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REVIEW: Add a Parallel Port to Your HP Palmtop

REVIEW: Add a Parallel Port to Your HP Palmtop

Slip Quatech's SPP-100 PC into your Palmtops PC Card slot and connect directly to parallel port printers, CD-ROM drives, network adapters, Zip drives, and more.

 Quatech's SPP-100 PC is a PC Card that slips into your Palmtop's card slot and adds a parallel port to your HP 100/200LX. This allows you to connect to parallel port printers, LAN adapters, ZIP drives, and more.

By Craig Payne

The great strength of the HP 100LX and 200LX Palmtops is that they are PC compatible down to the bare metal. Unfortunately, they lack one key piece of hardware that almost every other PC has a parallel port. The Palmtop's serial port lets you connect to many printers, but adding a true parallel port to the LX would open up the machine to the wide variety of other parallel port devices that exist: CD-ROM drives, network adapters and disk drives such as the popular Iomega Zip drive for example.

Fortunately, the fact that the HP Palmtop comes with a PCMCIA (or PC Card) slot makes it possible to add a parallel port. A number of PC Card manufactures offer parallel port cards. You simply slip one of these cards in a computers PC card slot, install the necessary software and the computer has an extra parallel port. However, until now none was found that worked with the HP Palmtop.

I examined one such card the SPP-100 from Quatech. The SPP-100 is a conventional Type II PC Card (see picture above). A detachable cable about two feet long (61 cm) comes with the card and connects to the card with a wide 27-pin connector. At the other end of the cable is a standard 25-pin female D connector the same parallel port connector you will find on the back of most PCs or laptops. The actual cable is a bit thicker than the standard HP serial cable.

What makes this particular card interesting to Palmtop users is that the manufacturer now includes with the card special software drivers designed for the HP 100/200LX.

Custom drivers let the card work with the HP Palmtop

Quatech provides two Palmtop-specific drivers with the card: SPP100CL.COM and SPP100CL.TSR. In the HP Palmtop series each class of PC Card (PC Card modems, memory cards, etc.) requires a special software program to recognize and configure that type of card. This software program is called a driver. For example, your HP 100/200LX has built into it CIC100.EXE, a driver which lets the Palmtop recognize PC Card modems.

These driver programs are DOS Terminate-and-Stay-Resident (TSR) programs. This means that you start them from DOS and they run in the background, doing their job without you being aware of it. In the case of the built-in CIC100.EXE, once you run it, it lurks in memory and examines PC Cards as they are inserted. When a PC Card modem is inserted, it enables and configures the card for the HP Palmtop.

Quatech's SPP100CL.COM driver enables the SPP-100 parallel port card. It occupies 1,040 bytes of RAM. Like CIC100.EXE, it is generally installed by running it from the AUTOEXEC.BAT file. Simply add the command: spp100cl to its own line in the AUTOEXEC.BAT file and whenever you reboot the Palmtop, the driver will be installed.

SPP100CL.TSR is a special System-Manager TSR designed for and supported only by the HP Palmtop. When System-Manager starts it automatically loads any program with an extension of .TSR found in the C:\_DAT directory. Simply place SPP100CL.TSR in the C:\_DAT directory and it is automatically installed when you start System-Manager. You only need to load this TSR if you wish to print from System-Manager applications such as Memo, PhoneBook, Appointment Book, etc. Normally, System-Manager applications print directly through the Palmtop's built-in serial port drivers. When SPP100CL.TSR is installed on the Palmtop, it intercepts a built-in applications print job and redirects it to the parallel port.

Actually, with SPP100CL.TSR installed you can switch between serial and parallel printing. Simply start the Palmtops Setup application, press (MENU) Options Printer and select Com1 to print from the serial port or Alternate to print from the Quatech parallel port. SPP100CL.TSR is a small software program, using less than 500 bytes of System Ram memory when installed.

Hard reset needed to install the card

The SPP-100 was designed a few years ago and never tested in the LX series until recently. This testing revealed a painful, but not fatal flaw -- the HP 100/200LX will not turn on with the card inserted. And don't try inserting this or any other PC Card with the Palmtop turned on. Such a hot insertion can crash the Palmtop and wipe out your SRAM C drive.

The only way to make the Quatech card work with the Palmtop is to turn the Palmtop off, insert the card, and start the Palmtop with a hard reset. A hard reset is accomplished by holding down (CTRL) and the left (SHIFT) and then pressing (ON). Answer N for No and press (ENTER) when the Palmtop asks: Initialize RAM Disk? Enter Y or N: INITIALIZING THE RAM DISK WILL DESTROY ALL DATA ON YOUR C DRIVE.

With the SPP-100 card inserted you must do a hard reset each time you wish to turn on the Palmtop. Frequent hard resets are probably not harmful, but they are a bother for two reasons: First, a hard reset always resets your battery type to Alkaline. Second, a hard reset may reset the date on the Palmtop to 1/1/80.

If all you use is alkaline batteries, then you don't need to worry about resetting your battery type. If you use rechargeable NiCds, you might want to obtain a copy of BATSET.COM, a program that sets battery type on the Palmtop. You can use this to automatically configure your Palmtop for NiCds (or any other type of battery). Add batset /n to your AUTOEXEC .BAT file to automatically set your Palmtop to NiCd batteries with charging disabled. Add batset /c to set the Palmtop to NiCd batteries with charging enabled.

Is the need for the hard reset a fatal flaw? Not in my opinion. Once the reset is done, the HP Palmtop and the card are completely functional. However, it is a flaw in an otherwise good product. I have tried to make this very clear to Quatech. No other PC Card has this problem in the Palmtop and there does not seem to be any good electrical reason for it. The SPP-100 does not draw too much power. It draws a good bit more than a SanDisk flash disk card but substantially less than a 14,400 baud modem card. In the Palmtop the PC Card bus is shared with the ROMs. I suspect that the SPP-100 is driving the bus for a brief time when it should not while powering up. The engineer responsible for the SPP-100 is looking into the problem.

What you can do with your new parallel port

Now that you have a parallel port on your HP Palmtop, what can you do with it? Well, aside from connecting up to a parallel printer, I connected my HP Palmtop to a number of other devices, including my desktop computer, a Xircom Ethernet adapter, and an Iomega Zip drive. The only problem I had was when I tried to use the DOS 6.x programs INTERLNK and INTERSVR to transfer files between my Palmtop and desktop PC. These worked with a serial connection but not via the parallel port. This is odd as LapLink worked fine over the same parallel connection.

Printing to parallel printers

Printing to the parallel port is easy. You can run a DOS text editor like VDE and print to the parallel port by selecting LPT1 as the printer port. You can also use the DOS Copy command to send a plain ASCII text file to the parallel port. For example, lets say you wanted to print out a Memo text file named MSG1.DOC located in C:\_DAT. With the SPP-100 card installed you would go to the DOS prompt and type copy c:\_dat\ msg1.doc lpt1 and press (ENTER).

As mentioned above, printing from System-Manager applications requires that you copy SPP100CL .TSR to C:\_DAT on your Palmtop, restart System-Manager and set your printer connection to Alternate from Setup's Printer screen (press (MENU) Options Printer from Setup). Then just print as you normally would. Unfortunately, this arrangement does not work with Lotus 1-2-3. This application contains its own printer drivers that can not be bypassed. The way around this is to print your Lotus spreadsheet to a file, go to Filer and highlight this file, and then press (MENU) File Print.

Connecting to LAN networks

Before most laptops had PC Card slots, Xircom and other vendors offered external Ethernet and Token Ring network adapters that connected to a computers parallel port. Eventually, PC Card network adapters were developed, but these draw their operating power from the computer into which they are inserted. Most PC Card LAN adapters do not work with the HP Palmtop.

The great advantage of the external, parallel port LAN adapters for Palmtop users is that they run from an external AC adapter and draw no power from their host. Quatech's parallel port adapter made it possible (at least theoretically) to use one of these adapters with the HP Palmtop. I decided to test one out.

I connected Xircom's PEM-10BT LAN adapter to my Palmtops new parallel port and installed its standard NetWare ODI drivers on my Palmtop. In no time at all I logged into our file server and ran a utility called Net to map a networked printer to LPT1. I was able to print to the shared network printer from DOS on the Palmtop. Unfortunately, I was unable to launch System-Manager. The 100 command just gave a brief error message and returned me to the DOS prompt. Clearly the NetWare shell and System-Manager are fighting for some resource.

Adding megabytes of extra file storage

Perhaps the most interesting application for a Palmtop parallel port is to use it to add on 100 megabytes of file storage. The Iomega Zip drive is a compact $200 portable disk drive with removable 100 MB cartridges. Iomega has shipped more than a million of the drives and offers parallel port and SCSI models. I had no trouble connecting the parallel model to the LX. I installed on my Palmtop an Iomega DOS TSR called GUEST.EXE which uses about 27,000 bytes of memory. The Iomega files GUEST.INI and ASPIPPA3.SYS must also be copied to the Palmtop. The Zip drive appeared as drive F on my Palmtop.

To test out the speed of my Palmtop's new drive I copied the entire ROM D drive to a Zip cartridge. From the DOS prompt I keyed in the Xcopy command xcopy d:\ f:\ /s and pressed (ENTER). It took 48 seconds to copy 1,001,472 bytes in 93 files. Using Filer the same copy took 54 seconds. That works out to roughly 20,864 and 18,546 bytes per second respectively. Copying a 303,947 byte file from the Zip drive to my Palmtop took 21 seconds. The same copy took 3 seconds when the Zip drive was connected to my 66 MHz 486. I believe these times can be improved upon. The Iomega diagnostic program indicated that the parallel port was being used in 4-bit mode. But the SPP-100 supports Enhanced Parallel Port (EPP) mode which can transfer data 8 bits at a time. I believe that SPP100CL.COM is not enabling the card in EPP mode.

Those are the devices I was able to test with the SPP-100. A number of manufactures make parallel port CD-ROM drives. I believe these would work as well as the Zip drive does. Parallel port tape drives are also common, but it is not clear how useful it would be to connect one to the Palmtop.

The bottom line is that if you have a parallel port device that works in DOS, it should work on your Palmtop with the Quatech SPP-100 parallel port PC Card.

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