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I’ve always liked the Vectra line. I don’t exactly know why as I never owned one and they tended to be meant for more of the business side of computing then gaming or home use but none the less I still always kind of had a soft spot for the series.

Today we are going to look at the HP Vectra XA, a decidedly business oriented model that still can make a great retro PC with some slight tweaking.

On the far right of the Vectra XA we have one 5 1/2 expansion bay as well as two 3 1/2 bays. The bays though are a little different in that the two 3 1/2 bays sandwich the single 5 1/4 bay. The dual 3 1/2 bays also are not centered like you see in most cases but are in these sort of extended bays with plastic tabs covering the unused portion. It almost looks like if you removed everything you could turn it into a dual 5 1/4 bay but that doesn’t really work. These bays also use rails to secure the drives, yuk.

In the center we have a removable plate (when the case is open) which has our buttons and LED lights. starting on the top left we have a power button followed by a reset button and finally we have a “lock” button. This button when pressed would suspend the system until you entered a passcode. Handy if you were walking away from your desk and didn’t want nosy coworkers, children or perhaps spouses poking around. Mine didn’t seem to work which is probably for the best since I don’t have a passcode. There may be an option in the BIOS to enable this feature though I didn’t see it when I quickly checked.

Below this we have a hard drive activity light as well as a LAN network activity light. Some models came with an audio board and had audio jacks and volume controls on the under the LED lights but mine did not.

On the back starting on the left we have a security lock and under that a special built-in network card featuring a 10T and 100T Ethernet jacks.

Here is a look at that card installed from the side.

To the right of the Ethernet card we have four expansion slots and several clearly labeled built-in I/O ports. We have a parallel printer port as well as a single USB 1.1 port sandwiched between two serial ports. Finally we have dual PS/2 ports for mouse and keyboard. There is an option in the BIOS for this model to power on via pressing the space bar on the keyboard but I couldn’t get it to work on my machine even with the BIOS option enabled. A specific HP keyboard may be required for this function to work.

removing the top to the case is fairly simple and only involves sliding these plastic tabs located on the bottom front of the case.

After this just pull the case lid forward and up to remove.

Here we see the XA with the top of the case removed.

The hard drive is located behind the front drive bays and is secured upside down to a metal bracket hanging over the network card. The hard drive installed in my XA was a 1.6GB Quantum Fireball.

Now let’s take a look at the motherboard with all those expansion cards out of the way.

1 ) CPU – The Vectra XA uses a socket 7 motherboard. Mine came with an Intel 166MHz MMX CPU installed.

The 166MHz Pentium is a classic CPU and perfect for early Windows and late DOS retro machines. The XA should be able to support every CPU from the Intel 75 up to the 233 MMX as well as Cyrix and AMD equivalents. There is no fan on the heatsink since the CPU gets its active cooling from a fan located on the power supply. We will take a closer look at this later.

2 ) Voltage Regulator – It was pretty common for motherboards of this era to have voltage regulator modules. Rather than having the voltage regulator soldered onto the board it was sometimes on a removable module. In theory you could replace the module much easier if it should fail or even swap it out for one that supported different voltages. They tend to be pretty difficult to come across these days.

3 ) Cache Module – Located between the main system RAM and the CPU, the XA uses a pipeline burst COASt module or Cache On A Stick to provide level 2 cache memory. The cache stick in my XA is a 512kb module though a 256kb can be swapped in if you wanted to for some reason.

4 ) RAM – The XA has six 72-pin RAM slots accepting a total of 192MB of RAM. My PC came with 48MB installed

5 ) CMOS battery and switch box – The CMOS battery for the Vectra XA is a BR2325 coin battery as opposed to the more common CR2032 batteries most motherboards tend to use. The BR is slightly larger than the CR and there are some differences as far as battery life but that is beyond the scope of this article.

The switch is mostly used for setting the front side bus and CPU frequency.

6 ) Power supply – The XA power supply is a fairly low power 100w proprietary form factor power supply. To make it even worse the board requires an AUX power connector from the supply and a specifically positioned fan on the underside of the power supply is used to cool the CPU heatsink.

Replacements can be found on eBay but the asking price of these is usually more then what one is likely to purchase the computer for.

Next to the main AT power connector is a floppy drive connector and dual EIDE connectors for attaching hard drives, CD-ROM drives, ect.

Video – The XA does not have built-in video but it did come standard with a discrete PCI Matrox Millenium video card. This card makes sense seeing as the Vectra XA was aimed at business. The Millenium offers excellent image quality for the time. For gaming is offers fast speeds and decent compatibility.

Sound – The sound card that came with my XA is a Sound Blaster 16 with the Vibra16S sound chip. In my opinion the Vibra cards are a little less noisy then early SB cards but they may not sound quite the same. This card also does not have a true FM OPL chip but instead uses a CQM synthesis chip for FM.

The final card that came installed with my XA is some kind of HP branded interface card with an HP-IB aka IEEE-488 interface.

The HP Vectra XA is a pretty decent socket 7 machine and is fairly easily customizable for your retro needs. It can make a great retro game rig with the right video and sound cards. I’d of preferred two 5 1/4 expansion bays as opposed to one and the two 3 1/2 bays but that’s a minor gripe. The biggest weakness of the XA in my opinion (and most of the Vectra line of this period) is the proprietary form factor of the power supply. If your supply dies it does make things a little more difficult as far as replacements go.

4 Comments

  1. The odd ISA card is an HP-IB interface board, aka IEEE-488. If you search on the HP part number on the board, you’ll find more info that way as well.

    The spacebar power-on feature may require a genuine HP keyboard in order to function.

    • Thanks for the info. I’ve updated the post with this information.

      • The odd interface is more commonly known as GPIB which started out as something specific to HP machines, but became common across many different types of machines and devices. It has been commonly used to interface with electrical test equipment as well as scientific equipment. Notably it was built into HP’s early machines of their own architecture for accessing floppy disk drives and other peripherals in addition to test equipment. Also of note the commodore PET dual floppy unit is connected to the PET using one of these interfaces. I believe later commodore machines use the same interface type, but use incompatible cabling.

        Given it has that port it’s likely that machine at some point worked in some kind of lab where that connectivity is required.

        A friend of mine had the Matrox Millenium as well and it seemed to be a decent card, although it didn’t do 3d acceleration well from what I rememeber.

        – Sparcie

      • The Matrox is pretty fast in DOS and has above average image quality. unfortunately the compatibility is good but not great. it lacks support for certain fog tables so effects in some games are off. for instance Laura’s shadow in tomb raider is a more of a checkerboard pattern.

        judging from the contents of the hard drive the HP was in some kind of science lab, possibly at a university.


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