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Testing a Cheap ExpressCard to NVMe SSD Adapter on My ThinkPad T430 (ounapuu.ee)
193 points by hddherman 55 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 76 comments

This post reminded me how much I always loved PCMCIA, as a standard.

The hardware was the size of a candy bar. There was space for a big colorful sticker on the flat side. The insertion force had a very satisfying feeling. The all metal cases made them feel substantial and expensive.

Big, colorful, tactile. They were the vinyl albums of the PC world.

Forget a sticker, there was space for a touchscreen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/REX_6000

Gosh what a wonderful piece of tech I never knew existed. Makes me nostalgic for all the old PDAs

Oh man; those were times when gadgets and gizmos felt like gadgets and gizmos :)

Yes, though there was a common enough problem with different types of cards (PCMCIA 5v and 3.3v and CardBus), the standard was similar and (badly made/worn down) sockets allowed to insert (partially) the wrong type of card, that would get stuck.

Some details:


I'd noticed that, too. When I sold all my PCMCIA and CardBus cards, the set of them (excluding the plastic double-height RealPort cards) made a striking stack in my hand, of very compact modular functionality. It's almost tempting to collect them, like trading cards.

The only thing I didn't like was the Ethernet connectors. So many fragile and mutually incompatible dongles. The double height cards avoided this issue, but they were fairly short lived.

Of course now it is the USB port that is fragile instead, so when it breaks it requires a full mainboard replacement.

The 3com card with the minimal pop out Ethernet socket [1] was super cool but it was rather fragile, especially if someone tripped over the cable!

[1] https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0597/9131/1011/products/3C...

I had a PCMCIA card as a 33.6Kbps modem.

And USB-C sockets are much more robust than USB-A sockets

I genuinely cannot tell if that's sarcasm or not; if a serious claim, I'd love to see some comparisons, on both the socket and on the cable side (i.e. with Micro and Mini USB, it was not typically the socket that gave way, but the flimsy connector on the cable, which is generally my fear with USB-C cables as well. USB-A, I never ever ever had an issue or fear with either cable or socket).

LOL, I remember hearing this lie too. They are slightly more robust than micro-USB, but so are spaghetti noodles.

Yes, a fun form-factor! The EOMA68 project tried to re-use it for a compute module [0], but sadly ran out of money before shipping.

[0]: https://www.crowdsupply.com/eoma68/micro-desktop

Tbh it felt like EOMA68 ran out of money due to constant Yak shaving.

For example, instead of sourcing a stock of the increasingly hard to get DDR memory chips, time and money was spent on designing a completely new 3d printer based on new mechanics for printing the laptop parts. No commercial printer was good enough and neither was any 3d printing service.

Due to the time spent on thimgs like this more and more parts went obsolete and manufacturing became harder.

Still waiting for my EOMA68-A20 card that runs Debian.

That's disappointing, I remember seeing the project at the time and thinking (a) it was an absolutely awesome idea and (b) it was a bit too ambitious and needed to keep a limited scope to be successful. The laptop chassis would have been a great phase 2 after getting the compute module out into the world. The 3D printer story sounds like they might have lost sight of the apple pie while they were inventing the universe.

PCMCIA is still in use for CI+ cards in televisions, or is that only the connector and not the protocol?

I still miss the expresscards. I'm suprised the standard didn't evolve using newer version of PCI-E, maybe it could have become a way to add more storage to laptop easily.

With USB 3.0+ though, it seems obvious why it may have died out when better connectors became available.

USB is great, but lovely thing about those cards was they were standard and internal. I still very much miss UltraBays and PCMCIA/Express Cards as an easy way to expand a laptop. My modern Thinkpad is not meaningfully smaller than my T420s (i.e. it's smaller but not in a way that expands/changes my usage of it), but with T420s I could change battery and DVD/HDD/SDD with a single button and reconfigure it as needed.

Don't forget that there is a SECOND mSata slot for the WiFi chip (easily replaced) and of course you can replace the default HDD with a nice modern SSD as well :-)

Damn thing can even take a sim card!

And of course there is eSATA on the back as well so you can theoretically have tons of drives running on their native bus.

Yes - I have two t420s and one t420 and they all have 16gb ram, sata ssd, plus 2tb HDD in ultrabay. Love those machines!

(I also have a t25 as my main daily work and personal laptop, and couple of other thinkpads in various states of setup :).

I know what you mean, although I think it has been long enough that you forgot just how bad many of the connectors were (or you were tipped off and did the sensible thing and only got cards with a larger section outside the system with a full size connector). There seemed to be a common connector on 80+% of the cards that would break (no longer make full contact) in at most two years, if you were extremely careful.

Thunderbolt has basically replaced this use case, but some folks have done interesting things with ExpressCard. My favorite is the folks who have managed to successfully run eGPUs on 17-inch MacBook Pros via the slot. (The 17-inch MBPs have not been sold since 2011.)


The EXP GDC was all over tech YouTube at one point in time, available in mini PCIe, M.2, ExpressCard, and maybe Thunderbolt flavors on the computer end.

The big problem was (save for the latter two connection methods) finding a way to route the PCIe signal cable from the bottom end of the laptop while keeping it in a sufficiently assembled and portable state.

thunderbolt on a laptop is always properly external, while this would be essentially internal once installed, no?

Personally I have come to loathe all dongles on our super-slim nothing-included-noting-upgradable ultrabooks

The Framework laptop expansion card system allows you to have internal, thunderbolt connected cards. I think it's an interesting compromise: https://frame.work/marketplace/expansion-cards

Yea it is achieved by having space for the cards and exposing a USB 3.2 Gen 2 interface.

Well, there's Framework Laptop if you want upgradable "internals".

I wonder if this might work on my old Dell Precision M4400 I've been tricking out for no reason. So far it's had its CPU upgraded to a QX9300 (Core 2 Quad), boot drive upgraded to an SSD, had a copper shim installed between its GPU and heatsink to dramatically improve thermals, and had an Intel Wifi 6 + Bluetooth 5 card installed by way of an adapter that fits into the laptop's WWAN slot.

It's got both an ExpressCard and a PCMCIA slot that I've struggled to come up with good uses for, and an NVMe drive might fit the bill. With that in place it'd have crazy storage capacity with the ExpressCard slot, two 2.5" bays (one of which is hotswap) and an SD card slot.

The thing is a real brick of a machine but it can't be faulted for lack of expandability.

> I wonder if this might work on my old Dell Precision M4400

Why not? It's just PCIe bus. The only things is what you wouldn't be able to boot from it and what Core 2 is too slow to seriously push any decent NVMe drive. But as a storage it would be just fine.

> I've been tricking out for no reason

It has a sane keyboard layout (with all the keys FFS!), clitoris with TouchPad, 4 USB ports and can be used as a self defense weapon if the need arises.

> I've struggled to come up with good uses

USB3 card is a nice thing to have but you will have a hard time finding one on in PCMCIA variant.

> Core 2 is too slow to seriously push any decent NVMe drive

* Intel PM45 / ICH9M is too slow to seriously push any decent NVMe drive

Pre-integrated IO controller, so PCIe would have been coming off the southbridge, no?

Which looks like it's PCIe 1.1. Which would mean 4 GB/s max. (ceiling, assuming all of a 1x16 link gets linked up)

10+ years ago I tested moving some (ancient at THAT time) Celerons[0] to SSD drives. It made absolutely no difference, because the CPU is too damn slow.

My own rig was on A64 X2 4200+ (with no less than 8Gb of RAM at any time) for years, with Vista since 2008. I don't remember when I migrated it to SSD (perhaps ~2012-2014?) but I noticed a great improvement in QoL, though it wasn't instant. Years later, somewhere around 2016 I "upgraded" to G2010[1] and despite everything else (well except DDR2 => DDR3) were the same (including OS and the system drive on that SSD) I noticed performance increase in both boot-up and everyday operations.

You still need a good IPC to actually push any meaningful amount of data.

While OP's T9400 is not Presscot bullshit[2] it is still an ancient shrunk down Merom, ie just the firsts of the Core CPUs.

> Which would mean 4 GB/s max

And the memory is just 6.4GB/s max.

Still, in 2022 this is probably the simplest way to add a decent amount of fast storage for a such ancient machine.

[0] https://ark.intel.com/content/www/us/en/ark/products/27116/i...

[1] https://ark.intel.com/content/www/us/en/ark/products/71071/i...

[2] https://ark.intel.com/content/www/us/en/ark/products/35562/i...

I haven't kept tabs on modern PCIe / NVMe, but I was figuring transfer would be DMA blasted w/o CPU interaction.

Any idea why the Celerons gunked up so badly? Maybe single core blocking?

If you are talking about Celerons in my comment then it was SATA drives.

But Celerons are shit anyway, couple of weeks ago I replaced a HDD with SSD on Acer Aspire ES1-533 with Celeron N3350 [1], with a fresh Win10 install. It was slow with the original WD Blue, with SSD it just started to slow faster. Still seconds to open menus and overall a very poor performance, despite the whopping 2Mb cache. I have ThinkPad x301 lying somewhere, with a SU9400 Core 2 Duo and 1.8" SSD. Last time I used it (with Win10, too) it performed better than that Acer with Celeron. X301 is from 2008, ES1-533 is from 2016.

Intel learned from Mendocino/Coppermine 'fiasco' and since that Celerons never performed well. Obligatory bash.org quote [1]

[0] https://ark.intel.com/content/www/us/en/ark/products/95598/i...

[1] http://bash.org/?769729

I still mourn the death of the pc card slot. I miss being able to store a Bluetooth mouse inside my laptop.

Yeah, my current daily driver has what looks like a dual-height PCMCIA/CardBus slots, but there's a divider in it (for 1 CardBus, 1 ExpressCard/54).

For less frequently-used stuff stored in ThinkPad, such as USB adapters and cables occasionally needed on the road, I'm thinking make UltraBay drawer:


Maybe someone's come up with a 3D-printed UltraBay storage design that's better.

I'm surprised nobody's made some kind of folding mouse that would attach magnetically to a laptop.

Microsoft has this cursed thing [0]. Although it's not magnetic and despite being the thinnest I've seen is still too bulky to just attach to the side, it would fit great in a PCMCIA-sized slot.

[0] https://www.microsoft.com/en/accessories/products/mice/arc-t...

I have a memory of HP selling one at some point for ExpressPort?

Edit: looks like it was a 3rd-party product they bought in: https://daintlgroup.com/works-MogoMouse.html

Oh wait, what? Considering I'm using an X230 (and have many of them), which has an ExpressCard slot, this sounds very intriguing indeed. Well, other than the Bluetooth part, but the "mouse in a PC card" sounds awesome! Thanks for mentioning it -- now off to investigate! haha

Don't. The ergonomy of such a mouse was so bad you were better off using a trackpad anyway.

Yeah, can't even imagine how awful that would be. On the other hand Expresscard remote control is a good idea if you want to repurpose an old laptop to a media center

The coolest accessory was a Bluetooth flip phone that fit into the PCMCIA slot for charging.

That is just ridiculous and I love it

> When copying files to the SSD, the temperature sensor reported a maximum of 60°C. Additional read operations in the form of an ZFS scrub hit 63°C, which was the maximum I observed during my quick testing.

Dunno at what temperature the drive starts throttling itself, but I'd think a good idea would be to drop a dab of heatsink goop (and possibly some metal coins/washers held in place if it's a big gap) between the important bits of the SSD and the casing. It'll conduct heat out much better without the air interface.

I can't tell if the SSD maker put a sticker on there, or a heat spreader.

I don't think I've ever seen a NVMe drive with a warning temperature threshold below 70°C. Given the bandwidth limitations of ExpressCard, it would be difficult to get most consumer NVMe drives to reach even 3W power consumption. But even if you did get a drive hot enough to start throttling, it probably wouldn't slow down noticeably unless you were able to get it all the way up to the critical temperature (usually around 85°C) — a NVMe drive that's throttling mildly is still generally faster than PCIe 2.0 x1.

I have no idea what this vendor has set the critical temperature to, but the Phison PS5013-E13 datasheet says it operates up to junction temperatures of 125°C. In general I would say the heat issue with SSDs is overblown.

Isn't the NAND more susceptible to heat than the controller? I'm no expert but this is what I picked up.

No, it's the other way around afaik. The memory likes to be hot, at least during operation.

That is correct. Flash must be heated to be programmed. If you cool it, it just draws more power to make up the difference. Power-off retention time is directly proportional to programming temperature.

No, temperatures higher than about 70C cause excessive wear on NAND cells during writes.

Totally backwards. Higher operating temperatures lead to longer retention, lower read error rates, and even faster reads and writes. Every aspect of NAND performance is better at higher temperatures.


Note that the 70° rating of commercial flash chips is the ambient temperature. The junction temperatures will be much higher.

That's only to a point. That point is not much above ambient 70C. Hence why your citation doesn't bother testing above ambient 70C.

For another example of what I'm talking about, here's a a Micron patent for NAND on die temperature alerting, explicitly providing both high temp and low temp alerts. https://patents.google.com/patent/US20190129648A1

> and possibly some metal coins/washers held in place if it's a big gap

Please, no!

Thermal pads exists exactly for this. They wouldn't be worse than a coin/washer covered in a "heatsink goop".

A heatsink pad would be less messier and you can get those in different heights, so no coins needed.

Expresscard was like a pci express version of PCMCIA? I didn't even know that existed.

ya it's like a 1-lane pcie 1.1 m.2 "cartridge" basically. Expresscard 2 gets you 1 lane of pcie 2.0.

you can even use them to attach eGPUs... see the EXP GDC Beast lineup. Put a 6900XT on your vintage thinkpad laptop (there was recently a video of this with a desktop...)

You can also play around with the M.2 slots on your desktop... those can be adapted to a pcie slot with a riser cable/PCB. Or I think there's little risers that use SAS to push it (needs a controller chip). Most PCIe is pretty fungible without much active conversion between the various physical formats, PCIe slots and OCP and m.2 and expresscard and oculink etc all are protocol-compatible and for some of them it's literally as simple as a PCB with some traces (like M.2 to PCIe and OCP to PCIe).

Compared to USB and some of the other standards it's a massive success story imo.

> You can also play around with the M.2 slots on your desktop... those can be adapted to a pcie slot with a riser cable/PCB.

I ended up doing this recently. I wanted to have a 10Gb NIC, a FireWire card (old negative scanner) and two GPUs. The PCIe slots are only 16/8/1/1 however, so to get both GPUs and the 10Gb NIC running at a reasonable speed I ended up getting a riser for the NIC as the M.2 slot had more lanes. It works.

I'm annoyed that we gave up on standardized modules like that. Especially now with modern technology, we could have far more modular systems that could last a whole lot longer than they used to.

I think it's understandable considering that 1) most people probably prefer smaller/thinner laptops now, and 2) between m.2 wifi cards and thunderbolt there probably isn't that much demand for it

Still, pc cards were pretty cool

thunderbolt is janky as fuck compared to pcie as a whole though. intel's tb3 is not great and nobody besides apple ever managed to pass official certification, which functionally requires bug-correctness apparently. hopefully it eventually gets straightened out with third-party usb4 implementations.

Ahhh, the days when you could actually add things to laptops.

It's probably good for me that I can't upgrade anything in my MacBook. I have always had a bad habit of mindlessly maxing things out (or at least using all the slots/ports).

When I had my Lenovo T420, Micron had a sale on SSD's, so I purchased and installed both the mSATA and SATA drives that they offered. For $600 I now could carry every file I had, and didn't even need!

Then one day, I saw a Wintec Expresscard SSD on a forum, for only $100! I then had another 256GB SSD to add to my laptop.

I also stuck 16GB of RAM in that thing, since 8GB SO-DIMM's were so cheap at the time. Eventually I removed an SSD to use in another system and put a 2.5" 1TB HDD in there for more storage, and just ran the OS off the faster mSATA drives.

In more recent times, you can add multiple drives to the workstation machines like the Lenovo P50, and I currently have a Lenovo T490 with two drives in it. However, you need to buy the right cables and drive adapter depending on if you want M.2 or 2.5" SATA drives, and only a small amount of M.2 SSD's will work in the other, shorter slot if you want dual drives. And yes, the T490 has a very un-used 32GB of RAM.

T430s is my daily driver still

Mine's not my main computer, but being a standard x64 on Windows computer with both a network jack and full-sized SD card slot, mine gets plenty of use as my hangar computer. It's plenty powerful for reading PDFs & wiring diagram spreadsheets, which I sync locally via Syncthing to/from my NAS. And the two aforementioned ports are necessary for updating my avionics, but pretty rare these days without extra dongles. And while it's old, the T-series is decently rugged, so it'll probably survive a fall, perhaps with superficial scratches.

All in all, totally worth the couple hundred dollars I paid for it off-lease in something like 2015.

I wish there was a nice screen replacement for the t430s but otherwise the form factor is just right.

The screen is shit. The touchpad is shit. But it's a great little machine for its time.

I believe there are - theres some hackers in China that even release full on motherboard replacements with modern CPU's and everything

an excellent machine. the cpu and gpu start to show their age a bit.

The GPU a lot. No hardware acceleration for any current video codecs. 100% CPU and fans on youtube.

My old T420 has had an ExpressCard adapter to add USB 3.0 for ages. At the time I added it the laptop was already old and had been purchased used from this software engineer Russian kid in SF. He sold it to me for 250$ cash and had already upgraded it to 12GB of RAM and an SSD internally (which were cutting edge for the time). I believe he was maybe running OSX on it because part of the reason it was cheap was that it had a permanent imprint of a giant apple sticker on the cover (since removed). He had bought it in Russia (so Russian hybrid printed keyboard which always made it a cool party trick but still easy to type english on). It still works to this day. I was able to easily take it apart years later, redo the cooling paste, upgrade the wifi card, and add that USB 3.0 adapter. It also has an eSata port which means it works great for quickly reading bare drives (with an external adapter you plug a HDD into like a damn SNES Cartridge). Dedicated GPU and i7 means it easily even runs a lot of games as well and run up to 3 plus displays. Still my favourite laptop keyboard ever and I used it for about 8 years and multiple jobs. Now it occasionally plays totally completely legal content to my TV or is an emulator machine with a few bluetooth adapters to DS4 controllers.

edit: Based on reading more about these adapters this is definitely super cool but also (functionally) not that amazing for these thinkpads specifically. One of the big downsides of ExpressCard is that it is easily removed (you basically just press in on the adapter and it clicks and then pops out a bit) which means I regularly used to accidentality just barely detach the connection between my USB 3.0 card and the laptop. Obviously for a HDD this is not good. The other thing is that since it is limited to a single PCI-E lane (basically the equivalent speed of a fast SATA SSD) you might as well just use one of the SATA ports in the laptop in the first place. You can of course replace the default drive with a nice SSD and probably get something of similar speed or simply remove the CD drive and put an SSD in its place (there are adapters made for this). And if you are willing to forego internal WiFi and use a USB WiFi adapter there is also another mSATA slot internally that can house yet another (small) SSD. On my T420 at least this means that the laptop can house 3 HDD's without using this adapter. That being said the idea of having 4 separate SSD's in a laptop from 2011 that never even came with ONE is pretty damn cool!

The best dev of my life was def spent hacking a way on a thinkpad. Best project i ever got to work on was a wireless network bootable pcmcia card. 10+ years too late. Idk if ill ever have the time to ingest myself into doing something similar on a new interface. :/

I just bought a PCIE NVME Expansion card. It makes obvious sense - It was like $13, because the card is electrically neutral, just serving as an extension of the PCIE lanes that my NVME will be using.

My oldest server had a spare PCIE slot and no NVME ports. Easy enough installation.

Unfortunately, the AliExpress link is down, has anyone found an equivalent article?

Can you boot from this?

The one from https://thinkmods.store supports this via a mini SD card attached via USB, as the Expresscard also has USB pins. But I don't know if the creator actually has enough resources to make/ship those devices.

From what I’ve heard, no, but I remember things like Clover being mentioned to get around that limitation.

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