Compact Flash adapters for vintage computing

Compact Flash (CF) cards provide a cheap, silent and accessible alternative to Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) hard drives. Prices for CF -> IDE adapters start from $2.50 at DealExtreme where you have options for 40-pin (Desktop), 44-pin (Laptops).  As the CF interface is based on IDE, with a simple adapter you can add a solid state drive to your favourite vintage computer!

Common adapter options are:

The above four options should cover most bases and I own one of each to suit various computers.  If you don’t have access to spare CF cards I can suggest a Disk On Module (DOM) product such as the LeiDisk.  A DOM will give you the afore mentioned benefits that CF adapters bring with built in storage.

I have used CF IDE adapters in a 386 and Pentium 1 DOS gaming computer to great success.  Power On Self Test (POST) sequences fly through as there are now no moving parts to wait for – the boot record can be seen immediately then loaded.  Games which would cause the hard disk to hunt around just to load loading and decompressing game assets are now loading in half the time!

I mentioned accessibility as a key feature of using a CF IDE solution becuase you can easily remove the card and read it on a modern computer using a simple USB card reader.  This means no fussing about with floppy disks, instead you can drag and drop your latest DOS game onto the CF card, put it back in the vintage computer and boot.  This is also helpful when installing files from a CD such as sound card drivers on a computer with no support for CD ROM drives.

So we know the PC realm handles CF well, but what about Macintosh?  Turns out we’re in luck!  Excellent candidates for these adapters are the IDE based PowerBooks such as the 1400c and G3.  I certainly remember the slow laptop hard drives whirring away, clicking to park the heads etc.  All that noise, sluggish performance and power requirements are solved by a simple CF card.  Remember that these laptops are quite old and can get away with using regular speed cards – I would expect some freezing or lag on a G4 PowerBook.  But for Mac OS 9 they are ideal!  You have two options – take the easy route and use a PCMCIA PC Card -> CF adapter and copy your System folder over to dual boot.  Or you can take it a step further and replace the hard drive.  General steps involve:

  1. Boot the PowerBook from the internal drive and insert the PC Card adapter with the CF card you’d like to use
  2. Initialise the card using Drive Setup
  3. Drag your entire ‘Macintosh HD’ onto the CF card
  4. Bless the system folder by opening the System folder on the CF card, getting info on the System file (CMD+I) then closing the windows
  5. Reviewing the Apple Service PDF for your PowerBook model to read how to safely remove the keyboard etc to gain access to the internal drive bay
  6. Remove the old hard drive, mount in the CF card and suitable 44-pin adapter (see the second option above)
  7. Boot your new silent SSD!

Elfen from 68KMLA forums suggests “Another thing is when using the IDE Bus, you have to use a Single CF to IDE Adapter. Those adapters with Dual CFs will not work on the Powerbooks for some reason”.  Alex Roddie has posted detailed guide on booting a PowerBook using a CF solution here.

What better way to use up old CF cards than to bring your vintage machines to life with this easy project!


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