CompactFlash to IDE with older laptops

edited April 2017 in Hardware
So I thought this was actually pretty interesting. My Toshiba Portege 110CT had a broken install of Windows 98 SE on the original 800MB hard drive, which sounded very close to failure. As well as this, the floppy drive was the only proper I/O device that could be used to reinstall an OS - due to the laptop's small size there's no space for a CD drive.
I thought my best bet was to connect the drive to another IDE PC and copy over files like that, but seeing as the drive was close to failure I didn't really use the laptop much (which is actually a really nice machine, Pentium Pro, 16MB RAM, 10.4" display, inbuilt power supply - takes a standard mains cable, and a fantastic keyboard), until I discovered that CompactFlash cards could be converted to IDE without expensive converters.

I managed to pick up a converter for less than £3, and a SanDisk 60MB/s 16GB CF card for £6. I also purchased a PCMIA WiFi card for £1 in the hope to get some form of internet connection, but I was actually sent a 32bit Wireless N PC card of which I'm doubtful about compatibility. After inserting the CF card into the adapter I thought that the pins weren't compatible as the adapter would not connect to the IDE socket, before discovering that the pin on the bottom row of the adaptor - 13 pins from the left and 10 from the right - had to be removed before it would fit - this is the IDE key to ensure that it's inserted the correct way around. After doing this with a screwdriver, bending it until it came off, I inserted the drive into the laptop and it booted right up - obviously into no OS. I set the laptop to "IDE Enhanced" compatibility after reading online this could be needed.

First up I attempted to install MS-DOS 5.0, the only set of floppies I had lying around. The first disk turned out to be bad however the drive was detected and formattable in the setup program.

I then tried to find a CompactFlash to USB adapter without success, so decided to use a VAIO IDE to USB converter with the adaptor also to connect the drive to my main Windows 10 desktop. This meant I could format the drive within Windows and modify files on it. Using Rufus to make both a FreeDOS and MS-DOS bootdisk failed, with FreeDOS hanging at "loading FreeDOS" on the 110CT after Rufus claimed success, and MS-DOS causing the laptop to hang at a blinking cursor. Therefore I planned to download VMWare Workstation and install Windows 98 to the disk using the Physical Disk Access feature, however decided to also try grabbing a MS-DOS 6.22 VHD from here and restoring it to the disk. To my surprise this actually worked and I was in a working MS-DOS system upon booting the drive in the 110CT. The partition turned out to be 2GB and corrupted when I attempted to use MiniTool Partition Manager on it (detecting it as FAT32 not FAT16) so I re-restored the VHD and left it at 2GB, which is plenty for now.

I then downloaded the Windows 98 SE ISO from WinWorld and copied the setup files over to the disk also. Again I put this back in the 110CT, booted to DOS and ran the Windows 98 setup with no options. Shockingly it ran through the installer fine. The laptop was almost silent - the HDD must have been a huge producer of noise - and the install took much less than the predicted time - I'm guessing helped by the relatively fast CF card and installing from files already on the drive. It prompted me to create a bootdisk during setup, which I'm glad I did. I used a 98 key off here which worked great.

After the install appeared to have completed the laptop rebooted to a blinking cursor. I tried changing the boot options in the BIOS to no effect before researching online and reading that the Windows 98 installer probably failed to write boot files. I booted from the boot disk I had been prompted to create, changed to the C: drive, ran fdisk /mbr followed by sys c:, and rebooted - to Windows 98 booting up faster than a lot of my HDD-based Win10 systems today. After running through various setup options the system was extremely stable even on the limited amount of RAM, and bootups were also very quick, all with the laptop being almost silent.

Sadly my PCMIA Ethernet card cut out halfway-through downloading Opera 9.52 before I could install the remaining drivers, however I am extremely pleased with the results to get this laptop back up and running well again. For less than the cost of a similar IDE HDD you can have flash-based storage that is both faster, more reliable, and far easier to transfer files to using another PC. WinWorld has also been a fantastic resource in the repair of this laptop - that hard disk image literally saved me what could have been hours!

I'm certainly going to be replacing all the HDDs from my PCs with CF-based storage if I can get hold of more of these cards, which seem to be getting rarer and more expensive. It's interesting that they are so easily converted, I think even using the same signalling.


  • Cool, I remember trying to use an SD-to-IDE adapter with an 8GB SDHC card to make an SSD solution for my NEC Versa FX laptop a few years ago, unfortunately it didn't go so well due to the adapter not supporting UDMA (which was needed for the CD drive to work on that laptop) so I ended up using it on a Dell Latitude CP-M166ST which ran Windows 98FE just fine, But because it was recognized as a removable storage device, MS Office didn't want to install, I imagine setting a "fixed" block on the disk would've fixed that but I was too illiterate back then.

    They do make PATA/IDE Solid State Drives for laptops but their pricing can be unpredictable depending on what capacity you're hoping to get.
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