Portable Printers and Fax/ Modem & Flash Memory cards Lighten the Travelers Load

When you're on the road, smaller is better. Bulky peripherals mean bigger carrying cases, and every extra pound drags you down. This new field of diminutive printers and fax/modem & flash memory cards will help lighten your load.

By David Shier

While the HP Palmtops have completely replaced a laptop or notebook computer for my traveling, my "mobile office," including modem and printer, still takes up the better part of a pilot's case. I have wanted to reduce the bulk of the latter two items for some time, and have longed for a smaller combination PCMCIA fax/modem & flash memory card and a smaller, serial printer.

 I have been using an external pocket modem instead of a PCMCIA card modem because I need a lot of file storage space for CompuServe messages and must use the Palmtop's card slot for a memory card. Unfortunately, the pocket modem and its serial cable are too big for my Palmtop's carrying case. What I needed to simplify my life was a PCMCIA card modem with Flash memory on board. This would allow me to keep the messaging software on the card along with fax and modem messages.

 I also carry a three-year old Citizen PN48 printer with me when I travel. This 2.6 lb printer is about the size of a rolled up newspaper. The printer comes with a parallel interface only, requiring an additional serial-to-parallel converter to connect it to the HP Palmtop. While small and light for a full page printer, it still takes up more space than the rest of my mobile office. A smaller, lighter printer with a serial interface was also high on my list.

 With all this in mind I attended the November 1994 Comdex show in Las Vegas. There I was delighted to find two new light-weight portable printers with serial interfaces and two new PCMCIA fax/modem cards that came with onboard flash memory. These new products promised to simplify and lighten the burden of my mobile office.

Printers and Modems Attached to HP Palmtop: Graphic

 The fax/modem & flash memory cards

 Ever since the first PCMCIA modems started appearing for the HP Palmtop computers, users have wished for additional Palmtop disk space. The software that came with the earlier cards tended to take up a lot of disk space and sometimes did not fit on the Palmtop's C drive. In addition, the faxes and e-mail users received quickly filled up the C drive.

The first, and only, PCMCIA modem card developed for the HP 95LX Palmtop was the PalmModem from New Media. It had its own fax and data communications software built into the card, saving precious C drive space for messages. However, the card had to be used with that software, and could not be used with popular communications programs such as fastCOMM! and acCIS.

The HP 100LX and HP 200LX Palmtop computers support standard PCMCIA modems, which makes them far more versatile. However, most PCMCIA modems are designed for use in laptop and notebook computers. These computers have plenty of hard drive storage space available. The need for card modems with on-board memory and built-in software was not apparent, until the voices of Palmtop users began to be heard by the industry.

The first two PCMCIA fax/modem & memory combination cards to emerge are from Smart Modular Technologies, and EXP Computers. The cards are specifically designed for the HP Palmtops. Both cards solve the basic dilemma of the single PCMCIA slot in the HP Palmtops by providing both fax/modem and Flash memory on one card. However, each card provides unique features that must be considered.

Similarities between the two fax/modem & flash memory cards

 Both cards allow you to run fax or data software from the memory portion of the card while using the modem. They each come with fax send and receive programs preloaded on to the Flash memory. While the fax/ modem portion of both cards will work on other PC's equipped with a PCMCIA slot, the flash memory of both cards only works on the 100/ 200LX. (EXP is compiling a list of computers with PCMCIA slots that can use the memory portion of their card. They are also updating their drive for greater compatibility.)

 At this time neither card comes with separate data communications software. Both cards have a built-in phone line interface, so no large external connector "pod" is needed.

 Installation for either was simple: as close to "plug and play" as you can expect from such a device. Both cards require a driver program to be loaded from the CONFIG.SYS file in order to run. Both provide an installation program to copy the driver to your C: drive and to modify the CONFIG.SYS file automatically. Unfortunately, the current Smart Modular card only allows you to run this installation procedure once. After that, the installation files are no longer accessible. This limitation is not mentioned at all in the sparse documentation and needs to be more clearly defined. (More on this below.)

 I ran the acCIS CompuServe access program without a hitch on each card. I also ran the America On Line software for the 100LX on the Smart card and Tapcis on the EXP card. (I did not try the other combinations but have no reason to believe that they would not work together.)

 The real surprise was running the America On Line software. I was told that this software had never worked on a PCMCIA modem before. I simply installed the AOL software using the instructions provided by the AOL PDA/Palmtop forum leaders, and logged onto the service.

The Smart Modular Fax/Modem & Memory card

 The Smart Modular card is available with 2M, 4M or 6M of on-board flash memory. The modem speed is 14400 bps for sending faxes, 9600 for receiving faxes, and 2400 for data transmission. Given the slow data modem speed, this card is best suited for users who will be using the fax feature and/or communicating interactively with a host computer. Since interactive communications speeds are generally limited by the user's typing speed, the slow data rate would have little impact.

On the other hand, if you have to download large files from an on-line service where you pay for connect time or long distance telephone charges, a slower data rate would translate into higher connect and/or phone charges.

 The Smart card appears very well constructed. The phone cord connector on the end of the card is a bit more rugged than the one on the EXP, but it is also larger.

As noted above, the on-board software only allows the installation procedure to be run once. I made an error during installation (I left the driver for the other card installed) and assumed that I could simply delete all the files and try the install procedure again. This was a big mistake since the files were no longer available on the card. No backup diskette was included, so you might want to back up the install program and the SMDRIVER.SYS file before running installation. I was able to use the SmartModem to access SmartModular's BBS system to download the required driver file. (The modem part of the card can be used without the SmartModem system driver, SMDRIVER.SYS, installed. With the card in the slot all you need to do is add D:\BIN\CIC100.EXE /GEN 1 to your AUTOEXEC.BAT file, and reboot the Palmtop.)


 The Smart card comes with a special version of BitFax software for DOS preloaded. The software user interface could be more "user friendly" but does work. This software looks like it was originally designed for a computer other than the Palmtop. For example, when viewing faxes, the default screen mode is reverse video (white text on a dark background) which requires you to press (ON)-(/) to have a normal view. For other than viewing faxes, BitFax uses the 40x16 column display. Also, I was unable to print faxes using this software (I continued to receive an error message "error opening file" but was unable to determine which file it could not open.) It should be simple for SmartModular or a third-party developer to improve this interface and make it better match the design of the Palmtop's software. The most important improvement would be to provide default settings that eliminate the current need to cycle through every parameter setting each time you run the software.

The good news is that this software is stored on the flash memory portion of the card, so future updates can be loaded by the user, or other fax programs can replace it. Despite the awkward software controls and the minimal documentation, sending and receiving faxes proved to be very easy.


 A fax program converts text to a graphics dot pattern to be transmitted. The quality of the fax you receive at the other end is dependent on the quality of the fonts used by the fax program to convert the text to graphics. The SmartModular software produced characters that were clear and easy to read (more so than the EXP software). Also, the SmartModular software automatically sent through enough blank space to force the receiving fax machine to cut the paper at the standard 11 inches. In contrast, the EXP ended the page shortly after the last line of text, saving fax paper, but causing the receiving fax machine to cut the page at an odd size. I prefer having messages on standard sized sheets of paper and favor the method chosen by Smart Modular.

The SmartModem card is rated to receive faxes at 9600bps (bits per second), the EXP is rated to receive at up to 14400bps. However, the SmartModem actually required less time to receive a page of text. To get an idea of what was happening, I watched the sending fax machine as it sent a fax to the Palmtop. When sending to the SmartModem card, the paper on the sending fax machine fed through without slowing down. When sending to the EXP modem/flash memory card, the sending fax machine paused often, slowing the transmission time. I assume that this pause occurs when the EXP card is writing the data to the file. The SmartModem card receives data at a slower rate, but may buffer data better than the EXP card.

 The EXP ThinFax 1414LXM modem/flash memory card

 The EXP card had not been released when I wrote this article, but EXP provided a prototype card for review purposes. The EXP card comes with either 2MB or 4MB of flash memory. The modem speed is 14400bps for both faxing and data.

While the EXP modem has a major advantage in data communications speed (14400bis vs. 2400 for the Smart) it draws more power from the Palmtop.

 The Smart card goes to standby mode within half a second of powering up on the Palmtop. The EXP waits 10 seconds before lowering the power to the modem. While 10 seconds may not seem like much time, this occurs every time you turn the Palmtop on. If you tend to use the LX for quick reference, turning it on many times a day for brief periods, then you may find the EXP to be a significant drain on the batteries. Also, while both cards have rather small drivers that must be loaded, at 7KB, the EXP driver is over twice the size of the Smart driver.

 The EXP comes with their MiniFax software. It is System Manager compliant (an .EXM) which looks just like the built in applications and is a great example of how software for the HP 100LX and 200LX should be designed. I found this software very easy to use despite the fact that my evaluation card was provided without any documentation. A particularly nice feature is the fax transmission log that listed all faxes sent or received. You can view or print any received fax by selecting it from the listing.

 While more than acceptable, the quality of the EXP's transmitted fax was not as good as that of the SmartModular's fax, but since I prefer to use CompuServe to send faxes, this was not an important issue to me. Instead, I directed my attention to the use of this card for high-speed data transfers. I used this card with the CompuServe access program, acCIS, for over a month. Carrying a telephone cord in my Palmtree leather case, in the pen slot, was very convenient. This enabled me to log into CompuServe from anywhere, and with plenty of room for storing messages and files.

Which card wins?

 Both of the cards reviewed have strengths and weaknesses. Your needs will dictate which is best for you, but I can honestly say that either card should make any HP 100LX or 200LX owner quite happy.

 If you need to send and receive faxes and engage in interactive, on-line communications, then the SmartModular card may be for you. It's a little better on battery life and the speed and quality of the faxes. (Remember that both combo cards will draw more power than flash or SRAM memory cards.)

On the other hand, if you intend to transfer large amounts of data, or use a program such as acCIS (that transfers data as fast as the modem will allow), then the EXP's ability to run six times faster in data communication makes it a better choice. With CompuServe lowering their connection time charges for faster data rates, the extra speed of the EXP modem can be directly translated into lower forum access costs.

 [CompuServe connect charges changed: Effective Feb 5, access at 9.6 and 14.4 kilobits per sec dropped by 50% to $4.80/hr. The monthly membership fee increased by $1 to $9.95 and now includes free access to the Executive Service Option. (ESO surcharges for specific products continue to apply.) CIS eliminated the Western Europe prime-time communications surcharge and cut by 31% the U.S. Wide Area Telephone Service surcharges. The Canadian WATS-line charge were be cut by 41%.]

 Bantam-Weight Portable Printers

 Hewlett Packard has developed many innovative products such as the Palmtop computers, the LaserJet and DeskJet printers. One of the reasons for this creativity is that it operates each division as though it were a separate company. However, this can result in lack of integration between products from different HP divisions. For example the HP DeskJet Portable 320, an excellent printer, is quite large, and only has a parallel interface. Since the Palmtops only have a serial interface, you can't directly connect these two portable HP products together. A serial-to-parallel converter is required to use this printer with the Palmtop. Fortunately, two competitors, Citizen and Pentax, have introduced new printers that address the needs of the Palmtop user much better than HP's offering.

 Pentax PocketJet Printer

 When I first heard about the Pentax PocketJet, I was not very enthusiastic. I had envisioned this thermal printer's output to look like those dreaded faxes that curl up on your desk and can't be fed into a copying machine. Once I received the evaluation unit I was pleasantly surprised.

 First, this printer has a quality look to it. It is amazingly small and very solid (10" x 2.2" x 1.2"). At about 26 cubic inches, this printer is just under the volume of the HP Palmtop itself. The printhead covers the full width of the paper, so the only moving parts are those that move the paper through the printer. True to its heritage, the PocketJet looks like a fine piece of photographic equipment, and includes a high quality carrying case. The list price for the Pentax PocketJet is $499 including the AC adaptor/charger, battery and case (spare battery $38).

 The PocketJet requires special thermal paper that comes in packages of 100 sheets, weighing about one pound, for $7.99 (one package is included with the printer). This gives the PocketJet a fixed printing cost of $.08 per page. Pentax provides an 800 number, 800-543-6144, to order paper or to find a local dealer that stocks it. (Since the printer is new, it may be difficult to find a local dealer, so allow enough time to receive your paper directly from Pentax.) You can make do with regular fax paper in a pinch, if you run out of the Pentax paper. However, the Pentax thermal paper produces better results than regular fax paper.

 The Pentax paper is much thicker than thermal fax paper. Since it comes in flat sheets, you don't get the curly memos that we are familiar with from fax machines. While I was pleased with the output, you must remember that this is thermal paper and is therefore subject to fading after long exposure to ultraviolet light (such as sunlight). Also, Pentax recommends avoiding allowing the PocketJet paper to contact blueprint and carbonless papers, vinyl or acetate (such as notebook covers), and organic solvents, oils or ammonia. As I have rather oily skin, I have found that excessive handling of thermal paper tends to cause fingerprints and smudged printing. The printer emulates the HP LaserJet IIP (PCL4). Since the Palmtop has built-in support for the LaserJet, the setup was easy. It also prints much like a laser printer - receiving a complete page of data before printing anything, then printing the complete page all at once.

An important feature of this printer is its built-in RS-232 interface. [Editor's note: Shier Systems & Software will provide a special cable ($35) to directly connect the Pentax printer to the Palmtop (see the photo on page 13.), without extra adapters. This cable fits in the sleeve of the Pentax carrying case.]

 Although I was not able to benchmark the decibel levels of either printer, both were acceptable in all but library situations. The PocketJet was noticeably quieter than the Citizen PN60.

The power, paper feed and battery charging of the PocketJet are controlled by a single button on the top of the printer. A separate dial on the side controls the print density. There are three small indicator lights on the top of the printer that display up to 13 different status conditions of on, off or blinking lights! Fortunately, a sticker on the bottom of the printer explains the various conditions indicated by the lights and Pentax provides a quick reference card that fits in a outside pocket of the carrying case. Still, I would prefer more intuitive indicators and controls.

 As their first entry in the consumer portable printer market, Pentax's new PocketJet printer is a serious contender.

Pentax Output: Graphic

 Citizen PN60 Pocket Printer

 The Citizen PN60 represents the third generation of battery-powered portable printers from this veteran of the portable printer market. The improvements incorporated in this `grandchild' of my old PN48 clearly show Citizen's experience.

 While not as small as the Pentax, the PN60 is tiny and light. With the optional battery attached, the printer weighs less than 1.75 lbs. (about 1 lb. without the battery.) The list price of the Citizen PN60 is $399 including the AC adaptor/charger (optional battery is $79).

This printer uses a ribbon and prints on plain paper, using a `thermal fusion' method. In thermal fusion, the ink is transferred to the paper under heat and pressure. The `ink' is a plastic coating on the ribbon, which will not come off on your hands if you touch the ribbon. While these ribbons are about half the size of the PN48 ribbons, they can print about 50% more. However, even with the longer ribbon life, this is still an expensive printer to operate. The ribbons cost $9.00 per package of two, and each ribbon can print about 25 pages of text or about 18 pages of graphics (depending on density). This works out to about $.16 per page. In discussing the operating cost, I should note that I never found this to be a significant factor in my experience with the PN48. This is because I don't expect the light weight printer to replace my desktop printer. I use it only for printing while traveling. In this case, the costs are easily offset by the convenience of the small size and weight.

 While the earlier printers came standard with either a parallel cable, or an Apple Talk (RS-422) cable, as with the Pentax, Citizen added an RS-232 serial interface to the PN60. [Editor's note: Sheir Systems has also designed a cable ($42) to directly connect the PN60 printer to the Palmtop (see photo on page 13). EduCALC will be providing the PN60 and custom cable as a set.] The PN60 is controlled by a set of four buttons on the top. When setting the configuration, a page is printed showing the current settings and instructions for changing the configuration. A group of five LEDs are used to indicate various conditions and configuration changes. While I feel that this design is a bit more straight forward than the Pentax single button control, some basic functions (such as controlling the darkness) are not obvious.

 The best feature of this printer is the ability to print on plain paper and transparency film. By carrying a few pages of company letterhead, it is possible to print formal letters. If you give presentations using overhead projections, it is possible to print last-minute updates while on the road. Another advantage to its use of plain paper is that you don't have to worry about running out of special paper half way through a road trip. (A box of Pentax thermal paper adds about a pound to your briefcase.) You can use just about any standard cut sheet you find. However, highly textured paper does not allow the ink to be transferred as well as smoother paper. This is a consideration when choosing paper for your own letterhead.

The ribbons are small and light enough to carry a couple of extra with you. I should mention that you can purchase color ribbons for the PN60. This provides full color output when used with appropriate software. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any software to run on the Palmtop which supported this option. (If you run into any, let us know.) Also, at a cost of up to $4.00 a page, this option is intended only for those situations where you need a color page for a presentation and don't have access to any other printer.

Citizen has used all of its experience to bring out a printer that meets the challenge.

 Which printer is for you?

 As with the modem/fax cards, it was not possible for me to choose a single printer that is right for everyone. Instead, I once again found that the selection between these two contenders greatly depends on your needs.

 Since its operating cost is about half that of the Citizen, the Pentax is well suited for field service representatives and other mobile users that need ready access to a printer, but do not need plain paper copies or output that can be permanently saved. The low cost per page should also make this printer attractive to those that need to print a large number of pages while traveling. The Pentax is also smaller.

 The Citizen PN60 is well suited for low volume high quality printing on standard letterhead, transparencies or plain paper that's readily available. The mobile executive or sales professional who needs to produce documents on company letterhead or high-quality cut sheet paper (and possibly color) will find that the Citizen PN60 is up to the task.