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In-Vehicle Media Servers

Bringing All Your Digital Content on the Road

By

mac mini

Mac minis and other small PCs are ideal candidates for repurposing as DIY in-car multimedia servers.

Image courtesy of Sean MacEntee, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

What is a Media Server?

A media server is a type of computer that stores and delivers audio and video content. Home media servers are often used to distribute video and audio content to a variety of locations throughout the house, but the scope of in-car media servers is typically more focused. These servers are typically designed to deliver content to the head unit.

Some head units include an SSD or traditional HDD, and others have USB connections or SD card slots that allow storage to be added. Others are directly compatible with media servers, and some can be hooked up to a media server through an auxiliary input.

Media servers can include:

  • solid state or traditional HDD storage
  • optical drives
  • USB storage
  • SD card storage
  • network connectivity
  • and more

Some types of in-car media servers include:

Vastly Expanded Entertainment Options

There are a number of different types of media servers, and every system works a little differently. The most basic functionality of an in-car media servers is the storage of one or more digital files that can be remotely accessed by a head unit or computer. This can be accomplished through direct audio and video connections or via a network connection, and the most basic media server consists simply of a network attached storage (NAS) drive that a head unit or computer can pull content from.

More complicated servers are essentially computers that perform that same function. In the case of head units that weren’t designed for use with media servers, the media server can send audio and video data to an auxiliary input. These media servers are typically hooked up to an LCD and are controlled through a touchscreen or alternative input method. Some purpose-built aftermarket media servers also include optical drives and other options.

OEM Multimedia Server Availability

A number of OEM infotainment systems include some type of media server functionality, though they typically don’t include a separate server unit. Ford’s Sync, Kia’s UVO, and other similar infotainment systems are capable of storing and playing back audio and video files. Other infotainment systems don’t include any built-in storage, but they do allow you to access your digital content via an SD card reader or USB connection.

Adding a Media Server to an Existing Sound System

If you want to add a media server to your car or truck, you have a few options. The easiest solution is to buy a purpose-built media server. If you’re not adverse to upgrading your head unit too, you can also buy a video head unit that is designed to work with a media server.

The other option is to build a DIY server. There are a lot of ways to go about this, but you’ll typically need some basic components like:

  • some type of computer
  • a display
  • an input device
  • connections for the audio system

If you have an old laptop laying around, you may be able to repurpose it as an in-car multi-media server. Other easy options include tablets and smartphone. However, you can also consider building a new system or using a low-profile bare bones bookshelf type computer. There are also a number of tiny, low-cost, Linux-based computers available.

Some of the slickest DIY media servers use touchscreen LCDs, which takes care of both the display and input device requirements. In that case, the audio can be piped through an auxiliary input on the head unit while the touchscreen is used to display video content.

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