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 1024×768at least that’s the highest resolution it will accept from a video inputbut it only has 800×480 pixels, just like the Eee PC 700 series. A 1024×768 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 800×480, and you can always run the native resolution if you need legible text.
Thermaltake says the A2413’s screen has a brightness level of 280cd/m² and a 300:1 contrast ratio. Although the screen is certainly bright enough, its actual contrast ratio seems to be lackinggreys are quite washed out, and tweaking settings via the on-screen display doesn’t seem to do much. This isn’t a huge problem for basic applications, but it is noticeable.
Fortunately, the display has solid vertical and horizontal viewing angles. This is an important consideration for both automotive and PC applications, since in both cases, you’re unlikely to be viewing the screen dead-on. Thermaltake also provides a measure of motorized tilt adjustment for the screen, controlled via bezel buttons or the included remote.
While I’d peg the A2413’s overall display quality as lower than of the Eee PC 700 series, the Thermaltake screen does support touch-based input. A stylus is included for tasks that demand precision, and my fat fingers needed it with most standard desktop apps. However, when running a media-center-style interface, one finger should be all you need.
Around the back, the A2413 features a standard VGA input and a USB port necessary for touch-screen input. A pair of composite video inputs is also included, alongside some completely useless RCA audio inputs. The unit doesn’t have a TV antenna input, either, although a variation on the design no doubt did at one point.
To the left of the antenna cut-out, we find a power plug. The six-pin plug looks not unlike a PCIe power conector, and it draws 12V power exclusively, which is perfect for automotive applications. If you want to run the display off a standard PC power supply, a four-pin Molex adapter is included in the box.
In addition to the power adapter and stylus, the A2413’s box also houses USB and VGA cables, a front bezel border, and a couple of metal tools designed to free the unit from a 7″ drive bay. An IR remote is included, as well, although its practical functionality is quite limited. The remote seems to have been designed for versions of the screen that include a TV tuner, and most of the buttons are intended for that purpose. However, you can use the remote to adjust the screen’s setting through the OSD, control its tilt angle, and deploy it from the unit.
With a street price of around $340, the A2413 certainly isn’t cheap. But then neither are other standalone 7″ touch-screen displays. The A2413’s retractable screen is unique, too, and it allows the device to fit in a standard 7″ form factor that’s much easier to integrate into an automotive instrument panel than a standalone screen. Were I putting together a car PC, I’d sling one of these into the instrument panel, toss an Atom-based Mini-ITX system into the glove box or under a seat, and call it a day.
For PC applications, the A2413’s utility is a little more muddled. I like the idea of small secondary displays, either to provide a virtual dashboard for real-time hardware monitoring (particularly when playing games that monopolize a primary display) or control over a home theater PC, but the device’s 7″ form factor is only compatible with a handful of Thermaltake enclosures. That’s a significant limitation, and one that makes me wish Thermaltake had a version of this product that slid into a standard 5.25″ drive bay. That doesn’t appear to be in the cards, though. Thermaltake has no plans for a 5.25″ version of this product.
In the end, then, Thermaltake’s retractable LCD touch-screen seems more appropriate for automotive applications than home PCs. The screen’s picture quality isn’t exceptional, but it’s good enough for a basic car PC interface, where support for touch-based input should be particularly handy.