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Friday 7 July 2006

ExpressCard - pointless? [Lurks]

Every now and again interfaces which have been used in computers for donkey's years need an upgrade. Technology moves on, we need more bandwidth, better power facilities, superior connection form factors. The benefits of the technology are rolled out to consumers in marketing messages and products appear on the market with the new connections and deliver what consumers need. Examples of this are AGP, PCI-Express, USB and S-ATA.
Here's one you probably don't know about: CardExpress. This is a long awaited upgrade for your standard PCMCIA/Cardbus slot which has been present on laptops since the begining of time. On the face of it, this is a good thing. It's smaller, which is handy for smaller laptops and freeing up space in laptops of the same size. It's also a heck of a lot faster, meaning you can do things like interface hard drives through it at full speed. Even, potentially, graphics cards.
There's a problem though. The problem is this; no one told consumers about it. This interface is basically as likely to appear on any brand new laptop you buy today. That's a bad thing you ask quizically? Why yes it is because there's been none of the consumer marketing message out there which means that the entire industry has singularly failed to develop the necessary market forces to develop the head of steam and push actual CardExpress product that you can buy. That's right, there's no CardExpress products. Not one. Go look in retailers if you like.
Things that wouldn't be unreasonable to have on CardExpress might include such crazy things as TV tuners, sound cards and wireless cards. All the stuff out there in the channel in immense volume and very popular add-ons for laptops. Particularly since more and more laptops are being used as a primary computer in the home.
So you get one of these brand spanking new laptops and you find you can't install third party wireless. Your probably stuck with the lame old 802.11g vanilla from Intel rather than something really spiffy like Airgo's Gen 3 wireless. Maybe you'd like to use a 3G card on your brand new 15-inch slim and light laptop? Bzzt! No ExpressCard 3G cards on the market and, I'm reliably informed, Vodafone at least has no plans to release one any time soon.
Surely the honchos have a plan. They wouldn't foist this on everyone with nary a bang or a whisper right? Well, I'm here to tell you that the industry's answer to this is USB. Basically you, the consumer, are expected to get past this drought of ExpressCard products and having to throw away your existing PCMCIA/Cardbus gear, by plugging in USB devices.
Yet naturally enough there's a number of products which simply do not exist in USB form factor yet including 3G cards. Others, like sound cards, are highly undesirable on the USB interface due to hideous on CPU consumption - you'd be better off with the nasty and noisy internal audio. This whole development is, in short, a massive inconvienience to a hell of a lot of people using laptops today. The only reason it's been allowed to happen is that the guys who design laptops have no vested interest in selling you peripherals. In fact they'd rather build everything you need into the laptop and, of course, if you can't buy something you need to upgrade your laptop - they'd quite like to sell you a new laptop with that functionality.
This is a remarkably scandalous development. My advice? Be damn certain you don't want to use any PCMCIA devices on your brand spanking new laptop or simply look for one that does have the old faithful connector. I don't see there is any point in CardExpress for the next year at least so bare that in mind when you're choosing a laptop model.


  1. Yeah, noticed this when I specced up a Dell 9400 in the uberlappy thread. It doesn't have PCMCIA, which I'm sure is daft as a badger for those corporate whore types who want a 3G card!

  2. There are some EVDO cards we are seeing on the horizon, but given that Vodafone's latest and greatest HSPDA card is Cardbus, as you say it'll be a long time. There are some USB to Cardbus adaptors out there, but frankly it's better to use a 3G phone and dial-up through Bluetooth