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Four Geeky Gadgets You Can Plug into Your Minivan


My family is growing. So, this Father’s Day weekend, I bought my first new minivan. I know, I know, this isn’t the kind of topic our readers expect from a “check out my groovy new gadgets” post. I admit, when I first became a motorist about 13 years ago, I couldn’t imagine a vehicle more uncool than a minivan (the Segway hadn’t hit the market yet).  But now that I’m actually a minivan owner, I have to say, there’s some cool stuff inside.

This is the first time I’ve purchased a new vehicle, and I was pleasantly surprised to see quite an array of ports, plugs and interfaces for various gadgets. For most people, this means plugging in your smartphone to listen to your music or make hands-free calls. But after a bit of tinkering, I found four additional groovy uses for the 16.4-inch color display, RCA jacks, two 120V AC power outlets, DVD player, USB port and wireless headphones that come with my new Toyota Sienna’s Dual-View Entertainment Center.

It turns out you can plug more than just your phone into your car. Here are a few gadgets you should try:

A USB Drive Full of MP3s

Why do you have a brand new minivan, but a iphone 3gs? I don't know.Almost all new cars today will come with a USB port. “For your iPhone,” say all the ads. What they really want you to do is to sign up for their paid subscription-based “car apps”  service, that lets you use things like Pandora and OpenTable from your dashboard (instead of just using your phone). Toyota’s version of that is called Entune. Honda has HondaLink and Ford has Ford Sync. But what the ads don’t usually tell you is that you can use that same USB port to plug in any mass USB storage device and play your MP3s right off of that. Just load it up with properly tagged music files and plug it in.

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The functionality of using a flash drive for music in your car isn’t much different from using a smartphone. You’ll be able to browse by artist and album and view song information. But there are a few benefits to using a USB mass storage device instead of your iPhone. First, it frees you up from having to tether your phone to your car. Or worse, eat up your battery sending audio over Bluetooth. Second, you can usually cram a lot more onto a 32 GB flash drive (which you can get for under $25) than a smartphone, since you won’t be competing with apps and videos for space. Overall, it’s a much more efficient way of playing MP3 files (or M4A or WMA) through your car stereo.


When I discovered the first trick, I felt pretty clever. But then I realized that there was no USB port left to charge my phone. So, I tried something: I took an old USB hub and plugged it into the USB port on the console. Then, I plugged my phone and my USB drive into the hub. As expected, both the phone and the USB powered up. But to my surprise, the car detected both the phone and the contents of the USB storage. Although I could only play songs off the USB storage, the phone’s data connection with the Toyota Entune app still worked.

Your mileage may vary depending on the type of USB hub you are using. I used a Belkin USB 2.0 4-Port Ultra-Mini Hub that I bought over five years ago and it works fine. The only caveat is that the phone will probably charge more slowly than if you plugged it in directly. But for long car rides, this should be a non-issue. And as an added bonus, there are additional ports to charge other devices.

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Raspberry Pi

tiny computer, giant van

My Toyota Sienna XLE has a split-screen rear entertainment system. You can play a DVD on one side and then input from another A/V source via RCA jacks. This is consistent with a few other minivan rear entertainment systems I looked at as well—one DVD player, and another auxiliary video input using the red, yellow and white RCA plugs. The intention is for you to plug in another portable DVD player or a video game system, like an Xbox or a PlayStation. But the reality of the situation is that modern console gaming systems are pretty power hungry. Even the 120V outlet on a minivan may not be a good enough power supply for a console, due to lack of wattage. Overloading the outlet may cause damage, overheating and personal injury. Consider yourself warned. Plus, there’s the obvious issue of bumps in the road causing issues with your discs (built-in CD and DVD players are usually designed for minor shocks—but an Xbox, Wii or PlayStation was never meant to be played in motion).

But when I saw those RCA inputs, it made me think of one thing: the RCA video out on my Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi, a credit card-sized $25 ARM-based Linux computer, takes as much power to run as your cell phone does to charge. And because it runs off an SD card, there are no moving parts.  I plugged mine in and it fired up on the split-screen just fine. To get audio, you’d need to use a 3.5 mm mini stereo plug to RCA cable. But after that, all you need is a USB gamepad and RetroPie and you can play your favorite NES, SNES and other retro console games.

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for people who want to spend $35,000 on a car and $35 on a computer

Of course, you can also use your Pi to play videos, music and other multimedia you have preloaded onto an SD card or USB drive. Try Raspbmc for that one.

Older iPod, iPad and iPhone Models

apple av composite cable

Don’t want to go through all the DIY hackery of a Raspberry Pi? Your iPad or iPhone can also play audio and video to the RCA input on a rear entertainment system. You’ll need the Apple Composite AV Cable, which will set you back around $39.

If you have a spare iPad or iPhone, this is a good way to play videos in the back for the kids, especially if you don’t have them on DVD.

The big caveat: starting with iPhone 5 and the 4th generation iPad (including the iPad Mini), the composite AV cable no longer works. That’s because the TV out adapter now goes to HDMI instead of composite plugs. Certain iPod touch models work, but check the compatibility listing on the Apple product page before buying.


I’ve owned this minivan for all of two days, and I still haven’t taken it on a road trip with kids old enough to appreciate the multimedia overload yet. But I’m seeing lots of geeky potential here, not just for minivans, but for all cars with USB connectivity, AC outlets, Bluetooth, etc.

Got a groovy car gadget tip? Share it in the comments.

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30 Responses to Four Geeky Gadgets You Can Plug into Your Minivan

  1. Steve Krause June 17, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    Now that’s how a groovy Dad rolls in a mini-van baby! Wow, that’s quite a few hacks just a few days in. I love it!

    Love the Raspberry Pi Split screen… Let me know once your kid breaks into the Nav system.

    Great tip on the USB hub. Never thought to give that one a try. That’s a great idea. Going to give it a shot…. (not that I have a mini-van….)


  2. Ryan June 18, 2013 at 8:45 am #

    I just got a Sienna last month. My kids are 4 and 2 so we just utilize the DVD for now…I can’t wait to mess with your suggestions! Thanks Jack. PS, I am from Altoona, PA not too far from you!

  3. Luke July 4, 2014 at 5:12 am #

    We’er had our Sienna for almost 2 years and have loved the entertainment system. I came across your post when I was checking to see if anyone had run a video projector from the DVD. Parking parallel to any flat surface (ie a building) I plan to put the projector on the roof and sit-about in front of the sliding door. Not sure if the unit has a video out and you brought up a great point about power… may need to add an inverter somewhere.

  4. Mike October 13, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    Great article! I have 4yr old twins, and am tired of lugging armfulls of DVD’s on weekend errands, or longer trips to visit grandparents. I’m really interested in using the Raspberry Pi to play a bunch of movies I already have placed on an SD card. I have an older Sienna, but the DVD system looks similar to yours…RCA inputs on the one side.

    How did you manage to provide power to the Pi – did you have to keep it plugged into the aux outlet in the van? I’ve not used a Pi before – but this seems like a great time to try! Any other tips for setting it up?

  5. Bridget February 26, 2015 at 7:01 am #

    Have you done anything with that SD card slot that is just to the left of the touch screen? I have the same minivan and am trying to figure out how to best use that. I am thinking about loading some songs to it, but I like your idea of using a USB drive for that purpose. Thanks for the helpful posting!

  6. robin February 26, 2015 at 3:44 pm #

    hi. In your article you mention using iPad or iPhone can also play audio and video to the RCA input on a rear entertainment system. i have the cable, and it plays video and sound but we can’t use the wireless head seats for the ipad movies – only the dvd – no sound comes through the wireless earphones that came with the car. do you have any suggestions for syncing these to the RCA system? thanks!

  7. Luke February 26, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

    that’s a great point about the headphones we had not discovered that issue yet. It sounds like the headphones play from the entertainment system’s DVD player only. On a related note, make sure your kids know how to toggle between display modes on the screen btw, wide screen on that monitor is astounding!

    • Robert March 5, 2015 at 1:40 pm #

      Wireless Headphones have channel select button on them so you can switch from A to B.

      Plugs for headphones in 3rd row also have A/B switch on them.

      no need to worry about what side you want to watch…. as you can get the audio from either side pretty easily!

  8. Jared April 2, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

    Robert…we have a 2012 XLE and our wireless headphones do not provide audio when an iPad is connected to the Video ports on the center console. It only works with DVDs being played.

    Any pointers?

    Thanks – Jared

  9. robert April 2, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    Jared, from playing around between our old 2009 & 2014 sienna, wireless headphones appear to be made only for whatever is playing thru back system (DVD or VGA in port)….will not transfer audio from front system.. We tried playing mp4 via ACC port in front ..we could get video but not audio…but we did bypass that by using Bluetooth connection but was super complicated and did not last after one movie/episode… One final comment/thought… You said you tried via your iPad… Are you using a HDMI cable? That, obviously, has both video/audio and if you plug the not back VGA ports, you will get video+audio to wireless headsets… But it will coat you $50 for digital HDMI to analog VGA converter box..

  10. Jared April 2, 2015 at 5:15 pm #


    I have an iPad 2 connected via RCA ports to the center console (Audio + Video) and the iPad RCA cables USB cable is plugged into the USB port close to the floor in the front of the van so the iPad stays charged.

    I get audio on the wide screen in back but audio only comes out the Siena’s speaker system. No matter what channel, 1 or 2, the wireless headphones are on there is no audio when playing media through the RCA connections.

  11. robert April 2, 2015 at 5:50 pm #

    Jared, Yes..sounds exactly like me when I started this!! Haha… I am guessing on the “why”… Remember, front stereo does NOT share or stream to wireless headsets…consider it a 2nd stereo and not wired together…. Front stereo can hear DVD player OR bypass to hear FM, AM, Aux or SAT while DVD continues to play…only thru this DVD or aux inputs can you get audio to stream to wireless headsets… Soooo, either hardwire (via back of unit) a port to accept sound into DVD player (kind of like your iPod into stereo)…or get the video+audio into center console rca ports….
    When you said sound is coming out your main car stereo, it tells me you have the audio being sent into the front usb port…probably the same cable you are charging from?? Or perhaps via BT ?? Either way, audio is going to front system… You will never get that feed back into wireless headsets…
    As far as my research went (sorry, not iPads… Only android/win tablets & laptops) no CABLE would take tablets HDMI/mini-hdmi feed and convert into analog rca ports …. They all required converter boxes! I think this is why you are getting video on back screen but not audio…as your iPad is processing video only thru cable (losing audio part) and processing audio via charging cable to front usb/aux (acting like your iPad is an only!)…
    If you are in NJ or nyc, I can let you borrow my converter box and see if that solves your issue ..
    Again, not sure how iPad’s work but sounds exactly like what happened to me when I first started this with my Samsung tablet/PC….

  12. Jared April 2, 2015 at 6:02 pm #


    You are a rockstar!!!! I have the Apple Composite AV cable and I disconnected the USB cable from that at the front of the van and magic….we have audio over the wireless headsets (5) and the cabin is quiet again. 🙂 I have that USB cable plugged into another USB device to maintain power to the iPod. I never dreamed audio would be running over the USB cable.

  13. robert April 2, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

    Sweet!!! Well done!! Enjoy the quiet or whatever music YOU like to hear while the kids watch theirs with headsets!! Haha.

  14. Allan June 25, 2015 at 5:43 am #

    So I have a new Honday Odyssey Elite with the wide dual screen entertainment system and the kids are loving it. Given I had an older Roku laying around I tried installing it in the vehicle and it works like a charm using my phone unlimited data plan using the FoxFi app as a wifi hotspot. Vudu collection, Netflix, HBOGo, etc are all now available on demand for long trips (although the kids want them on even for the short trips up to the grocery store)

  15. Ravi November 29, 2015 at 7:22 am #

    Hi, I have a 2015 Honda Odyssey EXL with RES that has no HDMI connector. How can I stream my phone and/or videos on a SD card over the DVD player.

    Is there a device that can be connected to the RCA jacks in the back of the van to which I can connect my phone to stream videos over the in-van DVD player?

    Thanking you in advance.

    • Usha January 19, 2016 at 8:54 am #

      Hi Ravi,

      Did you get this working ? were you able to stream video from your phones to the RES system?

  16. Zubair January 10, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

    Loved this article by Jack as well as the comment section that was equally good. I have been trolling the net for ideas how to connect my iPhone 6 to my 2014 Sienna’s dvd system. DVDs have been piling up.

    Loved this USB port trick.

    Raspberry Pi trick looks great but superfluous I guess if I get my iPhone 6 to connect.

    So it seems it’s tricky to connect an iPhone 6 to rca. I’m thinking of getting the apple lightning hdmi connector and then an hdmi to AV splitter to do the trick. Older iPhones had the luxury of the proprietary Apple composite cable.

    Is there an easier way of doing this?

    Also you don’t need usb connection to connect entune. Bluetooth is enough for me.

    Thanks for a great thread!!

  17. Allison January 25, 2016 at 3:24 pm #

    We have a Honda Odyssey and I am trying to play movies and Netflix from my iPhone 6 to the rear entertainment tv. There is an AUX port at the front of my van and the RCA inputs in the back (red, yellow and white). Does anyone know how to hook this up? We have a road trip coming up!

  18. robert January 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm #

    your front AUX port is music only.. you cannot put Video thru that.

    at last check, you must use 1 of 2 things — Apple’s proprietary A/V cable OR buy a digital to Analog convertor box ($50-60 range)….

    you cannot stream yet so don’t even try!haha… My suggestion for ease AND to enable use of phone during trip is….
    1. acquire cable or box as described above
    2. get a non-ground (2prong) extension cord — for convertor box and chargers
    3. turn on/pair your iPhone with Front Bluetooth — enabling calling during trip without holding phone
    4. put your phone in back (so kids can control what they watch)… plugging into USB port or extension cord as described in #2 above…. otherwise your phone will die by lunchtime! (ha) …
    5. plug phone into Converter box or Apple a/v cable …. plug analog RCA cables from OUT (box) into RCA plugs in back….
    ** This setup will give both Video AND Audio (as playing a DVD) in the Back section …. if you have the wireless headsets, you can listen to music via Audio (front stereo control) and kids can watch/listen via headsets to their movies…..

    Re: Streaming Netflix while moving…. I have done this and had mixed results pending area … so have a backup plan (downloaded movie files, etc..) for when you hit areas without good enough reception ….

    good luck!

  19. Zubair January 25, 2016 at 6:24 pm #

    So here’s what I ordered

    Planning to use this cable plus an apple lightning converter cable. Will post when everything arrives. It seems like a solution with less clutter.

    Total cost less than $100 For my xle Sienna.

    • Zubair January 29, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

      OK! The cable linked above works like a charm. Did notice some drop from perfect hi-def quality, washed out image and some text appears unclear, but it does work. This cable needs the usb plugged in. Its short though and I happened to have a usb extender cable lying around and out that to good use (I ordered a usb hub as well and plan to use it as shown in the article above. My next plan is to use appletv. Will let you guys know how that went…!

      • json May 5, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

        how did you use an appletv in the sienna?

  20. Jrolen February 25, 2016 at 10:06 am #

    We just purchased a 2016 limited sienna with rear DVD an nav. I’m trying to play the DVD on the nave screen but no luck even with the parking brake on. Any suggestions? Thanks

    • robert February 25, 2016 at 1:39 pm #

      with 2014 and newer, I noticed the system much more complicated than 2009 era…. anyway, if you are playing DVD via Front dvd player/system AND parking brake engaged , you still have to select DVD on front panel to show on Front NAvi Screen…. older models auto played the DVD once you hit the Parking brake but these models now make you select on screen also….

      if you hit the DISC/AUX button, it should rotate thru a few options… once you get to DVD, it should be showing….


  21. Jrolen February 25, 2016 at 3:27 pm #

    All I have for an option is “rear” the disc/aux isn’t highlighted. Thanks for the reply

  22. Jrolen February 25, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

    I took a pic but I’m not fit sure how to put it on here

  23. robert February 25, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Not the “audio” button…
    You should have a DISC-AUX Button on top left of screen….right below volume knob…. No??

  24. Jrolen February 25, 2016 at 3:50 pm #

    It might have changed in 2016. My volume control is on the very bottom left corner

  25. Jared April 17, 2016 at 11:09 am #

    Hello we have a 2016 sienna se premium and although you said the Xbox doesn’t rally work we have a Xbox one and the games are uploaded into the Xbox so there is no skipping issues. My question is there a power converter I can get that my son will be able to use it without causing damage to the car? We used the Xbox as well as a 29″tv with a converter and it worked fine for a3 hour trip but this latest trip the 12 volt plug in speed working and it doesn’t look like it’s a fuse.

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