but 5.6 inch screens could be found between $160 and $240. I found one that was a bare bones monitor, that means that it wasnt in a plastic frame, for only $159. The best thing about it was that it has a brightness control, which is actually remote mountable. This will allow me to see it during the day, but tone it down at night. The difference between this NTSC monitor that I got and the VGA one that I originally intended, is mostly in the resolution. That and it takes a different input. In order to run this screen, you need to get a video card that has a TV output, which was another $50. So, this was a $210 solution as opposed to $700.

The other big break to this project was a trip to the junkyard for some random parts. I ended up finding a center console out of a Hyundai Tiburon in mint condition. It has a double din opening and curves up 90 degrees just like my dashboard. I couldnt have custom ordered a more perfect part. I'll be trying to put that in this weekend.

Update 11/2/00

The MP3 player project isnt getting too much attention, as the carburators on the car are shot, and it wont be running for a while anyway. I did get the audio problem resolved. It was a result of installing the new HD and installing a new copy of Win98, which didnt have the proper sound card drivers. I just used the eMachines restoration CD and installed the proper drivers, and now it works fine. I have some slight resolution issues with installing the new video card drivers. I was getting an error message, which I couldnt read, as the display was too small. I've now found a spare 15" monitor that I can use to troubleshoot the system. All in all, the player is working fantastic, and should be ready to be installed next summer once the car runs again.

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