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Networking with the HP 200LX

Networking with the HP 200LX

For fast transfers between your Palmtop and desktop, a Network PC Card will do the job at top speed.

By David Sargeant

Today, most of us are familiar with the term "network." Most companies are running local area networks (LANs) and more and more home PC users are setting up networks between multiple home machines. For palmtop users this has profound implications. How can we take advantage of the explosive growth in networking?

With that in mind, I'm presenting this article on methods, benefits and specifics of networking with the palmtop.

Basics

When I say "networking," I mean connecting the 200LX to an Ethernet network. An Ethernet connection is a direct connection between computers. The cabling used looks like thick telephone cable and is called 10Base-T twisted pair cabling. Most networks now use this standard. If your network uses the older 10Base-2 coaxial-style cabling you will not be able to connect directly with your 200LX. (10Base-2 draws too much current to be used in the palmtop). There are other solutions for 10Base-2 users which will be discussed later.

Why would you want to connect your palmtop to a network? Well, there are many benefits. Chiefly it is possible to transfer files, send and receive e-mail, print things out and run remote applications. If your LAN is connected to the Internet you can even access that! In addition there are wonderful network diagnostic tools that will run on the palmtop for those palmtop users who are computer professionals.

Some of the things you can do with Ethernet you can also do via a modem or serial cable connection such as transfer files or access the Internet. There is a fundamental difference between the two however. Ethernet is much faster (on the order of twenty times as fast), and Ethernet cards usually take up less power than most modems in the palmtop. The disadvantages are that you need special hardware and you cannot make an Ethernet connection over a regular phone line. Additionally, the distance between you and the computer you are communicating with must be fairly short: a few hundred feet at most. (Unless, of course, your remote computer is hooked up to another network with a longer range, such as the Internet, and can redirect you. In that manner, you can go around the world via Ethernet. However, direct computer-to-computer connections are fairly limited in distance.)

All things considered, comparing a modem connection with an Ethernet connection is like comparing apples and oranges. Each has its own use. It's probably more beneficial to compare Ethernet to a direct cable connection.

Serial connections which most 200LX users are probably familiar with are often used with programs like LapLink to transfer files from desktop to palmtop or vice-versa. It's a simple matter to buy a cable and set up some file transfer software so you can copy things to and from your 200LX. Most every desktop PC has a serial port you can hook up your cable to so the serial connection is probably the most common. The disadvantage here is that it's the slowest type of connection. The best you can do is 115,000 bps, which translates to roughly 10K per second (and that's if you're extremely lucky).

Parallel connections on the palmtop are much rarer because the 200LX has no parallel port built in. There are at least two parallel port cards that work in the 200LX; the better of which seems to be the Transdigital card. With one of these cards in your machine it is possible to connect (via LapLink or InterSvr or other connection software) and do transfers at a higher speed than with a serial connection.

Ethernet connections are the fastest of the bunch with a theoretical maximum of 10Mbps (bits per second, not bytes), or roughly eighty times faster than a serial connection, and 2 to 3 times faster than a parallel connection. Real conditions will yield less speed than this especially on large LANs with many computers but it is still extremely fast. On the palmtop maximum measured speed is around 100KB (bytes, not bits) per second or about 8% of the theoretical maximum. This is probably mostly due to the palmtop's limited processing power. Average speed on a large LAN will probably be more like 50KBs which is still very fast. In addition to this the network card allows many things that simply are not possible with any other link, such as the ability to log into a Netware or Unix server.

With that in mind, let's take a look at what you'll need to get to link your palmtop up to a network.

Hardware

In order for an Ethernet adapter to work in the palmtop, it must be a PCMCIA card that draws less than 150ma. In addition it must have special drivers that allow it to work with the 200LX's nonstandard PCMCIA controller.

The only two types of Ethernet card to work with the 200LX are the Silicom Ethernet Card and the Accton EN2212 or EN2216 cards. There are reports of a third card that works. Supposedly this is being sold by Shier Systems and Software but I was not able to verify this.

The Silicom card was specifically designed with drivers from the company to work in the HP DOS palmtops. It ships with all necessary drivers and documentation to allow you to use packet-driver applications or log in to a NetWare server. The card itself has a female jack on it and a proprietary twisted-pair cable, with an RJ-45 connector on the end of it, that comes with the card. This allows you to plug directly into a wall jack. Perhaps this is not the most elegant of solutions since the cable is not very long and, if damaged, the user must buy a new one from Silicom. (There have been at least two reported cases of the Silicom cable being defective and needing to be replaced.) The other disadvantage of this card is that it absolutely will not work with a double-speed palmtop. Silicom has no plans to fix this problem.

The Accton EN2212 and EN2216 cards were not designed with the 200LX in mind. However there are drivers available on the SUPER web site called LXETHER3.ZIP which allow use of this card in the palmtop. The EN2216-1 is the recommended model for palmtop usage. The card itself has a female jack on it where a proprietary breakout box plugs in. This box has a female RJ-45 jack on it so you can plug your own twisted-pair cable into it. This breakout box is much shorter and more durable than the Silicom cable and provides the advantage of having LEDs that indicate connection and data movement. Also the drivers for the Accton cards work on both single and double-speed palmtops. The disadvantage of the Accton card is that it only includes support for packet-driver applications. Other functions, such as logging in to a NetWare server, must run over the packet driver if desired which leads to greater complexity.

It is worth noting that there are numerous cards (such as some made by USLogic, a brand sold by Computer City) which are identical to the Accton cards and which will work with the drivers on the SUPER site.

The Silicom card can be had for between $100-$150, depending on where you find it. Precision Guesswork sells the Silicom card bundled with their Lanwatch software and a 200LX as an integrated solution for network administrators or technicians. They will sell the Silicom cards alone as well. The Accton cards can be found many places: a search on ComputerESP will yield the best price. Pricing should be around $55-$60.

Remember: if you get an Accton card, go for the EN2216-1, not the -2 version. The 2216-1 is a lighter card and the breakout box is MUCH smaller being just an RJ-45 jack instead of a combined RJ-45 / 10Base-2 coaxial port. The 2216-1 uses less power as well and since the palmtop can't attach to a 10Base-2 network anyway without pulling at least 270ma (and probably damaging the palmtop!) the 2216-1 is the better choice all around.

Connecting

All right, so you've got the card in your palmtop and need to hook it up. How do you do this? Well, the computer you want to connect to must either be on a LAN and have an Ethernet connection to a hub or have an Ethernet card installed. If you are only going to be connecting your 200LX to your otherwise-isolated computer you will probably not have an Ethernet card installed and will need to buy and install one. Something like the a D-Link SN2000 (for ISA bus) or 530-TX (for PCI bus) would be a good, low-cost solution. These cards generally run from $30-$50 and can be found at almost any computer store.

If you are trying to connect to a computer that's already on a LAN, for example a computer at the place where you work, you will need an RJ-45 jack that hooks into the LAN. From there you can access the other computer. If you have a spare data jack near your desktop that's good. If not you can buy a cheap hub (which is kind of a "splitter" to join several different cables) and plug your network connection into the "uplink" port. Then run two more twisted-pair cables from your new hub: one to your desktop and one for the palmtop. And there you go! You now have a connection for your palmtop and your desktop is still connected.

Some companies now offer "microhubs" that are self-powered for this very purpose.

One thing to keep in mind: for a direct connection (i.e. without a hub) between two computers: you need to use a special "crossover" cable. This cable is similar to a "null-modem" serial cable.

You can buy these crossover cables or make one yourself if you have RJ-45 ends (available at Radio Shack and most electronics stores) and a crimper. You must cross over the following wires:

Pin 1 to Pin 3

Pin 2 to Pin 6

Pin 3 to Pin 1

Pin 6 to Pin 2

Pin 1 would be the first one on the left when looking at the RJ-45 connector from the bottom.

Note that if you have an older 10Base-2 network that you want to hook your palmtop into you can obtain a hub that will allow you to do this. You plug the palmtop's cable into one port on the hub and the coaxial cable from your network into another port. Unfortunately these hubs can be reasonably expensive (at least $100). Fortunately older network architectures are often being upgraded so the likelihood of encountering a 10Base-2 network is going down every day.

That should be pretty much it as far as connecting your palmtop to the network. So, now what?

Software

One of the most useful features of the Ethernet is the ability to do high-speed backups. This is not as important for palmtops with small internal RAM drives because a small flash card will do the job nicely and be more portable and perhaps even less expensive. If you have NO money you can still do a serial port backup to your hard drive in a relatively short amount of time. However for larger palmtop RAM drives, such as 32MB, the backup problem becomes critical. A flash card big enough to hold all of the data on your RAM drive is fairly expensive and who wants to waste 32MB of flash card? Serial port backups are way too slow for a full 32MB backup. This is where the Ethernet card shines. It is relatively inexpensive compared to a flash card and yet allows high-speed backups. The downside, of course, is that the Ethernet card will occupy your PCMCIA socket preventing you from also backing up a flash card.

Beyond this, what can you do?

First, let's cover some basics. To run ANYTHING you need to be able to see the Ethernet card in the palmtop. Unfortunately the drivers for most cards won't see them in the palmtop because the 200LX does not use a standard Intel PCIC compatible controller for its socket.

Thank goodness for enablers. Enablers are special programs that configure the card and palmtop to work together. Both the Silicom and Accton cards need to have enablers run before you can do anything with them. It works much like the CIC100 program that allows programs to see and talk to modems.

The enabler for the Silicom card is called SEHP.EXE. You put the Silicom card in the socket and run SEHP and it enables the card.

The enabler for the Accton card is OP2216.EXE. It works the same as the Silicom enabler. Just place the card in the socket and run OP2216.

These enablers are not TSRs like CIC100, so they take up no memory. They merely configure the card and the palmtop and then exit.

One consequence of running the enablers is that you cannot thereafter place other cards in the socket without turning off the machine or rebooting.

After running the enabler for your card you can run the actual drivers for the card, whatever they may be. Probably the most common driver type is a packet driver. A packet driver is a TSR that will transfer data to and from the card and act as an "interface" for network applications. Other driver types include ODI drivers (for logging in to a NetWare server) or NDIS drivers (for use with MS LanMan and other Windows networks).

These drivers must be specifically designed for the palmtop! Just because you've run the enabler don't think you can just run any driver and have it work. It must be specifically tuned for the palmtop. The Silicom card comes with a packet driver and an ODI driver. The Accton card has a packet driver only.

The ODI driver with the Silicom card will allow you to log in to a NetWare server which is extremely useful--but only if you have a NetWare server to log in to. In this day of Windows NT, those are becoming more and more rare. Still, if you do have a NetWare server you then have access to the server's drive and can do backups, run other programs, etc.

There are Windows network drivers available that will let you access shared drives on a Windows 3.11/95/98 machine. Unfortunately the drivers are currently only available on the palmtop forum of NIFTYserve (the Japanese equivalent to CompuServe). There is a current effort underway to obtain permission to post these drivers to SUPER.

The packet driver is the best driver of all. There are numerous applications that run over a packet driver, including telnet clients, FTP clients, Web browsing applications, e-mail programs, etc. Of course, a 32-bit graphical Web browser won't run on the palmtop but most DOS applications that don't require a 286+ processor to work will. There are even System Manager EXM programs that will use a packet driver. PNR is one of them. As the news and e-mail reader portion of LXTCP it is designed for a modem and PPP but can be run over an Ethernet packet driver instead of a PPP packet driver. In this way you can get full System Manager compliance and the super-speed of Ethernet to read your e-mail.

Other applications that run over a packet driver include:

LanWatch, sold by Precision Guesswork. A network analyzer; turns your 200LX into a fantastic network diagnostic tool.

NFS clients. If you have a Unix machine on your network, or are running NFS on your NetWare, or have an NFS server on your WinNT or 95 desktop, you can mount drives on your 200LX and do backups. Look on SUPER for these clients.

Printer clients. These can be mounted by NFS software, and allow you to print to remote printers.

NetWare login clients. Although the Accton cards do not come with an ODI client, you can still log in to a NetWare server by running PDIPX from Intel.

Standard DOS TCP/IP packages such as CUTCP, WATTCP, etc. which include utilities like ping, telnet, ftp, and the like. CUTCP, on SUPER, will even let you run an FTP server on the palmtop!

E-mail and Internet packages. Goin' Postal and LXTCP both support Ethernet connections to download mail at super-speeds. The new version of WWW/LX also supports Ethernet, which makes surfing the Web much faster!

Conclusion

Ethernet on the palmtop is definitely a great thing to have if you want to do fast Internet access, backup your palmtop's drive or even administer your network from your pocket.

If you want to get connected I'd recommend you get an Accton EN2216-1 card and go for it! For more information on using the Accton card in the 200LX see the Jan/Feb 1997 The Palmtop Paper or read the article online at http://www.hplx.net/ptpaccton.html.

Commercial products mentioned in this article

iPhone Life magazine


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