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Shrinking card technology down to size

September 22, 1999
Web posted at: 11:18 a.m. EDT (1518 GMT)

by Kip Meacham

Network World Fusion

(IDG) -- An emerging standard will soon help computer designers put integrated network functions into smaller spaces than ever before and will give laptop users easier access to new communications technologies.

Chartered by the PCI Special Interest Group in 1998, the Mini PCI specification defines an internal interface card - smaller than a standard business card and as thin as 5mm - with features equivalent to a standard PCI expansion card.

Mini PCI is targeted initially at modems, network interface cards (NIC) and combinations of the two. It will give system designers a standard footprint - actually, three specific form factors - within which they can place the network I/O functions of next-generation laptops and other devices.
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Also, Mini PCI will make product selection easier for network managers charged with ordering and installing laptop computers for their companies' telecommuters and other mobile users. Traditionally, net managers have had to take whatever modems or NICs their suppliers offered and were reluctant to go to custom configurations for large orders.

The standard will make it possible for net managers to order precisely the communications options their users want. And as new communications technologies, such as cell phone adapters, ISDN, digital subscriber line and cable modems, become integrated in laptops, users of Mini PCI machines will be able to migrate quickly, through relatively simple field upgrades.

PCI electronics

Mini PCI uses essentially the same electronics, PCI signals and software drivers as a standard PCI expansion card and behaves in the system like a PCI Version 2.2-compliant peripheral. As in the PCI Local Bus Specification, Mini PCI uses a 32-bit data path to optimize performance in contemporary 32-bit systems.

Like the current PCI standard, the Mini PCI specification calls for power management as outlined in the PCI Power Management Version 1.1 specification, and adds requirements specifically for power-conscious notebook system designs.

Unlike the PCI standard, however, Mini PCI is focused on communications. Because of this, it includes buses and signals that are not part of the PCI standard to support audio, modem tip and ring, and LAN I/O functions.

The most visible difference between PCI and Mini PCI involves packaging and size. Because Mini PCI is internally mounted, extra packaging - the PC Card frame for removable cards and its associated cover and trim - is eliminated.

Also, Mini PCI is about one-half to two-thirds the size of typical PC Card devices. This compact design makes it possible for laptops to integrate Mini PCI devices and still accommodate the conventional PC Card slot for expansion and other functions.

Each form factor specifies certain "regions" on the card for system connectors, modem I/O and LAN I/O cable headers or connectors, with the remainder of the board area available for the functional design. Importantly, the standard additionally sets aside a region for alternate I/O connections that might accommodate future applications, such as cellular connections, ISDN and other nonstandard communications functions.

The Mini PCI standard promises to make users happy by speeding delivery times from laptop vendors because the vendors will be able to employ build-to-order/configure-to-order techniques to vary modem or NIC configurations even within the same computer model.

Also, users and network managers will find upkeep simplified, thanks to the fact that the standard permits field maintenance as well as field upgrades.

Users can expect Mini PCI-enabled systems to turn up soon. The specification's production release Version 1.0 is set for the second half of 1999.

Member companies of the Mini PCI Working Group include 3Com, AMD, AMP, Compaq, Conexant, Dell, Gateway, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Micron, Mobility Electronics, Molex, Sony, Toshiba, Texas Instruments and Xircom.

Meacham administers the Mini PCI Specification in the Mini PCI Working Group and is new-market development manager in the OEM Products Division at 3Com. He can be reached at

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