Add a USB port to your handheld--SolarExpress Single Port USB Host!
There are a few truly amazing "gadgets for your gadgets", but finding one that is actually useful is another matter. The SolarExpress single port USB host card is one of them. I've always wanted to connect my USB sticks somehow to my PDA. It seems I'm forever having to transfer files between my computer, my device, and some storage medium using the computer as the proxy, which can get to be a pain! Most commonly a USB memory stick is the storage medium in question. I recently purchased a small bluetooth keyboard for my iPAQ, which works rather well, but I have often wished I could somehow connect my luxurious Logitech PC keyboard and mouse to my WM device instead. I didn’t realize that I can do all of these things with one of these handy adapters. Want to add a functional USB port to your aging Axim or iPAQ device (the newest iPAQ models are being tested and should also work)? Oh, and if your handheld is not able to read SDHC storage cards, you can use a card reader connected via the SolarExpress to work around this limitation (tested with specific SanDisk hardware). Read on for the full review of this essential accessory gadget...
The SolarExpress USB adapter is a type II CompactFlash card a little bigger than a typical CF storage card. The top edge of the card has a single, USB mini-A port located in the center. The upper portion of the card bulges out slightly and sits about 1/4" above your CF card-slot when fully inserted. The unit includes an extender cable, into which you plug your USB devices. A USB hub can be connected to increase the port connections. The max host power the card supports is 5V @ 200mA. An optional y-cable can be used with the card to add power through a second port if needed.
Install and Setup
Before inserting the card, I installed the drivers and control software, which will allow your WM device to properly communicate with the USB port. The SolarExpress Card is compatible with a number of Windows Mobile handhelds(mostly Dell or HP hardware), and has been tested with several USB devices, but you might want to contact the vendor directly to see if your particular device is known to work before purchasing (techsupportATlightconecorpDOTcom) or check out the tech-support blog here. The single installation package adds the drivers along with a device-manager type of software application (SEPDA II...see below) to monitor card connection events.
Testing on the iPAQ
I tested mostly on my older iPAQ 3955, as the drivers for the latest version of WM were not yet ready for prime-time when I wrote this, and my newer iPAQ is running 6.1. I have an expansion pack for the 3955 that allows me to connect external PC cards to it. I inserted the Solar Express into a CF-PC card adapter, and then inserted both into the expansion sleeve. My newer iPAQ hx2495 has both CF and SD card slots, so if you have a newer device with a CF slot, you won’t need the extra hardware obviously.
Adapters and Card for iPAQ 3955
Newer iPAQs can just plug it in!
Minor issue: The backing on the SolarExpress card is glued on, and the back panel actually sticks up a bit at the edge. When I first inserted it, the back edge caught against the edge of the expansion port, and lifted the backing almost completely off the card. I took it out, resealed the backing and reinserted it, taking special care to firmly hold it down until the edges had passed. If you do the same, there should be no issues, otherwise you might get a view of the naked circuitry underneath as I did.
Additional note--reponse from the vendor:"...the backing coming off was probably a result of using the CF to PC Card adapter in conjunction with the Compaq's iPAQ CF expansion pack. The SolarExpress PDA II card was custom designed for CF Type II slots. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that a CF Type II end user would experience such a problem. We worked very closely with 3M on sealing the SolarExpress PDA II card. To date, no customer has reported the SolarExpress PDA II card backing as an issue."
Accessing your files
Having an external USB port on your PDA may seem frivolous at first blush, but this tool will quickly pay for itself in time saved moving files around to/from your PC. The connection uses USB 1.1 standards, but the transfer speed was snappy. Connecting a memory stick was one of the first things I tested. If your memory stick includes U3 software, it should be removed. I moved a large file from my USB stick to my PDA in half the amount of time it would have taken to move it between the computer and my PDA. When you launch the software ( with a memory stick connected), the control software will indicate a new entry for the mounted volume, and you can then use the WM file explorer to open and access your files on the memory stick. At the top-level of the WM file system will be a new folder called “\Mounted Volume. Simply expanding the folder opens your files.
Connecting a keyboard/mouse
Next I tried attaching my PC' Logitech keyboard and mouse (both are wireless that connect through a single USB receiver). I literally had to do nothing more than connect the receiver physically. I opened Word Mobile and started typing this review. It was that simple. The mouse pointer doesn’t appear on the PDA display in HP/Compaq ROMs, but the mouse also worked. Of course, it's almost totally useless to try and guess where the mouse is, but I was getting pretty good at getting it centered on the Start Menu (then I simply left it there). I wish this could be fixed.
I didn’t test this, but this device can also be used to connect to your iPod shuffle. Pretty cool, but practically speaking, how often would someone really need to move files from one mobile device to another mobile device? Quite often, in my case, as I frequently review software on several devices. Usually, I end up putting stuff on a memory stick, like screen shots, a text file (with write-up), a comparison spreadsheet, etc. USB sticks are now my default data courier method between home/work, and between computers. It seems I'm always trying to resurrect a file from a memory stick, or from my central storage drive (a maxtor). WM has never allowed me to connect properly to my home computers over the network, even when using helper applications. Transferring large files/folders was problematic even when I did get a stable connection to a shared network drive. Using Active Sync is like a sharp stick in the eye for data transfers, clomping along slowly, all the while trying to convert everything. This is a very cool discovery to know I can simply connect my storage medium directly to my PDA.
Admittedly, connecting a USB mouse/keyboard to my PDA is more of a novelty at this point, but it did allow me to write the entire review on my very comfortable full-sized desktop keyboard. If you are like me, an iPAQ or Axim power user with a growing arsenal of data-filled memory sticks and external USB hard drives, you will not regret getting one of these cards, even though they are a tad pricey at about $90 a pop. Go check it out here.