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If your into retro computers probably one of the more common boards you’ve come across uses the socket 7 or super socket 7 for the CPU. socket 7 spanned almost the entire 1990’s and you can use a socket 7 motherboard to build everything from a capable DOS platform to a PC that can run windows XP. The CPU’s that can be used in a socket 7 board range from the 75mhz Pentium to the 550mhz K6-2 and K6-3. Intel abandoned the socket 7 after the 233mhz MMX Pentium 1 but other companies like Cryix and to a greater extent AMD pushed socket 7 into the super socket 7 which is a backwards compatible extension of socket 7 for their k6 CPU’s. This extension created a cheap upgrade path for many people and extended the life of this CPU socket. That long life means that a retro gamer enthusiast can use a cheap and common socket 7 motherboard to make a very capable and well rounded 166mhz Intel based DOS PC or a capable k6-2 or 3 Windows 98 machine or with adequate RAM a k6 powered windows 2k or XP machine for “light” gaming and computing. I used a k6-2 500mhz machine for Windows 98 and then windows XP for a large part of my college life. I also use a socket 7 board with a 200mhz MMX Intel chip for my official “fast DOS” machine for classic gaming.

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Here is a typical later model super socket 7 board. It has a variety of PC extension slots from ISA to AGP and PCI allowing you to use a huge variety of video and sound cards for DOS or Windows. You could slap a 166mhz Pentium a Virge video card and a Sound blaster 16 on here and have a computer that would play most DOS games fine or a 450mhz K6-3 a voodoo 3 and a sound blaster live! and have a great Windows 98 machine. These motherboards came in both ATX and older AT designs which featured AT keyboard ports as well as AT power connectors.

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The socket itself is very simple. Just raise the handle and the socket is ready for a CPU to be inserted.

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Lower the handle after the CPU is inserted slap on some thermal paste as you see in the image and then slap on a heatsink/fan and your good to go.

Despite the relatively high speeds of later socket 7 CPU’s they are still running on what was at the time older and limited boards. a 450mhz k6-3 is really only maybe equal to a 266 or 300mhz or so Pentium II CPU in a Slot 1 motherboard. The Intel Pentium II and especially Pentium III had much better floating point math abilities and using a socket 7 board in the late 90’s was really seen as more of a budget friendly course for PC upgrading rather then a power platform for gaming.

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Slot 1 is the format that Intel moved onto with its Pentium II and early Pentium III CPU’s. The later Pentium III’s went back to a socket format that resembled socket 7 but its not compatible.

PUSHING THE LIMITS

I’ve used plenty of socket 7 boards for DOS. my main “fast DOS” PC used a 200mhz MMX CPU and my all purpose DOS PC uses a 133mhz CPU but I wanted to see how far the Super Socket 7 design could be pushed. I only used what spare parts I had around with the exception of the CPU that I acquired online.

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The case I used is a pretty standard ATX case. I have a DVD as well as CD-ROM drive installed. I have two Hard drives installed. One is a 6GB drive where I have Windows 98SE installed and a secondary 40GB drive for files and games. I also have a 1.44MB floppy drive installed.

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For video and sound I wanted to stay strictly period correct. For sound I originally went with a PCI Monster Sound MX300 from 1998 but it tended to give me some stability and reliability issues with this motherboard (common on VIA chipsets I’m told) so I dumped it for a simple ISA sound blaster 16. A outdated and mediocre card for something of the late 90’s era but supported by just about everything and able to give great DOS compatibility since its ISA. For sound you could also go with a AWE64 or a later Sound Blaster Live!. For video I used originally installed a Nvidia TNT2 Ultra AGP card. The TNT2 Ultra is a high end card for 1999. Its fairly backward compatible so you get good DOS compatibility and its also a very good card for OpenGL and D3D games. other choices would be The Diamond Stealth III S540 which is supposedly slightly more DOS compatible but a rather mediocre Windows 98 performer.

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Perhaps the best choice for a pre 2000 socket 7 would be a Voodoo 3 seen directly above. The Voodoo 3 performs better with Glide games and can be a faster card in certain games as well as giving a very nice picture but it has half the video RAM of the TNT2 ultra and is limited to 16 bit color where the TNT2 can do 32 bit color. The Voodoo 3 supposedly “scales better” with an AMD K6 since it specifically supports the AMD 3DNOW! The version I’m using is the standard AGP version with VGA and S-video out. There is a PCI version as well as a high end faster AGP version the v3 3500 but it uses a proprietary DVI connector that requires a breakout box dongle.

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The motherboard I’m using is one I had on hand and is a EPOX EP-MVP3G2 which is a good performing Super Socket 7 board that offers easy overclocking with jumpers in the lower right corner of the board. I’m running 512MB of SDRAM. This particular motherboard supports everything from the Pentium 166MMX to the AMD K6-III.

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The most important part of stretching socket 7 to the limit is the CPU. The fastest available socket 7 CPU would be the AMD K6-III+. These CPU’s go for about $15 to $20 but be sure you get a + chip since a standard K6-III does not overclock well. You will notice the AMD K6-2 comes in higher clock rates, up to 550mhz and although its very doable to run something like XP on a 500mhz K6-2 the K6-III is the newer chip and the better overall performer. Originally the K6-III only was sold up to 450mhz and was a very poor overclocker but fortunately AMD made the almost identical K6-III+ for the mobile pc market. Thankfully the K6-III+ uses the same socket 7 form but requires less voltage making it an excellent overclock candidate chip that also offers rock solid stability at higher then rated speeds. Some motherboards may need a BIOS update to accept the K6-III+, mine did not.

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If your going to overclock try to make sure you have adequate cooling for your CPU. I replaced the standard heatsink and fan with a larger heatsink designed for a later K7 chip.

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using the standard settings for the K6-III of a 100 fsb and a multiplier of 4.5 we get the rated 450mhz.

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Now simply changing the fsb to 112 and the multiplier to 5 we get a CPU speed of 560mhz which if were being generous puts this CPU on par with a Pentium II-350 for some games or applications. The system is also extremely stable at this speed with no issues or crashes running Windows 98 for long periods. Games like Half-Life ran beautifully on this setup and I would think this particular machine would meet almost all of your late 90’s gaming needs. I did attempt to bump the multiplier up to 5.5 giving the CPU a speed of 616mhz but apparently this did not jive with something and Windows crashed after boot on all occasions I tried this. I have read that several people have gotten the k6-III+ to run stable at 600 and 616mhz so I’m pretty sure it is possible with some tweaking and possibly a different Super Socket 7 board.

 

All and all it was a fairly cheap and fun project and goes to show how far the old and reliable socket 7 could be pushed. The K6-III+ is a great chip and overclocks super easily and stays very stable. Just remember not to set your expectations to high, the K6-III+ was sold as a budget CPU rather then a performance CPU so even though it’s a nice performance kick in the butt to the then outdated socket 7 it will still start to struggle in many post 2000 games and at higher resolutions.

Speedsys results

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I’ll just be up front, I’m A Bill Gates man. Besides the Apple II and my favorite Apple machine the Apple IIGS I’ve never liked apple products very much. Maybe its me, being primarily a gamer the Macintosh platform never offered very much to me. I’ve also never been a fan of the strange pretentious “hipster” pseud-culture that has tended to develop around the platform. Despite this I can not deny their impact on the computer world as well as some genuinely innovative things to come out of the platform. That being said I will restrain my impulse to post any “top 10 reasons Mac’s suck” links and get to the current computer in question, the Macintosh 5200CD. Even to the Mac world this model is seen as a failed design and one of the worst Macintosh’s ever built. Ironically, although I do agree with this statement I still find it more useful then the much loved Macintosh se/30 which is commonly held up as one of the best models ever produced.

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The 5200CD released in 1995 is an “All-in-One” Macintosh, meaning that the monitor, speakers as well as main unit and various drives are all together In one package. All you need is a keyboard and mouse and a single standard power cable and your set to go. The results of this design in general are a mixed bag. It makes for a very convenient and space saving set up. The down side being that upgrading is hard if not impossible depending on what you wish to upgrade. Limited space inside also makes expansion options few. Another thing is if your monitor dies your pretty much better off just finding a whole other new machine. This particular 5200CD I snagged for $2 at an electronics meeting. Sometimes non savvy sellers may assume the unit is a simple monitor and that can reduce price at times. I’ve had a 5200CD prior and like this unit it had the same structural issue, the plastic body. I like to call these units “Brittletoshes” cause the old plastic is so brittle. I’ve dealt with plenty of old plastic cases before but for some reason the plastic of the 5200 cracks and snaps at the slightest pressure. The vented plastic sides tend to snap if you carry it wrong and apply any pressure to them. The plastic buttons for volume snapped when attempting to adjust sound and every single plastic tab on the back panel snapped off on attempting to remove the rear plate to access the computer innards. Fortunately this does not really effect the computers functionality and is mostly a cosmetic issue. As you can see from the frontal picture the screen is a rather generous 15 inches and is color unlike the older compact macs like the classic and prior. there is a built in 3 1/2 inch 1.44mb floppy drive as well as a mac cd-rom drive either x2 or x4 speed. My unit has a x4 drive installed since it is a later model with the 1GB hard drive installed. In the lower right corner you can also find a convenient headphone jack as well as an inferred sensor for use with a remote, more on that later.

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Here is the rear of the unit. From left to right we have the standard power socket (keep in mind flipping the switch does not turn the computer on or off, it cuts the power but is not a power on button). Below that we have the A/V module installed. I believe on some models this was optional but the two 5200’s Ive come across had this pre installed, I’ll get to this module a little later. Below the a/v module are ports for ADB which the mac version of the PS/2 allowing keyboard/mouse connection. printer port and modem port. On my 5200 the modem port is covered. I believe this is because an ethernet card is installed. Microphone and external speaker ports are also provided as well as monitor adjustment pots in the upper right corner. Lowest is the coaxial cable connection, yes, this mac can also act as a cable television.

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This is after the brittle plastic back plate is removed. To get to the motherboard you unlatch that small metal handle near the center and give it a gentle pull. The entire board should disconnect and slid out with little effort which is something I do like.

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The board layout is overall pretty simple and removing and reinserting is very easy. on the lower left there is a rather bulky external battery used I assume as the CMOS battery but I was surprised to not find a small lithium battery that was common at the time and still is.

1) That’s the ethernet card that came pre installed. I didn’t look to see the brand and I don’t feel like reopening the thing so…

2) RAM, here we have the RAM for the 5200CD. mine originally came with 40MB total (one 32MB stick and one 8MB stick) but I upgraded to the maximum 64MB via 2 32MB sticks which is a standard amount for the time. The RAM is 72 pin and I found a 32MB stick for $4 off eBay so a full upgrade would probably cost less then $10 even if your 5200 came with no RAM.

3) CPU, a 75mhz PowerPC 603. This is a PowerPC CPU and not a X86 CPU as found in IBM compatible PC’s. the non x86 CPU’s that Apple liked to use until recent 2000’s is another thing about Apple. without going into the differences between the x86 and PowerPC architecture I will say the PPC chips are technically superior and I would say the PPC 75mhz chip runs a little faster and cooler then its x86 equivalent the Intel Pentium 75mhz. Still the PC 603 is a early PPC chip. One of the biggest issues with the Mac 5200CD is that the CPU is a 64bit processor on a 32bit motherboard thus severely hampering the CPU and creating various instabilities.

4) ROM chip, basically the Bios of the mac. It contains the special Macintosh program that tests the computer on start up and if everything checks out OK, the OS loads.

5) This is the AV card

now one really neat feature this computer does well is act as a television and via the coaxial connector on the back you can use the mac as a spare TV. I do not have cable so was unable to test this feature but I’m told the feature works well from other users. The feature is easy to access from inside the mac OS. With the a/v unit supplying stereo RCA inputs as well as composite and S-video you can even watch movies or play video games in SD quality on your mac. The screen is fairly sharp and has a nice picture.

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Here I am watching Alien via my laserdisc player on the 5200CD. I do not own a remote for the setup but the inferred sensor on the front allows for the capability.

Finally for the OS I loaded Mac OS 8.1. The system came to me with system 7.5.1 which was very speedy but i prefer 8.1 for the 5200CD despite the slight decrease in speed due to a more heavy OS. 8.1 provides some extra tweaks and features as well as fixes some instability issues the system has. I find it a fair trade off but system 7.5.1 is still a good choice. My prior unit had OS 9.1 installed and it crawled so I defiantly do not recommend anything higher then 8.1 My hard drive is 1GB which for my purposes is plenty large for the OS and whatever I decide to install. The 5200CD uses a standard IDE interface as opposed to the usual Mac SCSI interface for hard drives so finding a larger hard drive should be cheap and easy if desired. I use an apple keyboard II with the power button on the keyboard. This is one of those macs that power on/off by the keyboard power button, I do not see the point of this and find it an inconvenience. also the 1 button mouse…ewww.

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overall I found this machine sluggish. even with RAM maxed out it didn’t really give me great performance. I played a few games on the system like Full Throttle and Dark Forces and although game play was certainly acceptable I had some slight choppiness with FT on some parts. I do like the all-in-One concept for space deprived situations but expansion options are pretty limited. Despite whats said about the 5200CD It does make a cheap option for playing Mid 90’s Mac games and early 90’s stuff if you don’t have a lot of space to spare at home. The plastic case though is horribly brittle and the thing pushes 50lbs all together. On the plus side you have a large color monitor and can use OS 8.1 as well as have a spare TV. combine it with a external DVD player and you really can save some space.

well I’m only going to go over this quickly as a fast reference. if anyone wants to look any of this up in more detail there are plenty of sites and always Wikipedia.

there are many computer graphics standards but first I’ll go over the most basic ones that will be dealt with in a classic computer setup starting with the first color graphics standard. Originally I took some crappy “point camera at screen and click” pictures but then I decided to hell with it and I just used DOSBOX and screenshots. I’m not a fan of emulation but here it serves its purpose.

Remember that computers began with very limited resources and those limited resources as well as cost kept initial color graphics on the computer limited. Remember that more colors and higher resolution requires more RAM and RAM could be expensive. In 1981 RAM cost $8,800 per Mbyte compared to the end of the DOS era of 1996 at $29.90 per Mbyte of RAM (according to here). I’ve used the game Eye Of The Beholder as a guide to illustrate the differences between the standards.

Hercules Graphics – This popular monochrome standard actually came out after CGA in 1982. It does seem like a set back in the fact it can only display 1 color but CGA cards could not do text very well and the Hercules card was backwards compatible with MDA (the monochrome display adapter) so it was very popular for business. It also had CGA emulation meaning it could take a CGA game and render it in monochrome. It had a theoretical top resolution of 720×350 and also had the ability to display to dual monitors. I could not get Eye of the Beholder to display in Hercules mode so here are screens of Outrun in Herc mode. If your monitor was a green or amber screen then the image would be displayed in that color.

Black and White monochrome

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Green phosphor screen monochrome

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CGA – Color Graphics Adapter was introduced in 1981. It could display up to 640×200×2 resolution as well as 4 colors at any time from a palette of 16. Two common color schemes were available, Magenta, cyan, white and background color and Red, green, brown/yellow and background color both were pretty hideous.

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Also of note is that some CGA graphics cards as well as some computers of the era offered composite ports for hooking up to a TV. Interestingly programmers were able to make some games look better using the composite connection by utilizing the quirks of composite. composite isn’t very sharp and programmers were able to use the fact that it blurs and blends colors thus creating more colors then the standard CGA when hooked up via the composite port. Ultima and burger time are two games that quickly come to mind that had more color when using a composite hook up. The downside of using composite instead of CGA is the picture can sometimes look less sharp and text can look very blurry.

TGA – Tandy Graphics Adapter, actually this graphics mode was originally released with the failed IBM PCjr in 1984 as “CGA Plus” but after the system flopped it became known as the Tandy standard since the Tandy 1000 line of computers were originally PCjr clones. Many games ended up supporting this mode on Tandy 1000 machines and it is very similar to the later EGA standard many times looking identical. It is capable of 640×200×4 resolution and can display 16 colors at once from the available 16 color palette of CGA.

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EGA – Enhanced Graphics adapter was also released in 1984 and was capable of higher resolutions and more colors in total. EGA can display up to 640×350 resolutions and even up to 720×540 via later expanded graphics modes. It can display 16 colors at the same time from a palette of 64. the EGA and TGA modes of Eye of the Beholder look identical. EGA is also backwards compatible with CGA

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it should be noted that despite the identical nature of the visuals here EGA and TGA can have vastly different looks depending on the game. One well know example is Thaxder.

TGA

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EGA

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TGA looks to have better color depth and overall color while EGA has a higher resolution and numbers and letters are sharper.

VGA – Video Graphics Array, This is what most of use are used to. VGA was introduced in 1987. It could display a resolution of 640×480×16 or 256 colors in 320x200x256 from a palette of 262,144 colors. VGA is also backwards compatible with CGA and EGA.

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MCGA – Multi-Color Graphics Array also released in 1987 was a stripped down VGA standard only used in some low end IBM PS/2 models and some Epson clone machines. Its mostly CGA compatible but NOT EGA compatible. It could do 320×200 in 256 colors like VGA but not some of the higher resolution VGA modes. There were never any add on MCGA cards since VGA was vastly superior for only a little more cost.

SVGA – Super Video Graphics Array came out the same year as VGA. it is essentially an extension of VGA capable of 800×600 resolution and was continuously updated by the VESA or Video Electronics Standard Association. more info can be found on Wikipedia under SVGA. this was really the main video standard from the late 1980’s and up. I currently do not have a comparison screenshot but most times its identical to VGA except for higher resolutions.

keep in mind this is just skimming over the most commonly used graphic displays and is certainly not comprehensive especially in regards to odd or extended resolutions available. I would highly suggest googling or Wikipedia for more information.

The Wang Alliance 750CD is the unfortunate victim of a somewhat silly name and at least to the immature of us it easily evokes a snicker or a grin. Beneath the somewhat silly name implication the 750CD is a very capable 386 era PC. Wang Laboratories was actually a fairly successful American company that existed from the 70’s up until they were bought in 1999 and besides manufacturing a few IBM compatible PC’s, among other things also developed the PC RAM SIMM which basically is putting RAM on sticks rather than having a bunch of RAM memory chips socketed to a motherboard.

I’m seriously a sucker for the desktop case design. Towers are nice and all and really the better overall design but the desktop case just gives me a nice retro feel and the Alliance 750CD is a very nice and low profile case. Nothing overly complicated about it or non standard. The only odd feature is the placement of the reset button far off to the upper center area of the case but its only a cosmetic oddity. One limiting factor of this PC is the limited drive bays with only one 3.5 and one 5.25 inch bays. The 750CD came standard with a 1.44MB floppy drive and a CR-ROM drive. Its a tough call sometimes with a 386 based CPU computer on whether to go with a 5 1/4 inch floppy drive or a CD drive. I would say have both but really if only given the choice between one or the other it gets a little harder. the 1.2MB 5 1/4 floppy drive was standard for the 386 era and a lot of games came in that format also a lot of CD based games were a little too much for a 386 CPU but at the same time a CD drive is very convenient  and easy to replace. also a lot of old games were re-released in CD format and a CD drive makes it a lot easier to transfer files if you want to play with CD burning. For the 750CD being a late era 386 I think having a CD drive as opposed to a 1.2 MB floppy was the right decision since at the time the CD was clearly becoming the future of games as well as the fact the 25mhz CPU in the 750CD was not a bottom of the barrel 386.

This would be a rear view of the PC and as you can see its actually a fairly forward thinking design. The only expansion cards I have installed (I’ll get to them in slightly more detail in a minute) are a sound blaster for sound, an ethernet card and those RCA stereo jacks you see are for a CD-ROM IDE interface card so any sound from those jacks would be from a CD playing in the drive. besides the expansion cards the ports are pretty standard which is very nice for a 386 PC. we have built in VGA as well as ps/2 ports for both mouse and keyboard in a time when a lot of PC’s were still offering serial mouse and AT keyboard ports as standard and ps/2 as optional. also a pair of DB9 ports and a printer port.

Here is a shot of the inside (minus the CD-ROM IDE expansion card). As you can see the Motherboard is actually quite small and the 5 16 bit ISA expansion slots are supplied via a riser card in the middle of the board. The setup actually works pretty well except it can be hard to install cards sometimes as the metal tabs press each other if you have cards installed on both sides. It also uses an AT style power connector coming off the side of the board. The motherboard only has 1 IDE connector onboard as well as 1 floppy connector. this would still allow a cd-drive/hard drive combo on one IDE cable plus your 1.44MB floppy drive OR you could pull the CD drive and put the hard drive on the IDE and a 1.44 and 1.2 MB floppy drives on the floppy connector. I have my CD drive and 200MB hard drive (I think, it may be 500MB) on separate IDE ports because mine came with a IDE card pre-installed by the previous owner.

This is the ISA IDE expansion card I have installed, an IDE-16003 V2. this card appears to be primarily focused for giving a PC user an extra IDE connection for a separate CD-Rom drive/drives improving performance rather than have both the CD drive and hard drive on the same cable. This card as well as the other 2 expansion cards I have on the 750CD were added later and did not come factory.

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This is the CPU and a co-processor.  The CPU in the 750CD is an AMD 25mhz 386SX, in the above photo you can see it at the top partially obscured by the floppy drive power cable. This CPU is soldered to the motherboard and is non upgradable unless possibly by a rare and most likely expensive upgrade kit that uses the expansion slots. The 25mhz 386 is a somewhat speedy CPU but I would place it kind of middle of the road, no match for any 486 and outclassed by faster 386 CPU’s like the famous AMD 40mhz 386. It will though in most cases get the job done for games and applications of the era or at least faster than a 16mhz 386 or a 286 CPU. SX in the CPU title means that it has a 16-bit external data bus and a 24-bit external address bus. As no 386’s had built in math co processors a co processor expansion socket was added. Later on 486 class CPU’s DX was used to designate that the coprocessor was built into the CPU and no co processor was needed as opposed to referring to data bus width.. we currently take this for granted though since starting with the Pentium era these abilities were always built into the CPU. This particular 750CD has a Cyrix fastmath 387 co processor installed in its expansion slot. This was an upgrade and not factory installed or standard with this PC.

Here we have the opposite side of the inner case with the expansion cards removed. The Alliance 750CD uses 4 32 pin RAM slots and came factory with 2MB installed, mine is upgraded to the full 16MB the PC is capable of handling. For the era this is more than enough RAM as I’ve said before even many 486 era games will run on 8MB RAM with no issues. The on board video of the 750CD uses the Western Digital Paradise WD90C11 chip which was considered a very capable video chip for its time. A faster 16 bit ISA video card could always be added but for the type and era of games this PC plays I think the Paradise chipset is just fine.

For sound this PC only came equipped with the standard PC internal speaker but the previous owner had a sound card installed which I decided to leave. This is a sound Blaster Pro 2.0 which is an 8 bit sound blaster (and thus fully adlib compatible) card. It’s not really my favorite SB card. It uses the Yamaha OPL3 chip like the SB16 but If your going to use an 8 bit sound blaster better to go with a Sound Blaster 1.0, 1.5 or 2.0 which use the OPL2 chip that is more old game compatible and can offer some Creative Music system sound (with optional expansion chips) you could also go with the Sound Blaster pro 1.0 which has duel OPL2 FM chips for stereo sound. There are a few games that only support this or that sound odd when played on a later OPL3 FM chip. It is less “noisy” and offers better sound clarity then most of the SB16 cards that precede it though, except for maybe the Vibra models. Sound Blaster 16 cards are also not 100% backwards sound blaster compatible so it does have use there for older Sound Blaster games. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad card and is fine for the era but not my first choice. Since this is an as is review and not looking at what I would consider an “optimal” setup like in my “anatomy of” series will let it slide.

Overall I like the Wang Alliance 750CD despite its mildly offsetting moniker. It offers good expansion and a sleek low profile case. The CPU although a little underpowered performs adequately and you have the option of a nice amount of RAM and a co processor. The built in VGA, dual ps/2 ports for the mouse/keyboard as well as the factory CD drive make this a very forward thinking PC for its class.

It seems that for a time during the early and mid 1990’s PC manufacturers felt they needed to do a lot of experimenting with PC case design. These days when you buy a PC you generally know what the inside will look like. Sure there is some variation here and there but in general it’s fairly standardized, not so much in the early and mid 90’s. Some PC’s case designs were downright odd and some were like figuring out a Chinese puzzle box to open up. One mild example that I covered earlier was the Packard Bell S605 and its somewhat unorthodox case. The Compaq Presario 9546 much like the PB S605 is also a Pentium 1 based PC and coming from the same era it also is an interesting experiment in internal case design.

from the outside it looks pretty standard and yes it could use a good scrubbing. We have the standard 1.44MB floppy drive and that is the CD-ROM drive that was installed when I purchased it and I assume its not the factory drive. I do kind of like the blue rectangle power button on the right. it also sports some legs that spout out at the bottom presumably to help prevent your tower from randomly toppling over. I suppose that’s a little handy and they don’t really interfere with the operation of the computer

and from the back its pretty standard looking. as you can see if you look at the expansion slots I have installed a video and sound card due to the fact I could not get either of the onboard video or sound working after I reformatted the hard drive and installed a different OS but I’ll get to that in a moment. The ports are all labeled nicely and one thing I do really like are the large tabs on each side that easily unscrew and allow access to the left and right sides of the PC. I kinda hate always breaking out a screwdriver and unscrewing a ton of screws to open a PC and the easy tabs are kind of nice. I should also note the top comes off as a separate piece to give access to the upper drives as well as the PSU. The PSU also seems to be a propitiatory design.

and here is where you may notice the non standard internal design. See, rather than the motherboard laying flat against one side of the case there is a metal divider that goes through the center with the motherboard on one side and the expansion slots on the other and to be honest it’s not really a bad design in some respects and at least on this side it feels like you have plenty of room to get to things. The 9546 uses the AT power connector which was standard for the time as well as a 100mhtz Pentium 1 CPU which is an excellent performer for a fast DOS based PC  or for windows 3.1 and 95. Mine came with 57MB of RAM installed but the 9546 can take up to 136MB according to the spec sheet I found online and this should be more than enough to run anything from the period. The expansion card in the lower right corner is a standard modem I believe of the 14.4kb variety. The onboard video is the ubiquitous S3 Trio64V2, the DOS era video standard which has 1MB of video ram expandable to 2MB. The onboard sound is powered by the Ensoniq chip, same as in the Ensoniq AudioPCI card which is a PCI card that actually offers pretty good DOS sound capability and commendable Windows sound. This computer originally came with Windows 95 pre-installed on its 1GB hard drive and also sported a special Compaq BIOS. Throwing caution to the wind I decided to format the hard drive and install DOS 6.22. which has had some odd affects first of which is this on boot up.

After hitting F1 and booting into DOS everything works fine except I cant get the on-board sound or video running. I’m completely aware this is possibly a driver and hardware conflict but it’s not really a huge problem and there is probably a way around this issue if I played with the BIOS but again, not really a priority since it works fine with the other cards I have installed under DOS.

This would be the opposite side of the case where we have our expansion slots (2 PCI, 4 ISA 16 bit) as well as the IDE connections for the various drives.  despite the seeming openness and space on this side it’s actually a lot more restrictive than a regular PC case as far as securing the expansion cards. The problem is that a standard screwdriver is to tall and will not fit to screw in the screws that secure the cards to the case so you have to use a smaller screwdriver like I have in the picture laying next to a regular sized screwdriver.

This is the Video card I had lying around to replace the Trio64V2. It is a 4MB PCI Trident Providia 9685. I don’t really like Trident cards, they tend to be low end and well…low end. This card is kind of so/so and seems a little better than most Trident video card offerings. Other than VGA it also has a composite as well as S-video connection allowing use of  TV in the case you don’t have a VGA monitor around which is actually pretty useful if you don’t mind taking a substantial video quality hit. Also according to the writing on the top center section of this card it is “stuffed for EDO RAM”, nice.

For sound I’m using a Creative Sound Blaster 16? the model is CT4520 which would make it a AWE64 value but DOS detects it as a sound blaster 16 though I would assume it would see it as a AWE32 or even as it is, an AWE64. Not really the optimal card to stick in this machine but again all I want for it is basic sound and this is what I have lying around, I’ll save the good sound cards for machines I’ll be using.

Conclusion: The Compaq Presario isn’t a bad machine. The Pentium 1 100mhz is a solid CPU and the RAM amount is enough for the time. The case design is actually pretty convenient except for the screwdriver length issue. My biggest problem is the Compaq BIOS that gave me issues when I tried to reformat and install pure DOS. As a windows 95 PC it’s quite passable but there are better more powerful choices.

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.

fakecache

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 fooling you into thinking your board actually has L2 cache. Even on board the screen proclaims “Write back cache” but alas.

fakewin31

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 ment for some Pentium boards. Installing the wrong module could damage the board.

win31cache

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 Cyric 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.

c5x86120

Another interesting “quark” 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.

Packard Bell computers or “Packard Hell” as some refer to them may not have attained a very high reputation for value during their heyday in the USA during the 90’s. perhaps its a well deserved bad reputation. I never owned one as a child so I can’t personally attest to them. (though I did have a horrible AST PC). despite this they were a significant PC manufacturer for the time and turned out quite a few models in the early Pentium era and prior. This is more of a short review or overlook since I’ve noticed there isn’t alot of specific information on a lot of these models online. I picked up this Packard Bell S605 Multimedia PC at a thrift shop for under $20. On hooking it  up the machine fired right up and besides perhaps a dying original CD-ROM drive and some issues with the original sound card the machine has worked fine after all these years.

It uses the typical weird case design that Packard Bell was fond of in the 90’s with the weird grey bordering at the base. I suppose this did help it stand out a little from an aesthetic point of view and defiantly gives the machine some personality. This particular model still has all the retail stickers attached proclaiming its vast technological features for the time. This is a 233mhz Pentium 1 model on a socket 7 MB. the Intel 233mhz MMX is the last of the Pentium 1 line of CPU’s and its actually a great CPU I use in most of my Windows 95 PC’s which is also the operating system this machine had preloaded. nothing else very special, it originally came with 24MB of RAM, mine was upgraded to 64MB but the max that can be installed is 128. I suspect you need to use 2 PC66 64MB RAM DIMMS to achieve the 128 though since when I tried installing a single 128MB stick the PC booted up but gave me odd memory errors and upon booting Win95 was extremely slow and only registered 32MB RAM in the system properties. The built in video is the S3 Trio64V2 chipset which is really the standard for DOS gaming and is a great video device for compatibility. It is a little lacking for Windows95 though so I tossed in a spare S3 Virge PCI video card I had to at least give the machine some 3D ability while keeping the excellent 2D since the Virge uses basically the same 2d core as the Trio64V2. It also came loaded with a little 3.2GB hard drive that booted right up

Here’s the case opened. Again its an odd case as usual for PB. instead of the top and sides coming off as one piece or a simple side panel coming off the side and bottom come off, though the reasons for this become quickly apparent.

This is the case on its side laying down. notice it? Well it doesn’t really effect anything but the slots for any expansion cards ( 3 16 bit ISA and 2 PCI ) are on a riser card inserted into the motherboard so to insert a new expansion card you have to flip the PC upside down and stall them. so as you can see they are installed upside down comparatively to the PC tower. this effects nothing but I just find it weird like a lot of these old computers. The pre installed sound card does not take up a slot, its just kind of screwed into a bracket but has no connection to any expansion slot. it is connected to the motherboard by what appears to be a IDE cable. It appears to be a standard SB compatible crystal semiconductor sound card common on Windows 95 systems but no matter how many times I reinstall the drivers I just cant get sound. the card is being detected by windows but has a conflict so its possibly defective. I do plan to install some older spare sound card when I come across one since I just cant seem to get this onboard sound to work.  also the fan on the CPU is loud, very very loud.

100_5085

Conclusion: its not a bad computer despite being a infamous Packard Bell. with RAM maxed and a decent sound/video card for the era it would make a pretty good Windows 95 machine. The CPU is excellent and what I use in my Win95 setups and you get both mouse and keyboard PS/2 ports plus a USB port built in. I seriously considered making this machine my main Win95 PC but it has its drawbacks. Win95 can support up to 480MB of RAM and even though for almost all programs 128MB is more then enough I like the option of being able to throw in a little more if needed. Also being limited to only 2 PCI slots can be an issue especially if you want to add a Voodoo 1 or 2 3d card or a PCI audio card like the DOS compatible Ensoniq PCIaudio.

Most of us have toyed with the concept of using a PC as a media center device, or in plain speak. hooking a pc up to a television in order to have a huge screen and stream media, as in movies, TV and music. with the video availability of online content through services like Hulu and Netflix its very easy now days. also turning your DVD’s into digital files and storing them on a hard drive is also a reality. many of us also have that old AMD or Pentium 4 PC of 6 to 8 years ago collecting dust in the closet or maybe your using it as a secondary PC but are seriously considering just tossing it. well you can probably turn that PC into an awesome media center PC for next to nothing.

here’s my older PC from around 2006. it served me very well for 6 years as my main computer but after skipping windows Vista I decided it was time to upgrade to something a little newer. the original specs of this computer are:

AMD 3500+ CPU
1 GB DDR2 RAM
onboard video/sound
250MB SATA hard drive

It was a decent PC for its day and ran Windows XP media center very well. The built in S-video connection would have been acceptable for video output but I wanted to be able to output HD quality video since it was being hooked up to a HDTV.

over the years I had added 2.5 GB of RAM making the total 3.5 GB as well as a Creative Audiology sound card. since these were prior purchases I did not consider them an expense for creating the media center PC. This particular PC uses socket 939 and i discovered that a AMD Athlon XP 4000+ CPU were selling for cheap on eBay so I snagged one for $20 giving my PC a significant CPU power increase. I also by good fortune came across a Nvidia 9800GT video card at goodwill for $9.99. this is a very good card for the time and offers good video quality as well as having a HDMI out connector allowing me to stream HD content to the TV. I would strongly suggest using a Video card with a HDMI connector for your media center PC though I did get lucky in my find, as such cards can go for about $50 on Ebay.

here’s the internals

In the end I spent roughly $30 on upgrades to create a good quality media center PC out of my existing hardware. you could always spend a little more if you wanted a more recent video card but the idea is to make one on the cheap with what you have. Internet connectivity is also a must since this will allow you stream Youtube, Netflix as well as Hulu and other online video content. I was content to use my PC’s built-in wired ethernet port but a cheap wireless adaptor should work just as well. currently I am also using existing wired optical mouse and standard keyboard but an upgrade I plan in the future is to replace these with a pair of wireless mouse/keyboards. another thing to consider is a PC remote, or a remote control designed to control your PC. I do not have one of these either at current but its a cheap and easy component I plan to add in the future as well as perhaps a larger SATA hard drive if I ever come across one. Also if you want to spend a little more and do some more work you can always find a little media center PC case and put everything in that but I personally didn’t feel like doing the work, putting up with the hassle or unnecessarily spending more money when I felt my standard silver case looked pretty spiffy.

so, in review to turn your old AMD or Pentium 4 into a fine home media center PC i would strongly suggest maxing out the RAM and finding a decent video card with a HDMI connector. the cpu upgrade isn’t very necessary but nice and older cpu’s are mostly cheap now. I mostly stream my content so I didn’t need a huge hard drive but if you are planning to save and use digital media you can find an extra 300 – 500 GB SATA drive for not too much if you don’t already have one. any version of XP will work fine. I think windows 98 or even ME is a little to old, slow and buggy for this kind of thing and windows Vista and 7 eat up to much memory and resources for this.

lastly there are plenty of software packages out their for free that may make the process of picking your movies easy as well as give it a better look. I sometimes use XBMC media center.

One issue I did have was sound. because of how my TV and surround sound is I had to use separate PC speakers instead of using the TV speakers. it sounds ok but it’s slightly cumbersome and takes up an extra power socket. This is because the HDMI port on my cheaper TV does not have a separate means to input audio and so far I havent tinkered with my video card to set it to output sound through the HDMI port. I’m fairly sure it can be done but I just really havent bothered.  In the end my home media center stats ended up being

AMD 4000+ CPU
3.5 GB DDR RAM
Sound Blaster Audiology
Nvidia 9800GT video card
250GB SATA hard drive

a shot of the current setup

You can even use much older PC’s if you don’t have anything this new on hand but you will take a quality hit. Prior to this my home media center PC was thrown together from a PC purchased in 2000. it was a pentium 3 1ghz with 512MB RAM and a PCI video card with S-video out. I believe the card was a 5000 series Nvidia Geforce. it was sluggish, only outputted SD quality video and wasnt great at streaming from the internet but it played DVD’s and movies/files off USB flash drives quite well.

Before the days of dual core and quad core and even hexa core’s on one CPU you had to actually have two (or more) physical CPU’s on a motherboard. These have been around for some time and the most common ones are from about the 2000’s using two physical Pentium III cpu’s but much older boards from the mid 90’s using two Pentium pro cpu’s arent to uncommon either. This setup in the days before dual cores was to enhance processing power and multi-tasking. Not common on home use computers these were mostly found on business machines, graphic design/video editing machines and servers. The idea of two cpu’s is also slightly deceiving. One would assume that two 1 ghtz processors would equal 2 ghtz but you would be wrong as the process of having two completely separate processor sharing the load and exchanging information is more like 1.5 ghtz. though under multi tasking you can tell a definate performance boost.  also only certain operating systems even support a multi cpu setup and even then an application has to be written that takes specific advantage of the second processor. The bulk of these applications were business oriented and few if any games took advantage of this.

this is my current dual processor machine. Its running two Intel Pentium III 1 ghtz cpu’s on windows XP professional. 1.5 gigs of RAM and as for the expansion cards nothing to special, for sound I’m just running a generic paradise beach sound blaster compatible card in a PCI slot and for video I have a Geforce2 MX400  in the AGP slot. the MX400 is not a bad card at all for the early 2000’s era and gives acceptable performance. obviously a much better video and or sound card can be added to this PC to make it an excellent early 2000’s XP machine.

obviously with a second physical CPU on-board your going to be generating more heat so it’s always a good idea to have good ventilation and if you can, a secondary fan nearby to blow that hot air out of the case. Also remember only certain operating systems or OS’s can “see” the second CPU and take advantage of it. The most common OS’s that can be used with a dual CPU system are Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP professional edition, Windows Vista and Windows 7 professional and up. Linux, later versions of OS/2 and several other OS’s also support the dual CPU setup. A computer with two processors running on an unsupported OS such as Windows 98 or 95 will still function but only one CPU will be detected and the PC will run as a single CPU system.

Reasons to have a dual CPU computer?

well, to be honest there’s very little reason to seek out a computer with two physical cpu’s and its mostly a novelty but there are a few reasons.

1) you’re using older business software for some reason designed for an older OS and cannot get it to operate under a newer OS. its unlikely but in this case it will probably run smoother on a dual cpu setup.

2) these boards were generally manufactured for power users and professionals so the boards tend to be of better quality then your run of the mill MB’s and also tend to support higher RAM amounts then other MB’s manufactured around the same time. they make excellent boards to have in an older backup PC running Win 2000, XP professional or even Vista or Win 7 if all you’re doing is web surfing or spreadsheets.

3) If you have a Pentium III based dual CPU PC you can make it into a dual boot system running Windows XP as well as Windows 98 giving you the ability to play more modern games in XP and a large amount of older Windows 95/98 and DOS games under Win98. in XP you get the speed benefit of the extra CPU and under Win98 the CPU is not to fast for many Windows and even some DOS games.

The list of reasons is short but if you can come across one for free or cheap and have the extra space and money they make good nerd conversation pieces and a system properly upgraded with a good sound/video card as well as maxed ram would make a good and reliable windows XP gaming machine.

*UPDATE OCT 22 2012

I recently put together another much better dual CPU PC that I’m adding here

This is a dual CPU PC based off a Tyan S2507T motherboard with 1GB of RAM. the MB has 2 1.4GB Pentium III-S Tualatin CPU’s installed, the last and fastest of the Pentium III family. the 1.4 PIII CPU is more efficient and runs faster then the early Pentium 4 CPU’s that followed it making it a very capable Windows XP Machine, which is the current operating system I have installed. The CPU and other components is also not to insanely fast or exotic that Windows 98 should have any issues so its makes a really nice Windows XP/98 dual boot system.

Nothing very special as far as sound card goes, just a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy which provides overall good and compatible sound.

The Video card I have installed is a card I always wanted to try out. It is an AGP Millinium Matrox G400 MAX. This MAX is the top of the line Matrox card in 1999 and preforms great in windows 98 as well as early XP era. Doing a search on Ebay the cheapest G400 MAX I could find was $43.99, I bought this card on Ebay for $11.00 shipped. If you’re looking for a MAX at that price just search for the common and relatively cheap G400 stock model, some sellers aren’t sure what they have and every once in a while a MAX will get tossed up and sold as a regular G400, the key is to look for cards with the fan on the heatsink as only the MAX were sold with a fan attached. It’s always a possibility that someone slapped a fan on a normal G400 but its doubtful and as in my case worth the risk of purchase for a substantially cheaper MAX card. The MAX runs faster (and hotter) then the stock card and this one comes with 32MB or video RAM. The Matrox cards are known for their excellent 2d performance and image quality and some people even use them under DOS (at the expense of overall game compatibility) because of this reason. The G400 is usually considered the best of the Maxtrox Millinium line and has a few neat features. It can display on two CRT monitors at once via its 2 VGA ports as well as utilize the ability to do environmental mapped bump mapping which is a fancy graphical ability that several games of the time supported.

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.

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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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mpu401t486

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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