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    More universally compatible, pocket-sized PC-Cards are an enormous boost to the portable PC market

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #318  November 28, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Portable computers are hot--they currently represent 25 per cent of all computer sales, and all indications are that this percentage will continue to grow. But one of the big drawbacks to portables has been the lack of a standard way to add features. My desktop computer, for example, now has a sound card, a CD-ROM, a modem, and a scanner all added onto the standard unit. Portables don't have standard cases with add-in slots, so adding extra features has been problematic. For example, if you needed a modem, it either meant a slow-performing, high-priced one that was typically brand-specific, or hauling along an external modem. And since many portables lack high-speed 16550 serial ports, you could have had problems getting the best performance, especially under environments like Windows or OS/2. Mini-modems were a step in the right direction--at least they were tiny outboard units--but they were high-priced and had the same serial port problems.

    In 1989, the PC Memory Card International Association came up with a standard for credit-card sized memory cards for portables, called PCMCIA cards. Although it quickly became apparent that they could be used for more than just memory cards, it took a while for the standard to catch on. Early cards had problems with compatibility, and required software drivers that ate a lot of conventional memory. And again, the relatively small market for these products meant users were forced to pay relatively high prices. (The ungainly acronym didn't help matters either.)

    Fortunately, most of these problems have disappeared. Virtually all portables sold today sport slots for the recently renamed PC-Cards. Revisions to the PC-Card standards have resulted in hardware and software that is more universally compatible. And these changes, along with the booming market for portables, have driven down prices. Advanced operating systems really give these components a boost: both OS/2 Warp and Windows 95 feature built-in support for PC-Cards. With Windows 95, for example, it is a simple matter of turning on the PC-Card support through a Control Panel icon. After that, when a card is inserted for the first time, it is automatically recognized, and you're prompted to allow Windows to load the drivers. Then, a few seconds after inserting the card, a tiny PC-Card icon appears on the TaskBar, and you're ready to go. The first time you see it, it's an almost magical example of Plug and Play at work. Warp support is equally adept. Unfortunately, while the built-in support for PC-Cards is a big plus for these operating systems, too many portables have been sold (and are still being sold) with only four megabytes of RAM--too little to run Windows 95 or Warp very well. And portable RAM is still pricier than desktop RAM--often requiring tiny cards specific to your model, which makes it expensive and more difficult to upgrade.

    PC-Card support is even built into some of IBM's newest desktop machines, or can be added to existing desktop hardware. Even Apple is getting into the act, adding PC-Card slots to some of the latest PowerBooks.

    You can now buy PC-Card network adapters, SCSI adapters, hard drives, memory cards, and even sound adapters and video-input devices.

    But the most common of all are PC-Card modems, either in the budget-priced 14.4 kbs speed, or the twice-as-fast 28.8 kbs speed. After all, one of the big justifications for portables is for communicating when you're on the road, in a hotel, at home, in somebody else's office, even on vacation. And for those of us who are used to being able to send e-mail, connect to the Web, send a fax, or even connect into the office's network, that means a high-speed modem.

    The first time you see a PC-Card modem, be prepared to be amazed. Roughly the size of a Visa card, though about twice as thick, it's a thin shell jam-packed with all the micro-components contained in a standard fax-modem. An obvious question is, where do you stick the phone plug, in something so tiny? Different manufacturers have come up with different solutions. Megahertz, for example, features an "X-Jack," a phone jack that pops out from within the card itself. And if that sounds too fragile, another one exists which uses a plug-in adapter cord (lose it and you're out of business, at least until a replacement can be couriered.) Still, the technology works surprisingly well, and, when combined with a portable with enough RAM to run a high-powered operating system like Win95 or Warp, dramatically improves the usability of your portable computer.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan