You would think that by now someone would have cracked the apparently simple task of linking desktop PCs with portable devices and gadgets, like handheld PCs and organisers, digital cameras and MP3 players, but if our experiences -- and those of a fair few dotcom.telegraph readers -- are anything to go by, it is still only one step removed from witchcraft, made worse by the fact that there is little or no standardisation, It’s not unknown for compatibility issues to arise between products in a manufacturers model range.


Of course there are exceptions and some lucky users manage to get their cameras and organisers talking to their PCs without a hitch but we know of a lot of people who have spent hours tinkering with settings or seeking guidance from help lines, only to give up in despair.


Unfortunately there is no immediate prospect of the situation improving. Most problems can be put down to software and configuration conflicts that increase with the age of the PC and its operating system, and how well used it is. As soon as you load programs, connect to the Internet and add extra hardware to your PC, changes occur behind the scenes that can interfere with critical communications and networking settings.


Boot Camp this week looks at the various ways computers communicate with portable devices, next week, in part two, we’ll look at some of the many things that can go wrong, and a few troubleshooting tips. Note that we’re not talking about networking PCs and laptops (see Boot Camps 67/68, April 8th & 15th), but dedicated one-to-one hook-ups between a desktop computer and a portable device like a camera or organiser, the kind of widgets that are supposed to work with any up to date PC, straight out of the box, without the need for any additional hardware…


We’ll begin with a run-down of the most commonly used systems for moving data and files between PCs and portable devices, they are: hard-wire, card readers, infrared and wireless.


A hard-wire connection simply means the device is physically linked to the PC by cable either directly, or indirectly via a ‘docking station’. There are four main types of hard wire connection: serial, parallel, USB and FireWire. Since virtually all PCs have them, serial and parallel communications ports come closest to being a universal solution, but data transfer rates are comparatively slow, the multi-pin connectors are large and cumbersome plus there’s huge potential for configuration problems and conflicts with other devices. The USB or Universal Serial Bus is increasingly popular with PC peripheral and portable device manufacturers and is now fitted as standard to most desktop and laptop computers made within the last three or four years. USB is fast, flexible and usually easy to set up and use with Windows (Win 98 and later). It supports multiple connections and devices can be ‘hot plugged’ (no need to switch off or reboot the PC). FireWire (aka iLink and IEEE1394) is a fairly specialist high-speed serial connection system, fitted to a few high-end laptops (mostly Sony models) and available as an add-on for desktop machines. It’s early days yet and so far it is mainly used for demanding applications, such as digital video connections between camcorders, VCRs and PCs.


Card readers are supplied with a growing number of portable devices that use removable, memory cards, such as digital cameras, MP3 players and some palmtop PCs. Card readers plug into the PCs serial, parallel or USB socket and the supplied software usually designates the reader as an extra disc drive. Files and data can be quickly and easily copied to and from cards loaded into the reader using normal Windows drag and drop techniques, or via bespoke file management software. There are four styles of memory card in widespread use though there’s little practical difference between them in terms of what they do. Memory cards are available in a range of capacities, from 4Mb to over 100Mb. The smallest ones are postage stamp sized Multimedia Cards (MMC); Compact Flash (CF) modules are slightly larger; Smart Media cards are about a third the size of a credit card, and Memory Sticks are roughly the same size as a stick of chewing gum. Cards can also be read directly on PCs and laptops; floppy disc and PC-Card adaptors are available for MMC, CF and Smart Media and several Sony laptops have built-in Memory Stick slots.


Cordless infrared is a moderately fast serial communications system. It is generally reliable over short distances; it’s a well-established industry standard, created by the Infra Red Data Association (IrDA) and IR sensors are fitted to most recent laptops, palmtop computers and organisers. It’s mainly used for linking mobile devices to suitably equipped mobile phones (see Boot Camps 117 & 118) and there are a few IR capable office printers and video printers (used with digital still cameras). Unfortunately very few desktop PCs have IR communications facilities, adaptors are available but they tend to be fairly expensive and not very widely distributed.


Wireless data communications systems have been around for a while but until recently they’ve been too costly and complicated for consumer use and mostly confined to PC networking applications. However, a new generation of wireless devices, under the generic banner ‘Bluetooth’, has been developed. It allows all kinds of electronic gizmos to communicate with one another, using plug-in adaptors and built-in ‘transceivers’. The first Bluetooth devices have only just gone on sale and it could be a while before the technology works its way through to the mainstream market.


Next week – Linking to portable devices, part 2





Similar to a personal cassette stereo, plays compressed audio files -- stored on removable memory modules – in the MP3 (Motion Picture Experts Group, Layer 3) format. Music files can be downloaded from Internet sites, or ‘ripped’ from audio CDs



Transmission system whereby data is transferred several bits at a time along multiple conductors



Transmission system whereby data is transferred one bit at a time along a single conductor



Combined transmitter-receiver



We know that the FreeCell and Minesweeper games included in almost all versions of Windows have a devoted following amongst dotcom.telegraph readers and some may consider what follows as heresy so if you’re a purist avert your eyes now because we are about to reveal some simple cheats and enhancements.


In FreeCell you can win instantly by holding down Ctrl + Shift + F10, choose Abort from the menu that appears and drag any card to the top.


To switch off the Minesweeper timer, position the mouse pointer on any grey part of the game window, press and hold the right and left mouse keys and press the Escape key.


We haven’t actually managed to get this one to work yet in Windows 95/98 versions but apparently if you type ‘zyxxy’ after starting the game, then press shift + enter a mine indicator in the shape of a single black or white pixel appears in the top left hand corner of the screen as the mouse pointer moves over the squares.


Finally, you can add some simple sound effects to Minesweeper by opening Windows Notepad (Start > Programs > Accessories) select All Files then open the ‘Winmine.ini’ file in the Windows folder (you might want to make a backup copy, just in case). Add the line ‘Sound=3’ to the end, Save and exit Notepad. If you add a subsequent line ‘Tick=1’, you’ll hear a bleep as the timer counts up

Search PCTopTips 



Boot Camp Index















Top Tips Index

Windows XP

Windows Vista

Internet & Email

Microsoft Word

Folders & Files

Desktop Mouse & Keyboard

Crash Bang Wallop!

Privacy & Security

Imaging Scanning & Printing

Power, Safety & Comfort

Tools & Utilities

Sound Advice

Display & screen

Fun & Games

Windows 95/98/SE/ME






 Copyright 2006-2009 PCTOPTIPS UK.

All information on this web site is provided as-is without warranty of any kind. Neither PCTOPTIPS nor its employees nor contributors are responsible for any loss, injury, or damage, direct or consequential, resulting from your choosing to use any of the information contained herein.