Having a video system in your car, van, or SUV means different things to different people. For those with kids, the ability to show movies or play games means stress-free long distance travel, while others may have a video system to catch their favorite movies when camping, or just to show how “flash” their ride is. No matter the reason, a well-installed video system adds value and versatility to a vehicle. But how does one go from being mobile video free to having a video entertainment system on wheels? It isn’t as hard as you think as long as you take your time and pay close attention to the basics.

Tools The minimum tool set for any kind of car electronics work should include a set of needlenose pliers, a screwdriver with Phillips and flat tips, wire cutters, electrical tape, a multimeter (or a test light, but that’s dangerous) and the manuals of every item in the system. Many problems stem from what professionals call “operator headspace” or in other words, they are not using the system properly. The reason a multimeter is better than a simple test light is that it is diode protected. This means that current can only run in one direction in the test circuit, preventing nasty side effects. For instance, a test lamp, if placed on the wrong wire behind the dash, can trigger the airbag. This is a result not only messy and expensive, but literally life threatening. Any Radio Shack will have an assortment of multimeters and other electrical tools from the simple to complex at reasonable prices. Another good source of car stereo tools and gear is the Crutchfield catalog. Both are available online. (Extra credit for using a soldering iron on all wire bonds.)

Laying out the system
Before you do anything, survey your vehicle and determine the kind of system you want to have and where you want it to be used. There are three parts to a video entertainment system: monitors to display the image, components to generate the image and sound, and speakers or headphones to reproduce that sound. There are also different levels of system installation. For example, if you just want something to entertain the kiddies when on a long trip, a simple portable DVD player (or players if the children have widely different tastes), either held in the lap or hung over the back of one (or both) of the front seats would do, and also have the advantage of being portable. The next level would be to install a standalone system consisting of a screen and all the needed components to play a tape and/or a DVD. This solution provides the simplicity of a portable device with the permanence and security of an installation. At the top of the scale would be a multiple-monitor system with separate components able to play movies and/or games with the ability to play different material over the vehicle speakers with wireless headphones for the passengers. Such a system may even incorporate a navigation system and back-up cameras to increase safety and utility. Whatever level of system you choose, planning where and how you intend to use it in your vehicle will increase your enjoyment significantly and save you time and effort. Time and patience in the setup is never wasted, whether for an elaborate system or a simple one.

The Source
Nowadays, you can get an in-car player for every type of electronic entertainment in existence, it only depends how serious you are about it. For example, getting satellite radio is easy, while satellite video is harder. DVD and CD are a given, as is regular radio. Today’s head units are as far beyond what was available in the past as the DVD player is from the phonograph. You don’t even have to put them in the dashboard anymore, placing it under the seat, in the glovebox, or in the trunk, operated by remote or voice command. The head units of today can take multiple data feeds and route them to your speakers and/or monitor. As mentioned earlier, some units can feed separate signals to different places. This is especially useful for situations like a cross-country drive, where you want to listen to your music up front while your passengers play video games or watch a movie, listening to their sound through the rear speakers or headphones. Don’t forget to get some kind of case, preferable padded, for your discs. The padding not only protects the discs from rough usage, they help protect the discs from the heat swings that occur in a car. Game systems can be hardwired into the vehicle system or left portable, feeding their signal into the system’s auxiliary jacks. If you power your video game from a wall plug, a vehicle inverter can be bought as most car part stores and some stereo and computer shops for you to plug it into. Navigation systems are an important peripheral source to consider. They aren’t entertainment, but they make the journey go a whole lot better. A navigation system is also the only thing you can have running on the driver’s monitor when the vehicle is in motion. The map is displayed on the screen, and the verbal directions come over the interior speakers.

The Video
The most important thing to remember is that most states have laws against a video system that can be viewed from the driver’s seat while the vehicle is in motion. This isn’t a problem, since most in-dash monitors must be connected to the vehicle’s parking brake to make sure it operates only when the vehicle is in motion. (When the vehicle is in motion, such a system will function as a map display for navigation and as an entertainment system controller.) Beyond the center dash, other locations for front-seat video monitors include the front passenger dashboard and visor, and in the back one can hang a monitor between the front seats or from the roof, or in the back of the front-seat headrests. Once you decide where and how many monitors there will be, you will know what kind of gear to buy. For the center dash, there are monitors both with and without DVD and/or CD players in them that fit into the stock hole in the dash where the radio sits. These create a clean look, as they retract into the dash when not in use. Otherwise, panel monitors with diagonal screen sizes from four to seven inches can be fit in the backs of the visors or embedded in the dash in front of the passenger (be careful of the air bag!) For the back passengers, there are many choices. If you are going with the dashboard DVD or have a player in the glovebox, you can simply replace your front-seat headrests with ones that have monitors embedded in the back, or hang a screen over the back of one or both of the seats. Additionally, those modules that sit between the front seats or hang from the ceiling can hold an LCD monitor or all of the components of your system.

The Sound
You can run the video sound through your vehicle’s interior speakers when everyone wants to watch and hear the same thing, but what about when you want to hear the traffic news or the local jazz station and the kids want to watch Finding Nemo yet another time? The best in-vehicle entertainment systems have the ability to play the radio or CD through the speakers while the video sound is piped through headphones for the viewers in the back seat. The best of those systems have wireless infrared headphones so the kids (and the gear) don’t get all tangled up. The very best of those systems can switch multiple sources to the different screens headphones, and speakers in the vehicle. This is especially useful when one passenger is watching a DVD in the rear on the left-rear screen, the other is playing a video game on the right-rear screen, the front-seat passenger is watching TV, and the driver is listening to the radio. Everyone can do their own thing without disturbing the other passengers, making a cross-country drive a relatively peaceful experience.

Powering your system
We all know you need amplification to drive the sound, but we forget that the amplifiers need power coming in to generate the power coming out. That 1,000-Watt amp won’t perform the way you expect it to if you hook it up to an empty spot in the fusebox with a 14-gauge wire. There may be an auxiliary DC power line under the dash if the vehicle was designed to take accessories. If not you will need to take a line to the battery to power your system. Many amplifiers come with a power cable, but if you run multiple amplifiers, each line must run all the way to the battery, as they are designed to carry just enough power for the amp they came with. If you want to run a single line for multiple amplifiers (and the other gear) you will need to run a wire roughly as thick as the lines of the various devices put together. You can buy a heavy battery line and distribution block to connect all the various leads to it at a specialty shop or online. The most important thing to remember here is to place a fuse on the line close to the battery, literally an inch or so from where it connects to the terminal. This protects the line, as a short circuit in a heavy-gauge wire would cause it to heat to the point it sets fire to the vehicle. Another thing to remember is to run the power cables away from the signal cables, to help prevent electrical noise from the alternator and spark plugs from entering the system. Grounding every component to paint-free bright frame metal is another way to keep engine noise out, and make the devices perform at their best.

If you take your time and pay attention to the details, you will wind up with an in-vehicle audio/video entertainment system that matches your needs and is a joy to use.