Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 167 / AUGUST 1994 / PAGE 68

Multimedia on the road. (products) (Multimedia PC) (Cover Story) (Cover Story)
by David English

Remember the TV ad where someone accidentally drops his peanut butter into a vat of chocolate? At first he's angry, but then he discovers that these two great flavors taste even better when mixed together.

Now imagine someone accidentally combining two of the computer industry's hottest products--a notebook computer and a multimedia desktop PC. Instead of a new culinary delight, you would have the first true personal computer. This new hybrid could run your multimedia business presentations, help you maneuver your plane in a flight simulator game, verbally congratulate you on your achievements, and even follow your spoken commands. And you would no longer be restricted to disk-based software; you could use the rapidly expanding universe of multimedia CD-ROMs. No doubt about it--this is what portable computing was meant to be.

So how do we get from today's no-nonsense notebooks to tomorrow's song-and-dance, life-of-the-party portables? How much will it cost, and what do you have to give up in portability to get there?

We'll look at three different routes to portable multimedia: the new integrated multimedia portables, add-in PCMCIA multimedia cards, and multimedia devices that plug into your portable computer's parallel port. Whether you plan to buy a multimedia portable in the future or want to add sound and a CD-ROM drive to your current portable, you'll find that there are more options than ever for taking multimedia on the road.

Made to Order

In a perfect world, you could have a portable computer that included both a sound card and a CD-ROM drive--and still weighed less than four pounds. In our not-so-perfect world, you'll have to make some compromises--light weight and long battery life don't generally mix with multimedia (though the situation is getting better each year).

If you want the whole thing in a single box, there aren't many choices. Aquiline (518-272-0421) makes a battery-operated portable, called the Hurricane, with an internal CD-ROM drive, a sound chip on the motherboard, a ten-inch active matrix color screen that has 256 colors at 640 x 480, and a 540MB removable hard drive. It also includes a 66-MHz 486DX2 processor, 20MB of RAM, a Type II PCMCIA slot, and a Western Digital Graphics Accelerator Chip. Given the features, it's a wonder that the Hurricane weighs only ten pounds and, according to the company, has a battery life of over three hours. This unique machine may well predict the future of portable computing, but if you buy it today, it will set you back $7,095. A version with the new 75-MHz 486DX4 processor costs $8,855.

Toshiba (800-334-3445) has a similar portable that doesn't run on batteries, weighs more, and is somewhat larger. The 18.7-pound T6600C/CD features a 66-MHz 486DX2 processor with an optional 128K turbo cache, a 510MB hard drive, a video graphics accelerator chip with BitBLT, a 10.4-inch active matrix color screen with 256 colors at 640 x 480, 8MB of RAM, an internal double-speed CD-ROM drive, Microsoft Sound System (built into the motherboard), built-in speakers and microphone, two full-length 16-bit ISA slots, and a SCSI port. With the built-in speakers and microphone, the T6600C/CD really is an all-in-one solution, though the weight and the $8,299 price will slow down most of us.

The Toshiba also comes in two variations--one with more multimedia features and one with fewer. The version with more features is the standard T6600C/CD with an optional Zantares/Intel ActionMedia-II upgrade ($1,570). The upgrade uses both of the portable's 16-bit ISA slots and lets you add multimedia daughterboards based on DVI, JPEG, MPEG, and other full-motion digital video formats. The version with fewer features is the T6600C ($7,699), which is identical to the T6600C/CD, except that it doesn't include an internal CD-ROM drive.

A nearly all-in-one solution is to buy a notebook computer with built-in sound and add a portable CD-ROM drive, either through a PCMCIA card or through a parallel-port adapter. Or you could buy a notebook computer with a built-in CD-ROM drive and add a sound device, either through a PCMCIA card or through a parallel-port adapter. As I mentioned above, you can buy the sound card-equipped T6600C, which is a T6600C/CD without the CD-ROM drive. Similarly, Aquiline offers three models of its Hurricane notebook computer that don't include CD-ROM drives, though each of them includes a sound chip on the motherboard, has two Type II PCMCIA slots, and weighs about six pounds. The model with a 33-MHz 486DX/SL processor, a 200MB hard drive, and a dual-scan color display costs $2,995; the model with a 33-MHz 486DX/SL processor, a 200MB hard drive, and an active matrix color display costs $3,995; and the model with a 66-MHz 486DX2/SL processor, a 540MB hard drive, and an active matrix color display costs $4,995.

Panasonic (800-742-8086) also sells a notebook computer with a built-in CD-ROM drive. The Panasonic V21 includes a multimedia pocket that accepts any of four optional peripherals: an internal CD-ROM drive, a video pack, a floppy drive, or an additional battery pack. The monochrome model costs $2,599, while the active matrix color model lists for $4,199. The optional CD-ROM drive is $499.

All in the Cards

Admittedly, the portables above are still expensive, though the prices are coming down. And these dedicated portables are of little help to those of us who have already bought notebook computers.

Fortunately, most new notebook computers come equipped with one or two PCMCIA slots, which accept a variety of PCMCIA expansion cards--including sound cards, SCSI adapters for CD-ROM drives, and even a video input card. According to the Dataquest research firm, more than 80 percent of the notebook computers that will ship in 1994 will have at least one PCMCIA slot.

Some companies are even offering multimedia PCMCIA cards as options with new notebook computers. Compaq (800-345-1518) offers New Media's WAVjammer PCMCIA sound card as an option with its popular LTE Elite series. Austin Computer Systems' new Multimedia Notebook Systems include a MediaMagic PCMCIA sound card; a 32-bit local bus; accelerated video; a choice of active matrix color, dual-scan STN color, or monochrome display; and a set of stereo computer speakers. A PCMCIA SCSI interface is available as an option. The version with a 66-MHz 486DX2 processor, 8MB of RAM, a 340MB hard drive, and an active matrix color display with 256 colors at 640 x 480 costs $4,999. And both Compaq and Toshiba offer proprietary SCSI adapters for many of their current PCMCIA-equipped notebook computers.

If your notebook has two PCMCIA slots, you should be able to convert it into an MPC-compatible machine. PCMCIA slots are backwardly compatible according to type. A Type III slot can accept Type I, Type II, and Type III cards; a Type II slot can accept Type I and Type II cards; but a Type I slot can accept only Type I cards. Fortunately, among the many PCMCIA sound and SCSI cards released over the past six months, there are several Type I cards that should work in almost any PCMCIA slot.

For a fully MPC-compatible sound card, check out the Pro Audio PCMCIA from Media Vision (800-348-7116). It's a Type II PCMCIA sound card that's fully compatible with both Level 1 and Level 2 MPC standards. The 16-bit card supports sample rates as high as 48 kHz and is fully Sound Blaster and Ad Lib compatible. It includes an on-board FM synthesizer, a built-in MIDI interface, 4 : 1 audio compression/decompression, and even a joystick port. The bundled utilities include a voice recognition program, a text-to-speech program, and a set of applications for recording audio, editing audio, and controlling audio CDs in a CD-ROM drive. The Pro Audio PCMCIA has a suggested retail price of $299.

The WAVjammer from New Media (800-453-0550) is also a 16-bit PCMCIA sound card, but--being a Type I card--it will fit into any PCMCIA slot. The .WAVjammer has an on-board FM synthesizer, a 32K DMA buffer that allows the card to operate using less than 2 percent of the CPU, low-power 100-mA operation with 1-mA standby mode, and an ultrathin six-inch cable with one-eighth-inch stereo jacks for headset, microphone, line-in, and line-out. The card is bundled with Microsoft Windows Sound System 2.0, which includes voice recognition, text-to-speech, compression/decompression, and audio-recording and -playback programs. It's both Sound Blaster and Ad Lib compatible (in DOS) and costs $399.

Yet another full-featured PCMCIA sound card is available from I/OMagic (714-721-6960). The Tempo ($399) is a Type II card with 8- and 12-bit stereo recording, four-operator FM synthesis, a 32K on-card buffer, full MIDI playback support, and a MIDI output interface. The card is compatible with Windows Sound System and Sound Blaster and Ad Lib games, and comes with several Windows audio drivers and controls.

DSP Solutions (415-494-8086) will take a slightly different approach with its soon-to-be-shipping PORT.ABLE Sound PCMCIA card (price not available). It will come with everything you might need, including a built-in microphone, portable speaker, stereo jack for headphones, and volume control. The Type II card will be Sound Blaster compatible (except with DOS-based applications that use a DOS extender), will play back in either 8- or 16-bit mode, and will support various forms of compression in realtime.

If all you need is mono sound from Windows, check out Audio Advantage from Turtle Beach Systems (800-645-5640). This 12-bit monoonly Type II PCMCIA card offers three different interface connectors, two fullfeatured MIDI ports (with MIDI In, MIDI Out, and MIDI Thru), and a power management system that ensures the lowest possible power consumption when the card isn't being used. Best of all, the list price is only $159.

For a PCMCIA card that will let you hook your notebook computer into an external SCSI-based CD-ROM drive, take a look at New Media's Bus Toaster ($359), which can produce a sustained random read and write data rate of over 1MB per second, with burst rates as high as 5MB per second. That makes it as fast as a standard ISA-bus SCSI interface card. The Bus Toaster is a Type I card that draws just 190 mA when in use (250 mA is the proposed standard) and 15 mA when asleep. It ships with CorelSCSI version 2 and should work with virtually all SCSI and SCSI-2 peripherals.

QLogic (714-668-5359) recently announced its second-generation Fast!SCSI PCMCIA host adapter, which has a transfer rate of 10MB per second. This Type I card features hot insertion and removal, includes the CorelSCSI software for both hard drives and CD-ROM drives, carries a full five-year warranty, and has a suggested list price of $229.95.

Other SCSI PCMCIA cards include the Explorer ($399) from I/OMagic, a Type I card that features hot insertion and removal; SlimSCSI ($349) from Adaptec (800-934-2766), a Type II card that features a 2MB-per-second transfer rate; and SCSI2GO ($329) from Future Domain (714-253-0400), a Type II card that features data rates as high as 10MB per second, a 2K internal buffer, and a power requirement of 210 mW when operating.

Finally, I/OMagic lets you capture live video with its I/OMagic Focus video input card. The Type II PCMCIA card can capture live-motion video at up to 30 fps (frames per second), with a typical capture rate of 15-24 fps. Focus uses 100 mW when operating and just 1 mW in standby mode; it costs $499.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

What about older portables that don't have PCMCIA slots? What can you do to upgrade them to multimedia? Unless they have a special provision for a SCSI adapter (as Compaq, Toshiba, and NEC have with some of their portables), you're pretty much restricted to using the parallel port. And you'll probably be able to plug in either a CD-ROM drive or a sound device--but not both at the same time.

The major problem with using the parallel port is speed. Unless you have an EPP (Enhanced Parallel Port), your CD-ROM drive won't be fast enough to meet the MPC specification (even the Level 1 spec), and your sound device won't be able to support true 16-bit sampling and playback. The new EPP standard promises to turn the parallel port into a daisychain for peripherals, much like the SCSI standard, though few of today's portables support it, and almost none of the portables from years past do.

If your portable has only one PCMCIA slot and your parallel port isn't an EPP, your best bet is to use your PCMCIA slot for a SCSI card and your parallel port for a sound device. You won't have 16-bit sound, but that's generally not as bad as having a CD-ROM drive that's far below today's Level 2 MPC standard.

DSP Solutions offers a powerful, if somewhat bulky, sound device that plugs into the parallel port. The PORT.ABLE Sound Plus ($198.95) has a built-in speaker, 16-bit stereo play-back, full Windows audio support, Sound Blaster and Ad Lib emulation (except with programs that use a DOS extender), a parallel-port pass-through for your printer, and DSP (Digital Signal Processor) technology. It runs on AA batteries, a nicad battery, or AC power.

If you don't need DOS program support, take a look at AudioMan ($179) from Logitech (800-231-7717). It works only with Windows, but is more compact than the PORT.ABLE Sound Plus. It doesn't have a parallel-port pass-through, which may not be a problem unless you use a printer when traveling.

Media Vision has designed a very compact parallel-port sound device, called the Audioport. It's pocket-size, and it has full Windows support, limited Sound Blaster and Ad Lib compatibility (generally, it works with any DOS program that will run under Windows), a built-in speaker, and both microphone and external speaker jacks. In addition, it can run on either batteries or AC power. When it first came out, the Audioport cost $199. I've seen it available through Media Vision Resource (800-684-6699) at the closeout price of $65, which is a terrific deal if you need a parallelport sound device this small.

There are quite a few portable CD-ROM drives that can plug into your parallel port--but keep in mind that if your portable doesn't have an EPP, your parallelport CD-ROM drive will run much more slowly than the standard internal CD-ROM drives found on desktop computers. Of course, you can plug these same portable SCSI CD-ROM drives directly into a SCSI PCMCIA card and retain the full speed of the drive.

The portable MultiSpin 3Xp (NEC, 800-NEC-INFO, $455) is a triple-speed drive (450K per second) with an access time of 250 ms. It's fully MPC Level 2 compatible, and it features a switchable (SCSI and SCSI-2) interface. The 3Xp weighs just 2.4 pounds without its optional battery pack and also runs on AC power. The parallel-port kit, which supports EPP, is an extra $160.

An especially versatile portable CD-ROM drive comes from Media Vision. It's called the Reno Personal CD-ROM Player ($349), and it doubles as a stand-alone audio-CD player. Reno is a double-speed drive (306K per second) with a 64K buffer, has an access speed of less than 180 ms, features a SCSI-2 interface, and can run on a nicad battery or AC power. It doesn't come with a parallel-to-SCSI adapter, so you would have to buy the adapter separately.

Toshiba's newest portable CD-ROM drive weighs just 1.5 pounds. The CD-400A is a double-speed drive (300K per second) with an access time of 320 ms. It's fully MPC Level 2 compatible, and it costs $415. For more information, you can call Toshiba's Disk Products Division at (714) 457-0777.

Finally, DISCTEC (800-553-0337) sells a family of parallelport devices that fall under the name of RoadRunner Express. The RoadRunner Express CD-2x ($529) is a double-speed drive (up to 350K per second), has a motorized front tray for convenient loading, and weighs 3.5 pounds. Using its autosense, it can pick the optimal data rate, whether your parallel port is a unidirectional port, a bidirectional port, an ECP (Extended Capabilities Port), or an EPP. The CD-2x runs on AC power only.

On the Road Again

By the end of the year, we should see more notebook computers with built-in sound, more EPP support, and a new PCMCIA 3.0 standard, which will feature a faster throughput using a 32-bit data path. With the faster processors, larger hard drives, and color screens found in today's notebook computers, portable computing is about to go multimedia in a big way.