compatible, pocket-sized PC-Cards are an enormous boost to the portable
by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published
in Business in
Vancouver , Issue #318 November 28, 1995 High Tech
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.
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.)
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
compatible. And these changes, along with the booming market for
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
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
is equally adept. Unfortunately, while the built-in support for
is a big plus for these operating systems, too many portables have
been sold (and are still being sold) with only four megabytes of
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.
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.
now buy PC-Card
network adapters, SCSI adapters, hard drives, memory cards, and even
sound adapters and video-input devices.
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
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.
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.