Storage

Extend the life of an aging laptop with a CardBus adapter from Addonics

It may be tempting to buy a new laptop to gain USB 2.0 and other features. You can preserve your investment by simply using add-ons such as the ones described here.

Is your IT department trying to get the most out of your aging fleet of laptop computers? If so, chances are that these laptops are still viable pieces of equipment that handle the majority of the tasks your users need. However, if the only non-legacy peripheral connector on these laptops is a USB 1.x port, you're probably feeling the nudge to purchase new laptops because of the barrage of new USB 2.0 and Firewire peripherals. In addition to having USB 2.0 and Firewire devices, you may also want to be able to take advantage of Serial ATA (SATA) devices.

However, before you begin manipulating your budget to make room for a capital expenditure, you need to investigate the possibility of extending the life of your aging laptops by adding inexpensive CardBus adapters from Addonics Technologies. These devices make adding USB 2.0, Firewire, and SATA ports to a laptop as easy as inserting the PC card and installing a special driver. Here's a look at three of Addonics' CardBus adapters: the CardBus USB 2.0 Adapter, the Combo CardBus USB 2.0/Firewire Adapter, and the CardBus Serial ATA Adapter. As I cover these devices, I'll provide some tips on using them effectively.

What is CardBus?

Before we get started, let's take a few moments to learn more about the CardBus technology. CardBus, the trade name for PC Cards, was standardized in May 1996 by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA). The CardBus technology is a great enhancement to mobile computing in that it provides a lot of powerful features, yet can do its job while working at a lower battery voltage. More specifically, CardBus supports a 32-bit bus running at 33 MHz and also provides support for bus-mastering and Direct Memory Access (DMA). To economize battery usage, CardBus requires a 3.3 volt in order to operate. The CardBus technology provides all the power needed to run USB 2.0 and Firewire adapters on a laptop.

The CardBus USB 2.0 Adapter

The CardBus USB 2.0 Adapter package, whose retail price is under $30, includes the PC card, a Quick User Guide, a driver CD, and a power adapter. As you can see in Figure A, this type II PC card sports two type A USB 2.0 ports as well as a power input jack that allows you to connect a power adapter in order to accommodate more power-hungry devices. Once connected to a USB 2.0 device, the card provides a data transfer rate of 480 Mbps.

Figure A

The CardBus USB 2.0 Adapter easily adds USB 2.0 ports to an older laptop.

Once you insert the CardBus USB 2.0 Adapter into a laptop's PC card slot, Windows will detect the card and begin the driver installation procedure via the Add New Hardware Wizard. In the case of Windows XP, the operating system automatically installs its native USB 2.0 drivers and you're all set to go. If you're running Windows 98SE/Me/2000, you'll need to use the driver CD.

To test the CardBus USB 2.0 Adapter, I installed it in a Dell 3800 Inspiron laptop that runs Windows XP Professional and has only a USB 1.1 port. I also installed the adapter in another Dell 3800 Inspiron running Windows 98SE. In both cases, the installation went off without a hitch.

I then connected a Maxtor 120-GB 5000 DV external hard drive to the adapter with a USB cable. I could then transfer data between the laptop and external hard disk at a blazing 480 Mbps—a very noticeable improvement over the previous data transfer rate of 12 Mbps with the USB 1.1 connection.

The Combo CardBus USB 2.0/Firewire Adapter

The Combo CardBus USB 2.0/Fireware Adapter package, which carries a retail price of under $60, includes the PC card, a Quick User Guide, a driver CD, three cables (USB, FireWire, and iLink), and a power adapter. This type II PC card sports two Firewire ports—a standard connector and an iLink connector—as well as two type A USB 2.0 ports. The power input jack is located on the side of the PC card, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

The Combo CardBus USB 2.0/Fireware Adapter sports both standard and iLink Firewire ports.

Once you insert the Combo CardBus USB 2.0/Firewire Adapter into a laptop's PC card slot, Windows will detect the card and begin the driver installation procedure via the Add New Hardware Wizard. You'll then be prompted to insert the driver CD and will need to follow the onscreen instructions for installing the USB and Firewire drivers. Keep in mind that all operating systems will use the proprietary USB 2.0 drivers from the CD, while only Windows 98SE will need the Firewire drivers. Windows Me/2000/XP will install and use native Firewire drivers.

When testing the Combo CardBus USB 2.0/Firewire Adapter, I used the same two laptops. Installation under Windows XP was a very smooth operation. Installation under Windows 98SE was a bit more trying, but I finally got it to work after uninstalling and reinstalling the drivers. I then connected the Maxtor 5000 DV external hard drive to the adapter with a Firewire cable and instantly cranked up the data transfer rate to 400 Mbps.

The CardBus Serial ATA Adapter

The CardBus Serial ATA Adapter package, whose retail price is under $50, includes the PC card, a Quick User Guide, and a driver CD. This type II PC card sports two SATA 1.0-compliant ports, as shown in Figure C. This adapter supports a data transfer rate of 1500 Mbps and provides independent 256-byte FIFOs (32 bit * 64 deep) per Serial ATA channel for host reads and writes, as well as supports Spread Spectrum.

Figure C

Adding SATA connectivity to an older laptop is a snap with the CardBus Serial ATA Adapter.

Once you insert the CardBus Serial ATA Adapter into a laptop's PC card slot, Windows will detect the card and begin the driver installation procedure via the Add New Hardware Wizard. You'll then be prompted to insert the driver CD and will need to follow the onscreen instructions.

To test the CardBus Serial ATA Adapter, I used the same two laptops along with a standard IDE drive patched into an Addonics IDE to Serial ATA converter in order to emulate an external SATA hard drive. While my configuration was a bit awkward, everything functioned as advertised.

Use the Safely Remove Hardware tool

While the USB and Firewire CardBuses indeed support hot plugging (the ability to add or remove the cards while the system is running), the devices that you connect to them most likely will not. It's important that you get into the habit of using the Safely Remove Hardware tool, whose icon appears in the system tray.

As its name implies, the Safely Remove Hardware tool's job is to let the operating system know that a device is about to be removed from the computer and allow it to prepare for the removal by taking such steps as halting data transfers to the device and unloading device drivers. If you remove a device from the system without using the Safely Remove Hardware tool, it's called a surprise removal, because the operating system is not notified in advance of the removal. Surprise removal is particularly a concern for storage devices for which write caching is enabled; when these types of devices are surprise-removed, data loss or corruption might occur.

When it's time to unplug a device connected to your CardBus adapter, locate and double-click the Safely Remove Hardware icon. When you see the window, select the device that is attached to the CardBus adapter, as shown in Figure D, and click the Stop button. You'll then be prompted to confirm the Stop operation.

Figure D

It's important that you get into the habit of using the Safely Remove Hardware tool.

Once you've stopped the device and removed its cable from the CardBus adapter, you can then safely eject the adapter. Even though it's perfectly safe to eject a CardBus adapter once you've disconnected the device, Microsoft recommends that you use the Safely Remove Hardware tool.

Getting an Addonics CardBus adapter

You can find all of the Addonics CardBus adapters that I've mentioned in this article at the Addonics Online Store as well as at many online computer outlets.

About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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