ExpressCard Standard To Replace Larger PC Cards

A significant step to broaden the use of PC Cards in desktop computers was taken today by the PCMCIA industry standards group.

The PCMCIA group — a nonprofit trade association founded in 1989 to establish technical standards for PC Card technology and to promote interchangeability among computer systems — announced the first version of its standard for ExpressCard, a technology that’s expected to replace PC Card slots found most commonly in notebook computers.

The new standard, revealed at the Intel Developers Forum in San Jose, California,will deliver the reliability and convenience of the PC Card in a smaller package with better performance than the existing technology, the PCMCIA group said in a statement.

Absent from Desktops

While PC Card technology has been widely adopted in notebook computers, desktop makers have dragged their feet on incorporating the devices into their machines.

“PC Card technology requires some pretty expensive solutions in order to accommodate them,” PCMCIA president Brad Saunders, of Intel, told TechNewsWorld. “Whether true or not, it was deemed to be too expensive for desktop application.”

The new ExpressCard standard, though, should remove many of the headaches associated with the old technology. That’s because ExpressCard is compatible with another new technology, PCI Express, which will be moving into the architecture of desktop computers later this year or early in 2004.

Serial Replaces Parallel

PCI Express replaces the current parallel PCI bus technology with a serial technology. But it’s not expected to remove the need for PCI cards in the future. “PCI slots are going to be around for many, many years,” Pierce said. “There’s a lot of investment in those cards.”

Because ExpressCard can be sourced directly from the chipset with no other controller logic required, it’s the right time for this technology to be introduced into the desktop client market, Tony Pierce, chairman of PCI-SIG, the special interest group responsible for PCI Express, told TechNewsWorld.

ExpressCard reduces the complexity of system and card implementation by providing a hot-pluggable card expansion capability that supports sealed desktop boxes and thinner laptop designs.

Talking Native

By building the standard on PCI Express and USB 2.0 interfaces, which are now native to most desktop chipsets and motherboard configurations, manufacturers no longer have the cost burden of a bridge component.

By the same token, card makers can reduce their costs by using an array of standard silicon in their products.

According to Saunders, ExpressCard is a milestone in the evolution of modular system expansion. “It is zeroing in on the next-generation interconnect inside the platform that’s going to be around for the next 10 years,” he said.

PCI Express Rally

“We’re making a very significant transition from the old parallel bus PC architectures to serial bus architectures as rallied around PCI Express,” he added.

ExpressCard also will enable card makers to accommodate future developments that might make increased demands on their hardware, according to Pierce. “They’ve been able to shrink their form factor while giving themselves some headroom to accommodate greater bandwidth applications moving forward,” he said.

A broad coalition stands behind the new standard. It includes Dell, HP, Intel, Lexar Media, Microsoft, SCM Microsystems and Texas Instruments.

Smaller Size

ExpressCard modules will be available in two sizes — large and small — much like the PCMCIA Type I and Type II cards today, except much smaller. A system conceivably could provide any combination of slots for either width of module.

“Smaller hardware platform vendors will have the ability to put in multiple slots without increasing the volume of their product,” Saunders said.

“Two widths provide flexibility for the system vendors,” he added. “Smaller modules take up less space in the system, but there are also some applications which have a physical requirement for the wider module, such as Compact Flash card readers, security card readers and 1.8-inch rotating media.”

ExpressCard products are expected to begin entering the market in the second half of 2004. “The industry is poised to make this transition very quickly,” Pierce said.

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