PCMCIA Flash Card Gives Up Its Secrets Thanks To Retro Gear

There are two ways to recover data from an obsolete storage medium. One way is to pull out all the tools in the hacker’s kit — with logic analyzers, oscilloscopes, and bit-banged software in a desperate attempt to reverse engineer the original protocol. The other way is to have a really, really deep junk bin that just happens to contain exactly the right pieces that would have been used decades ago.

For recovering data from a 25-year-old PCMCIA memory card, [Dave] from Vintage Apparatus chose the latter method. But to be fair, characterizing the stash of gear he had to select from as a “junk bin” is pretty insulting. It’s more like a museum of retro technology, which just so happened to hold  Toshiba Libretto, a subnotebook computer hailing from the late 1990s. The machine sports a pair of PCMCIA slots and was just the thing to read the data from the old 32 MB SanDisk flash card, which once lived in a backpack-mounted GPS system for surveyors.

If this hack sounds as easy as plugging things into an old computer, you’d be right — if you just happen to have a stack of floppies containing the Windows 98 drivers for said things. So [Dave]’s task became a game of finding the right combination of cards that already had the drivers installed and would provide the connectivity needed to get the data off the flash card. Between a suspiciously crunchy-sounding floppy drive and an Ethernet card dongle badly in need of some contact cleaner, cobbling together the right hardware was a bit of a chore. After that, a lot of the hack was [Dave] just remembering how we used to do things back in the day, with the eventual solution being transferring over the files to an FTP server on a Raspberry Pi.

The video below tells the whole saga, but the real treat might just be the Vintage Apparatus collection of gear. Incidentally, we really like [Dave]’s idea for storing associated bits and bobs.

27 thoughts on “PCMCIA Flash Card Gives Up Its Secrets Thanks To Retro Gear

    1. As fragile as a T60p is (at least the 14″ ones), it makes a perfect ‘tweener machine. CardBus and ExpressCard, Bluetooth and IrDA, USB and serial+parallel with an ultrabay module or dock… They’ll also run XP, probably the best Windows version to move between older and newer systems.

  1. This is all so true. Out of the many options he had – he took the most painfull and most complicated. I guess he just wanted to wipe the dust off that cute machine. Oh wait – didn’t he note something about cleaning cloths…

  2. It’s not like the old X terminal I have that boots off a piece of “linear” PCMCIA flash (not CF, not ATA) and drivers for this class of device disappeared with the linux PCMCIA subsystem rewrite…

    It’s not like it’s a hard protocol, I should see if I can write a driver for it. But it’d be faster to just install a 2.2-era kernel.

  3. Crazy to think that’s out large 32MB of flash memory was back then! Today, in a tiny 25.5mm by 18mm by 3.1mm package (ESP32 SoC), you can get 32MB of flash memory PLUS a dual core 240 MHz processor, WiFi, Bluetooth, and so much more!

  4. I had to dump an Intel Flash100 card from a Nortel PBX, it predated the card ID header, so you need a Linux kernel with anonymous PCMCIA flash driver, and the right magic incantations to tell it the card is there.

  5. I still have 4 of these Librettos 110CT at home. I even was able with a mod to have 96Mb.
    Two of them have Linux 2.6, one with W2K and one with XP.
    I did a lot of stuff with the Margo DVD-to-Go card which is a hardware DVD encoder sending the frames directly into the video chip NM2760 using the ZV bus.
    Did a lot of reverse engineering on the windows drivers to get this running under Linux.
    Learned a great deal on both windows and Linux kernel debugging and reverse engineering using IDA Pro.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.