Despite limited R&D due to pricing challenges, car PC makers pursue hardware improvements.
China car PC manufacturers continue to invest in hardware enhancements to stimulate demand and compete with features-rich automotive electronics. They, however, try to strike a balance between performance upgrades and cost adjustments to keep prices affordable.
Models that adopt the Intel 945GC chipset and Atom 230 processor remain popular because of their low quotes. Makers are promoting such versions to maintain sales, but they also offer units with dual-core Atom 330 CPUs for faster processing capability. Several turn to the 1.66GHz Atom D510 and the 1.8GHz Atom D525, which run OS more efficiently than low-frequency counterparts. These, however, increase the price.
Memory capacity is another critical R&D consideration. Many China makers have upgraded car PC models to 1 and 2GB DDR2 from 512MB to add value. Most companies can offer 80 to 160GB HDDs. Solid-state disks or SSDs are also available to address the demand for better shock resistance.
Acknowledging that the product is still a secondary line, manufacturers admit the need to build technology and price competitiveness. Local enterprises are therefore keeping in-house R&D alive through regular upgrades despite limited demand and cost concerns.
Major players such as Leso International Ltd, for instance, use expensive processors and chipsets to cater to the upscale and function-conscious market. The supplier's latest car PC series is based on the Nvidia MCP7A or MCP79-ION. Aside from the Atom 330, the chipset has onboard GeForce8100 graphic core, Realtek ALC 662 sound card and Realtek 8111C Gigabit Ethernet controller. Its built-in Bluetooth adopts 802.15 WPAN.
Leso also offers models with 8GB SSD as an alternative to its HDD versions. The maker started to promote the use of the former in 2010 when the cost of the component declined. Prices of SSD-based car PCs, which remain higher than HDD alternatives, however, hamper wide adoption.
Shenzhen Joyous Electronics Ltd, meanwhile, is looking at extending product usability to compete with car DVD players. The supplier designs its units with portable device-level CPUs that operate on Windows CE.
Despite the positive outlook generated by active R&D, makers have conservative growth projections for the line. One reason is the proliferation of less expensive, but features-laden automotive electronics offering similar functions. For a lower price, buyers can have all-in-one car DVD players that support information and entertainment activities. Smartphones with in-vehicle kits and mounts also pose a threat because of the built-in Internet connectivity and business programs. Moreover, a car PC's mobile computing capability is dependent on the local telecom carrier. Under the current network infrastructure and payment schemes,this service incurs a higher fee.
Another factor preventing the expansion of the segment is its niche market status and the lack of consumer following. The device is generally viewed as a high-end tool for professional applications such as fleet tracking and communication management. This and the low demand have kept supply small, which has in turn prevented makers from reaching economies of scale that can bring prices down.
Car PCs & prices
In-vehicle computers technically belong to the high end of the car electronics line, but the selection in China consists of models for different price categories. Entry-level versions are mobile Internet device or ultra-mobile PC types with Windows CE, 256MB to 1GB internal memory and 2-DIN structure. Some suppliers offer these as upscale in-dash DVD players that support GPS and digital TV. Such variants can provide Wi-Fi or 3G wireless connectivity on top of basic word processing. Digital touchscreens with 800x480-pixel resolution are becoming popular in this segment. Manufacturers are also releasing designs targeted at special car models.
Products in the midrange make up the mainstream. Adopting Intel Atom 230 or 330 CPUs, these come in 2 or 1-DIN or box-type structures with built-in HDDs and Windows XP or 7 installed. The last two configurations usually require an additional monitor and are targeted at special applications such as fire trucks, police cars or taxicabs. These need a system that can run professional software and location or communication functions. Units in the category have 1 to 2GB DDR2 memory, 80 to 160GB HDDs, and Introducing the Auto Power Sequencer feature. They accommodate additional modules such as a USB WLAN adapter. China suppliers can likewise incorporate a DVD mechanism on request.
The 2-DIN version is an upscale alternative that includes a 7in TFT LCD or touchscreen. Local makers offer special modules to fit certain cars. Leso, for instance, has released the Win-XP-005 and Win-XP-006 models for the VW Magotan and Mazda 6, respectively. These systems support DVD, GPS, Wi-Fi, rearview, Bluetooth and mobile office functions.
China suppliers source car PC motherboards from Foxconn, Via or MSI, and touchscreens from Chimei and AU Optronics. They purchase DVD mechanisms from domestic providers, including Foryou, Corepine and Shinwa. Metal housings are employed for better cooling performance. Product configuration influences price directly. Entry-level models without monitors and those using UMPC or MID-type processors and chipsets start at $300.
The 2-DIN nettop or netbook version with touchscreen, Intel Atom 230 or 330 CPU, integrated graphics controller, audio codec chip and memory is approximately $500. The motherboard usually matches the performance of the processor. An extra digital TV module such as DVB-T increases the price by $20 to $30, and a GPRS network component adds $30. A W-CDMA unit pushes quotes up by at least $60, a figure that has been climbing since tablet PCs, particularly the iPad, entered mass production.
Taiwan: Upscale models suit fleet management, professional use
Increasing awareness on vehicle safety and smart driving is propelling growth in Taiwan's car PC manufacturing industry. Although basic models from the island trail the more advanced in-vehicle navigation and telematics systems, such products meet most users' requirements. Sophisticated varieties are suitable for fleet management, cargo tracking and other professional applications.
Car PCs from Taiwan suppliers are compact units boasting intelligent power management and fanless thermal designs. Heat pipes and proprietary mechanical layouts enable better cooling.
3G communication, GPS and Wi-Fi can be added for vehicle fleet management. Manufacturers also integrate 10/100/1,000BaseTX Ethernet.
Makers adopt Intel processors such as Atom, Core 2 Duo and Core I series. The dual-core Atom D525 CPU is a new alternative.
Mainstream varieties use VGA screens and low-voltage differential signaling for dual independent displays. NTSC and PAL video standards are accepted. For storage, CF card slots and 2.5in HDD brackets give buyers two options. RS-232 and -422, and EIA-485, and microphone input ports and earphone jacks are common.
To ensure software compatibility, Windows and Linux device drivers and API are supported, as are GPIO and CAN bus. The last enables CAN 2.0A and B. Mini PCI Express slots and USB ports allow expansion.
Taiwan-made products comply with CE, FCC class B and E-Mark. Makers also meet ISO/TS 16949 standards. The supplier base exceeds 20 players, mostly industrial PC specialists capable of developing robust devices for extreme environments.
IBase Technology Inc.'s I-VC5 model has dual displays and digital video recording function. The first can be used for showing digital signage in the car's exterior and as an in-vehicle computer screen. The unit can connect to a 4-channel security camera to capture video and store the data on a removable HDD.
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