Dongle Bungle

A few weeks ago I needed a 3Com 3C589 PCMCIA network card to run Solaris on a ThinkPad Power Series 850. The Solaris PowerPC HCL only listed 3C589 and 3C589B as supported models (and no other network adapters were listed at all), so I went looking for one of those old cards.

Of course eBay was full of newer 3C589D and 3C589E (Megahertz) variants, but I wasn’t sure those would work with Solaris. In the end I found a 3C589B with manual, driver floppy, and whopping two dongles. What could possibly go wrong?

Once the package arrived, I discovered that while the PMCIA adapter appeared to be working fine, neither of the dongles did. It was possible to plug the dongles into the card and some LEDs might blink, but no link was ever detected. Both dongles were also suspiciously loose. The short story was that while Solaris detected and initialized the card just fine, I was no closer to having a functioning network connection.

Slightly desperate, I bought a 3Com Megahertz 10Mbps PC Card, also known as 3C589E. Mine was the 3CX589EC model with a dongle port plus a combo TP/BNC dongle, but also with a XJACK connector, meaning that the dongle was not required. Interestingly, the dongles that had been shipped with the 3C589B appeared to work fine with the 3C589E, although I found the XJACK more convenient anyway.

Luckily Solaris for PowerPC didn’t mind the newer model (good job 3Com!) and I was finally able to get the exotic OS onto a LAN. But what of the old 3C589B?

After a lot of Googling around, I discovered that the 3C589B cards used different, totally incompatible dongles. This distinction appears to be lost on just about everyone selling 3Com PC Cards or dongles. Visually the dongles are very easy to distinguish. Older dongle on the left, newer on the right:

3Com Dongles

Armed with this new information, I searched for the right kind of dongle that would fit a 3C589B. I found one, and promptly ordered it. When it arrived, I discovered that I had been foiled again: This time the dongle fit the network card… but not my network. It was a coax (10Base-2) dongle, not a “combo” coax/twisted pair dongle as I had mistakenly assumed. Thanks, 3Com…

My wallet is now a little lighter and I am a little wiser: Network dongles are a curse. Everyone hated them back in the day for a good reason, and thank goodness they died out!

Note: If a kind reader has a 3C589B-TP dongle to sell, or knows where to find one for a reasonable price (under $10), please let me know. I still want to get the old 3C589B going.

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11 Responses to Dongle Bungle

  1. wow even in the day these things were such a major PITA!!! People were always leaving the dongles behind on their trips. I recall once that a tokenring RJ45 dongle fit and worked in an ethernet card.. I want to say it was 3com but I’m not all that 100%. I just remember it was a great day when Xircom made these double height cards that didn’t need a dongle.

    Then one day someone finally noticed that everyone was buying ethernet pcmcia cards, and maybe that is a hint that they should just put an ethernet controller on the board. Some time around the Pentium 200 MMX era.

    I guess it goes to show the big way to transfer data before 95 was by sneakernet (floppies) but as much as I hated it, Windows 95 made networking part of the default install, and it became VERY popular VERY quick. And it didn’t feel so kludgy like OS/2′s networking. Even though it was basically the same thing.

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    I’m sure there must be some “how not to do things” case study about dongles in all industrial design textbooks.

    I suspect (but this is just a guess) that dongles came to be because the 10-base2 (let alone 10-base5) transceivers were just too damn big. But of course in the TP dongles there’s nothing there… they are just a nuisance, easy to misplace and often very flimsy so they’ll break, sometimes also damaging the NIC in the process. Truly awful.

    In my experience, Windows for Workgroups was when networking really started to pick up, but that probably overlaps with the early days of Windows 95. Yeah, IBM lost out by not packaging LAN networking into the initial OS/2 Warp at the latest.

    And yes, it’s funny that it was all the same MS LAN Manager code, all built on the SMB protocol designed by IBM circa 1983.

  3. While wfw had networking it wasn’t as compelling as 95. Not to mention 95 had competent dialup… IBM really dropped the ball this should have been in OS/2 from 1.0 zbut I guess pushing people to have 4MB of ram was hard enough.

    Oh well 95 should have been in 88. It seems far worse of a wait for win64 on opterons though.

    By the mid 90s everything I’d seen was 10base2 if they had a lan at all. Only big companies could afford to wire 10baseT along with the more expensive hubs.

    We’ve come so far!

  4. Michal Necasek says:

    Yeah, it used to be coax everywhere. No extra hardware required, and all sorts of problem caused by a single cable segment connecting all stations :)

  5. Jose Deras says:

    @Michal,

    But there was extra hardware (on the backbone as it were) and I sold lots of 3Com MultiConnect repeaters! :)

    http://www.bigkey.com/pic/3Com/10328_3com_multiconnect_repeater_3c588.jpg

  6. Michal Necasek says:

    I don’t think that was common equipment in a small office or a classroom LAN :)

  7. Yuhong Bao says:

    “Oh well 95 should have been in 88. It seems far worse of a wait for win64 on opterons though.”
    Well, at least MS handled the x64 transition far better.

  8. Andreas Kohl says:

    If you still need the cable adapter. I have here 3C-PC-COMBO-CBL or 3C589C COMBO CABLE (only difference is the label) with coax and RJ45. I remember 3C589C was the only PCMCIA nic that was supported by SCO Open Desktop. As I remember it worked fine on a Toshiba notebook.

  9. Michal Necasek says:

    I thought 3C589C was the dongle I already had, the skinnier one on the right in the photo? If it’s really the wider one (on the left) then yes, I’d love to get one :)

  10. Calvin says:

    Yup, I have an EtherLink PC card here too, (it came inside of the ThinkPad) but I lacked the dongle. Had to get a Linksys with the big plastic shroud. The keyboard barely folds out then, it just rests on the card.

  11. Michal Necasek says:

    For newer laptops, Xircom RealPort (CardBus) seems to be a popular choice. It takes over two slots, but doesn’t poke out and doesn’t need any silly dongles.

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