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Continuing with my “anatomy of” series were going to take another step back today and jump back one more generation from my previous “anatomy of a 386” article and take a look at the often overlooked 286 based PC and examine what I feel is pretty close to the “ultimate 286” setup.

The 286 was first introduced in 1982 and was widely used in the mid to late 1980’s and even into the early 90’s. They came in speeds ranging from 4mhz to 25mhz with 20mhz and 25mhz chips being fairly uncommon. For a CPU that existed in such a transitional time for DOS computers it really doesn’t seem to get a lot of love from retro PC enthusiasts and retro PC gamers. I do have a few ideas of why this may be the case though. The first reason I believe has to do with game compatibility and CPU speed. The 286 simply doesn’t fall into a position where many speed sensitive games demand it. For instance there are a number of very early CGA games that demand a 4.77mhz 8088 CPU to run at the intended speed and even on the slowest 286 will simply run to fast. On the other end there are a few games such as Wing Commander and Bubble Ghost that really need a mid range 386 class CPU and on a standard mid range 286 will run a little to slow. I have run into a few instances where a 286 “felt right” speed wise such as Ultima III with the EGA/MIDI patch but these instances seem few and far between. Many later games also need a 386 to run for non speed related reasons so while a 386 will pretty much play everything one may play on a 286 the reverse is not true. I’m guessing most enthusiasts think “why limit myself” and for the most part their right.

The second reason I believe the 286 is passed over is because finding hardware for a 386 is just so much easier and it will still run most games that run on a 286 plus later VGA games just fine. I wouldn’t call the 286 rare but in all my thrifting and buying old PC’s as far as x86 machines go I probably see the 286 the least. Even less then early CPU setups like the 8088 and 8086. The hardware is also a bit less user friendly then a 386 setup which could also be a contributing factor.

Now that doesn’t mean the 286 doesn’t have its place or is useless for retro PC gaming. It makes a fun project and it’s nice to sort of see the transition going on from the 8088 to more modern style boards such as with the introduction of 30 pin RAM on motherboards as well as the common ability to address more then 640KB on the board and things like 16 bit ISA slots which appeared on 286 boards. The 286 is also perfect for playing most EGA games and demanding CGA games that may chug a little on a bog standard 8088. a more powerful 286 such as the 16mhz and up with 4mb of RAM are also very capable of playing VGA titles from the late 80’s and early 90’s and you may be surprised how well it can play them especially provided there isn’t a lot of movement going on screen, point and click adventure games run well most of the time. the common 286-16 as well as the uncommon and border line rare 20mhz and 25mhz 286 CPU’s generally outperformed early 386SX CPU’s.

and now without further delay here’s my 286.

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To be perfectly honest I didn’t have to do much to this machine when I acquired it besides add some bells and whistles such as a VGA card and sound card. The case is that classic beige tower from the late 80’s with the large power switch as opposed to a button as well as extra large buttons for reset and turbo options and a nice green LED speed display. The turbo button slows the speed down to 10mhz though this is still to fast for some early speed sensitive games. The floppy drives I have installed are both high density drives and are a 1.44mb 3 1/2 floppy and a 1.2mb 5 1/4 inch floppy drive. In the case of a 286 I feel the 1.2mb drive is a little more important then in other machines since many games were released in that disk format during the 286 era. Obviously many of those games were also released on 1.44mb floppy and later CD but if your collecting and playing games from this era you’ll find that many picked up randomly “in the wild” will come on 5 1/4 disk. A CD drive is also very useful for a 286 since as stated earlier many games were rereleased on CD format thus having a CD drive makes things much more convenient. It is not though a necessity and you can certainly get by on a 286 without one. I’m using a slow and early x4 drive but later ones should work just fine.

Those eagled eyed readers may also notice the faux 3 1/2 floppy panel below the real disk drive. These weren’t uncommon back in the day. I’m not sure what the point of them was though except maybe to fool your buddies into thinking you had a slightly more impressive setup.

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Here’s the back of my 286. As you can see it’s pretty much the same as a 386 and 486 would commonly look. A generous number of slots for possible expansions and an AT keyboard port as well as a standard AT power supply.

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Here is a rather jumbled image of the machine with the cover removed and all the expansion cards installed.

A) Hard drive – I went with a 2gb 50 pin SCSI hard drive for this machine. They are a little less common then IDE drives but SCSI lets me make larger partitions, is a little faster in theory and takes a tiny bit of load off of the CPU which helps at these lower speeds.

B) SCSI controller – I went with a 16-bit ISA Adaptec controller for the SCSI. This card is a pretty simple Adaptec AHA-1540. My card lacks a floppy controller but simply sports a 50 pin internal connector and an external connector. I didn’t have any issues with this card and it detected my hard drive first try.

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Operating System – I have MS-DOS 5.0 installed on my system. 6.22 should work just fine but I wanted to use a little earlier of a OS to be a bit more era accurate and I didn’t want to go all the way back to DOS 3 or use the generally disliked DOS 4.

Here we have the motherboard with the expansion cards removed.

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M-209-1

Motherboard – The board I’m using is an Ilon USA, Inc M-209. This is a rather late 286 motherboard so it supports quite a few features and CPU speeds earlier boards in general do not.

1) CPU – The most common of the 286 CPU’s were the mid to mid high range 12mhz and 16mhz 286s. These are the two most commonly used and all and all are not bad performers. I actually wanted a 16mhz 286 when I considered this project but as fate had it I ended up finding a great deal on my 20mhz 286 system that I couldn’t pass up. The CPU I’m currently using is made by Harris who also produced the 25mhz 286 which was the fastest 286 produced. The Harris 20mhz and 25mhz CPU’s were fairly rare and are sought after today by those that do want to forge ahead and build a high end 286. I strongly suspect my 286 board with its 20mhz Harris CPU could outperform as similarly clocked 386SX chip.

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2) FPU – Like the 386 the 286 could utilize a separate 287 math coprocessor to speed up the calculation of more complex math calculations. I was lucky that my motherboard came with a FPU rated for the same speed as my CPU at 20mhz. Like on the 386 the FPU chip isn’t really all that much help for games and besides programs like CAD very few games were programed to utilize the co-pro.

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3) RAM – RAM on many 286 boards can be interesting as there was a bit of a transition going on and it wasn’t uncommon to find several types of RAM being implemented on 286 boards. This is similar to later 486 motherboards where sometimes sockets for both 30 pin and 72 pin RAM could be found. The 286 itself could address up to 16MB or RAM but I’ve never seen a 286 motherboard supporting more then 4MB onboard. Currently I have 4MB installed via four 1MB SIPP RAM sticks.

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My motherboard supports up to 4mb onboard and can accept either DIP or SIPP RAM. DIP RAM are chips just like the ones used on 8088 boards for memory while SIPP RAM was a short lived style of RAM that used legs as seen below.

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4) Nic-cad barrel style CMOS battery and AT power connector.

5) Six 16 bit ISA slots and one 8 bit ISA slot – One of the great things about a 286 motherboard is that 16 bit ISA slots were now standard which opens up a huge variety of options for expansion. Since 16 bit ISA slots continued to be used on motherboards all the way up to the early 2000’s cards are very plentiful and relatively cheap compared to 8 bit ISA cards.

I/O – For my I/O controller I used a simple 16 bit ISA Goldstar controller card. I really like Goldstar cards as they always tend to just work for me. This card supports adding a serial and parallel port as well as two high density floppy drives and two IDE devices such as my CD-ROM drive.

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Video – For my video card I went with an ATI VGA Wonder XL24 card. The VGA wonder cards were well regarded VGA cards throughout the 80’s and very early 90’s. While not as fast overall as cards like the Tseng ET4000 they had a few features which I felt lent themselves more to a 286 class machine. The VGA Wonder XL24 card that I’m using is the last and most powerful Wonder card in the series. Released in 1992 this card is a 8/16 bit VGA card that offers 1MB max of RAM and improvements in speed and bug fixes over earlier cards in the series. The card offers one BUS mouse port which was a type of mouse connector similar but not compatible with the PS/2 standard as well as two monitor ports. The thing I really like about these cards is that they have both a 15 pin monitor port for VGA as well as a 9 pin port for TTL CGA.  The card also could auto detect the type of monitor connected rather then requiring the use of dip switches to tell the card what it’s displaying to. I find this feature very hand for a system like a 286 where you may want to be using a VGA or CGA monitor depending on what your playing. Although the VGA wonder XL24 claims to offer 100% CGA compatibility this may not be completely true. Despite this the compatibility with CGA is quite high and having the ability to use a true CGA monitor is always a great option with a 286 where your likely to be playing a lot of CGA games as well as later EGA and even VGA games. The ability to use both types of monitors and a boast of very high compatibility is definitely a plus.

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Sound – Lastly we come to sound. I chose to use the 8 bit sound blaster 2.0 card with the CMS sound compatibility chips installed. The sound blaster 2.0 is fully adlib compatible and offers superior quality compared to the earlier sound blasters. The main draw of this card though was the option to add chips for CMS compatibility or “Creative Music System”. This was a earlier standard used by Creative in their first “Game Blaster” cards and some earlier games use this. The CMS compatibility on the SB2.0 with the added chips isn’t quite 100% but it is close. At one time finding the third PAL chip needed for CMS compatibility was very hard but thankfully someone figured out how to reverse engineer the chip and made it available for most revisions of the SB 2.0 card such as the 049151 revision I am using. If you do have a card with the CMS chips installed remember to remove jumper jp9 as circled in the image below to enable them.

Add the line

SET BLASTER=A220 I7 D1 T3

to your Autoexec.bat file to initialize.

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Before I wrap this article up I just wanted to post a few images of another motherboard I have. This one being a later 286-16 board.

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Notice That this board uses standard 30 pin sockets for RAM.

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My 286 when I originally acquired it complete with monochrome amber screen monitor.

So what’s my opinion of the 286 and do you need one as a retro PC gamer/enthusiast? The short answer is no. Personally I enjoy the 286 for its somewhat uniqness but I can understand why it is usually overlooked. As I stated at the beginning of the article it’s just to fast for the earliest CGA games and as for anything later it cant really do anything a 386 cant do better. Also compared to a 386 the 286 is harder to find parts for and being generally less capable. If your short on space Id say pass on building a 286 but if you have space, cash and time to spare they can be fun little machines that bridge the small gap between the somewhat archaic 8088 and the somewhat modern feeling 386.

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10 Comments

  1. Oh god, this was my first computer! I had DOS 6.22 and Win 3.11 running on it, only 16MB of RAM and nearly no space on the HD. I remember that anytime I wanted to install game I had to delete another one so I had to chose wery carefully the games to play…

    • Do you remember if it had a RAM add on card installed? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a 286 motherboard supporting that much RAM on the board. My family didn’t get a proper PC until late in the game, we had an Amiga 500 and commode 64 through the first half of the 1990’s. my first PC was a Pentium 1 machine and I remember it had a pretty small hard drive. Maybe 1.6GB. I guess that was standard for the time but I remember it filling up fairly quick. I eventually upgraded to a 20GB drive and I remember thinking I’ll never ever need anything larger then this. here it is 20 years later and 1TB+ doesn’t seem quite enough space.

      • hmmm…maybe it was 8MB, sincerly I don’t remember so well…I was 9 and not so much skilled…

      • I didn’t have back then but now I have a 286 board that can take 16MB of RAM. It’s fun to max out the CPU’s address space. The board is a TD60C (almost exclusively Russian hits on google…) with a soldered Harris/25 – which runs at 20MHz… Unfortunately the board doesn’t reliably start but it seems to do better with 4MB so I took the 4-MB SIMMs out and left with 4x1MB. Much less funny but it’s actually plenty for most 286-era software.
        As for HDD I mostly use a 340MB WD. I had issues with my old CF-IDE adapter and I plan to try another one. The VGA for this setup is usually a Trident 8900D and the sound varies, from SBPRO2 to a GUS classic for the fun factor, again. There are very few programs that can use GUS and can run on a 286, but not zero. Pinball Fantasies, for example, can use it for in-game music and FX, and GLXPlay can play tracked music on it. But generally an SB/pro/16 with a real OPL2/3 is better for the software of that era. On the other hand I couldn’t find anything that could use AWE’s wavetable synth.

      • Nice. The Trident 8900D is a surprisingly good video card.

  2. Brings back memories. I had that same case.

  3. Nice look at the 286! I’ve got one myself that isn’t in operating condition because it’s missing the PSU and has an odd power connector on the board.

    Has that Nicad barrel battery been replaced at some point? If it hasn’t been keep a close eye on it because they sometimes leak with disastrous results. I think you can even still buy replacements if you look in the right electronics places.

    I suspect the 286 running at the same clock speed as a 386sx would have been slightly slower (although probably not that much). The 386sx was actually designed to work with the same components (or motherboard) as the 286, and has pretty much exactly the same bus characteristics. The only real difference is the number of cycles per instruction, which the 386sx does slightly better depending on the instruction. I’d have to get out the instruction reference to tell you any more.

    I don’t doubt that some 286 machines were faster however, but I suspect it would all be down to the design of the motherboards. Fast 286 machines would have had all the best high speed components, whilst the 386sx machines were typically the cheaper designs and wouldn’t have had as nice a chip-set or fast RAM.

    I actually have an interesting board with a 386sx that also has foot-prints where a 286 would go if that were the main processor instead!

    – Sparcie

    • The battery was actually replaced right before I got this machine of Craigslist so its good to go for some time now. Your right about the motherboard and 286 vs 386. This is a pretty late era 286 board so I’m guessing it could beat a similarly clocked 386sx in most situations for the reasons you stated. Its surprising the amount of games this machine can play though its nothing a later 386 couldn’t do better.

  4. Really cool, my first computer was a 386DX-25 with that same case! Bought it new in 1990 or ’91 I think.
    Some of my friends had 286’s at 12, 16 or 20 MHz. Never heard of the 25’s before.
    I remember being so impressed with the 320×200 VGA graphics – big step up from the 16 color MSX world.
    Until I saw an Amiga, whose raw specs were similar to that of a PC but much smoother graphics and sound.

    • My dad had an Amiga 500 growing up and I loved that thing. we never actually had a family DOS machine but my cousins up the street owned a Tandy. The Harris 25mhz 286 is pretty uncommon as far as I know.


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