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386pic2

In this article we will be looking at what I consider the ideal setup for a 386 based PC. The 386 is the predecessor of the 486 CPU that we looked at in my Anatomy of a 486 DOS PC article. The CPU was produced from 1985 to 2007 but I think the heyday of this CPU and PC’s based around it is roughly from the late 80’s to early 90’s. The 386 is really the first CPU that was powerful enough to take full advantage of things like VGA and acceptably run games like Wolfenstein 3d. The golden age of DOS gaming lies with the 486 but it really started with the 386.

So why would you want to build a 386 based machine? Well that answer depends on you. Some people just consider it a cut down 486 and a somewhat uninteresting CPU. To a degree This is somewhat accurate and I myself would usually suggest a 486 or Pentium 1 over a 386 machine if you could only have one. So other then building an era correct machine for fun is there any practical reasons?

I would say yes though in all honestly like the Windows 3.1 based machine I covered earlier Putting a 386 together is more of a hobbiest pursuit then a mandatory build for classic PC gaming but I can provide two reasons.

1) sound options. This really only applies if you already have a 486. If you do you probably already have a sound blaster 16, maybe a midi card as well? multiple sound cards can be a pain to configure in DOS and some older sound blasters have been reported to have some mild speed issues with fast 486 machines and Pentiums. with a slower 386 you can experiment with different lesser known sound cards or if you went with the old stand by sound blaster 16 in your 486 you can mix it up and throw a older sound blaster or sound blaster pro in a 386 machine. Many games sound better on a SB or SB pro and the later SB pro cards tend to be less “noisy” cards then the later SB 16’s.

2) earlier games with speed issues. Probably the best reason to build a 386 machine. There is a limited era where games were coming out for 386 based PC’s and some of these games are rather CPU speed sensitive. The best known example of this is Wing Commander, a rather well known and beloved game that is terribly speed sensitive. Even a faster 386 or a slow 486 feels “off” with this game and a slower 386 around the 25mhz mark seems to be the sweet spot. Bubble Ghost and Test Drive III (as demonstrated via the 386 and 486 videos by LGR) are other games that come to mind that are very speed sensitive to faster 486 systems. With a faster 386 and a decent video card you can run games like Wolf3d extremely well and late EGA games just “feel right” on this machine.

Then again if your reading this page your probably a classic PC enthusiast and don’t really need much reasoning to put a classic build together. I know for a lot of people the 386 was their first real gaming PC so nostalgia can play an important roll in PC building. With that out of the way I’m going to commence detailing what I think is the ideal 386 machine and what I put together myself.

386alt

Here’s my 386 PC in a tower case. I try to use a case that captures the look of whatever era I’m going after and I think this tower suits the time. The 386 era seems to be when tower cases really started to come in vogue as opposed to desktop cases. I’m personally partial to desktops and that’s the form I used with my 486 build but I rather like the styling of the 386 era cases. There IS a style difference in my opinion though it may be subtle. In my opinion towers of the earlier era seemed to have more “flair” if that makes sense. With this case you can see it at the bottom with the large reset and turbo buttons (turbo button slows down the CPU BTW for compatibility with older games) and the extra big power button and then the grooved base. I think later cases starting around the 486 felt more utilitarian, boxy and plain with small buttons. It was still pretty common to find big power switches on the cases as opposed to press buttons as well.

So if we look at the case starting from the top we have my SCSI CD ROM drive. I believe mine is 12x speed. The CD drive is a bit of an extravagance for the era but definitely not unheard of. Having a CD drive installed makes things much more convenient especially for playing CD rereleases of games that came out at the time of the 386. Below that is a  standard 5 1/4 inch 1.2 MB floppy drive. Essential if you want to get the right look of the time for the 386. Also many games and applications were still being released on this format in the late 80’s early 90’s. in the smaller bays we have a standard 1.44MB floppy drive that gets a lot of use in this machine and below that is my SCSI Zip drive. I like to try to include a Zip drive in all my classic machines for convenience and definitely recommend adding one. Mine like in my 486 is the rarer SCSI variety since I went SCSI for this setup, which I’ll get into later. If your wondering why it looks so odd its because the only drive I had was a horribly ugly purple. Why Iomega decided to put out drives with purple face plates is beyond me and unfortunately I couldn’t just swap it with a white plate from a common IDE type drive thus I was forced to paint the face white. Trust me it still looks better then the original purple.

386alt2

Other then being very shiny the back is not to interesting. Were stuck with the AT keyboard and serial mouse again like on the 486 but that’s not a big deal. we have the standard parallel and serial ports along with the AT keyboard port and the multitude of expansion slots to the bottom.

Note in some of the images below the board is in an earlier case. I found the case above early on and transferred over to it but some images were already taken in the older case.

Operating System – For this machine I wanted to be a little different and more period correct so I have DOS 5.0 installed. I would suggest DOS 6.22 since its just a better OS but if you want to be more “correct” 5.0 is the one. There’s not to much difference except 6.22 is just a lot more user friendly but all games that run on 5 should run on 6 and vise versa. Besides it “installs in minutes” and of course “no PC should be without it!”

386os

Now to get into the guts of the machine, I’ll start with the motherboard and its components before we get into the expansion cards I recommend.

Motherboard – For the motherboard I went with a late era 386 board in order to get the best options for expandability. The board I used is a Chaintech 340SCD which uses the SIS “Rabbit” chipset which from my research and the prior owner of this board is one of the faster 386 chipsets.

386mb001

CHAINTECH-COMPUTER-COMPANY-LTD-386-325SCD-333SCD-3-1

Its a later board so it offers some feature not common on earlier 386 boards that I highly recommend having such as L2 cache and higher Ram limits which I’ll touch on in a moment. When dealing with 386 and earlier were limited to ISA expansion slots. My board has quite a few slots with two 8 bit and five 16 bit ISA slots. Luckily 16 bit slots were common place with the 386 so our expansion possibilities are wide and fairly cheap. Actually putting together a good 386 can be substantially cheaper then a 486 when you consider top of the line sound/video cards. Though keep in mind ISA is slower then VLB found on some 486 machines and of course later PCI slots. My board also has a pin for an external battery which is always desired to leaking barrel batteries.

3865

1) CPU – When talking about picking a CPU for a 386 board there is really only one CPU you should look at, the AMD DX-40, the greatest 386 and considered by many to be one of the greatest processors of all time. The DX-40 is a rock solid CPU that is both powerful and reliable. The DX-40 is very common so its not very expensive to acquire and it easily outperforms early 486 CPU’s. After all that praise I guess its odd to say that it is NOT the CPU I originally wanted for my 386. The answer to that is very simple though. Its simply to fast for what I was going for and If your running a DX-40 you may as well just run a 66mhz 486 which I already had. Fortunately at least on my board the CPU is speed adjustable via swapping the DIP-14 oscillator next to the CPU socket. By this method the CPU speed can be set to its rated 40mhz, 33mhz or my choice 25mhz. (speed of the CPU is half that of the oscillator so mine is 50mhz, originally 80mhz). Now if you don’t have a 486 and dont care so much about earlier DOS games then I would defiantly say keep the speed at 40mhz to allow you to play a multitude of games that stretch into the 486 era but if your like me and already have a 486 (or several in my case) then I think a slower 386 at 25mhz opens up a new earlier period of games and makes those earlier speed sensitive games playable with no fuss. After the fact I’ll say I do prefer the reliability and option to kick my speed back up to 33mhz or 40mhz with the DX-40 that I wouldn’t get with a standard 25mhz chip. I should also point out that CPU’s being soldered directly onto the motherboard was pretty common in this era as mine is. look for a socketed CPU motherboard if possible.

3866

Also of interest if you look slightly to the right of my CPU on the motherboard you will notice an empty socket. This for a Cyrix 486DLC chip. Basically it was a “upgrade” option as a 386 with 486 instructions and a very small amount of L1 cache on the chip. Its advantage over the on board DX-40 is debatable and its said to create stability issues on occasion. Best avoided and for my build purposes useless.

2) FPU math coprocessor – Unlike my 486 DX2-66mhz the AMD DX-40 (and as far as i recall) all 386 CPU’s have no built in math coprocessors to help with complex math calculations. This board though has a socket for the optional 387 math coprocessor. Mine came with a Cyrix x87DLC coprocessor installed. In reality though only a very small amount of applications and games take advantage of the 387. SimCity and Falcon come to mind, probably CAD programs if for some reason you feel the need to to do computer aided drafting on a 386.

3867

3) L2 cache – These are the sockets for the optional L2 cache or very fast memory the CPU can access for common tasks. Adding L2 cache like on a 486 board can dramatically help speed up your system. This is a feature to look out for even if your going for slower 25mhz or 33mhz machines. Many 386 boards seem to lack on board L2 cache. My board supports 256kb of cache which seems to be the max found on 386 boards. Since this image was taken I have fully upgraded my machine to 256kb of cache.

4) RAM – Again, since my board is a later model board it can support up to 32MB of RAM on 30-pin SIMMs which is massively overkill. I currently have my RAM at 16 MB which is still more then enough RAM and is more in line with the period. I do not know if there are any stability issues or game incompatibilities that may come up with large unexpected amounts of RAM such as 32MB on a 386. I would say its probably very unlikely and instances are few and far between but for stability and period correctness sake 16MB is enough. It lets me feel like I have a lot of wiggle room RAM wise while not being to ridiculous overkill. One could easily get by with 4MB for the intended games of the time. If though your going for a maxed out build or don’t have a 486 machine by all means 32MBs.

3864

5) Hard Drive – This is a 50 pin SCSI hard drive 2GB. I went with SCSI completely for this machine with the CD drive, Hard drive and Zip drive all being SCSI. using SCSI for my hard drive let me set up larger partitions easier and I think is a little faster then if I went IDE. The downside being 50 pin SCSI hard drives are nowhere near as common as the IDE variety.

6) Since most 386 boards, even my late model have very little built in your most likely going to require a 16 bit ISA I/O card for various things like serial and parallel ports. I’m just using a pretty generic controller here. It also had pins for IDE devices but since I went SCSI they are currently disabled. No drivers needed or anything. Its all set up by the jumpers. just plug it in and it should work.

3868

7) Video card – Like the 486 the Tseng Labs based cards are regarded as the DOS king in the 386 era as well. Unlike the 486 with its VLB slots we are limited again to 16 bit ISA. The card I’m using is the Tseng ET4000AX with 1MB of RAM. Widely regarded as one of the better if not best ISA DOS VGA card. Mine is a Cardex card but the manufacturer doesn’t make much difference. The ET4000AX offers vibrant colors and is fast as far as 16 bit ISA goes. Best of all they are relatively cheap and common, at least compared to their later VLB versions.

38610

8) SCSI card – This is my SCSI controller card I use to well, control my SCSI devices like my CD-ROM drive, Hard drive and Zip drive. I went with SCSI because I had the parts already and its a generally recommended option over IDE for a classic system. It supports more devices over IDE and is considered a little faster and more reliable with the downside being more expensive. I’m using an Adaptec AHA-1522A which is a little bit of an older card but unlike some SCSI cards it gave me no trouble to set up and also sports a floppy controller which I’m using to run my 5 1/4 and 3 1/3 floppy drives.

3869

9) Sound card – For sound card my recommendation once again goes to old sound stand by Creative. In this case in particular the Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 and its FM OPL3 chip. It will basically work with all games from the era that use FM synth and earlier and is of course adlib compatible. The card is noticeably better sounding then many of the early  Sound Baster 16’s is more period correct and many games of the 386 vintage sound better on it. No drivers are needed, simply add

SET BLASTER=A220 I7 D1 T4

to your Autoexec.bat via the EDIT command

38611

10) Midi card – I would say if you care about sound at all you want to add either a Roland or a 100% Roland compatible midi card. The 486 may of been a golden age for general midi but it got its start in the 386 era and many, many games can take advantage of the Roland MT-32 sound module for vastly better music. You could replace the above Sound Blaster Pro with a SB 16 for a crippled midi interface and noisier FM or you can use something like software emulation which I believe will allow you to use the SB pro’s game port as a midi interface at a cost of system performance but the absolute best route is to just get your hands on a midi card. I’m using a Music Quest MPU-401 Roland compatible card I grabbed off Ebay for a decent price. This is a known 100% compatible card but make sure you get one with firmware version 10 as earlier firmware versions are definitely known to have compatibility issues, especially with games from Origin such as Wing Commander. Also try to get one with a midi interface attached with it. Mine did not come with one so I’m using a hand made interface graciously made for me by a member at the Vogons forum whom I will leave unnamed since I’m unsure if he would want random people messaging him for cables in the future.

38612

In the end my 386 build was really fun to put together. It lacks the WOW factor of my 486 as far as cramming it with every possibly option but its a machine for a slightly simpler, yet not to archaic PC gaming era with less options but still a lot of power as well as character. You’ll notice like in just about all my builds I left out a network card of any sort. There is certainly a wide range of 16 bit ISA network cards you can find if you so choose but for me they just take space as I would never have a use for them. So is a 386 worth building? Its was certainly cheaper at least when compared to my monster high end 66mhz 486 with all the perks and trimmings. If you already have a reliable 486 I may say pass on a 386. On the other hard if your into retro PC building or want to experience games like Wing Commander on actual hardware I say put one together. A high or low end 386 shouldn’t break the bank.

*UPDATE*

I recently came across a old PC at a thrift store that has the exact “look” of the era I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Sure enough it sported a 386 inside but unfortunately the board was damaged beyond repair due to a battery leak. I did manage to eventually secure a smaller and possibly superior board that I replaced my old one with

I did replace the mother board with another smaller late era 386 board, the MS-3124 or Contaq-386.

COMPUTREND-SYSTEMS-INC-486-CONTAQ-386-MS-3124-1

This board has all the same abilities and features of the previous board that I want in a 386 plus is smaller and has a socketable 386 in case the CPU dies I can now actually replace it.

386alt3

386pic2 cpuHere is the original board that came in the case that was damaged beyond repair due to battery acid though its a little hard to tell from the Image. The board I replaced it with is identical in every way to this board with the exception of the chipset. My new one is SIS as opposed to the UMC chipset present on this board.

Benchmarks (AMD DX40 @ 25 mhz 386, 256 L2 Cache, 16MB FPM RAM, Tseng labs ET4000AX)

3DBENCH – 10.0

PCPBENCH – 2.5

DOOM -4.43

Quake – N/A

Speedsys – 4.19

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12 Comments

  1. Excellent read! Personally I had a 386sx machine for playing DOS games and missed out on the faster machines such as the 486.

    The architecture of this board is very interesting! Most older 386 machines lacked a cache because a builder could put in RAM as fast as the processor achieving what was called Zero wait state memory. The L2 cache would have allowed the use of cheaper slower RAM but retain most of the performance, or perhaps in this case get faster performance than the RAM could provide. I suspect period RAM may have been able to keep up with say ~20Mhz-25Mhz systems but not fast ones like that 40Mhz.

    The package that AMD 386DX40 is in is much the same as those used for 386SX CPUs. It looks a little larger as it should have a higher pin count. I think this is an indication it’s a later board, judging by date codes on some chips it would have been manufactered in late 1992 (36th week) at the earliest.

    TSeng labs graphics cards are great, they achieved high speed with basic DRAM. Somehow they managed to share the memory bandwidth between the VGA signal generator and the CPU without slowing either device down significantly! Other cards didn’t do this and made the CPU wait until the signal generator wasn’t using the RAM. The CPU would lose a significant amount of time waiting for memory access to the video card.

    The ISA bus has an interesting quirk that explains strange behaviour of cards across different machines. In most pre VLB and pre PCI boards the ISA clock was usually tied directly to the CPU clock as the boards basically had one bus. For instance on the amstrad machine I revisited the ISA bus had a 16Mhz clock on it exactly the same as the CPU. These different clock speeds obviously threw some cards out of whack, but sound cards such as the sound blaster inparticular because of the way the software for them was written. Basically after giving a Sound Blaster a command you have to delay for a short period of time before issuing another command. This was commonly done by reading a port on the Sound blaster a number of times (recommended technique by Creative?). Different clock speeds would cause variation in the actual size of the delay causing problems with commands coming too soon or too late. The result would be distorted sound, pops and clicks. Other methods of delay were also tied to the CPU speed, but wouldn’t have been affected by the bus itself like this.

    Later boards with PCI or VLB separarted the ISA bus and fixed it’s speed so this wasn’t such a big problem although it could be possible on this board as well. It would be interesting to find out!

    Finally I just noted the Midi card had a small Zilog Z8 micro controller on it! Those things turn up everywhere along with their bigger cousin the Z80!

    Cheers
    Sparcie

    • Thanks for the input!

      With this machine bumped up to the stock 40mhz and with teh L2 cache and tseng card it feels like a 486. it s a pretty snappy machine.

      I had no idea 386’s could take advantage of L2 cache until I saw this board. I even had to ask around on forums after the fact to make sure it wasn’t just a feature for a 486 upgrade. This is a very late 386 board as far as I can tell. The BIOS setup looks very much like the ones in my 486 with some advanced features for the time like ide hard drive auto detect.

      Yhea those Zilogs turn up a lot. My actual midi card from Roland doesn’t use one though. I’m planning to do a number of articles like these for different eras of IBM PC machines so I need to eventually get a 286 and 8088 together with what I would recommend. I’m going to go the other way as well with a win 95/98 and probably xp machine as well. ironically the win 95 machine build has been giving me the most trouble. I’ve built and torn down my build 5 times now just doing all kind of tweaking and revisions. I want to keep it with parts from 95-late 98. its hard picking an ideal setup with so many different proprietary 3d graphics API’s and such. Whats funny is I’ve gone through 3 motherboards and they all seem to have different issues. its been a huge headache.

      • I’ve found the opposite problem! I have trouble just getting parts for a 386 based system here in Australia. They command silly prices on eBay for some reason and don’t turn up as often as they should. 486 and better machines are much easier to come by, but I already have numerous pentium class machines that can step in to the role of a 486. My own old 386sx board still works but is missing the chassis. It’s not an AT form factor board and it’s from a somewhat obscure machine (Twinhead Superset 590) so the original chassis would be hard to come by. Interestingly it is unusual in that it supports a PS/2 keyboard!

        286 and older machines are even harder to build here in Oz for similar reasons. Maybe I should look overseas for some parts.

        Win9x machines are relatively easy to get parts for still luckily. I was lucky enough to be able to collect a bunch of them whilst working in IT support. As for GPU recommendations I’d go for a Voodoo 2. They were one of the better supported early cards and most would consider them iconic. The up side is you can include a 2d accelerator card as well to cover that era of graphics.

        If you were going for a later win9x machine I’d recommend the TNT2 AGP card for similar reasons. By the time it came out things were a bit more settled so it supports OpenGL and loads of games.

        I know there are tones of other interesting cards from that time, but they were not well supported and it would be difficult getting good drivers today. You should be able to get/find good drivers for the TNT2 and Voodoo 2.

        As for mainboard I guess that depends on whether you go AMD or Intel. Back in 1999 I had a Pentium II 333Mhz in a Slot 1 package with a Via AGP chipset on a Gigabyte mainboard. It was very reliable for an extremely long time. I had given the board to someone else so I don’t know if it ever died, but I’ve found similar boards since that have proven just as reliable now. The main thing would be to use a good reliable chipset from the era on a board made by a good manufacturer. I don’t have much experience with the earlier socket 7 boards.

        Today I have a very similar machine, a PII ~300Mhz with a TNT2 and a Creative sound card it’s great for all the old games.

        These articles have been very interesting, I’ve enjoyed seeing another perspective, and in this case something I didn’t know existed. I’ve never seen cache memory on a 386 board! I look forward to what you have in store for 8088, 80286, win9x machines and onwards!

    • I have a PB legend 140 and would like to upgrade the BIOS. It is a DOS machine and when it boots up I get an error message concerning the date and time which shows 1994. Any suggestions.

      • I don’t know about a BIOS upgrade you would have to find out exactly what your current BIOS is. usually it says on bootup. its usually not as easy as looking up the model with Packard Bells either because they were infamous for messed up model naming. different setups with same name or a ton of the same models with different names. as for inputting the date, sounds like your CMOS battery is dead. its super easy to replace if it uses a Lithium battery. if its a barrel battery you will need to snip off and resolder on a new battery or if there is an external battery connector use that. after that it should save your settings for a good long time without having to reset them every time you power it up.

      • I agree with Justinwl, its probably not an easy process for a number or reasons and simply getting a newer ROM image may be impossible. Apart from that many older machines either use a mask ROM (can’t update it) or an EPROM (requires UV to erase and a special programmer) so you’d need to know about ROM chips and have the equipment to upgrade it. That’s if you’re lucky enough to have a ROM image to upgrade to.

        Usually only newer mainboards (after windows 95) have flashable BIOS ROM chips. Best to go with replacing the CMOS battery as Justinwl suggested and try that first.

  2. My Wang 386 PC I wrote about awhile ago has ps/2 ports for keyboard and mouse which I found very unusual for a 386 machine. I with they had made ps/2 ISA cards and it still surprises me they didn’t (I’ve had some people say they did but I have never ever seen one actually work)

    The win 95 machine will be a monster when its done. actually as it stands now its going to have 4 video cards and a separate mpeg decoder card in it if I can get them all to play nice. I did take a serious look at the TNT2 and TNT card. I like those cards and I wish I had a PCI one for one project I’m doing ATM. I even have a TNT2 ultra here with something like 64MB of RAM but that card fell into an odd place where it was a little late for the win 95 machine time frame and to early for my 2 win 98 machines. I’m doing high end later builds for win 98 with one being geforce based and the other voodoo glide. The win 95 machine will indeed be sporting 2 voodoo 2 in SLI as soon as I can track down a matching voodoo.

    thanks again for the input and support.

  3. one word, wow. Great article. My second PC was a 386, it came on a gigantic Tek case, with a huge mechanical power switch on the back.

  4. Reblogged this on McHenry Games and commented:
    Nostalgic about the 386?

  5. fast isa video cards used buffers to slow the least possible

  6. Hello, I was hoping you might allow me to use the photograph at the top of this post (computer running Wolf3D) in a blog post I’m writing, about the release of Wolfenstein 3D. I would provide a link to this post as the photo’s source.


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