Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 133 / SEPTEMBER 1991 / PAGE 100

You can mix multimedia and laptops. (evaluation)
by David English

Laptop innovation is moving so fast that the last thing most manufacturers want to see is a set of standards that will lock them into yesterday's technology. Perhaps in a few years, when the size of the laptop has stabilized, manufacturers will agree on standards that will allow you to add various peripherals and upgrade your LCD screen or hard drive. But that's the future--none of the laptop manufacturers I've talked to see that scenario unfolding anytime soon.

With today's models, once you buy your laptop, you lock yourself into today's technology with little chance to change with the times.

What's the answer? Your parallel port. Peripheral manufacturers have discovered how to tap into your parallel port and still let you use your printer. Plug a small box into your parallel port, plug your printer cable into the box, and it's instant expansion.

How would you like to add digital stereo sound to your laptop or desktop PC? Msound Stereo (Msound International, 1965 West 4th Avenue, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6J 1M8; 604-732-4849; $249.95) is a sound-card-in-a-box that plugs into your parallel port and includes a built-in amplifier and stereo headphones. Msound can emulate present sound card standards and can be upgraded to emulate future standards. Currently, Msound ships with drivers for the Ad Lib sound card and the Covox Speech Thing, as well as utilities that can convert Macintosh and Tandy sounds to Msound's native format. The company is working on drivers for the Sound Blaster and Multimedia Windows.

Msound provides high-quality sound. Msound has a dynamic range of 96 dB and a signal-to-noise ratio of 60 dB, and can handle sounds with frequencies of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. Unlike the Sound Blaster, Msound doesn't offer sound-in (just sound-out), but it does offer a built-in expansion bus for add-on modules.

The package also includes a sample disk of sounds. There was a bit of distortion in some of them, but the stereo effect was terrific. Unfortunately, the Ad Lib driver doesn't work with all Ad Lib-compatible games. (I couldn't get Red Baron or Stellar 7 to recognize Msound's Ad Lib driver.) The company is working to line up support for Msound's own sound format.

Msound is well worth looking into, whether for a laptop or desktop computer. And when Msound releases its Multimedia Windows drivers, you'll be able to use your computer to hear a flood of new multimedia titles.

What's that you say? How can you run the new multimedia software without a CD-ROM player? And how in the world are you going to hook a CD-ROM player to a laptop computer? Glad you asked. For just $179, you can buy the T338 MiniSCSI Parallel-to-SCSI Host Adapter (Trantor Systems, 5415 Randall Place, Fremont, California 94538; 415-770-1400). The MiniSCSI plugs into your parallel port and instantly adds a SCSI port to your computer. It's small and lightweight (just 2.5 ounces) and works with most SCSI-based CD-ROM players and hard drives. You can daisychain as many as seven SCSI devices together with a single MiniSCSI. The MiniSCSI draws all of the power it needs from the first device fin your SCSI chain.

There's a downside. The MiniSCSI is rated only about half the speed of a high-end multimedia CD-RIM player. According to Jim Switz, marketing manager at Trantor, that's not as bad as it sounds. Because it's difficult for any CD-ROM player to sustain a high speed, the MiniSCSI is generally able to keep up. At the worst, you'll see about a 30-percent reduction in speed.

With these two new devices, even if you have a laptop or slotless desktop, you can still participate in the multimedia revolution.