Sep 272007

There’s been a rather disturbing trend lately.

In recent times, we’ve all seen a very high increase in the number of players in the portable computing market, and a significant reduction in the cost of laptops. People are demanding more features packed in, higher performance, etc. This is fine… however it seems laptop manufacturers overlook those of us who still use dated interfaces such as PCMCIA/Cardbus, Parallel ports, and RS232.

Now okay, I can see that there’s a need to cut costs, and that there’s limited space… but surely somewhere in these laptops, there’s room for a lowly MAX232 and a DB9 male socket? Most of the manufacturers cater for the “average user”, who probably has no idea what to use these ports for and thus never use them. There are, however, numerous places where one finds themselves needing a proper RS232 port. What on earth for?

  • Serial consoles — a very convenient way to run servers that normally are accessed remotely.
  • Programming various embedded devices — such as PLCs and microcontrollers.
  • Driving simple logic devices — why complicate things with USB when parallel or serial port interfaces will suffice?

In my experience, USB<->RS232 serial converters aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. We bought one (an ATEN one based on the PL2303 IC) to use with a Lego Mindstorms RCX kit we have (the IR transceiver connects via RS232). It works for hooking up to a serial console quite well… but it demonstrates all kinds of quirks when using it with the Mindstorms kit — the faults being intermittent in nature.

The same device, also acts up when I use it at university to program some Rabbit Semiconductor RCM4000-series microcontrollers. I tell the programming environment to use COM4: (the assigned device name under Windows XP) and that it’s a USB device. Things seem fine, until I try loading my compiled program onto the microcontroller… the loader fails to detect it. Switch back to COM1:, plug the microcontroller into that port, voila… everything works.

At the moment, I’m keen to keep my present laptop (Toshiba TE2100) going as long as possible. It has a few quirks (e.g. no OpenGL under Linux, issues with USB on resuming from suspend under both Linux and Windows XP, and a LCD backlight that started acting up recently), but largely works okay, and comes complete with all the legacy ports I require. The only thing I miss is a Line-In socket for ripping my vinyl records. However I realise that I may need to upgrade in the next few years.

My needs as a customer are unusual … a lot of people seem to want ├╝ber gaming rigs or multimedia systems… for me, I’m after a workstation that’ll work well with Linux. So high-end OpenGL isn’t a priority, I’d sooner get a laptop with Intel graphics, and put up with somewhat lesser 3D performance under Win32, than deal with the pain that is proprietary drivers under Linux. Heck… even just good accelerated 2D is acceptable — I rarely use 3D.

Cardbus/PCMCIA is important, since I have a lot of legacy PCMCIA devices such as network cards that I’d like to continue to use — sometimes multiple network cards is useful. I sometimes do use my laptop as a router, and would sooner use one of the spare Xircom PCMCIA cards I have lying around, than fork out for a USB ethernet device (I have one… but they’re more expensive than PCMCIA cards).

A proper RS232 port is important for my needs as outlined above.

Presently, I’m holding off for as long as I can. I know I’m going to have fun getting a laptop with no OS (or failing that, Windows XP… I don’t like Vista, and refuse to buy it) from the usual suppliers. Looking around though, everyone seems to be keen on inflicting USB on me — sorry guys, not good enough! I’m watching what Lemote is doing with keen interest. Having used the Fulong PCs for a while, I’m really quite impressed by them.

Lemote do make a laptop version of the Fulong, with very similar hardware. I have no idea how much they cost (the Fulong PCs are about AU$260 depending on exchange rates) but I’ve found the Fulongs do almost everything I need to do. The upcomming Loongson 2F processor in a laptop would be awesome.

The Loongson 2E used in these Fulongs implements a subset of the MIPS3 ISA. runs at up to 800MHz, and draws 20W of power. The Loongson 2F apparently will fully implement MIPS64r2, exceed 1GHz clock speed, and draw just 5W. Some good power management, and I could see a laptop based on one of these, lasting several hours on a charge. And of course, it’d likely run Linux flawlessly. Gentoo already runs extremely well on the Fulong. The only downside being unable to run many proprietary apps.

I only hope that some of the major companies (Yes, Apple, Dell, Lenovo, Asus, Toshiba, Acer… anyone else…) could reconsider their desire to drop these still-needed interfaces. While the general population might find them useless, that’s still no reason to take them away from those who do use them!