Add a dual screen iPod video system to your car for under $200 - Macenstein

Add a dual screen iPod video system to your car for under $200

Posted by Dr. Macenstein

A couple weeks back we did a review of the DLO TransDock, and I mentioned I had set up a sort of “poor man’s” iPod video system to my car which did not have a built-in DVD entertainment system. We received an overwhelming response (well, 1 reader, actually) from readers asking for more details on my solution. So, here are the basic steps as to how to recreate my dual screen iPod video system for under $200.

[Note: This all assumes you already own a video iPod. If not, the cost of this system goes up rather dramatically]

Above: The finished result. A few more wires visible than a factory ordered model, but about 10% of the cost as well. Doesn’t look all that bad. If I cared a little more, I could easily wrap the wires together and make a slightly nicer presentation, but this is currently meant to entertain a 3 and 5-year-old, and they do not notice such things.

The most important (and expensive) part of the system is of course the video screens. Personally, since I have 2 kids to entertain, I decided to opt for a dual screen system, which adds a bit more expense and cabling than a 1 screen solution. The most important thing to keep in mind when choosing your screens is that you need a model with an audio/video input. Given the price range we’re working in, it isn’t all that surprising to find out that many do not, as these are designed to pretty much play DVDs on one screen, and then mirror the output on the other screen. The tricky part is, even some systems that DO have AV inputs do not list them in the descriptions online or on the box.

On the night before a big road trip I went out to Target and Circuit City and bought 3 different dual screen systems. When I got home and checked out what the various inputs/outputs were like, I returned two and ended up keeping the RCA DRC629N model. It was on sale for $140 at Circuit City at the time (I mistakenly said I got it at Target in the review). It doesn’t seem to be available online anymore, but call your local store. Additionally it is on eBay now for around $150 if you want my exact model.

Above: I used a 7-inch dual screen model from RCA, but you can use pretty much any model that has AV inputs. A single screen solution will likely cost less and be easier to cable.

The RCA model is a decent unit. The picture is soft, and nothing a true videophile is going to go nuts over, but it is slightly better than you would expect for a $140 unit with a DVD player and two 7-inch LCD screens. You can certainly spend more on other units, but I found most systems fell within $20 of this price range. And to be honest, I am never going to watch these things; they are for the kids, and they are young enough at the moment that they don’t care about such foreign concepts as “picture quality”. The screens seemed bright enough to be viewable during the day, and since I was setting up two screens (one behind each headrest) the viewing angle was not an issue, although it was decent as well.

Each screen comes with velcro straps which you use to attach the screens to the back of the front seat headrests. This is not as nice looking as built-to-order solutions where the screens are mounted inside the headrests, but it is also about 10x-12x cheaper.

Above: The screens attach to the back of most headrests via velcro straps. I had no problem using these, and I did not notice them being uncomfortable. (Actually, my head doesn’t come in contact with the headrest when I drive). Women or men with long hair could conceivably get their hair caught in the velcro I suppose, but my wife has thus far not during some 30 hours of driving with these, so I think you’re safe.

Technical hurdles

The main technical hurdles you will face is the challenge of routing not only audio and video to the screens, but also power. How expensive and complicated your cabling ends up being depends on the type of screens you buy, the types of cables you already own, and how your car’s electrical outlets (ie cigarette adapters) are configured.

Above: You can see that the RCA unit I chose has a port that serves as both the AV in and out. This means to get video to both screens, I had to split my signal.

The first thing you’ll need to do is get the video out of your iPod. I happen to already own an iPod AV cable that I bought on Amazon a year ago. If you have a mini DV camcorder, odds are you already have a cable that will work. Basically, it has a mini AV jack on one end, and then 3 RCA (aka composite, aka the “red”, “white” and “yellow”) jacks on the other end. The only difference between a cable calling itself an iPod video cable and a standard mini AV to RCA cable is the order of the colored stickers. If you are using the mini DV camcorder’s cable, just swap the red and yellow connectors, and you can watch your iPod on your TV screen (or use it in our scenario). Right now you can find both iPod video cables and Stereo Audio/Video Camcorder Cables on Amazon or Radio Shack for $1.14 to $9.99-ish (note, I bought the $1.14 one from Amazon, and I do not recommend it. It takes a great deal of fiddling to get the perfect connection).

OK, so you have your system and a video cable for about $150. Next, you’ll need to take a look at your screens and map out a cabling scheme. In my case, since I have two screens to feed, I wanted to take those 3 RCA jacks coming off my iPod video cable, and split each one so I would have a left audio, right audio, and a video signal going to each screen. To do that, I had to buy a bunch of specific RCA splitters (3 to be exact). I was amazed at how hard it was to find these. What I needed was three 1-female to 2-female Y-connectors, and apparently no one else on the planet ever needs this type of split. You will find a ton of 1-female to 2-male, and 1-male to 2-females, but 1-female to 2-female Y cables are almost impossible to find. I ended up finding some at B&H Photo online, and they ran a reasonable $2.99 each. The good thing about the RCA standard is the same splitter can split an audio feed or a video feed, so you can order 3 of the same. Since I had to order those, on our first car trip we had to make due with only one screen working.

So, once the Y-adapters arrived, I split each of the red and white (audio), and yellow (video) RCA cables into 2 outputs. The next step was to rejoin each new set of split RCAs and feed them to each screen. The model of screens I used each had a separate video and audio input. The video was a mini video, and the audio is a standard stereo mini headphone input. I happen to have a ton of cables that I could use (these seem to accumulate every time I bought a new video card or TV and they all get tossed in my inextricably tangled AV box), so I was able to re-patch these without spending any extra money. Of course, neither set matches, and if I wanted to make it all nice and pretty I could go to Radio Shack and buy the exact cables needed (these cables Radio Shack DOES have in stock). What you need are 2 sets of 2-male RCA (the red and white) to stereo mini (for the audio) and then 2 sets of RCA video (yellow) to mini video adapter (to plug in the video).

Above: The final “beautiful” cabling job. You can see that since I used existing cables I had, the left side uses a single cable that combined the 3 RCA connectors into one mini video and 1 mini stereo audio, where on the right I had to make do with 2 cables, a RCA video to mini video, and a RCA stereo audio to stereo mini cable.

You can see in the above picture, I happen to have a cable that did the RCA to stereo audio and mini video at the top in one nice cable, and at the bottom I needed to use 2 separate found cables to do the same job.


OK, in theory now we can just plug one of each set into each screen and we have our video. However, we need to power these screens as well, and the unit only ships with one car power adapter. The way the unit is designed to work is there is a proprietary cable that transmits audio, video and power from the main unit (which plugs in the car’s AC adapter) to the secondary screen. Now, if I didn’t care about the looks of the units, I could still use this cable to transmit power by just plugging in the power portion of the cable, and then angling it in such a way as the other AV connectors are not plugged in, thus allowing me to insert our newly paired off sets of AV cables we made. But as it stands, I felt buying another car AC adapter was in order. Radio Shack has these as well for about $20, and they come with a range of tips that fit most devices. I would recommend having the folks at Radio Shack look at the electrical requirements of your screens and set it for you to minimize the risk of blowing a screen with the wrong amperage. But as I said, this is an optional step, as (at least with my particular model) I did not HAVE to do this to get the system running, it just looked neater.

Above: The proprietary plug that came with my unit is designed to transmit video, audio, and power from the main screen to the secondary screen. You can see the Power plug at the bottom is positioned far enough from the audio and video ports that it allows me to turn the plug, and bring power from the main unit to the secondary unit without having to plug in the audio and video jacks. That way I can use my new cables to route the AV, and just use this for power.

My car also happened to include two AC outlets in the front seat, and many newer cars do. If your car only has a single outlet, then you’ll find you also may have to buy an AC splitter as well. This is about $4.99 at Radio Shack.


If you aren’t all that strapped for cash, there are a couple other things you may want. First, I like using the TransDock (or something similar). Using it, you could broadcast the audio from your video to your car’s sound system, which makes for a much better audio experience than relying on the audio delivered from the puny speakers located on the 2 RCA screens (plus it will charge your iPod as well). In fact, I would recommend this, as on the highway, you’ll find that road noise may be too loud for the puny speakers on the screens to compete with. (One suggestion, if you are having trouble hearing your videos due to wind/road noise, I found selecting all your videos in iTunes, and then doing a “get info” on them and boosting their volume there to 100% helped out. How much to boost depends on the source of your videos. Most of ours are recorded from Eye TV off a Dish Network System, and the audio seems to come in a little low.)

However, if you do not wish to opt for an iPod docking cradle with FM broadcasting capabilities, you could also opt to just plug headphones into the screens (each screen has its own headphone jack). Also, many cars (including mine) have the AUX input in their stereo, and you can optionally split just the video and send that to the two screens, and then join the audio and send that to your AUX input. This again will deliver much louder and clearer sound, and minimize cable clutter.

Above: The front seat is a lot less pretty than the back… In reality, you can tuck most of these wires away, I just thought I’d show it for shock value.

So there you have it. Obviously, this is just an outline, and the fewer screens you need, the cheaper and less ugly the end results will be. I found I was able to tuck most stray cables in between seats to minimize the kids accidentally kicking them and knocking them loose. The final result is not nearly as nice or seamless looking as the factory installed entertainment systems many cars ship with, but this also does not add $2000-$4000 to the price of my car either. Plus, I do not want screens in my car for daily driving, as I know my kids would want to watch TV on even a short trip to the store. We use our system only as a sanity-keeping device on long trips at the moment. One final word of caution, once you patch together your Frankenstein’s monster of a cabling job, odds are you’ll not want to ever disconnect it, since it is a pain in the ass to rebuild. So if you are stealing cables from somewhere else (like the mini DV camcorder) be sure you can spare the cable.

DVD player/screens: = $140-$150
Y-Splitters (x3) = $2.99
iPod video cable = $9.99
Various other RCA cables = $30
Total = approximately $189-$199 (tax not included)

Power splitter = $4.99
Extra Car AC adapter = $20
TransDock (or similar) = $99

4 Responses to “Add a dual screen iPod video system to your car for under $200”
  1. HomunculusAvatar says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your experience. You just saved me so much time, money and frustration. Speaking of which, my wife thanks you too. ; )

  2. Pharoah6905 says:

    What an amazing, lengthy, detailed, yet informative post! I like the fact that you included so much detail to make it possible for even a non-technical person to follow along and do it themselves. Even though I already had an idea of how this could be done, it is still nice to have proof that it works, and a guide to save me from making some silly mistakes. Maybe someday when I have the money (and someone to sit in the back seat and watch it) I’ll try this out in my Saab 9-3 and let you know how it works. Once again, excellent post and keep up the great work.

  3. WildDenali says:

    This is just about what I was plannning to do when my Best Buy branded “Insignia” dual-screen DVD system went belly-up. Actually, just the $3 8-pin DIN cable (which sent power, video and audio from the DVD player to the dual LCD screens) was the part that went bad. The cable is almost exactly like the old mac printer serial cables, but with a different pin-out configuration. Obviously I did try Mac serial printer cables, which didn’t work. I couldn’t find the exact replacement part anywhere, not even from Best Buy or Insignia directly. So I was down to using one screen. And then finally, I spilled soda into the cheap portable DVD player (with those proprietary DIN connectors) and that was that. No more mobile video.

    Until I started planning exactly what you did! I’m about to buy an 80GB refurbished video iPod from Apple’s store, and I’ve been looking for the power cables on Radio Shack’s website. It’s amazing that we both came up with this idea around the same time. Necessity is the mother of invention, I suppose.

    I plan on using the DLO TransDock to feed the video to an RCA dual splitter to feed both monitors. Then feed power using a Radio Shack power adapter on one side and the included adapter on the other.

  4. P says:

    I did the exact same thing, Brought 20 videos on family vacation for the kids. Used my 2 DVD system that the DVD player died on. works amazing.
    What I want is to have the video play on the Ipod AND on video out at the same time!!!

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