Inexpensive DIY Rear-Seat Entertainment Systems
Automakers charge a lot of money for optional rear-seat entertainment systems, with prices ranging up to thousands of dollars. But if you'll only be entertaining the backseat passengers (kids) once in a while (on long road trips), there are much less expensive alternatives: do-it-yourself systems that you can install only when needed.
Some accommodate those now old-fashioned DVDs you may have collected. Others connect to smartphone, tablet or other portable devices that can stream or store downloaded videos. And nearly all are easy to set up––although, unlike those rear-seat entertainment systems built in at the factory, they will tend to clutter the vehicle's interior with dangling cables and velcro.
Here are our picks of the newest and easiest to install do-it-yourself rear-seat entertainment systems to consider for your next road trip.
Even if your car doesn't have a built-in entertainment system, you can still add high-end video entertainment to your vehicle. The easiest (and cheapest) option is to use your existing iPad or Android tablet and a tablet mount that attaches a tablet to the back of a front-seat headrest. This makes for easy hands-free watching, especially if kids are sharing the screen.
Our favorite is the iKross Car Headrest Mount Holder, which is easily adjustable to fit different cars and different tablets. Mount it directly behind the headrest for single-passenger viewing or use the extender so multiple passengers can see. The mount will fit tablets between 7 inches and 10 inches, including the iPad Air, iPad mini, Kindle Fire HD 10, Samsung Galaxy Tab and many others. If you don't take frequent road trips, the price is definitely right for this mount, which will only set you back about $20.
The downside to using your tablet in the car is that it's still a tablet; the touchscreen interface can be awkward to reach on the road, especially for smaller kids. If you want a more TV-like experience (or just more entertainment options), we recommend swapping out your car's headrests for ones with built-in monitors, like these Pyle Headrests with Built-In LCD Monitors.
This pair of monitors costs $117 and gives you all the entertainment you need, including two screens that can play video from different sources, though it's up to you to provide the source. You can use any video player with a composite output—a DVD player, older iOS devices with 30-pin connectors (with a Composite AV Cable $17.99 on Amazon) or even an older video game console—to keep multiple kids entertained at the same time. And for ease of use, each monitor has its own remote. For those with a smartphone with a micro-HDMI out (you'll need a micro-HDMI to HDMI cable, which is $6.50 on Amazon) or another component with an HDMI output, try the 10.1-inch Full-HD NAVISKAUTO CH1003B ($145.99 on Amazon).
Endless entertainment streaming
There's no easy or cheap way to stream Netflix on long road trips; even with access to 4G LTE networks, you're likely to get choppy video. For movies and TV shows, you'll need to pack your own videos.
Our favorite option for digital video is the Seagate Wireless Plus system, a portable hard drive with 500GB to 2TB of storage that can be used to stream music, movies and TV shows to tablets, smartphones and laptops.
The drive is capable of streaming to three different devices at a time via built-in WiFi with a battery that lasts up to 10 hours, making it an ideal companion for long road trips. Prices start at $107 for the 500GB version and go up to $180 for the 2TB version, an excellent investment for regular road-trippers.
Easy listening with headphones for everyone
If you have a car full of people all trying to watch or listen to different things at the same time, expect family harmony to fade fast.
Solve this problem in advance by making sure everyone has their own headphones and headphone splitters so the entire car can share or listen alone whenever they like.
Let two people listen to music, movies or television on one tablet with a simple headphone jack splitter like the iLuv Splitter Adapter for $6. This adapter plugs into any standard 3.5mm audio jack and lets you connect and independently control the volume for two sets of headphones. The kids can watch their favorite cartoons, and you can drive on in blissful peace and quiet. Or if your child has a friend along and they want to be able to chat with other friends, there's the giik PartyTalk headset splitter with dual mic and volume controls ($25).
For headphones for the kids, the Puro Sound Labs BT2200 ($79.99 on Amazon) are a great choice, offering volume control that prevents the sound from getting too loud for young ears. They're comfortable for long wear and come in an attractive sliver/white, black/cblack or tan/gold that are sure to please even style-conscious teens. Or, if you have a built-in system that supports wireless IR headphones, like the Pyle headrests, the 2-Channel Autotain Cloud Universal Wired and Wireless Car Headphones are a great option at $23.
Adults might want higher-end sound and noise cancellation capable of blocking out even the worst road trip annoyances.
Our favorite is the Philips Fidelio NC1 Noise-Canceling Headphones ($292.80 on Amazon), which use active noise blocking to make your trip as peaceful as possible. They're an investment, but serious audiophiles (especially those who travel a lot) will definitely appreciate them.
If you don't like the over-ear style of the Monster headphones or don't like their high price tag, we're also fans of the Audio Technica QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling In-Ear Headphones, which offer solid noise cancellation for only $55.
Stay connected with Wi-Fi on the go
WiFi can be hard to come by when you're on the road. Although most of us can turn our smartphones into wireless hotspots, that can gobble up your data plan in no time. Sprint’s Alcatel Ride-Fi draws power from your car's cigarette lighter socket and shares a single Internet connection with to up to eight devices. If one of your mobile devices runs out of power, you can charge it via the Ride-Fi’s USB port. The device itself costs $168, and a monthly data subscription costs $35 for 3GB of data.
The ZTE Mobley on AT&T goes into the OBD-II port of your vehicle, so make sure your car has one before you buy; if your car was made in 1996 or later, it most likely has an OBD-II port. The Mobley shares with up to five devices. The device costs $99. If you have an existing subscription with AT&T, you can add it to your Mobile Share Data plan for $10; otherwise, you can subscribe to AT&T’s DataConnect plan ($30 monthly for 3GB).
Get both Wi-Fi connectivity and car diagnostic monitoring in one device with the Zubie + In-Car WiFi. The device monitors your car's performance and provides Internet connectivity through Verizon. The device costs $99.95 plus a monthly access fee of $10 if you have a data plan, or you can subscribe to a Verizon data plan, starting at $30 monthly for 4GB.
Power your gadgets
Even the best gadgets will run out of battery life with heavy use, so be prepared to keep your collection of high-tech entertainment gadgets charged up. There's no better or easier answer than a cigarette lighter USB charger. The Anker PowerDrive+ 2 with Quick Charge 3.0 dual USB Car Charger ($25) plugs into your car's cigarette lighter and charges two devices—tablets and smartphones—at the same time. The Quick Charge 3.0 port charges compatible devices to 80 percent in just 35 minutes and the Power IQ port is backward compatible with Quick Charge 2.0 devices.
With all of these tech-cessories, you can look forward to a fun and happy time on the road for everyone.
Updated on 5/24/2016
[happy kids in car via Shutterstock]