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REVIEWS: I/O Cards

REVIEWS: I/O Cards

That little slot on the side of your Palmtop can be used for more than storing data. PCMCIA Input/Output cards let you send faxes, interface with BBSs, link up to a LAN, and more.

By Mark V. Scardina

Over the past two years, I have written several articles here on the use of memory cards on the 95LX and 100LX. With the proliferation of notebook, sub-notebook, and palmtop PCs with PCMCIA slots, new options have begun appearing. A whole new class of card is now available that can handle data input and output, I/O, with the outside world. To fully understand both the capabilities as well as the limitations of these new cards, we need to go into a little history of their development.

The History of PCMCIA Development

When the PCMCIA standard was first released as a 1.0 specification, the HP 95LX was already well on its way to market. This standard not only defined the physical specifications of the card, but its use as a data storage device as well. Since HP was on this standards committee, the 95LX ultimately came to market with a PCMCIA card slot that met for practical purposes the 1.0 standard.

This standard called for the card to be communicated with by means of a memory map, similar in function to the way Expanded Memory operates on a PC. A 4-16K block of memory is set aside as a window to the data area of the card much like the 95's 16x40 screen is a window to a PC's larger 80x25 screen. This is how "Page Frame" in the Expanded Memory specification works to access large memory spaces.

A window of memory is created that is then mapped to different areas of the card for access to its data. At the time of the 95LX's introduction, this type of card with its memory-mapped method of access was the only type available.

The PCMCIA committee, not ones to rest, introduced a 2.0 standard about a year ago that defined a new way to access the card. This method is similar to the way a serial port works on your PC and opened up a whole new world of capabilities to PCMCIA cards. This 2.0 standard was introduced in time to find its way into the 100LX.

The first I/O cards available for the 100LX are modems. While LAN adapters, Global Positioning System Cards, VGA cards and SCSI adapters have been announced, they are not as yet available for the 100LX.

PCMCIA 2.0 capability must not be confused with Type II capability. In the PCMCIA standard, "Type" refers to the thickness of the card with Type I equal to 3.3mm, Type II equal to 5mm and Type III equal to 10mm. Both the 95LX and the 100LX can accept up to Type II cards, but only the 100LX has a 2.0 Standard slot (see graphic next page).

Before we get into the specifics of I/O cards, there is one more aspect we need to cover. Part of the PCMCIA standard since its inception has been the inclusion on the card of a small memory section that could be programmed to identify to the PC the type of card that was in its slot. This section is named Attribute Memory. When all we had was the 1.0 standard, all cards were memory-mapped storage cards. Many manufacturers, to compete in a very price sensitive market, eliminated Attribute Memory from their cards. With the 2.0 Standard, the PC now must determine the type of card and the lack of Attribute Memory or its improper implementation can produce incompatibilities with many PCs. There must be open channels of communication between card manufacturers and software developers to insure newly developed I/O cards are compatible.

Types of PC Cards: Graphic

 I/O Card Compatibility and CIC100.EXE

Even though we now have a 2.0 standard, there are several aspects that you need to be aware of before purchasing an I/O card. In an effort to be as flexible and as accommodating as possible to all of its member companies, the PCMCIA standard left the implementation of the software that talks to the card slot largely up to the PC makers. Fortunately, many of the makers of the electronic chips that control the slot have written this software. This means that instead of hundreds of versions, there are at this time only about a dozen. The software written for the 95LX and 100LX are examples. However while the 95LX card driver was written by HP, the software in the 100LX is a joint effort between HP, Microsoft, and SystemSoft. This joint effort has resulted in a unique PCMCIA slot on the 100LX that is not compatible with all cards.

In an effort to solve this compatibility issue HP included on the 100LX a software driver called CIC100.EXE. When set up, this driver can detect the type of card and the method of access. CIC100 which resides in the D:\BIN directory, acts as a software switch. It lets the 100LX recognize a modem card when it is inserted and configure the PCMCIA card slot as COM2, or recognize a memory card and configure the slot as a disk drive. CIC100 will cause the 100LX to beep if it recognizes the card that was inserted. CIC100 can be loaded either in your CONFIG.SYS file with the line:

INSTALL=D:\BIN\CIC100.COM /GEN 1

or in your AUTOEXEC.BAT or from DOS with the line:

D:\BIN\CIC100.COM /GEN 1

Load CIC100 before System Manager has launched. You should not use any software driver that is included with your modem card unless the manufacturer has specific instructions that support the 100LX.

Modem Cards

The most popular I/O card is the Fax/Modem card. Modem cards are available in speeds from 2400bps, 9600bps, and 14.4Kbps. Prices have become competitive to the extent that the 9600bps models are becoming extinct. Faxing is also becoming a standard feature.

Fax/Modems are available in three different configurations. The most common form, due to its ease of international conversion, is with an external phone jack interface. This DAA, as it is technically known, is about 1x1x3 inches and includes a card edge connector and a RJ11 phone jack that accepts a telephone cable. The second type of Fax/ Modem has the DAA built into the card. This allows the card to use a single cable with an edge connector directly to a phone plug. The final type is a patented design by Megahertz called the X-Jack. A pop-out Lexan connector accepts a standard phone plug perpendicular to the edge of the card. While the X-Jack modem appears to be the cleverest design, if you travel extensively and require hooking up to different phone systems, purchasing localized DAAs to be used with the first type will provide the most reliable connection.

Fax/Modem cards are not self-powered, nor do they draw power from the phone lines. This means that all power must come from the Palmtop's batteries. This is an important consideration as a 14.4K modem can easily draw up to 400ma while transmitting. Most modems have three power levels with the highest being when its online. This will generally range from 200 to 400ma. When the modem is in standby or awake mode the current can be reduced by up to 100ma. Finally, there is a sleep mode that will generally be activated after a set period of no activity. This will reduce current consumption to 20 to 40ma. Considering that the 100LX only draws 30ma while waiting for a key, you should not keep a modem card in the slot when you are not using it.

Whenever possible, you should connect the 100LX to its AC Adapter when using the modem card. Not only will this prevent premature battery failure but it will also prevent the 100LX from timing out and turning off. As distinct from a portable modem, whenever the 100LX is turned off not only will you lose the connection but the modem initialization will be lost as well.

PCMCIA card modems communicate with your 100LX on COM2. All software, including the built-in DataComm and cc:Mail, must be set up to this port. While the serial electronics for COM1 are built into the 100LX, they are all contained on the card in a PCMCIA modem. Higher speed communication is therefore theoretically possible if you get a modem card where the serial port is buffered.

The chip that electronically implements serial communications is called a "UART." The UART in the HP 100LX has a one character buffer. This means that the serial routine must come back quickly to get the character or it can be missed at high speeds (typically over 19.2K bps). The UART in a PCMCIA card modem will be either "16550 compatible" or "16450 compatible." The 16550 compatible UARTs have a 15 character buffer and can tolerate longer delays before losing characters. This means the Palmtop's CPU has more freedom to do other things, and allows the port to transmit and receive data faster.

Finally, you should realize that a card modem will take the only slot in the 100. As such you will need to not only store whatever communications software you use, besides the built-in applications, but the data you send and receive as well onto your C: drive. Since receiving faxes and E-mail can easily result in filling the rather limited C: drive, you should carefully evaluate your planned use before committing to a card modem.

(See announcement of new 2MB HP 100LX on page 6. The additional internal RAM storage it provides will help to alleviate this problem and make more I/O cards useable on the Palmtop.)

External Phone Jack Interface: The New Media PalmModem Card

New Media has been in the PCMCIA card business since its inception. They produce standard PCMCIA 2.0 Modem cards to 14.4K as well as a unique 1.0 standard 2400 bps modem called the PalmModem. Two models are available, one for the 95LX and another for the 100LX. This is the only card modem that will work on the 95LX.

The 95LX's 1.0 Standard slot requires special communications software in order for the card to work. New Media cleverly addressed the storage problem by including their special communications software (PalmTerm) in a ROM portion of their card. This frees up your C: drive for data storage.

Both versions are provided with an external phone jack interface, a solid molded piece that connects to the card with a flat multi-pin connector.

Phone Jack Interface:  Graphic

 This connector employs a friction fit but appears to be quit secure. A 16450-compatible (un-buffered) UART is employed. An Owners manual is included which covers the built-in software sufficiently but is lacking a complete description of the modem commands.

Since there is only one software option for this card, any decision to purchase it stands on its suitability to the task. The resident PalmTerm terminal emulation program is optimized for Palmtop computer use. A variety of upload and download protocols are provided with the terminal emulation program. PalmTerm on the 95LX is set to display in 40 columns, and runs in 80 columns on the 100LX. The program uses a terminal screen metaphor much like the built-in DataComm application but does not support the Menu Key. PalmTerm includes support for Xmodem, Ymodem, Kermit, and ASCII. Unfortunately, there is no automated macro capability, therefore all on-line access must be done interactively. Multiple phone book files are supported but there is no interaction or exchange capability with the built-in Phone application. Terminal support is provided for both ANSI and VT100. The VT100 emulation includes support for all 18 keypad functions.

I was able to connect to BBSs and upload and download files. The one problem I was not able to solve was that PalmTerm did not properly decode the high-bit ASCII characters when displaying them on the screen. (The ASCII characters above 128, see page B-2 in the HP 100LX User's Guide for examples.)

Faxing from PalmTerm is similar to dialing a BBS, except that PalmTerm prompts you for a file name. Only straight ASCII text files can be sent. There is no support for 100LX MEMO files that have been formatted (with bolds, underlines, etc.). A one-page test FAX of 2.2K in size took just under 5 minutes to convert and send. Fax files can be no larger than 8500 bytes and the PalmTerm program requires 128K of memory. No disk space is required for the converted text file prior to it being sent as there is on-board RAM for that purpose.

Built-in Interface: The Intel PCMCIA Modem

Intel has recently revamped and reduced prices on their 14.4K PCMCIA card modem. The new packaging has the phone jack interface located internal to the card with only a special cable terminated into a RJ-11 phone plug required to make the connection. While the Intel modem comes with a driver for it, CIC100 should be used instead.

Intel has a special offer for HP owners. Since the included Comm/ FAX software does not work reliably on the 100LX or OmniBook, Intel provides a copy of Smith Micro's QuickLink II. This combination Communications and FAX software is quite capable and can be setup to require very modest disk and memory space. Only about 53K of disk space is required on C: drive for the Send FAX programs.

The FAX portion is quite complete allowing conversion from a wide variety of formats, though not from MEMO formatted files. A complete selection of Fonts in various sizes are included as well as support for the most popular dot-matrix and laser printers. Custom cover pages and PCX or TIF graphic files can be included.

The communication portion runs in full 80x25 mode though the Zoom key allows switching to 64 or 40 columns. Xmodem, Xmodem-G, Ymodem, Ymodem-G, Kermit, Super Kermit, and ASCII protocols are included. Terminal emulations include ANSI, TTY, VT100, VT52, and VT102. Separate Data and FAX phone lists can be created with script files that automatically run associated with each entry.

When installing the software, it is recommended to install it in one of two ways. First you can install it on E: drive of your PC. If you don't have an E: drive use the SUBST command to create one. EX: SUBST E: C:\. Then copy the directory to your HP 100LX card along with the DOS 5.0 SUBST.EXE file. Put the SUBST E: A:\ command in your AUTOEXEC.BAT and run QL2FAX.BAT from the E: drive DOS prompt.

The other method is to install it directly to your 100LX to E: Drive set up with the SUBST command using either an external drive or InterLink.

While it may take a while to get it set up, I found the combination to work reliably and well. Converting and sending my test fax, 2.2K, took just over a minute. File space on C: drive is required. The 2.2K text file resulted in a 39K fax file. The VIEWFAX module only worked when run with System Manager loaded, though Smith Micro may have the problem solved by the time you read this.

Pop-out Interface: The MegaHertz X-Jack PCMCIA Modem

MegaHertz is a company that specializes in modems for a wide variety of PCs both portable and desktop. Their most innovative design is a PCMCIA card modem dubbed the "X-JACK" due to its unique connection device. Instead of a flat multi-pin connector on the outside edge there is a small pop-out receptacle that accepts an RJ-11 plug perpendicular to the edge of the card. While you still must carry a cable around, it no longer needs to be a special one. If you forget it, instead of being stranded, any standard phone cable will work. The X-Jack is made out of Lexan which is a virtually unbreakable material and though the contacts are exposed when the jack is extended and no cable is connected, they appear reasonably protected.

X-Jack Modem: Graphic

 The X-Jack modem tested was the XJ1144 14.4K FAX/Data modem. A 9600 and 2400 version are also available. The modem comes with separate manuals for the hardware and provided software. Megahertz includes a driver for the card called SETMHZ.EXE. This should not be used as CIC100 recognizes the card.

The X-Jack modems are available with several different software packages depending on the vendor. The most common bundle appears to be the METZ FAX/Comm software. While this appears to be a good basic DOS package, I cannot recommend it for the single slot 100LX. The fax portion cannot be run separately, and the complete METZ software uses up too much of the C drive's storage space.

Fortunately, the X-Jack modem is also available with QuickLinkII and that is definitely the preferred combination. My test results were similar to those achieved by the Intel modem above. The X-Jack has been shipping with a 16450 compatible UART, but is due to be changed to a 16550 by the time this is in print.

Testing with DataComm showed no problems, however I did have some problems with cc:MAIL. Megahertz has shipped these modems for over a year and the firmware has been periodically updated. Depending on your version, you may need to make changes to the MDM setup file. Calling Megahertz at 1-800-LAPTOPS should solve any problems.

Many PCMCIA Modems Announced, Not All Are Shipping

We selected the above PCMCIA modems because they represent the three different types of phone jack interfaces (DAAs) and because we could get physical units to test. While the above modems all worked well, they are by no means the only card modems available that will work on the 100LX. Page 11 of the Nov/Dec 93 issue listed many additional fax/ modem cards. Unfortunately, it seems that not all are shipping in quantity at this time.

Warning: You should not purchase any modem that cannot be returned to the seller some modems will not work with the 100LX because CIC100 will not recognize them.

Final Advice on Modem Cards

In deciding on whether to select an external serial modem or a PCMCIA one, you should carefully weigh several factors. First, if you need to run external software packages, they must be able to reside on C: drive and leave room for your data. Second, if you travel internationally, it may be difficult to interface the RJ-11 connectors to a foreign jack on those cards that do not use an external DAA. Finally, PCMCIA card modems do not have indicator lights to help you in diagnosing a communication problem.

I would like to finish up with some tips on running a PCMCIA modem on the 95LX or 100LX.

  1. 1. Use your AC adapter when using a card modem in either Palmtop.
  2. 2. Your Communications software must be set to COM2.
  3. 3. CIC100.EXE must be installed on your 100LX before inserting your modem.
  4. 4. Terminate System Manager on the 100LX, or run your Comm software from Application Manager placing an inverted exclamation point [Fn][!] in the Comments field.
  5. 5. Remove your modem card when not in use on either Palmtop.
  6. 6. When creating a fax on the 100LX in MEMO, if you have formatted the document (bold, italics, etc.) print it to a file first and convert the printer file to a fax to preserve the formatting..

  7.  

     

PCMCIA and the PC Card Standard

iPhone Life magazine


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