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Well we’ve finally reached the end of the road going into the past for our x86 “anatomy of series“. So far we started this series with the end of the DOS era and our Anatomy of a Pentium based DOS PC article and thus far we have covered every x86 era in between with our last article covering the ultimate 286 based build. Today we are going to take a look back at the earliest x86 and look at the best parts that balance power, compatibility and esthetics to create the best build for the 8088 era of PC retro gaming. Keep in mind this build is based around the 8088 but you can just as easily make the same build around the faster 8086 CPU (though you may encounter issues with speed sensitive games). Also for the sake of this article we also aren’t considering the Tandy 1000 line of PC’s such as the Tandy 1000SX, 1000 HD or 1000RL HD which due to their superior Tandy graphics, sound and high compatibility would possibly make them the superior choice to building your own early 80’s IBM compatible 8088 PC.

The 8088 is an 8-bit variant of the 16-bit 8086 developed in 1979. The 8088 would go on to be the dominant CPU in the early days of personnel home computing and was the CPU IBM chose to base their legendary IBM 5150 on. For anyone that’s a computer enthusiast that’s building a PC to relive the earliest days of home computing this can be a very fun project. Before we get into the details of what I feel comes close to a “ultimate 8088” build lets look at some of the reasons you may or may not want to build a PC focusing on this early era.

This machine will primarily be geared to playing early CGA PC classics from the early 1980’s up until the mid 80’s though it is capable of playing games from later on. We will try to use as close to period correct cards as we can when we can but will use later parts where it makes sense. With this said before we go over the build it’s very important to note that early on in the realm of IBM x86 compatibles there wasn’t a such thing as a “gaming PC” and early IBM compatible machines were largely intended for office and business use with gaming being a novelty and an afterthought. Most computer gaming was taking place on home micro computers such as the Commodore 64 and most of the earliest games for the IBM arena were rather simple “arcade like” or text based affairs. There were exceptions of course like complex early RPG games such as Wizardry and Ultima but by and large early games were rather simple compared to later offerings. Because of this hardware for the PC compatibles weren’t very game oriented until the later half of the 1980’s.

Why you may want to build a 8088 era PC?

besides building such an old PC simply for the pleasure of restoring a piece of computing history there are more practical gamer oriented reasons. Many early PC games demand an 8088 CPU running at 4.77mhz and a true CGA card to display properly. Games such as Striker, Demon Attack and early Ultima titles among many others really need a 8088 CPU running at a stock 4.77mhz to run at a correct speed. With some titles even a small speed bump of a few megahertz can drastically throw off game play or create glitches in sound effects. It may of been rather difficult to comprehend the speed at which computer CPU’s would advance at the time and thus poor programing and a lack of thinking ahead crippled many games when run on later, faster CPU’s. Another issue is that many of the earliest PC games were meant for a CGA card running at an appropriate speed. Later EGA and VGA cards are NOT 100% compatible with CGA and errors can occur to various degrees depending on the VGA card used. Games from Windmill software are one example of games that have issues running on a non CGA card. You can place a CGA card in a later PC such as a 286 and up but then you still have to deal with the various speed problems associated with a faster CPU. Unlike later games from the early 90’s that may of been speed sensitive these early games never received patches or work arounds to the degree later games did due to a seeming lack of interest in the earliest games of the PC era.

Before moving on it’s probably also wise to make a quick distinction between PC and XT class computers. The computer we are looking at in this article is an XT class computer. XT stands for eXtended Technology and is basically a slightly refined PC class computer. The biggest distinction is that XT class motherboards had more ISA slots (eight vs five) then a PC class machine but otherwise had most things in common such as the keyboard scan codes that we will discuss later.

Now that we’ve had a basic overview of the machine we are striving for and a few reasons you may want to build one lets take a look at the machine in question and talk about what you want to look for when putting together such an early build and what you can probably leave out.

If you want to go era correct the overwhelming majority of PC cases in the early 80’s were desktop style with only a few bays for 5 1/4 drives. The case I’m using here as you can tell from the image is heavily yellowed but this can usually be fixed by using the retrobright technique.

On the front panel we have some fairly typical buttons and LED lights. At this time in PC history Turbo buttons actually did what they stated and engaged a “turbo” mode. Mine kicks the CPU from 4.77mhz to a blazing fast 10mhz. This is a pretty substantial boost and can help with some games that maybe need a little more power to get running smoothing such as flight simulators or more intensive CGA titles. I really like the feel of the buttons on this case and when depressed the entire turbo button on my case lights green.

There is no power button on front of this case. Like many PC cases and designs from the early 80’s the power button is a rather large, in this case red, switch located on the right side near the rear of the case.

Before flipping the case around we need to take note of the floppy drives. Floppy drives of the era were low density 360 KB and later on 720 KB drives as opposed to the later high density 1.2 MB and 1.44 MB drives.

Thankfully 1.2 MB 5 1/4 and 1.44 MB 3 1/2 high density drives will work on a low density controller as 360 KB and 720 KB drives. Do take into consideration though that floppies formatted and written to on a 1.2 MB drive acting as  360 KB floppy may not read properly on an actual 360 KB drive. There are high density 8-bit floppy controller cards but they tend to be pretty rare and expensive. There are also programs such as “2M” which when used with an 8-bit compatible 16-bit floppy controller and a small TSR program loaded into memory should allow the use of high density drives and disks. Ive never used this method personally as I’ve felt its unnecessary but I’ve read others have used it with good results. perhaps the best option though would be a parallel port high density drive. These arn’t as rare as an actual 8-bit high density controller card but they can be quite slow.

Though I admit the convenience of a high density drive in such a PC would be nice I’m generally okay with running low density drives on such machines as the vast majority of software meant for this class of PC will easily fit on a 720 KB floppy disk. I don’t recommend adding a CD-ROM drive for this era either. CD drives did not become common until the 1990’s on PC’s and games meant for a 8088 will easily fit on a floppy disk. unlike later games most of the games from this era did not get CD re-releases.

Mounting a CD-Drive in an XT can also be quite difficult as they were not a consideration at the time and screw holes may not match up. If you do want to add a CD drive I would recommend an external drive controlled by either a 8-bit SCSI card or a parallel port drive.

I would also urge anyone building an era correct XT class machine to set their 360 KB floppy drive as drive A. This is because a number of games were released as “auto booters” which means they do not require an operating system such as DOS and will load up and play on booting the PC if the disk is inserted. All of these games that I am aware of came on 360 KB disks and a number of these “auto booter” games default to looking for the A: drive. Therefor if your 360 KB drive is set as drive B: there is simply no way of telling the PC to boot from there instead.

Nothing to exciting about the back of the case. It is worth noting that the majority of these early 80’s cases are not designed to accept a standard AT power supply. Though the connector is generally the same as later AT PSU’s the form factor is different and they are generally larger and have a large switch on the side that is used to power on/off. They generally also come in lower wattage’s of 65-200 watts.

While we are looking at the back of this machine We do need to also point out the keyboard type. As mentioned earlier the earliest IBM PC and XT compatible computers used a keyboard interface that looked like the later AT interfaced used up until the PS/2 standard but is not compatible. Many keyboards from the mid 80’s have a DIP switch on the underside to switch the keyboard into PC/XT or AT mode.

If you have such a keyboard make sure it is in PC/XT mode in order to function properly with your PC or XT class PC. There were also some auto sensing keyboards as well as XT to AT adapters allowing the use of later keyboards but these can be harder to find then an actual XT kyboard or have questionable functionality.

Before we take a look at the expansion cards lets take a look at the motherboard itself and the various components.

The motherboard I’m using is a DTK PIM-TBIO-Z Rev-9. This board is a “10mhz turbo board” meaning that it can turbo the CPU from a stock 4.77mhz to 10mhz either via the turbo button on the front of the case of via a keyboard command of < ctl > <alt > <-> provided your board has a 10mhz capable 8088 installed. This is a little different as many 8088 PC’s only offered a speed boost up to 7.16mhz although machines like the Commodore Colt offered all three options. There isn’t anything to necessarily look for when choosing an XT class motherboard as they all were fairly similar. I would make sure though that your board runs stock at 4.77mhz or can down clock to 4.77mhz since the point of this build is running software at this original speed. There are some 8088 boards that run default at higher speeds such as 7.16mhz. The manual to my particular board can be found here.

A) CPU – The 8088 running at 4.77mhz was IBMs choice for their first personnel computer and a CPU that stayed relevant for many years. As we’ve already established a great deal of early games demand a CPU running at this lower speed. If you acquired your motherboard with the CPU already installed it is likely already capable of running at the boards turbo speed but be sure to double check if you can. A -1 after the 8088 designation marks the CPU as 10mhz capable. My CPU is a Fujitsu but your just as likely to come across Intel, AMD, Siemens or other variants. These are all functionally identical to one another and who your particular CPU is from is largely irrelevant.

There are various CPU accelerators available for the 8088 socket and usually add a 286 class CPU for significantly increased speed. These cards tend to be rather rare and expensive and I wouldn’t recommend one unless you find one for a great deal or are just trying to push the XT PC to its limit. Generally it would be more worth it to simply build a true 286 or even 386 PC then to use an accelerator. If you do want to add an accelerator to your PC/XT computer try to acquire one that can fallback to the original 8088 and its 4.77mhz speed as a 286 at any speed will break many games meant to run on an 8088.

The blog Nerdly Pleasures has a good article listing a few games that have issues with faster CPU’s in his article “4.77mhz 8088 You’re needed!” but for convenience I will list some of them here along with my own findings on games that require an 8088 to run properly. For more details on the games in question and how speed effects them check out his site.

  • Striker
  • Defender
  • Ultima I-IV
  • Dunzhin: Warrior of RAS
  • Lode Runner & Championship Lode Runner
  • Touchdown Football
  • Demon Attack
  • Super Boulder Dash

 

To NEC V20 or not to NEC V20?

The NEC V20 was a pin compatible clone of the 8088 designed to run faster and more efficiently at the same clock speed. The NEC V20 is sort of a “magic bullet” drop in replacement for the 8088 increasing speeds by as much as 10 to 15 percent. Compatibility is also extremely high and is estimated to be around 99% with the only program I could find that refused to work with a V20 being Lode Runner Championship edition. The V20 also incorporates some new code that allows programs to work which otherwise won’t on a 8088. One example is the Iomega ZIP drivers which will not function on an 8088 but will if a V20 is installed.

The V20 was a fairly common upgrade for 8088 systems and is generally recommended as it has high compatibility and offers a decent performance increase. Whether to install one or not is up to you. I have chosen not to as the performance boost is enough to throw off timing in a small number of games but if absolute compatibility is not your goal I feel the V20 is a great upgrade which adds some performance (but usually not to much) as well as some added functionality.

B) FPU – As with later PC’s adding a math co-processor is completely optional and very few games (Sim City) actually support it. It’s more useful for things like CAD programs rather then games. If you do choose to add one like I did make sure it’s rated speed matches that of your CPU

C) Most motherboards of the early 80’s will have one or two DIP switch blocks with switches in ON/OFF positions. Unlike later boards that can auto detect or work on simple jumpers for things like video output many older 8088 based boards require the setting of DIP switchs for various functions. It is very important to learn what these switches control and how to properly set them as they can control things like your floppy drives, what type of video card is enabled and the amount of RAM recognized. This information is commonly found in your motherboards manual or online.

D) RAM

The 8088 is only capable of addressing up to 1 MB of RAM with the upper 360 KB being restricted and reserved meaning at most your left with 640 KB of memory to work with. This is known as conventional memory and it’s something we have had to consider in all of our DOS builds.

Here is a simple chart displaying how the 1 MB of RAM is split up into segments. This is true for later X86 DOS builds as well except in those cases we have the benefit of CPU’s able to address over 1 MB of memory as well as programs such as EMM386 which allowed TSRs to be placed in upper memory.

(Page from Hicard AMS manual)

Look for a board that supports a full 640 KB of RAM. thankfully most boards except for the earliest such as early IBM 5150 PC class computers do. My board here came with a full 640 KB and in my own experience coming across these era PC’s most do. If yours doesn’t but is capable of adding RAM do so. Generally this RAM will come in DIP form and installs into sockets on the motherboard as seen above.

Sticking to early 80’s games the small amount of memory available should not be a problem as these restrictions were taken into consideration at the time. memory limitations may become a problem though if you decide to add peripherals outside of the era of this PC such as a CD-ROM drive and the memory eating drivers that go with it. 640 KB should be enough for a simple build though. I will go into more detail on expanding memory when we get to the expansion cards though.

Expansion cards, what you need and what you can ignore.

Here is an overview shot of my 8088 PC with all expansion cards installed. Right off the bat your going to see something amiss….allow me to explain.

What you need.

1) Hard drive & Hard drive controller – Even though you don’t necessarily need a hard drive for a PC from this era one does make life a heck of a lot easier and also makes a much better all around experience, especially if your playing multi disk RPG games. Many early 8088 based PC’s did not come with a hard drive option and some like the IBM 5150 only came with single or dual floppy options. With programs being so small it wasn’t out of the question to play the entirety of your game from a floppy disk as well as load your version of DOS from a floppy on every boot.

That said I definitely recommend adding a hard drive and its relevant controller card if only to cut down the wear and tear on the floppy drives. For an operating system I went with DOS 3.3. DOS 3.3 was released in 1987 at the tail end of the 8088’s useful life and allows us to use hard drive partitions of a whopping 32 MB in size. the 286 had been out for some time at this point and the 386 was two years old but 8088 machines were still in use in office settings and budget builds. IBM had just discontinued its 8088 based XT PC in 87 but companies like Commodore were just launching the 8088 based PC10-III the same year so I feel this is the best OS as it still falls into the twilight years of the 8088 and gives the most functionality and options. You could use later versions of DOS and I doubt the 8088 would really care as increased overhead between DOS versions seems minimal to nil but many of the advanced features would be unusable or wasted such as EMM386.

Now onto the topic of the hard drive itself. If you wanted to be completely period correct then you would have to choose between a MFM/RLL drive such as the one below or and early IDE or SCSI mechanical drive.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I don’t recommend a MFM or RLL drive as they are all going on over thirty years old now and tend to be very small in capacity, hard to find, possibly overpriced on eBay and have questionable reliability. If your just going for a fun project build and want to be period correct then by all means but if you plan on running your 8088 PC a lot I wouldn’t trust 20+ hours of Wizardry saves to it.

SCSI is a good choice but 8-bit SCSI controllers are hard to find and 50 pin SCSI drives as well. IDE was released in 1986 and would make a good compromise choice between period correctness and reliability. You could use a more modern IDE drive but with 32 MB partition limits there’s going to be a lot of wasted space. Even though my case had a bay for a full height MFM drive internally I opted to go a bit of a different route and went with a modern compact flash drive with a CF to IDE converter. They are silent, fast, power efficient and come in a 32 MB size so I don’t feel like I’m wasting a ton of space.

If you do go the compact flash route I recommend buying a brand name drive. I also recommend using an industrial grade card which were built to be more reliable and durable then consumer grade cards.

For a controller card I am using my Silicon Valley ADP-50L 8-bit IDE card from 1991. This card has always worked great for me though oddly enough I have read it can cause palette switching issues with the game Jungle Hunt for unknown reasons. Another more modern option would be a XT-IDE card which are usually available as a kit or pre-made on sites such as eBay and usually sell for $60 to $100 depending.

2) I/O controller – seeing as the vast majority of 8088 motherboards had no built in controllers for things like Floppy drives and various serial and parallel ports an I/O card is an absolute must.

Thankfully most of the super common 16-bit ISA I/O cards will work just fine in an 8-bit ISA slot minus use of things such as IDE. I’m using a fairly generic Winbond card to add a serial, and parallel port as well as to control both of my floppy drives. The addition of a serial port does allow the use of a serial mouse though Ive found very few times any need to use it or any early games that even take advantage of a mouse.

3) CGA video card – Since we are building this machine expressly for the purpose of playing the earliest games that require both an 8088 and a CGA card it makes sense that we want to use a CGA card for our video.

I am using my ATI small wonder card which formally resided in my Epson Equity PC. I really like this card as it’s small and supports a wide variety of standards such as CGA, Plantronics Colorplus CGA & Hercules Graphics.

CGA was introduced in 1981 and was the first color display standard for IBM PC’s. It was most commonly used in a 320×200 resolution with 4 colors from a 16 color hardware palette. It also had several other less used modes but this article isn’t about CGA itself. If you want to learn more about CGA I suggest watching The 8-bit Guy’s YouTube video on how CGA graphics worked or for a more simple explanation check out my short article on an overview of PC video standards. The color palettes CGA uses can be pretty ugly but it’s the only color graphics mode many of the earliest DOS games support.

Example of the CGA game Alley Cat using the standard cyan/magenta/white/black palette

Here are three examples of the same game, Burger Time, two are in different modes the ATI Small Wonder provides. These images are for demonstration, the three preceding images I found online.

btr

CGA mode on a CGA RGB monitor

CGA mode on a VGA card

Composite mode

Notice how CGA looks completely different when run via a CGA card on a CGA monitor as opposed to being run on a VGA card. The VGA card defaults to cyan/magenta/black/white though in this case I find it more appealing then the blue background and color scheme on a true CGA monitor. Composite mode looks by far the best but not all games supported a composite mode and although colors are much better sharpness and especially text suffer. It’s not so much an issue with a game like Burger Time but on something like a flight simulator with dials and text menus it can be an issue.

What makes a true CGA card essential to our 8088 build though is compatibility. EGA as well as VGA cards are backwards compatible with CGA and many 16-bit VGA cards will work in a 8-bit ISA slot either by auto sensing or with a quick jumper selection from 16 to 8 bit. The problem though is VGA isn’t 100% compatible with CGA due to the way CGA is handled and even the higher speed of VGA cards may cause issues. The levels of compatibility can even be different depending on the VGA card you choose. It has also been said CGA on a true CGA card also looks more vibrant then CGA emulation on a VGA card and colors seem more correct, I would agree with this statement. Another issue with using a VGA card for CGA is that many CGA games will play but be stuck in the default cyan/magenta/white/black palette while a true CGA card may display a more appropriate choice. Wizardy is an example that comes to mind and when played on a CGA card the palette choice is much more appealing. Other games like StarQuake switch up the CGA color palette as you progress through the various screens but many VGA cards will stick with the same default palette for the entire game. Composite out compatibility for games that support it is another feature lacking on most VGA cards. For this reason only a true CGA card connected to a CGA monitor will give you 100% compatibility with the earliest of PC games. If we’re going through the trouble of building a PC based around an 8088 processor for compatibility it only makes since we also run a true CGA card for compatibilities sake since pretty much all of those 8088 speed sensitive games also were designed to display in CGA.

The ATI Small Wonder is a great card since it supports all CGA modes fully as well as a few additional modes such as Plantronics Colorplus CGA & Hercules Graphics. Plantronics mode is similar to Tandy video but at a slightly higher resolution. A few Utility programs of the time supported this mode but no games did. The only known game to support Plantronics mode is the relatively modern retro game Plant X3 from “8-bit guy”. Hercules Graphics mode allows for graphics on a monochrome monitor as well as CGA emulation in monochrome on a monochrome monitor. The card is also fully IBM MDA compatible if you just want to do text on a monochrome monitor.

20210403_021922

The ATI Small Wonder also has a composite out (usually) which is a must have feature when looking for a CGA adapter. On my card I am using a break out cable connected to pins at the top of the card but most cards have a composite jack directly on the card. Composite allowed connection to a standard TV set or high quality monitor with a composite in jack and use of a standard composite cable (the usually yellow color coded RCA jack cable). Over one hundred early games have special color composite modes that use the dithering effect of composite video to actually display more then the four colors of CGA on screen and the effect can create an image that looks very close to 16 color EGA at times. Basically CGA mode is sharper and much, much better for text but is limited to four colors that usually look pretty hideous where composite mode is a bit more blurry and text can look pretty poor but depending on the game you can get a image with many more colors looking substantially better then CGA mode.

Also keep in mind CGA mode is a digital format unlike VGA which is analog as well as using a different connector. CGA uses a DE-9 connector (also the typical connector for EGA and Monochrome standards) outputting a digital signal while VGA uses a DE-HD15 connector and an analog signal. Here is an image of my ATI VGA Wonder XL 24 card which has connectors on the bracket for connection with both a VGA and a EGA/CGA/Monochrome monitors.

most VGA monitors will not be compatible with a CGA signal coming from a CGA card even with a pin adapter though very early VGA models may be, check your monitor model and specs before trying. For the best results with a CGA card use a CGA monitor like the Tandy CM line. I am using a Tandy CM-4 but there are others from Tandy like the CM-4 and CM-10. The CM-11 is a very highly regarded CGA monitor as well as a multitude of monitors from other makers such as IBM themselves.

Here are a list of some games that may encounter issues when running on a VGA or EGA card emulating CGA mode.

  • Digger (high score screen)
  • Possibly all Windmill Software games (like Digger mentioned above)
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator II (“double screen effect”)
  • Starquake (has positioning and palette switching problems when used with some VGA cards, ex ATI Mach32)
  • Freddy’s Rescue Roundup
  • Pac Man (incorrect title screen colors)

 

With all this said I understand that not all of us are 100% hardware purists and even I take some liberties at times incorporating newer tech outside of a given era into a build for the sake of convenience. So considering the increasing scarcity of 8-bit CGA cards and especially CGA monitors if you must go with a VGA card here are some tips. Stay away from cards using the ET3000 and ET4000 core as even though these are great VGA cards they have shown to especially lack compatibility in CGA. For a cheaper card with decent CGA compatibility go for the Trident 8900 series as they can operate in an 8-bit slot and offer decent compatibility. For the best compatibility look for cards that are “CGA Register compatible” and I recommend the ATI VGA Wonder XL 24 or the Cirrus Logic Eagle II chipset both of which have CGA DE-9 connectors for connecting to real CGA monitors and standard VGA DE-HD15 connectors on the card. Also check your cards software as some cards can be switched into a “CGA mode” via software for better compatibility. My ATI VGA wonder cards have this feature. Unfortunately both of these cards can be hard to acquire these days, especially cards using the Eagle II chipset which I’ve read has the highest CGA compatibility of any VGA card but is pretty slow for VGA.

If your curious about the compatibility of your own card there is a program called the CGA compatibility tester available for download here.

Some of the issues are relatively minor but others can be quite distracting and take away from the experience.

What you can probably do without.

The last three cards in this setup are cards that may add a little functionality to your setup but you could probably do without them.

4) EMS memory card – Remember earlier when we talked about how the 8088 could only address up to 1 MB of memory? Well using an EMS memory expansion card is a way around such a limitation.

The card I’m using is from Intel and it is an 8 Above board capable of providing 8 MB of additional EMS (Expanded Memory Specification) memory to a PC or XT (or AT) class computer. EMS should also not be confused with the later introduced XMS (eXtended Memory). The 8 Above card uses a 16-bit ISA connector but will happily work in an 8-bit slot as will many EMS cards. My card only has 2 MB installed but filling the DIP sockets up with the appropriate RAM will allow for a total of 8 MB. There were several makers and variations of this card type and some such as the Orchard RamQuest card will allow adding up to 16 MB via 30 pin SIMMS.

This card as well as many other EMS RAM cards will allow you to use its RAM as a temporary RAM disk hard drive or for back filling conventional memory if your board does not have a full 640 KB installed. Using the card as conventional memory is mostly a waste as filling your 640 KB via the motherboard is generally a better idea and grants faster performance.

The main attraction of this card however is the ability to add LIM 4.0 compliant EMS memory. LIM is a standard put together by Lotus, Intel and Microsoft (hence LIM) to grant a way for users of PC and XT class computers to access more then 1 MB of memory. Lotus 123 was a very popular program for business spreadsheets at the time and 1 MB just wasn’t doing it. They managed find a way to add memory by using a section of the upper reserved memory that wasn’t being used as a sort of “window” to the EMS memory on the card as illustrated below.

(Page from Intel 8 Above card manual)

So when accessing the EMS memory the computer would have to “look” at the designated memory segment in the upper memory and then through that access the EMS memory on the card. This was obviously pretty inefficient and slow compared to using regular conventional memory on the motherboard but it did allow the 1 MB barrier to be circumvented. Setting one of these cards up isn’t plug and play either as you must use special drivers and have a basic understanding of your computers setup so you can configure the card to an unused memory segment. The Intel 8 Above card I’m using also needs a dummy plug inserted into a socket near the bracket in order to function in 8-bit mode.

So why wouldn’t I recommend adding one of these cards to your 8088 setup when having up to an additional MB of RAM seems like a great idea? Well basically it’s because you will never use it in a standard 8088 gaming setup. Unless your creating giant spreadsheets or word documents in Lotus 123 or pushing your machine to play software well out of its era you’ll likely never encounter a situation where you actually need EMS memory. Sure some games require EMS memory but those games are generally later VGA games that would run poorly on an 8088 anyways and would be better off played on something like a 386 PC. Add in that these cards can be hard to find and typically cost over $100 and it’s just not worth the price. Sure it’s fun to see that extra RAM counting up on POST but it’s sad to know your rarely if ever going to need it.

5) HIcard AMS – This card is very similar to the Intel 8 Above board but rather then add EMS memory it manipulates the RAM you already have installed.

The HIcard can do several things. Like the EMS card the HImem can be configured to use its RAM as a temporary RAM disk. The more interesting features of the card are the ability to extend your conventional memory as well as create up to 192 KB of HIpage memory. HIpage memory allows you to load programs such as RAM resident programs and utilities, ect, into memory which basically acts just as as loading programs into upper memory with EMM386 would.

The first feature this card performs is expanding your conventional memory from 640 KB to a total of 704 KB. Since the first 64 KB of memory over 640 KB is reserved for use of an EGA video card if no EGA card is installed this memory is not used and the HImem card can be configured to take advantage of this and expand conventional memory into this segment creating a total of 704 KB of usable conventional memory. If you do have an EGA card installed obviously this feature will not work. Since my goal here was to build an 8088 with a CGA card this memory segment was available and I was able to successfully expand my conventional memory to a full 704 KB.

the second function of this card is to map unused areas of the upper memory to the cards HIpage memory. Since I have various things installed in my 8088 such as a hard drive and an EMS card I was only able to find one unused segment of 64 KB to configure as HIpage memory.

Like the EMS card the HImem AMS card requires a basic knowledge of your PC’s configuration and memory setup and requires special drivers and the correct configuring of DIP switches on the card. Thankfully like the EMS card the manual and software is fairly detailed and the process isn’t to difficult.

The truth is I didn’t even know cards like this existed and if I didn’t randomly come across one in a forum for sale at a great price I never would of searched one out. Admittedly the features of this card are super cool. Expanding your conventional memory and being able to free up the conventional memory you already have sounds extremely useful but like the with the EMS card if your just playing CGA games your never going to use this cards features. This again is another card meant for computers running memory hungry productivity software and things like Lotus 123. For a system geared to games of the early 80’s conventional requirements were never super high and since my system lacks things like a CD-ROM drive, ZIP drive, network card or even a sound card driver I have no resident memory programs to even load into the available HIpage memory. Now if you do decide to add things like a CD drive or network card to your 8088 setup I could see this card being much more useful but as it stands its a neat card but not to useful for our PC’s purposes.

Here is an image of my computers screen after the memory count and the loading of DOS. here you can see the EMS and HImem AMS cards initializing for DOS.

6) Sound card – For a sound card the earlier are the most period correct such as an adlib or a Game blaster card but I went with a card from a little later and chose the Sound Blaster 1.5 w/CMS chips from 1990 since it mostly supports both standards plus has digital sound effects.

The sound Blaster 1.5 supports Adlib sound as well as most games that support Game Blaster/CMS (Creative Music System) sound and has an improved DSP over the earlier Sound Blaster 1.0. If you come across a Sound Blaster 1.5 with two empty sockets that card is missing CMS support but restoring support is easy with installing two readily and cheaply available Phillips SAA1099P chips off eBay. most games that use CMS will work once the chips are installed but a few games do require a true Game Blaster card.

Adding the line

SET BLASTER=A220 I7 D1 T1

To the Autoexec.bat file is all you need to do to allow the card to function and requires no conventional memory although a small number of games do require you install the driver to receive sound.

Even though adding a sound card may seem like a no brainier, remember that even the earliest sound card, the Adlib wasn’t released until 1987. Up until this point in time all games used the built in PC speaker for sound. By the time games started supporting sound cards and music they also largely supported EGA and were starting to support the new VGA standard and most don’t run all that well on a 8088 even in turbo mode. Sure many games still had a option for CGA mode and some do play well on an 8088 and support sound blaster sound like Prince of Persia but the question remains why wouldn’t you just play any of these games on a faster machine in their EGA or VGA mode.

Is it worth building an 8088 PC?

As always the answer is highly dependent on your individual needs and wants. For the casual retro PC gamer whom views the golden age as consisting of classics like, Doom, Duke Nukem, Decent or even Wolfenstein 3d and Secret of Monkey island an 8088 build probably isn’t for you and I would suggest thinking hard about if your passionate about playing the early games an 8088 does excel at which with exceptions are generally much simpler and more arcade like experiences. On the other hand if your interested in an earlier era of PC games and are looking for full compatibility of all eras on real hardware then building a 8088 is pretty essential to your collection. where as you could probably skip a 286 since a 386 will do just about anything a 286 will do but better an 8088 build by nature of its slow speed can play a number of games that just won’t feel or sound right on any faster system. Sure you can throw a CGA card in a faster 286 or 386 and fix most of the issues associated with not using a true CGA card but your not going to be able to downclock that CPU to a 8088 4.77mhz speed equivalent. Even a 286 or 8086 running at 4.77mhz is faster then a true 8088 at the same speed.

If you want to completely abandon period correctness I found a great example of pushing an early XT class machine and based several of my hardware choices off his article. If you want to push your own machine to its limits I suggest checking out Anonymous Cowards “V’ger XT” -10MHz V30.

 

https://youtu.be/m2t0XsbLcng

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Continuing with my “anatomy of” series we’re 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

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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.

28616

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

continuing with the Anatomy of series we will be looking at a Windows 3.1 computer designed to push the 486 CPU to its limits. Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.11 for networks was an earlier windows operating system that basically added a graphics user interface to DOS. you had to already have DOS installed and for the most part it made DOS more user friendly and allowed the user to run something sort of like what we know as Windows today. You could easily exit it to DOS and vise versa. There were also a number of games designed to run within Windows 3.1 exclusively or with a different “enhanced” interface.  For the most part Windows 3.1 installed on a PC did not interfere with DOS applications or games, In another instance of “I swear I’ve read it somewhere” I seem to recall a few games that had issues running if windows was installed or some hardware issues arising since windows does some modifying to the config. files and other such important files. Again, I cant confirm this but I swear I’ve read about these issues somewhere before. for compatibility sake though and as a simple excuse to have another PC setup I do run a windows 3.1 exclusive PC and keep “pure” DOS computers as well.

Is the creation of a PC purely for Windows 3.1 really necessary? No, not in the slightest, it’s a rather small era in PC gaming and from what I can tell the incompatibility issues with Windows 3.1 are so negligible your actually probably better off having it on a DOS PC if you only have room to spare for one PC. That being said since I do this as a hobby and have room for PC’s of every minute era or purpose I like to treat this as sort of experimental setup. although Windows 3.1 could run on older hardware like the 386 It was really meant for the 486 CPU and I want to take this setup as a PC that pushes the 486 platform to its limits. Practically speaking if you’re looking at a very fast 486 you may as well get an early Pentium as its faster and cheaper but if you want to see how far the 486 can be pushed then a Windows 486 machine is a fun project.

A nice little tower representative of the era. nauseating off-white and the standard CD-ROM, 5 1/4 and 3 1/2 floppy drives as all three of these formats were still in fairly wide use at the time. For a hard drive we have a 500MB IDE hard drive loaded with DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.1, of course a larger hard drive can be installed but again without partitioning or some tricks about 500MB is the most DOS can “see”. This tower also comes with one of those neat little LED screens that displays the current CPU speed of the computer, handy on an older computer if you have a turbo button hooked up so you can visually see the CPU speed setting. Yes, its running at 133mhz, no it’s not overclocked and no, it is not a Pentium, we will get to that in a moment.

you can always add a PCI SCSI card as well. SCSI is usually a little faster then IDE and allows larger hard drive sizes but back in the 80’s and 90’s it was more expensive then IDE. SCSI cards also generally have a external port on them for hooking up several external SCSI devices. The Maxtor hard drive I have in this machine is actually pretty fast and since I already had a lot of information on it and I do not use this PC to much I decided not to switch it over to SCSI (yet) but if your just building a similar system I do recommend a ISA,VLB or preferably PCI SCSI controller card. Another reason I haven’t bothered with SCSI though has to do with bus mastering issues with certain machines. specifically ones that use the AMD 5×86 and write back RAM like this one. apparently you can only have one of the other so with this machine I’ll stick with IDE.

A pretty standard rear view of the unit with the typical serial connections and expansion cards installed. This PC like most of the era uses the large AT keyboard port and a serial mouse. please refer to my previous Anatomy of posts for more information on these older keyboard/mouse connection standards.

MOTHERBOARD – Next is the all important motherboard or MB. To push the 486 I went with a very late model MB that incorporated PCI slots. generally I don’t recommend PCI 486 motherboards because first of all they are slightly hard to find and expensive as well as the PCI slots in them are sometimes a little buggy due to the fact this was a new expansion slot format at the time but since this is more of a project machine we will incorporate the PCI slots to give us access to some faster PCI video cards. You will also notice another of those slot fans I love to throw into my cases, again, its somewhat unnecessary for this setup but you really can never have too much cooling in a PC.

The motherboard I am using is the infamous PC Chips M919 motherboard

m919 boarcThis board has a pretty bad reputation but as far as 486 boards with PCI slots it seems to be the most common and as far as I’ve seen stable enough for normal usage. It has three PCI, three ISA and one VLB expansion slots making this a very versatile board. Also this board is DX4 compatible to support the last line of the 486 CPU’s the DX4. so what makes this board so infamous. The answer for that will usually be the legal dubiousness of these.

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See, back in the day cache chips which is a much faster secondary RAM on the motherboard the CPU can take advantage of was really expensive. Reputable motherboard manufacturers if they were making low cost boards would simply not include them on the board but on the most M919 boards there are “decorative” cache chips. That is to say completely fake chips there to fool you into thinking your board actually has L2 cache. Even on board the screen proclaims “Write back cache” but alas.

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Without L2 cache your performance loss is probably somewhere under 10% depending on the CPU your running. Its not horrible but not great either. Fortuitously these boards do have a COAST-like slot that a special 256kb Cache chips can be installed into. Do not confuse this module with the more common ones that are meant for some Pentium boards. Installing the wrong module could damage the board.

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Here is the official and uncommon cache module. Notice the back side specifically states for use with M919 board. Once installed the boot up BIOS screen should change to “256kb cache” but run a cache checking program like cachechk just to be sure.

Now this motherboard can be notoriously picky and even though my board detected the 256kb of L2 cache at first it wasn’t actually using it and running benchmarks or cachechk utility resulted in no L2 cache detected. I wasn’t until later I discovered I needed to replace the EDO RAM with FPM for my machine to use the L2 cache stick (the performance boost from L2 cache over EDO RAM is significant so choose L2 cache if you have to chose only one). Maybe a different brand of EDO RAM would fix this but I did not have any other makes on hand to test. I also had to try several sticks or FPM RAM before I found sticks it would even boot with, its a very picky board. Also note that I have read that some boards may not detect the L2 cache if your using more then 32MB of RAM. Mine doesn’t seem to have this issue but yours may.

1) CPU – OK, now to the CPU. Were going to go with the fastest 486 CPU’s available and basically we have three choices. The AMD 133mhz 5X86 which is basically a supped up 486. A Intel Pentium Overdrive 83mhz which is a scaled down Pentium made to work on a 486 board and give “kind of” Pentium performance and lastly the Cyrix 5×86 which comes in 100 or 120mhz which is a scaled down version of Cyrix’s next gen 6×86 chip. First I’ll briefly explain something about CPU’s. As a general rule but not always the final model or speed of a CPU generation is faster than the first of the new generation. ok, as an example the 133mhz 486 is faster than the first Pentium chips, so a 133mhz 486 is faster than a 60mhz Pentium 1, actually its about as fast as a 75mhz Pentium 1 which is pretty impressive BUT a 133mhz Pentium 1 is WAY faster than a 133mhz 486 CPU. This is usually due to increased efficiency, features and designs with the newest generation. Other examples would be the last of the Pent III’s being faster than the first Pent 4’s and the 186 CPU being faster than the early 286 CPU. so with all that being said the 133mhz 486 is a pretty fast chip for its class.

There are two types of AMD 5×86’s that I’m aware of. The straight chip from AMD that is designed to run on later 486 boards whose BIOS support DX4 chips and then the 5×86 upgrade chips.

First off is the turbo chip and I have a Kingston 133mhz turbochip which is the AMD 133DX4 sold under a different brand name with an attached fan.

This chip was designed to give individuals an upgrade path for their older 486 boards. In a dx4 compatible MB this chip should run at 133mhz. it has onboard cache and is socket 2 and 3 compatible. It’s a very fast chip and great if you do not have a dx4 486 motherboard. This issue is there a bit uncommon and can be pretty expensive. as of the writing of this article a 133mhz AMD could be had for $24 shipped on eBay where the only turbochip I managed to find was over $60. Also the turbochip is not 100% compatible with all motherboards and on some may give reduced speeds. I had mine installed in an older 486 socket 3 board and was only able to achieve 100mhz (still fast for a 486).

If your board supports DX4 chips go for a real AMD DX4 133mhz as some of the upgrade chips that are really meant for older boards have some drawbacks. For instance the above Kingston turbochip only supports Write-Though memory where as the true AMD 5×86 supports Write-Through and Write-Back with Write-Back giving better overall system performance.

Next is the 83mhz Pentium Overdrive. This is not a true Pentium and performance for regular tasks it scores slightly behind the AMD 133mhz but in 3D and tasks using the FPU or floating point math the POD does much better then the AMD.

Lastly is the Cyrix 5×86 chips which come in the more common 100mhz uncommon 120mhz and rare 133mhz. The 100mhz gives inferior performance to both the AMD and Intel Overdrive but the 120 and 133mhz chips give superior performance to both. This performance may vary though depending on motherboards and supported 5×86 features.

The AMD 133mhz is in my opinion the way to go when coupled with a DX4 motherboard due to relative availability and performance. It is a mature 486 chip that gives excellent performance equivalent to and in some cases exceeding a 75mhz Pentium 1 as well as giving rock solid reliability due to the process of 486 manufacturing being fully mature at this point. Be sure to install the CPU with a 486 heatsink and fan to keep heat levels down. Having said that I do plan on eventually tracking down a Cyrix 120mhz for my machine since the M919 motherboard I use apparently supports a few features of the Cyrix 5×86 in BIOS and I should get superior performance with it.

*update* I recently replaced my AMD 5×86 with a Cyrix 120mhz 5×86. remember to enable LSSR and LB in the BIOS if using the Cyrix chip for extra performance. the M919 is the only known board that you can enable some Cyrix features without using a third party utility. I would also advise to set your cache to 2-1-2 and your memory read/write to 0/0 in the BIOS instead of auto detect. I was told this advise by a VOGONS forum member and it really helped boost performance.

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Another interesting “quirk” about this motherboard is that the PCI bus usually runs at 33mhz but when your CPU demands a 40mhz bus like the Cyrix 120 (3×40=120mhz) the PCI bus gets cut to 27mhz thus slowing your graphics card down. this has caused some games and benches to be slower with the Cyrix installed. a rare 133mhz Cyrix 5×86 or an overclocked chip running on a 33mhz bus would solve this issue. Thankfully though there is another solution. If you have a turbo button on your case as mine does you can jumper the turbo switch to JP3a. With my machine now when I boot my machine boots in 33mhz mode and the Cyrix runs at 100mhz (33mhz fsb x3). After my PC is done posting and gets to the C:\ prompt I hit my turbo button unjumpering JP3A and returning the CPU to a 40mhz bus and 120mhz speed. The PCI bus though I believe ends up being overclocked to 40mhz which may cause issues with some cards. So far my Ark card has handled it just fine.

Benchmark results

AMD 5×86 @ 133mhz, 256kb l2 cache module

3Dbench = 75.2
PCPbench = 19.7
Doom = 42.58
Quake = 12.6

Cyrix 5×86 @ 120mhz, 256kb l2 cache, video card at 33mhz (as with AMD due to jumpering trick), loop_en=off, rstk_en=on, lsser=off, fp_fast=on, btb_en=on via Peter Moss 5×86 utility

3Dbench = 95.0
PCPbench = 22.3
Doom = 48.63
Quake = 15.0

The Cyrix is now clearly beating the AMD 5×86 with the video card running at full speed and certain Cyrix enhancements enabled via a third party utility.

2) RAM  Not much to say about RAM except to pack in as much as you can. The later 486 motherboards  should pretty much all support at least 64MB of RAM. Mine is loaded to the MAX of 64MB but as I’ve said before most DOS games will run fine with about 8MB. As a fast 486 though were probably going to be playing some rather later FPS games like DOOM and Duke 3d so more RAM is defiantly better. Take note of the Ram type your Motherboard needs. its most likely going to be 30 pin or maybe 72 pin. Your also going to want a board like mine here that supports EDO RAM for that little extra speed.

3) VIDEO CARD Now I’m going to let you in on one of the best kept secrets of DOS gaming, the ARK Logic 2000MT chipset. upon first discovering this card in my collection I looked it up as I’ve never heard of it before. At the time the only information I could find was a German wiki page that even after translation yielded little useful information. I simply tossed it aside and assumed it was a low budget no name card. It wasn’t until a few months later I discovered an online post about someone who was testing video card speeds in DOS and was shocked to find that the unassuming ARK LOGIC 2000MT was beating out all the competition under DOS and was practically neck and neck with the much praised ET4000 video chipset. After further research and reading I discovered that the ARK LOGIC cards were well praised in their time and are indeed very fast and very compatible PCI video cards for DOS rivaling the well known ET4000 family. Across the board the Trio64V2 that I use in my Pentium DOS machine from all accounts does give somewhat better game compatibility the ARK card is definatly the faster card. The ARK 2000MT chipset was also used in the Diamond Stealth64 Graphics2001 PCI card but the one I’m using is an ARK PCI card with 2MB of RAM.

4) SOUND CARD usually the trickiest part to set up in DOS. I’m using an ISA Sound Blaster AWE32 with 8MB of added ram. Actually the card I’m using is a Sound Blaster 32 with 8MB of RAM making it almost just like a regular AWE32 except the SB32 uses the VIBRA chip which is a little less noisy then the standard chip used in the AWE32, also you cant make fine adjustments to the SB32 that you can with the AWE32 like to the treble and bass but the cheaper price and clearer sound from the SB32 makes it a good trade off in my opinion. these cards are HUGE and can be a little pricy sometimes. the cheapest and more overall compatible solution would be a Sound Blaster 16 card but I like the AWE32/SB32 for its enhanced 16 bit sound ability and good game compatibility. there are a few games (like Cyclones) that do not support the AWE32/SB32 but i find most games from the late DOS era do and many from earlier as its SB16 compatible. games like Duke Nukem 3d sound much better with this card then on a SB16 and late era games is what were shooting for with this setup. The model I’m using here is CT3930, this model has an actual Yamaha FM chip on it allowing older games that use FM to sound correct. Some models do not have an actual FM chip onboard so always look for the Yamaha chip when buying a SB32 or AWE32.

sb32win3

 Overall this is a very capable PC for gaming and Windows 3.1 multi tasking. As I said at the beginning there really is no pressing practical need for a Windows 3.1 exclusive PC and for a PC this fast you could do it more easily and more cheaply with an early Pentium 1 setup but for what it is it does show off the high end of the 486 platform very nicely and will play later more demanding games silky smoothly. Doom plays perfect and really only a blast from the BFG in the most monster crowded of room will even have a chance to start some small slowdown for a few seconds. Overall a fun project and a capable machine.

Continuing with the “Anatomy of” series we will be looking at perhaps the quintessential computer and CPU of the early to mid 90’s and a DOS mainstay. The 486 CPU was introduced in 1989 and continued to be refined and made faster. It stuck around well into the Pentium era of the mid 90’s. The PC were looking at today is based around the 486 and designed to run virtually any DOS game and program from the late 80’s up until the mid 90’s. it’s a little to fast and overkill for mid and early 80’s games and although certainly playable,  just a tad to slow for later DOS games such as Duke 3D or Doom. I find this setup to really be the perfect type for most DOS gaming in both compatibility and time specific feel (if that makes sense). It’s a little harder to find the parts for and maybe slightly more expensive than building a Pentium based DOS PC but the effort is worth it. I’ll be attempting to explain the parts necessary to put together a 486 PC but as always the suggestions are my opinions and there are many, many choices available. For quick reference I also have a page explaining various PC ports and slot types here.

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I chose a desktop style case, I feel it better conveys the era and I personally like the form factor but you can just as easily chose a tower type configuration. This case is slightly larger than most I have seen on the market and has 3 5.25″ drive bays where most I have seen have 2. make sure you get an AT style case as your motherboard is going to be an AT form factor with most likely an AT power connector. Most of these cases can be found for less than $20 and many times come with a AT power supply. A lot of these cases have little slots for keys, don’t worry about them, you don’t need the key. this was so owners or businesses could lock the case to protect the insides from unwanted modifications or pilfering I assume. they usually come with 3 buttons, your standard power and reset as well as a “turbo” button. contrary to what you may think the “turbo” button actually slows the CPU down. This is to help with compatibility with older games that require a slower CPU. It’s a mostly useless feature but I suppose its nice to have to somewhat increase compatibility.

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One thing you’ll notice about the back is that there are no PS/2 ports for keyboards or mice. The PS/2 standard had not taken hold yet and a  majority of 486 based motherboards did not have or support the connection, you will even find these AT style keyboard connections on early Pentium based boards.

1) AT keyboard connection. Finding an AT keyboard shouldn’t be hard. I spot them a lot at Goodwill in the piles of boards they usually have in one corner. the bulk will be USB or PS/2 but look for older off white colored boards and check the end connectors for the larger AT plug. The good news is that the AT connector is compatible with the PS/2 standard by way of an adapter plug. these can be found online for a few dollars and let you use a PS/2 type keyboard with the AT plug.

2) serial ports, The mouse is slightly more tricky. Serial mice are almost always the older style “ball mice”. They aren’t to rare and almost never more than $5. Unfortunately the connection is not electronically compatible with PS/2 so even with an adapter your PS/2 mouse may still not work. You need to look for serial/PS/2 compatible mice. sometimes this feature is stated on the mouse, usually it is not. You’re most likely better off just using a serial mouse. The other port is a 25 pin serial.

3) Parallel port, generally this is where you would plug in a printer to interface or a external Zip drive.

4) External SCSI port

5) Video port

6) Midi port

7) Gravis Ultrasound ACE

8) Sound Blaster 16 and joystick port

now to get into the meat of the setup.

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1) the PSU or power unit. almost all 486 motherboards are going to have an older style AT power connector so you’re going to need a AT power supply. You don’t need one that’s very powerful 200 watts should suffice. Unfortunately these power units are getting a little hard to come by but on the plus side there is ATX to AT converter cables available for a few dollars. You’re also probably going to have to wire the PSU to the power button on the case unless you bought a case with the PSU already hooked up. this isn’t difficult and it’s just plugging 2 connectors. Mine is 250 Watts which should be enough for a machine of this time.

2) these are the larger 5.25′ drive bays. your almost defiantly going to want a CD-ROM drive installed. A lot of games in the era did have a CD release with enhanced sound and graphics. I’m using a CD-RW drive simply because I didn’t have a regular drive available at the time. these drives work fine for playing CD’s in DOS. there is no need to have a DVD drive since this format did not exist at the time. A DVD drive will also work and should operate just like a CD-ROM drive when installed.

The second drive I have installed is a 1.2MB 5 1/4 inch floppy drive. Almost all games of this era came on 1.44MB 3 1/2 floppies or CD so this drive really isn’t completely necessary but it you have an extra there’s no harm adding it on. It adds compatibility for some older games and also greatly enhances that classic PC look. I’ve also learned recently that there may be a few games that actually had content CUT to fit on a 1.44MB 3 1/2 floppy version. Tongue of the Fat Man is one such game with more content on the 5 1/4 floppy version.

Lastly I have my 500MB IDE hard drive installed in a removable Hard Drive caddy. Usually these caddy’s have a small fan for extra cooling and can be easily pulled out if you need to swap hard drives or your drive fails. I have my boot drive installed here and my games installed on my secondary hard drive. This way if my main drive fails I can easily swap in a new one.

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3) The 2 3 1/2″ bays I have installed a IDE 500MB hard drive and a 1.44 MB 3 1/2″ floppy drive. a larger hard drive will work fine but as stated in earlier “Anatomy of” articles DOS only sees about 500MB without using partitions or tricks. the 1.44MB floppy drive is a must since many games were released on this format.

Under the 1.44mb drive I have my 100MB SCSI Zip drive. The SCSI variant is defiantly a little rarer and harder to find then the IDE based drives but i have noticed its a little faster, uses a smaller floppy type power connector and does not take up a space on my IDE chain since IDE only supports 2 devices per cable and SCSI can support over seven. It did take me a little time to hunt one down.

Finally under the Zip drive I have my secondary 1.4GB SCSI hard drive for my games.

4) The motherboard or MB. You’re really going to want a socket 3 motherboard to support the later 486 CPU’s. There all going to come with several 16 bit ISA slots but I highly recommend you find one that also has 1 or 2 VLB slots. you can look up this slot type on Wikipedia for more detail but they are longer connector slots usually a light brown in color. they were prevalent in the late 486 era and are faster at transferring information then the older ISA slots, roughly equivalent in speed to the later PCI type slot. PCI was still having the bugs worked out of it at this point so I don’t recommend a 486 board with PCI slots. My board has 2 VLB slots which is about the standard number. also make sure to note the MB type and do some research. MB’s of this era usually required jumper switches to change settings for things like CPU types and speed. fortunately though most 486 era MB’s do have the IDE and floppy connectors built in. I’m using a UM 486V AIO motherboard. It’s okay and serves the purpose though there are others out there that support more RAM and have more slots. mine has 256k cache as well as 2 VLB slots and 4 16 bit ISA slots.

Take note of the cache slots when buying a motherboard of this era as well. cache is very fast memory that the CPU makes use of. it is much faster then your standard system RAM and at the time was much more expensive so there were issues at the time with motherboards coming with empty cache sockets or even worse fake cache. L1 cache is located on the CPU itself but in the 486 days the L2 cache was on the motherboard. your board will operate with no L2 cache but it will take a stability as well as performance hit. My board can handle up to 256k of L2 cache which is plenty for the time period. You really want between 128k and 256k L2 cache. Some boards offer 512k or on high end boards 1mb but after 256k you really start to notice diminishing results so its not really necessary.

ELITEGROUP-COMPUTER-SYSTEMS-INC-486-UM-486V-AIO-1

5) RAM. Most if not all of these era motherboards are going to use old 30 pin ram simms. there a little hard to find but not terribly expensive online. the MB I am using has 32MB which is also the most allowed, high end 486 MB’s could allow up to 64MB using 16MB simms. 32MB and defiantly 64MB is complete overkill for the era of gaming we are making this PC for. The majority of games from the time will happily run smoothly on as little as 8MB RAM. also make sure you research the RAM your MB needs, all 30 pin RAM is not the same and some boards are very picky on only accepting high or low density ram or things like EDO. for instance. most old PC’s use parity 9 chip ram in 30 pin simms. If the ram simm has 8 chips its non-parity and for a MAC. some MB’s you can adjust a setting in BIOS to allow the use of 8 chip RAM but many do not so make sure your using the correct type of RAM.

 6) CPU. The CPU I suggest and perhaps the all time classic 486 is the Intel 486DX2 66mhz CPU. I know there are several 486 CPU’s that were faster but the 66mhtz is without a doubt one of the most widespread and reliable of the time.  The 66mhtz was very widely used by DOS games and also gets along well with the VLB ports. make sure to couple the CPU with a heatsink/fan combo to extend the life of your system.

(image taken from Wikipedia as public domain)

7) serial port bracket and parallel port bracket. A lot of these older boards only have the keyboard connector built in so your going to need a diagram of your board (commonly available on-line if you know your MB type) and a bracket with the serial ports/parallel port and cable. If your lucky these will come with the 486 MB. You’re going to need the 9-pin male serial port for your mouse.

8) battery. The CMOS battery saves your BIOS settings. without it your going to be constantly configuring your drives and HDD on startup. 486 boards use a variety of battery’s from battery chips to barrel nickle-cadnium battery’s to lithium batteries on the higher end MB’s. My MB was very weird in the fact that the only battery connection available was a 4 pin external battery. these look like little bricks with a wire coming off and a connector on the end. they can go average for about $14. they usually have a side with adhesive so you can stick it to the side or inside case. I simply allow mine to dangle out the back.

9) SCSI card. I’m using a BusLogic BT-445S VLB SCSI card to handle any SCSI devices I use on this machine. SCSI or Small Computer System Interface is the alternative to IDE. In general its considered a little faster and more reliable then IDE but can be a headache to set up at times and the devices can be harder to find and costlier then IDE equivalents that’s why I like to use it in addition to my IDE. On my setup I have my secondary hard drive running on the SCSI bus. It is a newer 7200 RPM IBM SCSI hard drive detected as 1.4GB capacity. I primarily use this drive for my games. Another benefit of SCSI is that its not as size limited due to BIOS issues as drives connected to the IDE bus. You can also connect tape drives and CD-Rom drives to the SCSI bus and there is also an external connection. I believe I can connect up to 7 devices on this particular card. I originally had an Adaptec VLB card but it had a faulty BIOS chip so I switched over to this SiiG card which has worked well but was a sort of “bare bones” controller. I finally settled on the BusLogic card since it was a fair price and feature rich. Try to get a card that has features such as asynchronous transfer, large drive capability, DMA and bus mastering as these features will speed up your HDD access. Take note though if your using as later 486 motherboard and have your ram set to “write-back” you’re almost assuredly going to have bus conflict issues when adding a vlb SCSI device. As far as I know there’s no way around it. Its either write back RAM or the VLB SCSI but using a ISA SCSI card should work fine though it will be slower. Adding a SCSI card is completely optional but I think it improves your device options and ups the “coolness” factor.

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10) graphics card. There are many options available for graphics cards in this era. since 3D accelerations is really not a consideration for this era we need an excellent 2D card. since our board should have at least 1 VLB slot we should focus on a VLB card. as I said before PCI was still having the bugs worked out of it at this point so I don’t recommend a 486 board with PCI cards. Previously I was running a Diamond Speedster Pro VLB card with 1MB of onboard RAM. 1MB for the most part is all the video RAM you need. there are some reported issues with sound interference or crackling when using a Speedster Pro VLB with a Sound Blaster 16 but the number of games is limited and I have never personally come across this issue. If you must have the top of the line though and the current card I am using hunt down a Tseng Labs ET4000 VLB card. It’s widely regarded as the fastest VLB card. Mine came with 1MB of RAM but I added more to make a 2MB card. Buying the RAM individually can be a little pricey so look for an old cheap Trident card and harvest its RAM, just be careful which way you inset it. These cards can be a little pricy but they are very compatible and very fast.

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11) Midi card. The midi card I currently have installed is a Roland mpu-401-T. I use this card to run all my external Midi devices such as the MT-32. Prior to this card I used my Sound Blaster 16 to control my midi devices but That setup was prone to games not working because they required a true midi interface card or they fell victim to the dreaded “hanging midi note” bug that effects midi modules connected via sound blaster midi ports. These are 8 bit ISA cards but work just fine in a 486 16 bit slot. keep in mind there are several versions of the card and mine is the 401-T version. You will also require a “midi breakout box” to interface with your external modules. make sure your box is the same as the ISA card your using or it will not work. They are wired differently and I found that out the hard way.

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Connected to my breakout box and Midi interface card is my Roland MT-32 module. The MT-32 sound module really deserves an article of its own on its features and how to set one up so I’m just going to briefly go over it here. There is a revision of this module that’s almost identical except for a rear headphone jack and internal updates. There are a small number of games that work incorrectly with the old version but correctly on the new version and a small number that work incorrectly with the new revision but correctly on the old one so the ultimate setup would include both modules. there is also an internal version the LAPC-I that I believe is based on the old module. Basically this was the Cadillac of sound devises and was capable of sound quality far ahead of the cards available at the time. A lot of games support the MT-32 standard and most sound brilliant for music. I urge you to go on YouTube and look up “MT-32” comparison videos and hear for yourself the difference. For maximum compatibility I have my MT-32 paired with the SB16. To avoid conflict my SB16’s midi port is set to port 300 and my midi card is set to port 330 which is the default port that most games look for. The MT-32 handles music when the option is available and the SB16 the digital sound effects. Many games will allow for the SB16 to be used for sound effects while the MT-32 handles the in-game music.

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Another indispensable midi module would be a Roland Sound Canvas SC-55 or SC-55 MKII. These modules support general midi and Roland midi which many later DOS games support. These games may support general midi but NOT MT-32. Th SC-55 can also emulate the MT-32 but may not sound perfect compared to a actual MT-32. The earlier SC-55 is said to be slightly more compatible with older DOS games while the SC-55 MKII may perform better with a few late DOS titles.

12) Gravis Ultrasound ACE. The Gravis Ultrasound was a competitor to the sound Blaster. Although it wasn’t as widely supported as the SB it was still supported in a variety of games and offered much higher quality sound and at times even improved game performance. The card I’m using is the ACE which is a stripped down version of the regular card. I’m using this card because Sound Blaster emulation on a Gravis was not very good and the ACE was designed to work in a machine alongside a Sound Blaster. Unlike regular cards you can disable the adlib emulation on an ACE and with the Ultrasound initialization program v. 2.26a available here, you can also disable the game port option so you have no conflicts with the Sound Blaster.

486grav

13) Sound card. I’m using a later model Sound Blaster 16 Vibra ISA card for FM sound and digital effects. The Sound Blaster 16 or SB16 is really a no brainier for this era in PC gaming. It is backwards compatible with the Adlib standard and almost every game of the period supported Sound Blaster sound. They are fairly cheap and easy to find giving the best compatibility and performance for the early to mid 90’s era. There are more capable cards like the AWE series or the Gravis Ultrasound but I feel you sacrifice compatibility and these cards are better suited for faster Pentium based PC’s.

Also a strong argument can be made to use a earlier 8-bit Sound Blaster Pro or sound blaster. The Sound Blaster 16 is NOT fully compatible with the sound blaster and older software often sound better on it. with the exception of perhaps the Vibra model SB16 cards the Sound Blaster pro has a lower sound to nose ratio. keep in mind that the sound blasters before the SB16 do not have midi ports compatible with the MPU-401 standard meaning you cannot use them to hook up external midi modules. I have recently debated replacing my sound blaster 16 with a older sound blaster but since I have some older PC’s that I can use for that purpose I’ll stick with the good all around Sound Blaster16 card.

The SB16 model I am using is the CT2900. it uses the VIBRA chip but also has the Yamaha OPL FM chip. try to use a SB with the OPL FM chip as many later models lack this chip.  and without it some sounds that use FM end up sounding off. If your observant you’ll notice in the full picture of the open 486 above the sound card is different, shortly after taking that picture I found the better model CT2900. the model I was using prior lacked the Yamaha OPL chip.

14) MPEG decoder card. (not pictured above) This is the newest edition to my 486 and thus not in the motherboard images above. It is a 16 bit ISA RealMagic MPEG decoder card. This card allows a 386 or 486 CPU machine to decode MPEG video which otherwise would be to taxing to the CPU. I plan to use this card for playing RealMagic enhanced games. admittedly the games that support these cards are few and rare and have to be a special version supporting the card. I believe there are RealMagic enhanced versions of Dragons Lair, Space Ace, Return to ZORK and The Horde as well as possibly a few others. Using the card allows for smoother  and better looking full motion video scenes as well as possibly other effects.

mpeg1

mpeg2

There are cards that connect via a external passthrough such as this card and others that connect directly to your video card via a VESA connector cable internally. The VESA connector cards tend to produce a better image quality but are less compatible then the passthrough cable cards.

486joy2

For a joystick I’m using the Microsoft Sidewinder 3d pro. this joystick is a duel digital/analog joystick that works in DOS as well as Windows 95 and has a little switch underneath the base to choose modes. I previously was using a Seitek joystick which although was very compatible was very stiff and not so much fun to use. So far the sidewinder has been a great joystick and tends to do the job quite well in whatever flight/flight shooter I throw at it in DOS. Not the best when compared to some Thrustmaster flight controllers but I think it makes an excellent all around stick.

ggamepad

For games where I would rather use a more conventional gamepad rather then a joystick I go with the Gravis Gamepad. Its comfortable and compatible. The joystick bar can be unscrewed if desired and they can be found cheap at thrift stores, commonly under $5.

I run DOS 6.22 on my 486 PC and use no navigators or Windows 3.1. A navigator shouldn’t cause any issues but I’m aware of a small number of games that Windows 3.1 may cause compatibility issues with. All in all the 486 based DOS PC is going to be a little more expensive and require a little more effort to put together than a Pentium based one, perhaps $50 to $100 unless you can find one cheap on Craigslist or a yard sale. In my opinion its worth it as it gives you access to a vast collection of excellent early 90’s games without having to worry about CPU speed issues as well as the satisfaction of gaming on an all time classic PC setup.

Things I still need to add to this setup

*add more external sound modules (Roland cm-32,)

Here’s some older images of this machine playing some games.

article updated 10/30/2015

A lot of people are intimidated by DOS. I was one of those people, I grew up with a commodore 64 and a Amiga in the household so by the time I had a PC it was well into the Windows 95 era. Hopefully this article will help dispel a few myths about the difficulty of setting up a DOS based PC. I am also aware of DOSBOX which is a DOS emulator for use on windows machines and although sometimes emulation is a great way to play games that otherwise may be unavailable it’s still my opinion that it’s no replacement for the feel and nuances of the real deal, even with the latest versions of most emulators I still sometimes find errors in speed and sound. but to each his own I suppose. I’ve created a quick reference page for various PC slot and port types if needed

The easiest, cheapest and all around most compatible DOS PC to put together in my opinion is an early Pentium based system. The one I have assembled uses slightly more expensive parts in an attempt to create an “ultimate” Pentium based DOS machine and perfect for more late era DOS games from the mid 90’s. Usually you can find these older PC’s for cheap at flea markets or yard sales. I found mine for $5. usually they come with windows 95 but that can easily be formatted and replaced with DOS.

this is a typical mid to late 90’s PC case. they loved off white and beige back then.  Has your standard power button, reset button and sleep mode button.

pentdosinter

Here’s a rundown of the parts inside. You’ll most likely have these (of some sort) if you picked your PC up at a sale.

1) motherboard, this determines the connectors, CPU’s allowed, max ram and all that good stuff. Mine is a socket 7 board which supports a range of Pentium 1 and AMD CPU’s. You also want to have at least 1 ISA slot (you can easily look up slot types on Google or Wikipedia) since DOS loves ISA slots for sound. My board here has 1 AGP slot 4 PCI slots and 2 ISA slots so its great for my needs. The one I’m using here is a PA-2013 which from what I’ve read is one of the faster socket 7 motherboard produced. It also comes with a massive 2mb of onboard L2 cache memory.

FIRST-INTERNATIONAL-COMPUTER-INC-Pentium-PA-2013-1

2) power unit, my motherboard has a ATX power connector which are very common but some of these early boards may have an AT power connector which are a bit rarer. you can also snag a ATX to AT power adapter off of eBay for a few bucks.

3) standard CD-ROM drive, you can use a DVD drive but there’s not many if any games from the DOS era that use DVD’s

4) 5 1/4 floppy drive. not really needed since this computer is going to be to fast for a lot of really old games and most DOS games from this era came on 3 1/2 floppy disks or CD anyways.

5) 3 1/2 1.44MB floppy drive.

*Not in the image above I recently installed a 100MB Iomega Zip drive in the bay below the 3 1/2 floppy drive. The zip drive runs off the IDE bus just like the CD-ROM drive. My late socket 7 Motherboard can recognize the drive in BIOS but for operation in DOS it requires drivers and is seen as drive F:. The ZIP drive is convenient because I’ve found there are a lot of files that are just to big to fit on a 1.44MB disk but are not worth burning onto a CD so the ZIP drive is a great and convenient middle ground.

6) Hard drive. I believe DOS 6.22 has a limit of 504MB without using partitions or any other tricks though FAT 16 format can read up to 2GB hard drives on one partition. certain BIOSes can support 2GB partitions though in DOS such as the BIOS on this motherboard. That’s still a lot of space since a lot of games and applications from this era are pretty small. larger drives will work no problem but the OS will only see 504MB or 2GB depending on your BIOS. The first drive I have installed is a 10,000 RPM SCSI drive. SCSI drives tend to be faster and more reliable then IDE hard drives but usually harder to find and more expensive. I believe I have a 8.5gig HDD installed though my OS only can “see” 2GB which is more then enough.

7) This is my secondary hard drive or drive D:\ which is connected to the IDE bus. It is slower then my primary SCSI drive and was formally my primary hard drive. I kept it in my machine after upgrading to SCSI as just a backup and extra space.

8) CPU, I have a 200mhz MMX Intel CPU installed. In my opinion it’s a little to fast and I would recommend something more along the lines of 100 or 133mhz CPU. as you go back and play older games your going to hit speed issues with any Pentium class CPU but anything faster than 200-233mhz and you could start seeing more timing and speed issues showing up in even some early 90’s games.

9) RAM, i have a 128MB stick installed. its a bit of an overkill. most games of the era would be more than happy with 64MB or even 32MB and less

10) cheap extra 99 cent slot fan i grabbed in bulk of eBay. not needed but it helps cool and we wont be using the AGP slot (although DOS should still run fine under an AGP card you may not have as much compatibility since newer cards don’t always support older video standards and resolutions)

11) SCSI controller card. You can also go with SCSI if you add a SCSI controller card. Using quality SCSI controller cards and high end SCSI hard drive/CD-rom drives can increase PC performance since SCSI is less taxing on the CPU. It also makes it easy and convenient to add multiple drives in the future via the external SCSI port available via the SCSI card. Using SCSI hard drives can also overcome the HDD size limit sometimes. On later machines like this one the performance boost is less pronounced then it would be on a 486 or lower but the option to add more external drives still makes it worth wild. I installed a PCI Adaptec AHA-2940w/uw card in the machine as well as a 2GB SCSI hard drive to compliment my IDE hard drive.  This card is well supported and has both external and internal 68 pin connectors as well as an internal 50 pin connector. I added a 8.5GB SCSI (seen as 2GB) IBM hard drive in this system to compliment the IDE Maxtor 9.5GB just to add more space and to test out the drive. using the speedsys utility my speed rating for the IDE drive is 424.81 while the SCSI drive is rated at 819.85 which is almost twice as fast as the IDE drive. I eventually may just go all SCSI with this setup.

pfastscsi

12) graphics card, I’m using a S3 Trio64V2/DX PCI card. These cards are not very expensive, fairly powerful and were widely supported in the late DOS era. There is a very wide variety of graphics cards you can use for this era but in my opinion the Trio64v2/DX is the card for the job. There is supposedly a version of the Trio64V2 that uses faster SDRAM labled as a /GX but I have never run across one. You can also use a ISA graphics card but they are generally slower and not as capable. Some motherboards will come with on-board or built-in graphics chip. Generally these aren’t as powerful as buying an add on card. sometimes just installing a add on card will override the on-board video but sometimes you may need to disable the on-board in BIOS.

*After some debate I decided to upgrade my PCI video card to a S3 Virge/GX like this one in my “Building the best all around DOS computer” article.

virgegx

It has the same 2d core as this Trio/V2 but also more Ram and the ability to run “accelerated” S3D DOS games like Terminal Velocity. Its a really minor thing and any DOS machine will be fine with a trio but I had an extra Virge on hand and decided what the heck.

Also when using either the Trio or any Virge I discovered a utility called S3VBE20. Do a Google search and it should be findable. Its a TSR DOS program that will update your S3 cards VESA from 1.2 to 2.0. This will help when running some games in SVGA. For example it will allow you to chose from many more resolution options in a game like Quake (though if you can actually run the higher resolution modes at a decent frame rate is another matter).

13) 3DFX Voodoo 1. You can also add a Voodoo 1 3d card to this setup. it is a PCI 3d graphics card that you can install in a slot next to your main 2d card (like the Trio64v2). you will need a short VGA cable to externally connect the Voodoo to whatever 2d graphics card you have installed. there are actually a few DOS games that support the Voodoo 3d accelerator card (Carmaggedon, Extreme Assault, Tomb Raider, Ect…). I use a righteous orchard voodoo 1 card with 4MB of RAM. This card uses a mechanical switch so there is an audible “click” when the voodoo activates for a game which has no practical effect but I like it. I recently added this card to my setup so its not in the numbered internal pic located above.

It should be noted that all but one Voodoo 1 cards have 4MB of RAM. Canopus sold a version of the Voodoo called the Canopus Pure 3d and its the only Voodoo 1 card to use 6MB of RAM as well as a TV out. Good luck finding one though as there pretty rare.

0001

14) sound card. For my sound card setup I went through several options before settling. There really are many ways you can go. For this setup I am currently using a sound blaster/daughterboard combo. The current combo I have installed is a Sound Blaster AWE32 paired with a NEC XR385 For the general midi. The AWE32 is backwards compatible with the Sound Blaster 16. The daughterboard is a NEC XR385 which is a NEC relabeled Yamaha DB50XG. These cards are relatively cheap and when attached to a sound cards wavetable header give General Midi support. The general midi standard of the time was set by Roland but I actually prefer the Yamaha general midi sound for certain games and some even specifically support it (Extreme Assault). The sound is mostly the same as the Roland general midi but In certain games like DOOM I think the Yamaha GM sounds better. My particular model lacks a Yamaha FM chip for accurately playing FM tunes in older games but for the era this PC was created for most games will be using general MIDI or CD audio anyways. There are models of the AWE32 that do have genuine FM chips though if you lack a separate PC for older DOS games where you may want an accurate sounding FM capability. I have 6MB of RAM added to this AWE32 but with the superior GM daughterboard you’ll really never use the cards own midi.

AWE32

PDOSAWE32

AWE32 with NEC XR385 daughterboard attached

pdaweyama

Formally I used a Sound Blaster 16 model 2900 paired with NEC XR385 giving me good FM synth and SB16 compatibility. The big issue with this card is the “hanging note” bug that effects almost all SB cards. The degree of the bug varies from card to card but basically it created hanging or stuck notes when used in conjunction with a midi device (either external via the midi port or internal via the waveblaster header). my particular card works pretty well with some games but I get the error with others. Heres a clip taken from DOOM, you can here the hanging note bug as a high pitched “twinkle” sound that should not be there. Listen closely and you can hear it at 0:02, 0:07, 0:13, 0:34, 0:35 and 0:53 in the video here. This card was particularly bad with the “hanging notes” and made games like Daggerfall almost unplayable. After switching to the AWE32 I got the bug far less. In DOOM I’ve only heard it once so far and it hasn’t reared its ugly head in Daggerfall at all yet.

A simple alternative would be to use a Sound Blaster clone card or using two sound cards, one for MIDI and one for digital sound effects. Rather then dealing with installing two cards though I decided I can handle the occasional issue with the AWE32. I did attempt to use a clone card pictured below. It is a Audio Excel card. Unfortunately It failed to install on this computer for unknown reasons. I did manage to install the combo on a separate Pentium DOS PC where it performed fine with no “hanging MIDI” bug. Note though that this card lacks the Yamaha FM synth chip so FM sounds off. There are also reports of some games that just are not compatible or that sound “not right” when running as a Sound Blaster.

pdclone

Now that all the parts are together there’s a lot to do. You should reformat the hard drive, install DOS (i strongly suggest DOS 6.22) and then install the mouse driver as well as the sound card driver. Most of the motherboards from this mid to late 90’s era should auto detect the hard drive, CD drive and floppy drives. You don’t have to but you may want to replace the CMOS battery. This is a little battery that remembers your settings and the date/time. It’s the same kind of battery they have in a lot of watches but a little bigger. Its cheap and easy to swap out. DOS should be available over the internet if you look hard enough or you can buy a copy online. Sound card drivers should be out there as well. Generally drivers are not required by DOS for graphics cards.

I also use dos navigator 1.51 which can be found for free. it’s a dos navigation program that makes looking around for files in DOS more “windows like” but it should not interfere with DOS compatibility at all. Be aware if its running it does eat some conventional memory.

on to memory. a lot of people have bad memories of running DOS because of frequent memory issues. some games, especially from the late DOS era that our computer is aiming for require large amounts of conventional memory. even when I was a relative newbie to DOS I have to say I ran into very few issues with making conventional memory free. some people say not to run it but if your running DOS 6.22 run the memmaker program and it will optimize your memory. usually that alone gives me almost 600k of free memory. there are a lot of tricks I won’t cover here but just look up how to optimize conventional memory in DOS. load as much as you can into high memory. lean how to manipulate the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files with the EDIT command. one trick to free 1-3kb or more is to change the lastdrive parameters in the CONFIG.SYS file. usually its set to Z but your most likely never going to have that many drives so set it to something more reasonable like H. here is a pretty good but somewhat technical site for optimizing RAM in DOS http://www.mdgx.com/mem6.htm

I achieved 617k conventional memory with very little effort. that’s enough to run just about any game including Elder Scrolls: Arena, a huge mem hog.

I would say with a little looking around a setup close to this would cost less than $50 even less than $20 or free if your lucky and ask around. it’s most likely a little to fast for really old DOS games but offers good overall compatibility and the ability to play demanding late era DOS games at top speeds and visual settings.

Here’s a video I did on this machine.

Here is the sound setup I used prior which was an AWE32 you can listen to compare

*Updated image with the ZIP drive installed and the upper drives slightly rearranged.

dosfastpc1

Benchmarks

Pentium 200mhz MMX, 128 SDRAM, 1MB L2 cache, 4MB Virge/GX PCI

3dBench – 152.2 FPS

PCPBench – 60.2 FPS

DOOM – 81.54 FPS

Quake – 48.3 FPS

Landmark 2.0 – cpu – 1312 fpu – 3486 video – 24576

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