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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

v3

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.

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