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While the desktop remains a battlefield for bus designers, notebook computer–makers have selected a single standard to rally around: PC Card, promulgated by the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA). Moreover, the PC Card bus is flexible and cooperative. Because it is operating system and device independent, you can plug the same PC Card peripheral into a computer, Mac, Newton, or whatever the next generation holds in store. The PC Card expansion system can cohabitate in a computer with a desktop bus such as ISA or PCI. What's more, it will work in devices that aren't even computers—from calculators to hair curlers, from CAD workstations to auto-everything cameras. Someday you may even find a PC Card lurking in your toaster oven or your music synthesizer.

The PC Card system is self-configuring, so you do not have to deal with DIP switches, fiddle with jumpers, or search for a reference diskette. PC Card differs from other bus standards in that it allows for external expansion—you don't have to open up your computer to add a PC Card.

The design is so robust that you can insert or remove a PC Card with the power on without worrying that you will damage it, your computer, or the data stored on the card. In other words, PC Cards are designed for hot-swapping. The system is designed to notify your operating system what you've done, so it can reallocate its resources as you switch cards. The operating system sets up its own rules and may complain if you switch cards without first warning it, although the resulting damage accrues mostly to your pride.

The engineers who created the PC Card standard originally envisioned only a system that put memory in credit-card format—hence the name, Personal Computer Memory Card International Association. The U.S.-based association drew on the work of the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association, which had previously developed four memory-only card specifications.

They saw PC Card as an easy way to put programs into portable computers without the need for disk drives. Since then the standard has grown to embrace nearly any expansion option—modems, network interface cards, SCSI host adapters, video subsystems, all the way to hard disk drives. Along the way, the PCMCIA and JEITIA standards merged, so one specification now governs PC Cards worldwide.

The first release of the PC Card standard allowed only for memory and came in September 1990. In September 1991, it was updated to Release 2.0 to include storage and input/output devices as well as thicker cards. After some minor changes, the standard jumped to Release 5.0 in February 1995. The big jump in numbering (from Release 2.1 to Release 5.0) put the PCMCIA and JEITIA number schemes on equal footing—the specification was number 5.0 for both. Since that event, the numbering of the standard as issued by both organizations has tracked, culminating in the current standard, Release 8.0, published in April 2001. Note, too, the specification title changed from PCMCIA Release 2.1 to PC Card Release 5.0. Table 9.7 summarizes the history of the PCMCIA standard.

Table 9.7. History of the PCMCIA/JEITIA/PC Card Standard
Version Introduction Date Features
PCMCIA 1.0 June 1990 First PCMCIA Standard, JEITIA Version 4.0; memory only.
PCMCIA 2.0 September 1991 I/O interface added; socket services introduced.
PCMCIA 2.01 November 1992 PC Card ATA specification; card services introduced.
PCMCIA 2.1 July 1993 Card and socket services enhanced.
PC Card 5.0 February 1995 Compatibility enhancements; low-voltage added, CardBus introduced; power management.
PC Card 6.0 March 1997 Zoomed video; hot dock; streamlined configuration.
PC Card 6.1 April 1998 Small PC Card form factor added; Win32 bindings.
PC Card 7.0 February 1999 Windows NT bindings; memory paging.
PC Card 7.1 March 2000 OpenCable custom interface; DMA references removed.
PC Card 7.2 November 2000 New maximum current requirements; new guidelines.
PC Card 8.0 April 2001 New low-voltage support; 3-watt maximum per card limit.

The PCMCIA/JEITIA specifications cover every aspect of the cards you slide into your computer (or other device—the standard envisions you using the same cards in other kinds of electronic gear). It details the size and shape of cards, how they are protected, how they are connected (including the physical connector), the firmware the cards use to identify themselves, and the software your computer wields to recognize and use the cards. Moreover, the specifications don't describe a hard-and-fast hardware interface. The same connector and software system can embrace a wide variety of different purposes and interfaces. The PC Card was only the first of the interconnection schemes documented by the PCMCIA/JEITIA specifications. By redefining the signals on the PC Card connector, a high-speed 32-bit expansion bus called CardBus, a dedicated high-speed video system called Zoomed Video, and a cable television–oriented video system called OpenCable all fit within the system.

All types of PC Cards use the same 68-pin connector, whose contacts are arranged in two parallel rows of 34 pins. The lines are spaced at 1.27 mm (0.050-inch) intervals between rows and between adjacent pins in the same row. Male pins on the card engage a single molded socket on the host. We'll look at the PCMCIA packages in more detail in Chapter 30.

To ensure proper powering up of the card, the pins are arranged so that the power and ground connections are longer (3.6 mm) than the signal leads (3.2 mm). Because of their greater length, power leads engage first so that potentially damaging signals are not applied to unpowered circuits. The two pins (36 and 67) that signal that the card has been inserted all the way are shorter (2.6 mm) than the signal leads.

PC Card

The original and still most popular of the PCMCIA card specifications is PC Card. Based on the ISA design, the standard expansion bus at the time the specifications were written, PC Card is a 16-bit interface. Unlike modern expansion buses, it lacks such advanced features as bus-mastering. However, the PC Card standard is more than the old bus. It is a system designed specifically for removable cards that includes both hardware and software support.

The hardware side of the standard sets its limits so high that engineers are unlikely to bump into them. For example, it allows for a single system to use from 1 to 255 PCMCIA adapters (that is, circuits that match the signals of PC Cards to the host). Up to 16 separate PC Card sockets can be connected to each adapter, so under the PCMCIA specifications you could potentially plug up to 4080 PC Cards into one system. Most computers shortchange you a bit on that—typically you get only one or two slots.

The memory and I/O registers of each PC Card are individually mapped into a window in the address range of the host device. The entire memory on a PC Card can be mapped into a single large window (for simple memory expansion, for example), or it can be paged through one or more windows. The PC Card itself determines the access method through configuration information it stores in its own memory.

Signals and Operation

The PCMCIA specifications allow for three PC Card variations: memory-only (which essentially conforms to the Release 1.0 standard), I/O cards, and multimedia cards.

When a PCMCIA connector hosts PC Cards, all but 10 pins of the standard 68 share common functions between the memory and I/O-style cards. Four memory card signals are differently defined for I/O cards (pins 16, 33, 62, and 63); three memory card signals are modified for I/O functions (pins 18, 52, and 61); and three pins reserved on memory cards are used by I/O cards (pins 44, 45, and 60).

The PC Card specifications allow for card implementations that use either 8- or 16-bit data buses. In memory operations, two Card Enable signals (pins 7 and 42) set the bus width; pin 7 enables even-numbered address bytes; and pin 42 enables odd bytes. All bytes can be read by an 8-bit system by activating pin 7 but not 42 and toggling the lowest address line (A0, pin 29) to step to the next byte.

Memory Control

The original PC Card specifications allow the use of 26 address lines, which permitted direct addressing of up to 64MB of data. The memory areas on each card are independent. That is, each PC Card can define its own 64MB address range as its common memory. In addition to common memory, each card has a second 64MB address space devoted to attribute memory, which holds the card's setup information. The typical PC Card devotes only a few kilobytes of this range to actual CIS storage.

Activating the Register Select signal (pin 61) shifts the 26 address lines normally used to address common memory to specifying locations in attribute memory instead. The address space assigned to attribute memory need not correspond to a block of memory separate from common memory. To avoid the need for two distinct memory systems, a PC Card can be designed so that activating the Register Select signal simply points to a block of common memory devoted to storing setup information. All PC Cards limit access to attribute memory to an eight-bit link using the eight least-significant data lines.

To accommodate more storage, the specifications provide address extension registers, a bank-switching system that enables the computer host to page through much larger memory areas on PC Cards. A number of different address extension register options are permitted, all the way up to 16 bits, which extends the total card common memory to four terabytes (4TB, which is 2 to the 42nd power—that is, 26 addresses and 65,536 possible pages).

Memory cards that use EPROM memory often require higher-than-normal voltages to reprogram their chips. Pins 18 and 52 on the PCMCIA interface provide these voltages when needed.

Data Transfers

To open or close access to data read from a PC Card, the host computer activates a signal on the card's Output Enable line (pin 9). A Ready/Busy line (pin 16) on memory cards allows the card to signal when it is busy processing and cannot accept a data-transfer operation. The same pin is used on I/O cards to make interrupt requests to the host system. During setup, however, an I/O card can redefine pin 16 back to its Ready/Busy function. Since Release 2.0, memory or I/O PC Cards also can delay the completion of an operation in progress—in effect, slowing the host to accommodate the time needs of the card—by activating an Extend Bus Cycle signal on pin 59.

The Write Protect pin (pin 33) relays the status of the write-protect switch on memory cards to the computer host. On I/O cards, this pin indicates that a given I/O port has a 16-bit width.

The same 26 lines used for addressing common and attribute memory serve as port-selection addresses on I/O cards. Two pins, I/O read (44) and I/O write (45), signal that the address pins will be used for identifying ports and whether the operation is a read or a write.

Unlike memory addresses, however, the I/O facilities available to all PC Cards in a system share "only" one 67,108,864-byte (64MB) range of port addresses. Although small compared to total memory addressing, this allotment of I/O ports is indeed generous. When the specification was first contrived, the most popular computer expansion bus (the AT bus) allowed only 64KB of I/O ports, of which some systems recognized a mere 16KB. Whether ports are 8 or 16 bit is indicated by the signal on pin 33.

I/O PC Cards each have a single interrupt request signal. The signal is mapped to one of the computer interrupt lines by the computer host. In other words, the PC Card generates a generic interrupt, and it is the responsibility of the host computer's software and operation system to route each interrupt to the appropriate channel.


The PC Card specifications provide for automatic setup of each card. When the host computer activates the Reset signal on pin 58 of the PCMCIA socket, the card returns to its preinitialization settings, with I/O cards returning to their power-on memory card emulation. The host can then read from the card's memory to identify it and run the appropriate configuration software.

When a PC Card is plugged into a slot, the host computer's PCMCIA adapter circuitry initially assumes that it is a memory card. The card defines itself as an I/O card through its onboard CIS data, which the host computer reads upon initializing the PC Card. Multimedia cards similarly identify themselves through their software and automatically reconfigure the PC Card to accept their special signals.


An audio output line also is available from I/O PC Cards. This connection is not intended for high-quality sound, however, because it allows only binary digital (on/off) signals (much like the basic speaker in early desktop computers). The audio lines of all PC Cards in a system are linked together by an XOR (exclusive OR) logic gate fed to a single common loudspeaker, equivalent to the sound system of a primitive computer lacking a sound board. Under the CardBus standard (discussed later in this chapter) the same socket supports high-quality digital audio.


Pins 62 and 63 on memory cards output two battery status signals. Pin 63 indicates the status of the battery: When activated, the battery is in good condition; when not activated, it indicates that the battery needs to be replaced. Pin 62 refines this to indicate that the battery level is sufficient to maintain card memory without errors; if this signal is not activated, it indicates that the integrity of on-card memory may already be compromised by low battery power.

Although the PCMCIA specifications were originally written to accommodate only the 5-volt TTL signaling that was the industry standard at the time of their conception, the standard has evolved. It now supports cards using 3.3-volt signaling and makes provisions for future lower operating voltages. Cards are protected so you cannot harm a card or your computer by mismatching voltages.

Software Interface

The PC Card specifications require layers of software to ensure its compatibility across device architectures. Most computers, for example, require two layers of software drivers—Socket Services and Card Services—to match the card slots in addition to whatever drivers an individual card requires (for example, a modem requires a modem driver).

As with other hardware advances, Windows 95 helped out the PC Card. Support for the expansion standard is built in to the operating system (as well as Windows 98). Although Windows NT (through version 4.0) lacks integral PC Card support, Windows 2000 embraced the standard. Most systems accept cards after you slide them in, automatically installing the required software. Unusual or obscure boards usually require only that you install drivers for their manufacturer-specific features using the built-in Windows installation process.

Socket Services

To link the PC Card to an Intel-architecture computer host, PCMCIA has defined a software interface called Socket Services. By using a set of function calls under interrupt 1A (which Socket Services shares with the CMOS real-time clock), software can access PC Card features without specific knowledge of the underlying hardware. In other words, Socket Services make access to the PC Card hardware independent, much like the BIOS of a computer. In fact, Socket Services are designed so that they can be built in to the computer BIOS. However, Socket Services also can be implemented in the form of a device driver so that PCMCIA functionality can be added to existing computers.

Using Socket Services, the host establishes the windows used by the PC Card for access. Memory or registers then can be directly addressed by the host. Alternatively, individual or multiple bytes can be read or written through Socket Services function calls.

Card Services

With Release 2.01, PCMCIA approved a Card Services standard that defines a program interface for accessing PC Cards. This standard establishes a set of program calls that link to those Socket Services independent of the host operating system. Like the Socket Services associated with interrupt 1A, Card Services can either be implemented as a driver or be built in as part of an operating system. (Protected-mode operating systems such as OS/2 and Windows NT require the latter implementation.)


For an advanced PC Card system to work effectively, each PC Card must be able to identify itself and its characteristics to its computer host. Specifically, it must be able to tell the computer how much storage it contains; the device type (solid-state memory, disk, I/O devices, or other peripherals); the format of the data; the speed capabilities of the card; and any of a multitude of other variables about how the card operates.

Card Identification Structure

Asking you to enter all the required data every time you install a PC Card would be both inconvenient and dangerous. Considerable typing would be required, and a single errant keystroke could forever erase the data off the card. Therefore, PCMCIA developed a self-contained system through which the basic card setup information can be passed to the host regardless of either the data structure of the on-card storage or the operating system of the host.

Called the Card Identification Structure (CIS) or metaformat of the card, the PCMCIA configuration system works through a succession of compatibility layers to establish the necessary link between the PC Card and its host. As with the hardware interface, each layer of CIS is increasingly device specific.

Only the first layer, the Basic Compatibility Layer, is mandatory. This layer indicates how the card's storage is organized. Only two kinds of information are relevant here: the data structures used by the layer itself and such standard and physical device information as the number of heads, cylinders, and sectors of a physical or emulated disk. Since Release 5.0, each card must bear a Card Information Structure so it can identify itself to the host system.

Data Recording Format Layer

The next layer up is the Data Recording Format Layer, which specifies how the stored data is organized at the block level. Four data formats are supported under Release 2.0: unchecked blocks, blocks with checksum error correction, blocks with cyclic redundancy error checking, and unblocked data that does not correspond to disk organization (for example, random access to the data, such as is permitted for memory).

Data Organization Layer

The third CIS layer, the Data Organization Layer, specifies how information is logically organized on the card; that is, it specifies the operating system format to which the data conforms. PCMCIA recognizes four possibilities: DOS, Microsoft's Flash File System for Flash RAM, PCMCIA's own Execute-in-Place (XIP) ROM image, and application-specific organization. Microsoft's Flash File System is an operating system specifically designed for the constraints of Flash memory. It minimizes rewriting specific memory areas to extend the limited life of the medium and to allow for speedy updates of required block writes.

System-Specific Standards

The fourth CIS layer is assigned to system-specific standards that comply with particular operating environments. For example, the Execute-in-Place (XIP) standard defines how programs encoded on ROM cards are to be read and executed.

XIP is PCMCIA's own specification that allows program code in read-only memory to execute without being first loaded into main system (read/write) memory. Application-specific organization allows card developers to create data organizations unique to their products so as to implement special features.

Attribute Memory

The setup information for all these layers is stored in a reserved area on the PC Card called attribute memory. This area is isolated from the card's ordinary storage, which under PCMCIA 2.1 is called common memory. The CIS information is structured as a linked chain of data blocks called tuples, each of which can be up to 128 bytes long. To give all systems a common starting point to search for CIS data, the first tuple of the metaformat is located at the first address in attribute memory. This ensures that the data is within the addressing range of even those primitive microprocessors that can address only 1MB of RAM. Because the CIS system must work in any computer or other host, it assumes that memory can be accessed only in byte widths.

The first two bytes of each tuple, as well as the format of many predefined tuples, are strictly defined. The first byte encodes the function of the tuple and the parameters it describes. The second byte links to the next tuple in the chain (if any); it specifies the number of data bytes in the tuple, which, of course, indicates where the next tuple begins. The PCMCIA 2.1 specifications define the options available for many common tuples. PC Card manufacturers are free to add their own tuples to store data for setting up cards that contain proprietary features.

As the storage and expansion needs of computers and other electronic devices continue to evolve, the PCMCIA PC Card standard will likely follow in lockstep. Undoubtedly it is the computer expansion system of the future—and the first truly universal data-interchange system.


To bring the PC Card into the 32-bit world, PCMCIA adapted the highly regarded PCI expansion bus to the credit-card format to create the CardBus in November 1994, formalized in Release 5.0. Just as PC Card is a miniaturized version of ISA, CardBus shrinks down PCI while yielding the same high data-transfer rates, with one important exception: Due to limitations in the connector design, CardBus extends only to a 32-bit bus width, whereas the PCI standard allows for 64-bit buses. Although CardBus is not truly a PCI system—it is designed to be a platform-independent 32-bit system—it is functionally equivalent to PCI and uses the PCI protocol for bus operations.

Under CardBus, effectively all the active signals on the 68-pin PCMCIA connector are redefined. Only the grounds, fixed voltages, and card-identification pins are unchanged.

To accommodate the full 32-bit addressing range and 32-bit data buses of the PCI bus, the CardBus system multiplexes the two onto the same 32 connections of the PC Card, just as they are in the full-size PCI implementation. In addition, the CardBus standard boosts the signaling rate to match that of PCI, up to 33MHz, while allowing lower-speed operation as well (all the way down to zero).

Besides a wider, faster bus and PCI-based protocol, CardBus adds several new features to the PC Card repertory. CardBus supports arbitration and bus-mastering with multiple bus masters, again patterned after PCI. A CardBus device can take command of its own transfers to the host system and free the host computer's microprocessor from the chore.

CardBus also incorporates a new pulse width modulation (PWM) audio mode. This mode allows a CardBus device to transfer audio in digital form across a single bus line. As with all digital audio, the PWM signal is a series of pulses; however, the length of each pulse rather than a coded pattern determines its audio equivalent. PWM mode allows the CardBus device to transfer multiple high-quality audio signals in real time.

All CardBus cards operate at 3.3 volts, in keeping with the trend toward lower-voltage operation in both desktop and notebook computers. The CardBus cards take advantage of the PC Card voltage keying system so that you cannot insert a CardBus product into a PC Card slot that supports only 5-volt operation (and thereby damaging the card, your computer, or both).

The low operating voltage helps ensure minimal power drain on the computer host. The configuration system, too, was designed with power in mind. When a CardBus product starts, only a limited part of its circuitry gets powered up, only enough to allow the host computer to read the Card Identification Structure. The host can then determine what kind of card it is, how much power it requires, and whether it has enough resources to operate the card. Only when the host computer determines the compatibility of the CardBus product and accepts it, does full power flow into the card. Besides allowing the host system to reject products that might otherwise drain its energy resources, the stepped startup procedure also prevents a surge in power demand when the host computer boots up.

One primary design intention with CardBus was continuity with the PC Card standard. PCMCIA wanted CardBus and PC Cards to be as compatible with one another as possible.

One incompatibility cannot be breeched. Because CardBus supports only 3.3-volt operation, its slots are off-limits to 5-volt-only PC Cards. The voltage key prevents you from inserting 5-volt PC Cards into CardBus slots. Except for the voltage issue, the two types of slots accept cards made to either standard. That is, all 3.3-volt PC Cards fit in and work with CardBus slots.

The primary challenge in making CardBus backward compatible with PC Card was fitting all the necessary 32 bits of addressing and 32 bits of data signaling onto a 68-pin connector while still having enough connections for support functions. The simple design expedient was the same as used by PCI—multiplexing. CardBus connections do double-duty, handling both address and data signals, cutting the number of pins required in half and making a 32-bit bus on a 68-pin card viable.

Zoomed Video

For higher-quality sound or video applications, the PC Card standard defines special multimedia cards. When the PC Card software in your computer recognizes a multimedia card, it redefines many of the connections in the card connector to switch it into operating as a Zoomed Video port.

Specifically in multimedia mode, 21 address signals and three control signals get replaced by four audio and 19 video signals as well as a new control signal. The video signals are meant to write directly to the frame buffer of the host computer, allowing a PC Card to generate quick displays. In effect, whatever device is on the PC Card with Zoomed Video has direct access to your notebook computer's screen. It can push pixels without the delays inherent in bus transfers.

In addition, a Zoomed Video connection also gives a PC Card a direct connection to the audio system in the host computer. The card provides pulse code modulation (PCM) digital audio directly to a codec in the host computer, which in turn links to the sound system.

The PC Card connection is only part of the Zoomed Video system. The host computer must also be designed to give access to its frame buffer from the port connector.

Despite its appealing name, Zoomed Video does not make the ordinary displays on your computer screen any faster. The only time it helps the display speed is when you have a graphics accelerator or other high-performance video device that installs on a PC Card or CardBus card.

Standards and Coordination

One key to the PC Card's success is that it is not a proprietary standard foisted on the industry by a single company or small coterie. The design is the product of a group called the Personal Computer Memory Card International Association (PCMCIA), which has more than 220 members involved in all aspects of the computer and electronics industry. CardBus continues in that tradition and is similarly maintained. The various PCMCIA standards are completely open, and all specifications are available to anyone requesting them from the organization. (The charge for the latest specification release was not set at the time of this writing, but it is estimated to be between $200 and $300.)

Rather than operate completely independently, PCMCIA cooperates with other standard-setting organizations. For example, by working jointly with the Japan Electronic Industry Technology Association (JEITA) in December 1989, PCMCIA was able to ensure that the standards it developed would be truly international in scope. Today, each organization sends a delegation to the meetings of the other.

Besides the efforts at extending PCMCIA to future technologies, such as 32-bit data paths and bus-mastering, PCMCIA is also developing standards for incorporating specific device types into the system. Already the group has fully described the needs for XIP, which allows programs to execute from their storage locations on PC Cards instead of needing to be loaded as if from disk into normal system RAM. PCMCIA has also developed standards for linking AT Attachment–style IDE hard disks into PC Card sockets.

To obtain more information about PCMCIA products and standards, contact the following address:

Personal Computer Memory Card International Association

1030 East Duane Avenue, Suite G

Sunnyvale, CA 94086

Phone: 408-720-0107

Fax: 408-720-9416

Web site: www.pc-card.com

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