I spend most of my time reviewing core PC components like hard drives, motherboards, chipsets, sound cards, and power supply units. Each product category is filled with interesting options, and while some are considerably more compelling than others, at the end of the day I'm still dealing with variations on the same basic themes. Every so often, though, a product arrives at The Benchmarking Sweatshop that defies conventional classification. The latest such example is Thermaltake's A2413 7" embedded LCD displaya novel device dripping with potential for PC and automobile enthusiasts alike.
Tech journalists are infamous for over-using car analogies, and I'm just as guilty as most, if not more so after years of mainlining Top Gear episodes. But it's not entirely unreasonable to equate PCs with automobiles. Indeed, the two practically share floor space at the Consumer Electronics Show. The latest and greatest cars are becoming more PC-like, too, most recently integrating GPS and multimedia playback capabilities. Heck, you can even get Google Local Search in a BMW now.
More relevant today is the fact that PC and automotive industries both have strong enthusiast communitiesright down to forums littered with rabid fanboys. You may not be able to build your own car as easily as slapping together PC parts, but both camps are teeming with DIY hobbyists eager to get their hands dirty. The intersection of these camps is, of course, the car PC.
I've seen numerous car PC implementations over the years, from laptops crudely stuffed under passenger seats to slickly-embedded systems molded seamlessly into instrument consoles. These days, the hardware side of the equation should be easy enough to solve. You can pick up a Mini-ITX board with an Intel Atom processor for around $90. Add a stick of memory, a mobile hard drive, and a tiny enclosure, and you're all set... except for one thing: the display.
Displays small enough for a car's cabin aren't exactly common, but they can be found online for around $100. The problem is integrating these bare displays into dashboards not designed to accommodate auxiliary screens. Thermaltake's A2413 neatly avoids the issue by packing a retractable LCD that slides neatly into standard 7" automotive deck bays.
When its screen is retracted, the A2413 looks rather unassuming. That's a good thing, because the faceplate isn't removable. You don't want anything too flashy peeking out that might attract a quick smash and grab.
Of course, we should note that Thermaltake isn't necessarily targeting the A2413 at the automotive world. Quite the contrary, in fact. It's being pushed as an accessory for the PC crowd. PCs generally lack 7" drive bays, but Thermaltake has added some 7" bays to its Mozart TX, SwordM, and LAN Box enclosures. The A2413 is a PC product too, then, just as long as your PC resides in one of a handful of Thermaltake enclosures.
But back to the device, and the litany of buttons along the front of the unit. You won't need to worry about many of these, since they're mostly used to control the on-screen display.
Do pay attention to the eject button, though. It's used to deploy the LCD display, which slides out and tilts up, as illustrated above.
The motor that extends and tilts the screen could stand to be quieter, but it gets the job done, deploying the screen in about five seconds. From there, it takes an additional five-or-so seconds for the screen to actually light up. Apparently, it needs to warm up, or something.
As for the screen, it measures seven inches diagonally with a wide aspect ratio. The screen has a maximum display resolution of 1024x768at least that's the highest resolution it will accept from a video inputbut it only has 800x480 pixels, just like the Eee PC 700 series. A 1024x768 desktop nicely fills the A2413's display, but without enough pixels to properly display that resolution, text is quite difficult to read, even if you're up close.
If you're going to be running a 10-foot user interface like Vista's integrated media center application, resolution won't be an issue. Having support for higher input resolutions is nice for apps that don't play nicely at 800x480, and you can always run the native resolution if you need legible text.