CIS 107a: Introduction to Hardware Concepts

Chapter 11: Notebooks, Tablet PCs, and PDAs



This chapter discusses supporting notebooks, tablets, and PDAs. The objectives important to this chapter are:

  1. Supporting, upgrading, adding peripherals to notebooks
  2. Troubleshooting notebooks
  3. Specifics about tablet PCs
  4. Information about PDAs
Notebook PCs

The terms notebook and laptop computer mean the same thing, a portable computer that opens like a clamshell to show its built in screen and keyboard. The term laptop is inaccurate in some cases due to the heat that some models produce: no one would keep a device that hot on their lap for long. The text prefers the term notebook, so these notes will use the same term.

Notebooks typically cost more than desktop PCs with the same capabilities. Their parts are smaller, and harder to service due to the compact size of the case. Some notebooks are not meant for changes or upgrades by users, while others have modular components like hard drives, CD drives, and DVD drives that can be swapped out for each other.

Differences between notebooks and desktops:

  • Notebooks typically have slots for devices that were formerly called PCMCIA cards, and are now called PC Cards. Desktop computers typically use PCI slots. Desktops can have PC Card connection points for peripherals, but it is rare to find them.
  • Notebooks usually have built-in screens, which are active or passive matrix LCD panels. Active matrix screens perform better. The screen is one of the more delicate parts of a notebook, and must be protected from damage.
  • Notebooks have batteries which provide varying amounts of operating time, depending on how they are used, and how power management is configured on them. The text notes that replacement batteries for a notebook must be approved by the manufacturer for use in that specific notebook, else warranty coverage is void. The same goes for power adapters.
  • Notebooks should be transported in padded containers to protect their screens and other parts from damage. Some notebooks come with cases that do not provide adequate protection, and users should obtain a better case before losing their investments to preventable damage.
  • Notebooks may have optional docking stations, or port replicators. A port replicator generally provides access to a power supply that is meant to stay in one location, and provides more ports than are on the notebook already. A docking station is meant to connect to a standard monitor, a standard keyboard, and a standard mouse, in addition to providing the functions of a port replicator.

The text offers some advice about information to gather before calling for technical support on a notebook. The same advice applies to desktop computers:

  • model and serial number
  • name and address of the owner
  • purchase date (if calling for warranty service)
  • specifics about the problem you are having and the events that seem to trigger it

When servicing computer equipment, you should check the paper or electronic manuals supplied by the manufacturer. These may be available to you in a book, on non-volatile media, or on the manufacturer's web site. Servicing notebooks is particularly challenging, since the components used may be different from what you are used to seeing in a desktop, and because the case of a notebook is so tightly packed with components.

When upgrading the operating system on a notebook, make sure you will have drivers in the new operating system for all of your components. Obtaining the upgrade software from the notebook's manufacturer makes this upgrade more likely to work.

Batteries come in several types, but they have some features in common. Types include Nickel Cadmium (NiCad), Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH), and Lithium Ion (LIon). Advice that applies to them:

  • Recharge a battery only after it has been nearly discharged. Charging while it is still partially charged can decrease the number of hours of power a full charge can deliver.
  • Charge to full charge before using the battery.
  • Remove batteries from computers that will not be in use for several weeks or months.
  • Use power management, if your computer allows it.

Power management is an excellent concept which is not often used. The text details how to configure power management on Windows XP and 2000. Hibernation mode is recommended by the text for saving battery power. It is meant to engage when a specific event takes place, such as closing the lid of the notebook while it is running. In practice, I have seen this mode fail more often than not. Some notebooks do not comply with the intention of saving a state, going down, and coming back up to the same state, but simply lock up when you try to wake them. Hibernation is something you can try with a notebook, but do not assume it will work.

You should keep notebooks away from extreme temperatures (don't freeze it, don't melt it), avoid direct sunlight on the screen, avoid electrostatic discharge, use only batteries and power chargers approved by the manufacturer.

Security precautions for a notebook should be stricter than those for a desktop computer, simply because the notebook is meant to be portable. Many notebooks are stolen in airports, so be particularly careful when traveling.

Notebooks may have PC Card slots, as noted above, and may also have USB ports, IEEE 1394 ports, or SCSI connectors. PC Card slots come in three types called Type I, II, and III. Type I cards are the thinnest, and Type III cards are the thickest. For notebooks that do not have standard network connectors, a PC Card adapter that offers an Ethernet port is often used. This type of card may have a port that pops out, or it may require an adapter to connect between the card and the Ethernet cable. In the picture on the right, the small connector at the top of the picture attaches to the card, and the large connector at the bottom contains the RJ-45 port.

The PC Card standard has evolved to include new technologies:

  • CardBus - provides connection for cards with a 32 bit data path
  • ExpressCard - like a PCI express slot for PC Cards

A PC Card uses two services in Windows. A socket service is used to connect the operating system to the card, and a card service connects a driver program to the socket. The text recommends that, although PC Cards are meant to be hot swapped, users should take care to release the card from Windows before removing it from the notebook. This is done with the Safely Remove Hardware icon in the system tray in Windows 2000 and XP, and with the PC Card icon in Control Panel in Windows 9x. Users should also make sure a driver for a particular kind of card has been installed in Windows before the card is inserted in the computer. Likewise, you should wait until the computer is running before you insert a card.

Newer notebooks typically include WiFi capability, so you should be aware of how to connect to a WiFi network access point, and how to make a WiFi connection to your notebook.

You should also be aware of Bluetooth devices that are intended for notebook use, such as Bluetooth mice and printers. Remember, Bluetooth connections are short range radio connections. Do not expect them to work across distances greater than about 30 feet.

It may be possible to upgrade memory in a notebook that is not so old that the proper kind of memory is no longer available. In general, notebooks use smaller memory modules than desktop computers. The letters SO, for small outline, appear as a prefix to most types. The text describes several types:

  • 72 pin SO-DIMMs transfer 32 bits at a time
  • 144 pin SO-DIMMs transfer 64 bits at a time
  • 160 pin SO-RIMMs transfer 64 bits at a time
  • 144 pin MicroDIMMs transfer 64 bits at a time
  • Credit card memory was used in older systems; bus size is not specified by the text

Another acronym is given in the text: FRU stands for Field Replaceable Unit. An FRU is a component that the manufacturer assumes can be replaced either by the user or a field technician. As noted above, some notebooks are sold with components that are easily swapped out by the user. Small notebooks may be intended to use only one module at a time, such as a floppy drive, a CD drive, or a DVD drive. The vendor will happily sell all three to the user.

Replacing some modules can be done by a field technician or a qualified user. The author suggests some ideas in the text that will help you stay organized when working in a cramped space with small parts. Her suggestion to take notes and to put the parts you take out beside each note is an idea worth trying on your next lab.

Tablet PCs

A tablet PC does something that a notebook does not: it allows a user to input data on its screen, as though the screen were a legal pad, or a paper form. Tablets can be dedicated to this type of input, or they can provide it as an option.

  • slate model - similar to the ones used by United Parcel Service to collect signatures when delivering packages
  • convertible model - this model will have a keyboard, but you can swivel the screen so that the keyboard is covered; some models allow you to disconnect the keyboard, making the computer function as a slate
  • docking stations - a docking station will allow you to use the tablet like a standard desktop

For examples of current models, students may wish to run a Google search on tablet PC.

Tablets that run Windows XP may take advantage of XP's speech recognition, handwriting recognition, and other features. Microsoft makes a specific version of XP for tablets which includes these features. It is recommended that you run the latest version of Microsoft Office as well to take advantage of tablet compliant features.


A Personal Digital Assistant, or PDA, is usually a device that fits in most pockets, has less than a full keyboard, and may use a touch screen for input. A PDA is typically used as an address book, a calendar, a date book, and may be used to read e-mail that has been loaded to it from a computer.

PDAs may connect to a computer by a cable, by infrared, by short range Bluetooth radio transmission, or by one of the 802.11 wireless methods. If a user downloads documents to the PDA and works on them, the documents must be synchronized back with the computer before any changes can be seen at the computer.

A PDA is a computer, but it is less powerful in terms of processing power, memory, storage, and every other comparison factor. PDAs typically run either the Palm operating system or a version of Windows, but proprietary operating systems exist as well. BlackBerry devices are an example of the successful marketing of a device that runs neither the Palm OS nor Windows.