PC cards can turn your laptop into everything from a pager to a global positioner

It's 35 degrees outside, with a wind-chill factor of zero. Definitely cold enough -- unless you have to keep hundreds of pounds of food frozen. When a freezer goes out, every second means thousands of dollars' worth of food moves closer to becoming lost inventory.

Steve Kizer is the guy whom Furr's Supermarkets Inc. used to call when its freezers broke. In the old days, the head of service for Alpine Refrigeration, an eight-person dealer in commercial freezers and refrigerators in Midland, Tex., had to rush to the store, often a good distance from his office. A few years ago, Kizer's life got easier and his response time faster -- hours faster in some cases. What happened? Alpine got a computer that could diagnose and sometimes even fix problems over a phone line by resetting or adjusting a freezer's controls through an interactive program. But Kizer still had to run back to his office computer when he was paged.

Then Kizer got a laptop computer with an ActionTec Electronics fax/modem ($119 to $2,808; 800-797-7001). Now he simply plugs into the nearest phone line, calls the freezer's control computer through the modem, determines the problem, and in many cases restores service on-line. "The modem paid for itself the first time I used it," he says. And it saves his customers a lot of money.

Laptop computers are a boon to all types of businesses. They allow service technicians, sales representatives, executives, and other remote or on-the-road professionals to collect and organize data. Of course, having information on hand is great. But even more important is putting that information to work. And PC cards are one way companies are doing that. A PC card is a credit card-size piece of hardware, like Kizer's fax/modem, that fits into a slot inside a computer and adds capabilities such as remote equipment diagnosis and repair. In a laptop, a PC card can add applications that are usually available only on networked desktop models. It can also add mobile applications that cannot run on conventional computers.

When they were developed, in 1989, PC cards were called PCMCIA cards, after the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. As the name suggests, the cards were designed to add memory to computers. Ironically, the 16-bit bus and slow bus speed of the early cards limit their use as basic memory in today's computers. Due out soon, however, are new cards that use a 32-bit memory bus. The new cards will make it easy to expand a computer's internal memory and may be a good alternative to replacing an internal drive or buying a new computer. But memory is just the beginning. The list of applications for PC cards has grown as their name has shrunk. From the ubiquitous fax/modem to highly specialized cards used only by engineers and technicians, PC cards can add sound, video, high-speed ISDN communications, CD-ROM and scanner compatibility, and more.

Certain cards have more than one function. The most popular combines a fax/modem with an Ethernet adapter and enables users to sign on to an office network whether they're in the office or on the road. And because of their small size and relatively low power consumption, PC cards are well suited to global-positioning-system (GPS) sensors, wireless LANs, cellular modems, pagers, and other wireless applications.

Yet despite their promise, PC cards, though standardized, still have some glitches. For starters, not all cards work easily or even at all with every brand of laptop. And different laptops have different numbers of slots to plug PC cards into, which means that software usually has to be fiddled with to make everything work.

PC cards for laptops come in three thicknesses, all of which fit a 68-pin socket. Type I cards are 3.3 millimeters (1Ú8 inch) thick and are usually used for simple memory expansion. Type II cards, which are 5 millimeters thick (less than 1Ú4 inch), are used for most Ethernet/fax/modem applications. Type III cards, which are 10.5 millimeters thick (slightly over 3Ú8 inch), are used primarily as tiny hard-disk drives.

Because they have so many business applications, PC cards are hot items. The market-research firm Dataquest reports that an estimated 6.9 million cards were sold in 1995 and predicts that sales will jump to almost 30 million by 1999. Some cards cost as little as $40; special-purpose and big flash memory cards can run into the thousands of dollars. Most cards cost between $70 and $400. Users agree that's a small price to pay for the flexibility the cards offer.

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Opening Lines of Communication
The most common use for PC cards in laptop computers today is to expand communications -- an application that's particularly important for remote or traveling employees who need to use their office's computer-network services. That makes the most popular PC card the fax/modem card, which acts as a computer's "telephone." Most users now opt for modems that can exchange data at 28.8 kb, though the actual speed depends on the conditions on the phone line as well as the software and capability at the other end.

Virtually all modem cards can send and receive faxes as well as data. Delrina's WinFax Pro Lite (shareware that is included with some modems), a simple version of the most popular fax software, and Microsoft's Windows 95 have both fax and data-communications capability. Fax/modems are more practical for transmitting than receiving faxes: they receive a picture of a page, not the characters on the page, which can be difficult to read on a portable computer screen or in a printout.

The prices of fax/modem cards have dropped rapidly in the last few years. Fast cards (28.8 kb) are available today for less than $200. Most fax/modem cards come with an XJACK phone jack -- pioneered by Megahertz -- that just pops out of the card, and some cards allow a cellular-phone hookup by means of a separate "pigtail" connector.

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One dedicated user of the fax/modem is David Lincecum, West Coast sales manager for Electronic Theatre Controls (ETC) Inc., a $40-million company in Middleton, Wis. ETC makes lighting controls and fixtures for theaters, television studios, and concert stages. Lincecum keeps in touch with ETC's main office with a laptop computer containing a 28.8-kb Megahertz fax/modem ($349 to $589; 800-LAPTOPS). "I use fax and E-mail a lot," says the Los Angeles-based sales manager. "I'm constantly on the road, and the computer helps me keep in touch with my own company as well as my clients. It's almost like being there with them."

Lincecum plugs his computer into phone lines at home, in hotels, in customers' offices, and at airports. For example, he often downloads his E-mail messages before boarding a plane, prepares responses in flight, and uploads his replies when he lands. "It saves me hours of time every week," he says.

Lincecum also uses his laptop to retrieve software and presentations from the factory and to operate his office desktop computer. He can do anything from outside the office that he can do in it. The only drawback: The display of information on the screen of his laptop can be slow.

The theater expert also finds his laptop and modem are good company when he travels because they give him access to theater news via the Internet. "It's like a community," he says, adding that he enjoys Web surfing from hotel rooms. "It beats watching TV."

Sharing gathered information is another important application PC cards offer. John Peszek knew that he needed to automate Mortgage Bancorp Services, his 15-person mortgage-brokerage business, so he bought the laptop computers and specialized software that his staff needed in order to enter vital data in the field. So all that information could be shared after it was entered, he turned to Ethernet PC cards and EtherLink III network adapters from 3Com ($125 to $549; 800-NET3COM), which link the laptops to the Palatine, Ill., company's Novell network. The cards serve the same function as the larger Ethernet cards installed in the company's desktop computers and servers: they transfer data transparently at up to 10 megabits per second.

Like Megahertz fax/modem cards, some Ethernet PC cards come with pop-out connectors for the telephone: Type 10BASE-T modular connectors are common in Ethernet networks, while a pigtail connector is sometimes needed for the BNC connectors in other networks. Ethernet cards typically cost $200 to $400 and are manufactured by a number of companies, including Xircom, the market leader.

Keeping in touch is a two-way process. Not only do travelers have to contact their companies; their companies have to stay in touch with them. Pagers and cellular phones allow that, but they can be annoying and intrusive at times. The O.J. Simpson trial, for example, was enough of a circus without beeping pagers and ringing cellular phones interrupting the proceedings. So Judge Lance Ito, like most of his colleagues, banned their use in court. How did famed trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey stay in touch with the outside world? The Socket PageCard (from Socket Communications, $350 to $400, plus a monthly service fee of $19.95; 800-552-3300), a pager on a PC card that can be used by itself with a small internal screen or in a laptop computer. When it's plugged into a computer, a message window pops up whenever a message is received. "It's been extremely useful," says Bailey, who had never used a pager before the Simpson trial. "I'd recommend it to any trial lawyer. Judges usually permit computers in court, and it allows lawyers to receive their messages without disrupting the proceedings."

Once data are gathered and shared, they must be kept safe. Copying a hard drive directly to a floppy disk or magnetic tape is the standard way to back up files. But some users prefer to transfer information to Type I memory cards. Type III cards, which contain a tiny, 1.8-inch hard-disk drive, are a more expensive but very effective way to protect critical information.

After losing vital data to a disk failure, Kenn Miller, a franchised real-estate broker for RE/MAX Central, in Denver, now faithfully copies data from his laptop's internal disk drive to a 340-MB PC-card disk drive from Integral Peripherals ($500; 303-449-8009).

Another approach to backing up critical data is the flash memory card, which contains a type of semiconductor memory that can store information indefinitely without power. This kind of card is still quite expensive -- around $1,500 for 40 MB -- but the price per megabyte is dropping, and capacity is growing rapidly. Other users employ a SCSI (small computer-system interface) PC card to connect their computers to external tape drives or removable-cartridge disk drives.

Text-based information is much more common today than other types of information, but the capture and transmission of graphics are growing. Burr Oak Tool and Gauge, a Sturgis, Mich., company that builds production equipment for the manufacture of air-conditioning and heating products, uses photographs in its instruction manuals. At one time, advertising director Art Oswald had to take photographs, have the film developed, and then scan slides to get digital images for the company's documents. With Quadrant International's video- and image-capture CardCAM-VideoIN ($399; 800-700-0362), Oswald found he could take pictures with a camcorder, connect the camcorder to the PC card in his computer, and create files for use in the company's technical manuals and instruction books. "This really cut the time and effort required," says Oswald. "It was easy to use the camcorder, and the software for the card was excellent."

The Quadrant card can also capture moving images, but saving them takes a lot of disk space. Cards from other suppliers such as New Media ($179 to $499; 800-CARDS4U) can turn portable PCs into multimedia players, adding audio and video and providing a SCSI for CD-ROM drives and other external peripherals.

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Going Wireless
PC cards not only give laptop computers desktop capabilities but also turn them into mobile communication centers by allowing local-area- or even wide-area-network wireless communications.

Modern Technologies Inc. was just waiting for wireless LAN adapters. The 26-person Atlanta-based consulting firm helps companies in the insurance and health fields hold "electronic" meetings. Instead of blurting out ideas, participants, who remain anonymous, type them into computers -- a process that both equalizes participation and keeps an ongoing record of what is discussed and decided.

Laptop computers loaded with wireless PC cards eliminate the need for complex wiring or external peripherals and end restrictions on movement. Facilitator Harry Powell, of the business engineering firm Powell & Co., in Atlanta, helped Modern Technologies put together a system using laptops connected by Xircom's CreditCard Netwave wireless LAN PC cards (adapter $399, access point $1,499, starter kit of two adapters and one access point, $799; 800-438-4526) and Ventana's GroupSystems software (prices vary; 800-368-6338). The wireless feature simplifies setup and makes it easier for participants to break up into smaller groups. "It's a lot more productive to use computers than flip charts and Post-Its," Powell claims.

Wireless technology has also been a boon to Ted Curtis, who, with his wife, Kara, runs Ted's Cafe Escondido, a 90-seat Mexican restaurant in Oklahoma City. Since it opened, in October 1991, the restaurant's annual sales have grown from $300,000 to $1.9 million. Curtis attributes a lot of that success to improving customer service through technology, including a table-management system and the pagers he gives patrons so they can choose a movie at a nearby Blockbuster store while they're waiting for a table.

Cafe Escondido serves about 1,000 people a day, and as many as 145 people can be waiting in line at any one time to eat. The table-management system, engineered by Dallas-based Rock Systems, manages reservations, seating, the service bay, the bus station, and even the tables themselves. "We used to have one employee just checking tables," Curtis explains. "Now it's automatic." In addition, the hostess uses a wireless Fujitsu ST-500 RF tablet PC with a Proxim RangeLAN2 PC-card adapter ($695; 800-229-1630) to enter waiting customers' names. The tablet communicates with the table-management system and then estimates how long customers will have to wait.

Curtis says the system has really paid off. "It used to take four to five minutes to reseat a table; now it can be done in two." That may not sound like much, but Curtis served 100 more people the first Saturday night the system was operating. That's a big increase for a 90-seat restaurant.

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The Final Frontier
As wireless communication expands the reach of computers beyond the confines of solid matter, space-generated information has joined earthbound data traveling the world. Businesspeople on the road using wireless systems are finding it easier to get where they're going using global positioning systems, which take information from satellites orbiting the earth. This is one of the fastest-growing applications for PC cards. Soon, two-way satellite communications should be available as well.

David Whitlock, a photographer for The Real Estate Book, a real-estate publication put out by Donnin Publishing, in northern New Jersey, has already found the GPS connection invaluable. Whitlock photographs up to 90 houses a day, so he needs to know where he is and where he's going. That's why he started using Road Scholar's City Streets for Windows mapping software on his IBM ThinkPad computer. The software highlights a house by city and street address on Whitlock's computer screen. "It is much easier to use than a map," he says.

Recently Whitlock added a Trimble Mobile GPS PC card ($599; 800-827-8000) to the system. A biscuit-shaped external antenna receives signals from multiple satellites whizzing overhead. A large map of the area tells Whitlock the general direction in which to travel. As he gets closer to his destination, he can zoom in on smaller streets and more details, right down to individual house numbers.

GPSs can help on the farm as well as in the city. Russell Anderson has a problem shared by many farmers: different soil conditions throughout his 600-acre Anderson Angus Farms, in Syracuse, Ind. "We need to augment the soil where appropriate, yet not waste fertilizer on land that isn't capable of high yields," he says. Like other small farmers, Anderson is turning to technology to solve his problems and to make his business more competitive.

Anderson uses a PC card to monitor the productivity of different fields. A sensor in his combine's temporary storage bin tracks crop yield as the machine cuts and threshes the fields. The farm's computer system then merges that information with GPS data. The data are stored on an Epson ATA Flash Card ($285 to $1,460; 800-922-8911) that holds one day's results. Anderson has two cards. He switches them each day so that his fertilizer supplier can read the output on a laptop computer and prepare yield-versus-location maps for the farm. The supplier uses the maps to plan fertilizer, pesticide, and other soil treatments in preparation for the next crop.

According to Anderson, the technology is "fantastic." "It would be prohibitive to do this by hand," he says. The system has been up and running for just two years, but it's already saved Anderson money on fertilizer. "It will take longer to test the system fully, but there's no way it won't pay for itself in the future."

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Paul Franson (paul@franson.com) is a freelance editor and writer specializing in technology.


1 ActionTec ComNet Fax/Modem + Ethernet adapter

2 Xircom CreditCard Netwave wireless LAN adapter

3 Socket PageCard wireless messaging receiver

4 Megahertz PCMCIA modem

5 Epson 20 MB ATA Flash Card

6 3Com EtherLink III LAN + Modem PC Card

7 Integral Viper 340 PC Card hard drive

8 Quadrant CardCAM-VideoIN video capture card

9 Trimble Mobile GPS card

10 Proxim RangeLAN2 wireless LAN adapter

Two good sources on the World Wide Web for information about PC cards, including vendor and product lists, are the home pages of the PCMCIA (http://www.pc-card.com) and of market researcher Andy Prophet (http://www.apresearch.com). n