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Troubleshooting the Serial Port Connection 

About 20% of the time (based on my experience), serial port based software (LT1_Edit, TTS Datamaster, Tunercat's Flash Programming Utilities) doesn't work the first time it's loaded on a computer. 99.9% of the time, it's the computer's fault. ;) We'll talk about the other .1% later, but the primary goal of this document is to help you troubleshoot your laptop and figure out why things aren't working like they should. Read through this document completely to get some ideas, and then go back and walk through some steps. I can get pretty random with my instructions, maybe you'll see something that helps. 

OK, so you've loaded up the software, you have the cable hooked to the laptop, the other end of the cable hooked to the vehicle, the vehicle ignition switch is in the "On" position, you've configured the software to use the port on the back of the computer, and you can't "connect" to the vehicle. That's our general problem.

The first thing to check is our COM ports under Windows95/98 (I'm assuming these operating systems).

Follow this progression with mouse clicks.

Start.

Settings.

Control Panel.

Double click on the "System" Icon.

Click on the "Device Manager" Tab.

Now look down the list, scrolling down if you have to, and find the section labeled "Ports  (COM & LPT)". You should see a window that looks like this:

 

First off, do you see "Communications Port (COM1)" in the list on your computer? Do you see any COM ports on your computer? If you don't see any COM ports, then you may need to go in to your BIOS and enable them. Just before your computer boots, you hit something like <Delete> or <Alt>-<F1> or hold down the F1 key while turning on the computer (that's the IBM Thinkpad's way of doing it) and enable the serial ports (usually found under an Accessories or Devices menu).

 If you went in to your BIOS and enable the serial ports, reboot and check the Device Manager tab again. Is your port there? If yes, then try out the software again!

 Bare Minimum Configuration

 By Bare Minimum Configuration, I mean that you don't need any infrared device services, and you may not need a modem. This doesn't mean that these devices are incompatible with this type of software, but troubleshooting a connection without these devices is much easier. Remove all unused accessories from the laptop at this time (Ethernet, Modem, etc).

 Let me start off with an example, and perhaps this applies to you. I purchased an IBM Thinkpad 560 (P133, 40MB, 4GB). It's a very nice laptop for in-car use, and I'd recommend it as a minimum level of laptop (it cost me $300). However, when I got the laptop, I loaded my software on it, and my software did not work. On this particular laptop, they don't allow you to change anything in the BIOS as far as serial port or infrared settings, so I had to do it all under Windows98.

So I started looking at the Device Manager, and noticed that the laptop had Infrared support. I noticed an Infrared serial port under Ports (COM & LPT), and also an "Infrared Devices" Heading on the same level in the tree as the Ports level. I also noticed that the Infrared devices were sharing the same interrupt request line as the port on the back of the computer. That was what was killing me. So, I selected the infrared devices, one at a time, and disabled the device (under Windows98). See the box below - the second line from the bottom is the box I checked to disable the device.

So once I had disabled all of the infrared devices, I rebooted the computer. At this point, the computer came back up, and I looked at the Device Manager tab again. It showed one serial port - COM3. I tried out my cable and software, and what do you know - it worked on COM3. Hey, it's working, so I stopped there. J

 I did intend to travel with this laptop, and I had a PCMCIA modem, so I inserted the modem at this time. It automagically installed itself on COM1. No problem, since the modem will never be active at the same time as the car. I'm happy to say that with this configuration (infrared support disabled, serial port on COM3, modem on COM1), it's been working fine ever since.

Now, if you need infrared services, you might try re-enabling them at this time, but I cannot guarantee that they'll work with the serial port. I have never seen anyone use infrared services, I think it's just one of those superfluous features that manufacturers stick in to laptops. ;)

That Wasn't My Problem

OK, so you looked at your serial ports, and everything looked OK.

Have you ever loaded:

An extenal mouse driver?

Palm Pilot Software for Hotsyncing with a cradle?

"Other" specialized communications software (for example, with my line of work, I have specialized communications software for electrical substation equipment on my work's laptop)?

If so, you may need to go and disable the software. Especially the Palm's Hotsync, that will kill any other serial port software. With the Palm, there is a menu where you can select to disable the Hotsync unless you have the Palm information manager software actively running on your desktop (I think the default is to launch the Palm desktop when the Hotsync button is pushed). You need to only allow the Palm software to take control of the serial port when the Palm software is running on the laptop. See the Palm documentation on how to do this (I did it on my laptop, but don't remember exactly how right now ;) ).

Testing the Serial Connection

OK, so all of that looks good. Say, for example, you've got a good looking COM1 under your Device Manager tab, the "device is working properly" when you double click on the port's line on the Device Manager tab, and things still aren't working. What next?

Test 1: Hyperterminal

Hyperterminal should be installed on most Windows95/98 machines. It comes with the operating system, and is installed with the "Communications" software.

Follow this procedure to see if Hyperterm is installed on your machine:

Start.

Programs.

Accessories.

Communications.

Hyperterminal.

And then double click on the "Hypertrm" icon.

If you didn't see Hyperterminal, then it's not installed. To install it, go to the Control Panel, go to "Add/Remove Programs",  click on the "Windows Setup" tab at the top of the window, double click on the "Communications" line, and check the Hyperterminal box. Then hit OK,OK,OK etc. ;) and have your Windows95/98 CDROM or disks handy. You'll probably need to reboot after that, but now you're ready to run the program.

OK, you've double clicked on the Hypertrm icon, and it's asking for a name. I suggest "ALDL" as the name. Hit OK. The next window asks you for a phone number - obviously your car doesn't have a phone number, but see the "Connect Using." box? Hit the dropdown arrow and select the "Direct to COM1" port on the back of your laptop (COM1, probably, but it could be different). Hit OK. On the next window, make your settings Bits Per Second 9600, Data bits 8, Parity None, Stop Bits 1, Flow Control Xon/Xoff. Hit OK.

Now, assuming you have one of my cables, disconnect the serial cable (usually beige or gray) from the little ALDL converter (usually a black box, but it could be a small white box). You should be staring at the pins of a 25-pin adapter (or in some cases, a 9-pin adapter). Take a paperclip, and while holding the end of the cable between your knees, short pins 2 and 3 of the adapter together with the paperclip and hold the pins shorted together. While the pins are shorted, hit any alphabet keys on the keyboard. Do you see anything on the screen? If yes, then your serial port is working fine. If no, then your serial port is not working, and you have something else going on - you may not have selected the correct serial port, you may have software (Palm Pilot Hotsync) interfering, or your serial port may be disabled in the BIOS. You need to do some checking.

If this test with the paper clip worked, then connect the ALDL converter to your serial cable. Beginning in May of 2000 I started making all ALDL converters port powered, so it should work without even being plugged in to the car at all. Do not plug the diagnostic end in to the car yet. So, with the converter plugged in to only the laptop, hit a few alphabet keys. Do you see typing? If yes, then the converter is working. If no, then your converter may need to be plugged in to the cigarette lighter of the car for power. Try that. If that doesn't work, then email Andrew( amattei@mindspring.com ).

If you've made it this far, and Hyperterminal checks out, then it' time to move on to the next level of software.

Test 2: TTS ALDL Test Utility

Go to the TTS web site (at http://www.ttspowersystems.com ), and download their "Free Utility Software" called ALDLTest. It's about 3MB in size. Install it on your laptop. This is a basic converter / serial port testing utility. If you have a Datamaster CDROM, then this utility is on the CD under the \UTILITIES\ALDLTEST\650MB\DISK1\ directory. It is not available in the Installation program, you must open up the CDROM under Windows Explorer and double click on Setup (the Application) from Explorer.

 Select your Com Port from the top menu bar, select Fast Test, have the converter connected to the laptop (but not the car), and hit Start Test. It should give you a "Test Passed" if everything is successful. If it fails the test, you may have selected the incorrect serial port, or again, it could be misconfigured. If your converter passes this test, we may have other, non-laptop problems communicating with your vehicle.

If you run the TTS ALDLTest utility and it passes, and then you go to your software and it does not work when selecting the same COM port, then there's a .1% chance that your cable may have a defect. Of the hundreds of converters I've sold, only one passed my tests here but actually failed in the field (bad solder joint on the wire that connects to the ALDL line of the vehicle). So I don't discount the possibility of a "manufacturing defect", it's just a very, very remote possibility.

If you've done a engine management system retrofit (such as putting a TPI on a Monte Carlo, or putting an LT1 in to a Jaguar), then you need to make sure that your wiring to the data line on the PCM/ECM is correct. See my page at http://www.mindspring.com/~amattei/techinfo.htm for my wiring information.

If ALL Else Fails

If all else fails, and you simply cannot get the serial port to work with the cable and/or software, email me or call me and let's discuss our options. For my customers (ie if you've purchased a cable and/or Datamaster from me), if you want to send me your laptop and the funds for return shipping, I will make your laptop's serial port work. Depending on how fast you want your laptop shipped, the typical cost of shipping a laptop via US Mail or UPS (preferably UPS Ground) is about $10-$15. So you'd be looking at about $30 round trip. That's probably less expensive than taking it to your local computer store, and I know what I'm doing with the automotive software. take your laptop in to Best Buy and ask them to make it talk to your car and they'll probably look at you funny. =8)

Is it a work laptop? Take it to your IT department at work and tell them to make the serial port work with Hyperterminal. Make them do their job (which is to give you functional hardware). Oh, you might try and hide those "car software" icons. ;) Get them to demonstrate Hyperterminal for you (like in my procedure above). Don't take their word for it that it's "fixed". Heh. I don't trust our IT department. "Suuuure, it works.".

I spent my college years (1988-1993) building and upgrading Win/286, Win3.0, Win3.1, and Win3.11 computers (286's to 486's), and then spent several years networking them. I've built a number of Pentium I/II/III machines, as well as Athlons. And I've configured quite a number of laptops as well. So I do have the background to work with this stuff. I don't do that stuff for a living anymore, just for fun.

You don't have a laptop yet, but are looking for one?

My recommendation is as follows:

Minimum Pentium 133 MHz Processor

Minimum 24MB of RAM (32MB or more is highly recommended - do NOT skimp on memory!)

Minimum 1GB of hard disk space (depending on what you need, even 500MB is plenty for in-car use)

Floppy drive is required

CDROM is optional, but highly recommended (try to install software without a CDROM and you'll see what I mean - they're highly desirable)

Battery is unimportant (I recommend you go to WalMart and purchase a $35 140-watt inverter and a $7 cig lighter Y-adapter)

I prefer IBM Thinkpads because of the eraser tip mouse. I hate the glidepoint mice. Hate them. Try using a glidepoint with wet or oily hands, or try typing really fast (like I do), and you'll hate them [when typing, my thumb may hit the glide pad by accident, that makes the cursor jump around and select a bunch of text, and then if you keep typing quickly, you delete whatever you just typed over the last 10 minutes!]. Toshiba laptops have this eraser tip mouse as well.

Whatever you get, GET A NAME BRAND. You need to know where to get parts, BIOS upgrades, technical specifications, etc. IBM, Toshiba, HP, Compaq (LTE 5150 is NOT recommended). Don't get a fly-by-night company's laptop, otherwise you won't know where to go when things go wrong. I don't care how inexpensive it is.

If you're looking for a new laptop, I recently got an IBM Thinkpad A21e for work - Celeron 600, 64MB, 10GB, built in floppy, CD, 56k modem, ethernet, and a true 15" display (huge!). About $2300. Very nice system.

And most importantly: Make sure the laptop has a 9-pin serial port on the back! Some of the newer ones only have USB! I've seen IBMs and Dells that don't have serial ports on them!

 

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