Peter Jackson examines three hard disk cards for the IBM PC and compatibles – the Hardcard, the FileCard and the Dinasti, which are all examples of an obvious but long-awaited idea: the provision of hard disk capabilities in machines with floppies only.
The Hardcard, Filecard and Dinasti can all be plugged neatly into the internal bus of your PC or PC-compatible to give you more RAM (Photography by Philip Gatward)
When Plus Development showed off its Hardcard plug-in disk board for the IBM PC last summer, it suddenly seemed such an obvious idea that the only wonder was how long it had taken for someone to build it. The pieces of the puzzle had been there all along; Winchester disk controller cards could already fit into half-length IBM slots, while half-height and third-height 3.5in Winchester drives were already being built into various machines. All that was needed was for someone to notice that a 3.5in Winchester was smaller in diameter than the standard 4in height of an IBM card, and the rest was merely engineering.
A hard disk controller card could be built using all the latest single chip techniques, including custom integrated circuits and surface mounting technology, to squash the controller down to one end of a standard 13in IBM plug-in board. That would leave room to bolt a meta-cased, shock-mounted, half-height Winchester, like those being used in the new breed of portables, to the other end of the board. Plus Development got there first, and launched its 10Mbyte Hardcard in July last year.
In science there is something called the Eureka effect, where everyone in the field suddenly recognises an idea that has simplicity, elegance, and an indisputable air of correctness. Or, to put it another way, one instinctively knows when something is right. Hard disk makers were certainly shouting ‘Eureka!’ as they quickly announced instant competition for Plus’ Hardcard, with higher capacities than Plus’ 10Mbytes, and various add-on functions such as additional RAM, I/O ports, and real-time clocks.
There were around five such boards on view at the Comdex trade show in the US last November, and there are now something like a dozen on the market from all the expected hard disk names and some unexpected new names, too. It seems like a good time, as these drives start to appear in the UK, to examine three typical examples of the species: Plus Development’s original Hardcard, Western Digital’s FileCard and JVC’s catchily-named 3.5in Hard Disk Subsystem model JD-S3812MOSO.
Where they come from
Plus Development itself is not such a new name as it seemed last summer. Its parent company is California-based Quantum, a well-known designer and manufacturer of big, hard disk drives and controllers for the OEM market – that is, other companies buy bare drives and controllers from Quantum and build them into their own systems. Quantum could see opportunities in the micro market for retail storage products, and set up Plus Development to explore that business without making its big OEM customers nervous.
The work on the Hardcard design took over a year and a half, in conjunction with a manufacturing subsidiary of the giant Japanese corporation Matsushita, which actually puts the boards together.
In the UK, Plus has signed an exclusive distribution deal with Computer Marketing Associates, best known here for selling the IRMA communications board range from DCA in the US.
Western Digital, based in Irvine, California, has a similar but different background. The company has been designing disk controller boards and chips for a decade and more, first for minicomputers, then for early $100 micros, and then for PC-style single board computers. Its single-chip Winchester controllers are used in disk add-ons and add-ins from numerous other manufacturers, and perhaps it was this that prompted the company – like Intel before it – to set up an Enhanced Peripherals Division to market finished products to the retail market. Prime place in the list of three new launches last November went to the FileCard, a 10Mbyte drive on a single IBM card with a compact controller built around Western Digital’s own custom controller chips.
Western Digital’s Enhanced Peripherals division has announced its own distribution operation in the UK, which was launched in February this year.
JVC’s JD-S3812MOSO comes from one of Japan’s best-known names in just about every area of electronics. The Japanese Victor Company makes hi-fi, video recorders, compact disc players, TV sets, MSX computers, and now hard disk add-ons, among its other activities. The pedigree of the JVC board is not known, but in comparison with its US competition, the packaging and the manuals have the air of being put together at speed.
But it was one of the first boards to be available in the UK, through distributor Suffix; and Suffix has changed the name for obvious reasons. But the reasons for the final choice of name – Dinasti – are not so obvious.
Best of the rest
In the US, other boards available include the 20Mbyte DiskCard from top hard-disk maker Tandon, and the 20Mbyte DriveCard from Mountain Computer. In the UK, Plus 5 Engineering has launched the PlusCard and XTech has started shipping its Insider. And just to prove that the market is beginning to reach some kind of maturity, it got its first lawsuit at the end of February this year. Quantum, parent company of originator Plus Development, is suing Mountain Computer and any other plug-in Winchester maker using drives from NEC in Japan. Quantum alleges that the NEC drives infringe its patents, although both Mountain and NEC are strenuously defending the case.
First a lawsuit, and now the first official price cuts in the face of competition are under way. The plug-in Winchester business is obviously in a healthy condition.
Plus Development’s Hardcard has all the benefits of being first in the market, but it has all the drawbacks, too. The board was designed to be simple to install, simple to use, and usable in every IBM PC on the market, including those where a hard disk was already installed.
By aiming at all PCs, including those benighted machines with the old ROMs, cassette port, 64k motherboards and weedy power supplies, Plus could sell to upwards of three million PC and XT owners. But supporting the old machines means that the power consumption had to be kept down, and that the board had to fit in any long slot at all, keeping the capacity of the board’s Winchester drive down to 10Mbytes for the foreseeable future.
Opening the smartly-designed packaging, done out in Mothercare-style pastel blue, pink and green, reveals the result. The board, weighing around 1kg (2.11b), has a slim metal enclosure covering the 3.5in Winchester drive at the non-connector end, while the controller electronics are exposed above the bus connector. A glance at the electronics shows the work that has gone into keeping down power consumption and size; the board is tightly packed with big, surface-mounted, very-large-scale integration chips in their distinctive square packages, and most of the chip type numbers, including the custom logic circuits, contain the tell-tale ‘C’, showing that the chips use low-power-consumption CMOS technology. There are signs, though, that the controller hardware is still being developed; the board layout of the current model is certainly different from the original prototypes, and there is still an extraneous transistor soldered onto the back of the board to put right some small glitch.
The smallest, neatest and narrowest disk card here is the Hardcard
Apart from the board, the box contains only a plastic card guide (if required), along with one slender manual.
Installing the board is as simple as installing an IBM PC expansion board ever is. After sliding off the system unit cover and removing one of the metal slot panels at the rear, the board simply slides into the board guides and into the PC’s bus connector. The Plus manual flatly states that users should remove any existing board guide at the front of the machine and replace it with the one supplied with the board, but I had no problems with the guide that was already in place. Presumably, Plus wants to make sure that the board is firmly held in the guides to cut down any vibration when the drive is spinning, but the guide in my machine seemed tight enough. On the other hand, the manual’s instructions to screw the board firmly into the metal frame at the back of the machine are just good sense.
That is the entire hardware installation procedure, and was no more difficult than my experience of installing a 256k RAM board in the same machine. There is no need to change the DIP switch settings on the PC, and the only possible hardware change the user can make is to alter a ‘jumper’ on the Hardcard itself. The jumper is set at the factory, assuming that the Hardcard is going to be the first hard disk drive in the system, but if it is going to be the second hard drive – in an XT, for example – the jumper position needs changing. This is a simple task, too, since the jumper positions are straightforwardly labelled ‘PC’ and ‘XT’.
Powering up the re-assembled PC with the usual PC-DOS or MS-DOS system disk in floppy drive A brings up the usual prompt, and the real installation of the Hardcard, the software installation, can begin.
The drive on the board is already formatted at the factory, and also has an Install program ready-stored on it. Typing C:NSTALL C at the A> prompt starts the installation program running if the Hardcard is the only hard disk drive in the system, while if the jumper has been changed for an XT system, the Hardcard is drive D and the instruction is D:INSTALL D.
Either way, the Install program takes control of the system and goes step by step through a 10-minute installation procedure. This involves putting the system tracks and all the normal PC-DOS or MS-DOS utilities on the Hardcard. You also need a blank floppy during this procedure, as the Install program creates a ‘reinstall’ disk that can be used for setting up the Hardcard from scratch in case of error or glitch. Re-install deletes all the data files, though, so backing up these files should be done at the slightest provocation.
While the installation proceeds, you have the chance to notice one neat feature in the Hardcard’s ready installed software. One problem with plug-in hard cards for PCs is that there is no front panel indicator showing when the drive is active, and this can be helpful; for example, the machine can sometimes appear to have seized up during a long program compilation if it weren’t for hard disk activity. Plus provides a program called ‘Light’ on the board’s drive, which flashes a plus sign (+) at the top right-hand corner of the screen whenever a read or write operation is under way, at system level or inside an application. Another complementary program called ‘Sound’ beeps whenever a read or write operation takes place, which sounds appalling through the PC’s speaker. Either or both of these features can be turned on or off at any time.
At the end of installation, all you have to do is leave the door of the A floppy drive open and press the Ctrl-Alt-Del key combination for an ersatz reset. Just like the XT, the system will boot from the Hardcard if there is no disk in drive A.
At boot-up, the Hardcard runs an autoexec batch file to bring up the Hardcard Directory (HCD) program, also provided on the disk. This lets you set up a menu-driven front-end for all the applications installed on the Hardcard, and has 16 possible menu items. Each numbered item has its own MS-DOS sub-directory, and if you intend to use the HCD structure, you need to copy all the necessary files for each application into its own sub-directory. Then the HCD program lets you create a macro, or a miniature set of batch commands, called by selecting a particular menu item. For instance, if all the WordStar files are copied into sub-directory SUB1, associated with HCD menu item 1, then the macro you would enter would be CD/SUB1 <return> followed by WS<return>. Then the menu item name could be changed to WordStar, and after booting Hardcard, the program could be run simply by selecting that item.
Quitting any application called up from the HCD menu returns the user to that menu for another selection, and using HCD is about as friendly as using a menu ever is, which is not much. The software does have one disconcerting habit, though: it turns off the screen display after five minutes without use. Seeing the screen go dark from the corner of an eye, while half-waiting for the board to blow – thanks to heat problems – can add 10 years to your age.
I had no problems with the drive overheating, or overstraining the power supply, despite installing the Hardcard deliberately between the hot-running video board and the 256k RAM board in the Kaypro system. However, like most clones, the Kaypro PC’s power supply is rated at XT levels to handle a hard disk rather than at the early PC levels for floppy use.
All that aside, there is nothing to show, when using the system, that the Winchester drive is on a card. The machine with the Hardcard acts just like an XT with twin floppies, as indeed it should if Plus has done its market research and hardware design properly.
The general impression is very favourable. The Hardcard really is simple to install and use, it really does go in any long PC slot – including one in the Compaq or the IBM portable – and it is unobtrusive. With the usual noisy PC fan you can’t hear the drive at all, and must rely on the flashing plus sign for confirmation that the thing is running.
Plus has kept its original idea simple, elegant, useful – and tough. An inadvertent shock test involved dropping the board onto a carpeted floor from three feet, with a metal system unit casing instantly falling onto it from the same height. That was before installation, so unless the board was broken before and violent treatment fixed it, the Hardcard survived the test unscathed.
Like Plus Development, Western Digital obviously called in a design house to do its packaging: this time, the colours are white, grey and light green. Inside, the contents are similar, too, comprising the FileCard board itself and two slim manuals.
The board is obviously similar in structure to the Hardcard, with the metal drive case at one end and the controller electronics and bus connection at the other. With FileCard, though, there are differences. The drive casing is thicker than Hardcard’s, with its own mounting bracket at the end instead of a simple spline to slide into a card guide. The controller electronics are different, too, although they too make full use of VLSI, CMOS, custom circuits and surface-mounting technology. The controller, as you might expect from specialist Western Digital, is beautifully laid out and built, with no blatant kludges or late bolt-ons. It looks more complex than the controller on the Hardcard, and there is one obvious reason for that in the shape of an extra connector at the bottom of the card. This is meant to take a piggyback expansion board, and Western Digital has so far produced one containing up to 512k of add-on memory. Others are meant to be on the way, and would make it possible to combine a hard disk and a multifunction board in one card slot.
Installing the FileCard follows the same general lines as before, but Western Digital imposes some limitations on where the card can go. It can’t go in slot one, where the speaker is, since the speaker would get in the way of the drive casing. And although a selling point is that the board takes up just one slot, that is true only in the basic PC (and even then, not in slot one). In the XT, with its greater number of slots slightly closer together, the FileCard takes up a slot and a half. This means that the drive casing overhangs the space that a next-door long card would need, and only a short card such as the new Hercules colour card or a RAM card could be used in that slot.
The Filecard’s metal mounting bracket at the drive end of the board is designed specifically for the IBM PC, where the hole in the bracket matches up with a hole in the front panel, and the screw provided clamps the drive casing to the machine casing. On the Kaypro the bracket forces the removal of two card guides to install the board, and then there is no matching screw hole. A less-than-conspicuous appendix to the manual explains how to install the board using the card guides typically found in PC clones, but since the drive seemed to be working without guides or screw fixing, and was jammed in pretty tight due to the crowded interior of the machine, it seemed easier to leave it.
One disturbing feature of the FileCard installation, apart from the usual dire warnings about CMOS circuits and human static electricity, was the fact that the drive’s actuator and motor spindle were exposed through a hole in the back of the board – just where your fingers go when you are trying to wrestle the bulky board into its tight slot. There is a warning about this in the manual, stating that fingers should be kept out of the holes, but without giving any reasons for the holes to be there.
However, once again, that’s all there is to the hardware installation, as long as the piggyback memory board is not fitted to the FileCard. Installing that board just involves plugging it onto the socket provided and screwing it down to the main disk controller portion, and it does not make the board any thicker. The expansion board was not available for this review.
The software installation followed the same route as for the Hardcard, but was not trouble-free. Installing the DOS floppy in drive A and booting as usual, then running the Install program provided on the FileCard by typing C:INSTALL, started the procedure in conventional style. The program copied over the DOS files and utilities needed on the FileCard’s disk, and then, in a minimalist style typical of the software, said that it needed a blank disk in drive A, all the information on the disk would be destroyed, and did I want to continue. I typed Y for yes in answer to the last question, expecting a warning to remove the current disk and insert a blank. Instead, the program started to format my DOS disk.
Having produced another DOS back-up – for once I wasn’t using the master copy – I tried again. This time all went well, until the machine hung up with the message: ‘Installing DOS partition on the FileCard’. This was solved by rebooting the system with the re-install floppy in drive A; this re-formatted the hard disk and seemed to produce a FileCard working as it should.
Perhaps this was a compatibility problem, but it seems unlikely as all the utilities needed for the installation are generic MS-DOS types rather than pure IBM PC-DOS types. Whatever the reason, the experience did not inspire confidence, although it seemed to end well.
As with the Plus Hardcard, the installation assumes that the FileCard is the first hard disk in the system unless it is told otherwise, and the appropriate jumper changes on the FileCard controller. The jumpers on the FileCard also allow the user to select settings for one FileCard, one internal hard disk and one FileCard, or no internal hard disk and two FileCards, in a system.
Instead of FICD, a program specially produced for Plus Development, Western Digital provides a free copy of the commercial XTree program on the board’s disk. XTree, written by Executive Systems of Sherman Oaks in California, is a file-organising front-end for MS-DOS which keeps track of the chaos of files, directories, directories of directories, subdirectories, and so on, ad infinitum, created by using MS-DOS.
In its series of onscreen windows, XTree shows the structure of directories and their sub-directories graphically, as a ThinkTank-like indented tree structure. The root directory is at the top of the graphic window, with the others sorted alphabetically and extending down as far as necessary. Instead of changing directories with the CD/<name> command in MS-DOS, it is done by moving the cursor to the appropriate directory name in the tree picture. The files in that directory then automatically appear in the Files window below the tree picture, and a program can be executed simply by placing the cursor on the program filename and typing X for execute.
The third window contains a set of statistics relating to the currently selected directory, disk drive and file.
A wide range of DOS commands are available via the XTree menus and windows, and as with HCD, the idea is that programs can be selected from this front-end program, and quitting the application puts you back in the front-end just where you left it.
Apart from Xtree, the FileCard acts just like an XT’s hard disk, and although the noise of the drive was rather more obtrusive – the sound of the heads parking themselves in a safe landing zone, if the drive was idle, was a little disturbing at first – the drive acted reliably and easily. Western Digital claims that the power consumption of the board in use, complete with a 512k piggyback board, is an astonishingly low 6W. That is described as ‘typical power usage’, though, which probably means peaks pushing 10W when the drive motor is active and the heads are moving, and troughs down near zero when the drive is idle and the heads are parked. There was no way to measure the peak power consumption or the operating temperature, but the board did not get too finger-burning hot and there were no surprise glitches in performance.
The FileCard is a beautifully built and finished board that performs well once it is installed and formatted. The installation is tougher than with the Hardcard, thanks to the different support system and general bulk of the FileCard, but not more difficult than, say, a typical internal modem for the PC. The problems I had with the software installation caused me more worries, but eventually – and with bitten fingernails – I got it working. The installation software is rather too cryptic and leaves too much for the user to do, in my opinion, while not explaining what exactly is going on in words of one syllable.
The JVC JD-S3812MOSO, or Suffix Dinasti in the UK, has emerged from the new products department of the Japanese giant’s stereo division, and is another 10Mbyte drive on a controller card.
The difference here is that while the Hardcard has obviously been designed from the ground up to be as slim and unobtrusive as possible, and while the FileCard has been neatly integrated by expert controller designers, the JVC board shows signs of being bolted together out of what was available at the time.
The metal disk drive casing is thicker and heftier than the casings on the other two cards, and the controller section – although using the same Western Digital VLSI chips as the FileCard – is cruder and less finished. It is, too, the only board of the three to need a power supply direct from the PC’s mains power converter rather than draw its watts from the power supplies in the PC bus.
Although the board is as simple to install as the other two, there are some problems relating to its design. Firstly, there is no pretence that the board only takes up one slot. In the slim pamphlet which acts as a manual, translated from the Japanese with unintended comic effect, there is no indication at all of how many slot spaces the board requires.
In practice, it turned out to need an empty slot or only a short card on either side in the Kaypro PC, where the slot spacing is the same as that in the IBM XT. This is thanks to the bulky drive casing on the board, which sticks out an equal and awkward amount on both sides.
Then the power supply cable needs to be fitted, and the manual gives no real indication of how this is done. For the experienced PC user it is clear – though certainly not from the manual – that JVC intends you to remove the supply plug of one of the floppies and plug it into the splitter cable provided with the board. The two split ends then plug back into the floppy board and into the hard disk board.
It was actually simpler than this on the Kaypro, since this machine is already set up to take internal hard disks and has an extra power supply able already provided. In this installation, the splitter cable was only used to extend the hard disk supply cable to reach the JVC board.
After that, and after removing a piece of metal which was blocking the spline from sliding down the card guide, the board slipped into place just like the others.
Unlike the Hardcard and the FileCard the set-up and software installation done for you is minimal. The disk is physically formatted at the factory, but the user is still required, according to the manual, to create an MS-DOS partition on the disk and then format it for use with the operating system. This would be easy enough with the FDISK utility provided with MS-DOS, but in fact the review board had already had the partition installed, presumably by the UK distributor. The format is done with the normal Format utility, using the /S and /V options to install system tracks on the Winchester. The system will then boot from the hard disk if there is no floppy in drive A, and after that will act, unsurprisingly, just like an XT.
Once installed, the board worked with no problems at all, and was as fast and useful as the other two. True, it did not have Plus’ HCD system or Western Digital’s XTree, or the Hardcard’s neat extras like the flashing plus sign to show disk access. But it did the job, and was as unobtrusive in use as the other cards.
The main things in the JVC Dinasti’s favour are its cheap price and early availability, although there are now signs that Hardcards and FileCards are starting to arrive in quantity, along with the US competitors and UK contenders like the Plus 5 board and the Insider.
The main limitations are the size of the actual drive, which is bulky and would be awkward to cram into a PC with any kind of expansion already fitted; the lack of automatic installation and any helpful software; and the manual, which is skimpy to say the least.
Still, there is something to be said for keeping it simple, keeping it cheap, and stacking it high. Japanese companies have been good at all those things over the last 20 years, and no doubt the JVC Dinasti will be just the first of the Japanese hard disk boards to emerge.
The obvious market for all these hard disk boards is the large community of IBM PC owners, and owners of compatibles, who have previously been running their machines on floppies only. Most of these machines have no space to install an internal hard disk, and upgrading before these boards came along would have involved a bulky external Winchester box.
Now, as long as there is enough slot space, a hard disk can be plugged neatly into the internal bus, with no external sign that the machine has had its computing power boosted.
Choosing the right board from the many on offer depends on what type of capacity you want at what price. Of the three boards tested here, the JVC product would be fine if you have a lot of free slot space and know what you are doing with DOS partitions and the like. If you need RAM expansion as well, the FileCard would be the way to go. And if you want the smallest, neatest and narrowest package, then the Hardcard would be hard to beat. Of course, if 20Mbytes is essential, you would have to go to Mountain or Tandon, as these have a 10Mbyte maximum.
One area where the Hardcard scores is in future upgrading. If you want to add another 10Mbytes, another Hardcard can be plugged in as long as you have any spare slot. Likewise, two FileCards can be plugged in, but here the space issue is a bigger problem, particularly with an XT or a crowded compatible. I tried the Hardcard plugged in alongside the FileCard, and that worked as long as the jumper on one of them was changed to show that it was the second hard disk in the system – I changed the Hardcard jumper since it was easier to understand which way it went – and the second drive was installed or re-installed as drive D.
The JVC documentation flatly states that the Dinasti board must be the only hard disk sub-system in the machine – or, to put it the Japanese way: ‘When your computer has another Hard Disc Subsystem, cohabitation is not available.’
Some doubt must remain as to whether an IBM PC of really old vintage, with the 65W power supply and the 64k maximum motherboard, could cope with the extra 10W peak load when one of these boards is plugged in. And even if it could, it would need a new BIOS ROM set to handle the hard disk.
But the hard disk board manufacturers assure me that it is reasonable to use their products on such long-toothed machines. And naturally, all compatibles worth mentioning have a beefed-up supply that can cope easily.
The general impression of the three boards on test is that they are simple to install, simple to use, and improve the performance of a typically-sluggish IBM PC clone to a marked degree.
||13.4 x 4.2 x 1ins
||13.4 x 4.1 x 1.1ins
First published in Personal Computer World magazine, May 1986