Me: “I might have to maybe get an eBay thing tomorrow”
Wife: “Fine, a long as it’s not another computer”
— Matt Lacey (@LaceySnr) July 8, 2016
Ok, so purchasing it wasn’t an accident, but I did purchase it with the full intention of selling it on once I’d confirmed that it did actually work, and instead I decided to keep it. I tend to keep half an eye on eBay for old computers a lot of the time, and even though I wasn’t really looking for a PC I couldn’t turn this one down when I saw it going locally, and for a whopping $20. What really got my interest was that it was listed as not working, though the seller did say “the picture appears but then goes away”. Figuring that was more than likely an issue with the monitor rather than the PC itself I decided it was a bit of a steal and promptly bid for it.
Firing It Up
Once I got the computer home, it was exactly as the seller described and exactly as I predicted: the issue is with the monitor and the PC itself works perfectly. It’s a veritable beast, sporting a 100Mhz Pentium chip, 16MB of RAM and a 1MB on-board VGA chipset. It needed a new battery (not at all surprising) but other than that it was ready to go. I grinned when I saw the Windows 95 boot screen ‘in the flesh’ for the first time in 20 years, and then quickly recoiled in horror when I reached the desktop. I really don’t know what the previous user was thinking.
Once I’d retuned the UI to some sane defaults I started poking around the hard drive. It had seemingly been re-installed from an OEM disk without much added, though I did find Quake on there which was a nice surprised. I got an even bigger surprise when I checked out the properties of the harddrive in Explorer, and I think it’s safe to say this machine had likely not seen any use at all for over a decade. I’ve got to say, I was impressed at how well Windows 95 worked on a machine with only 16MB of RAM. Chances are that’s what I had back in the day during this era, but I can’t remember the specs of the machine I had following my 486, and think I might have jumped straight to a Pentium 2.
By this time I’d already realised that I wouldn’t want to give up this machine and started on plans to backup the drive completely so that I could play around and still have the opportunity to restore it to the state I purchased it in. I did so by connecting the hard drive to another machine and using dd to image it in it’s entirety. I validated this was good through a virtual machine (making use of the Retrocomputing Stack Exchange in the process) and then created multiple copies of it in various places for safe keeping.
Although I knew I might come back to Windows 95 on this machine (or even 98) later on, I really wanted to get MS DOS up and running with Windows 3.1 just for the nostalgia hit, but the idea of installing either wasn’t exactly appealing. I realised that while I had the drive out of the machine I could make the process far less bothersome: I formatted a copy of the hard drive image and installed both DOS and Windows inside of VirtualBox. This was very quick to do in comparison to using a floppy drive, and then I just dd’d the result back to the hard disk and it worked first time.
Adding Some Extras
I figured a 3D card wouldn’t go amiss, and so went rummaging through some boxes in the garage, knowing that somewhere I had a box with five old cards in and that a couple of them must be PCI. As it turned out only one of the cards turned out to be a PCI board, all of the others were AGP, and I was surprised by this as I thought AGP was newer than some of the models in there. Somehow in my head I still equate AGP with being a “new” graphics thing an I had a bit of a shock when I discovered that it was introduced 20 years ago. Thankfully the one PCI card I did have is a classic: the Orchid Righteous 3D, and just the sight of the 3dfx logo on the chips took me back to happy time. The first series of Voodoo cards blew my mind when I was younger, and I still have a soft spot for Glide. I’ve still got the manual and the discs that came with it, though some of the games are Windows 95 only.
Floppy drives are cool (and yes, that is a fact) but they are also pretty painful to use so a networking card was also something I desired. I really should have bought something like a 3Com 3c905 which was a great card to use (not least because it was supported by BeOS R5) but somehow I’d come to the conclusion that the machine only had one PCI slot and so purchased an ISA card from eBay instead. This card is only a 10Base-T unit, but that’s still faster than my broadband and more than fast enough when your hard drive is only 800MB.
I didn’t know anything about this card when I got hold of it, but figured drivers would be easy to come by. It arrived, and I quickly searched around for the manufacturer (Accton), the model number of the card (142066-400) and the chipset (UK0023) and pretty much found nothing except for a few forum posts. It took me a week before I found an older eBay listing for the same card which happened to include another model name in the title (EN1661), and then using that I finally found a page which hosts the relevant file (en166x.zip). The packet driver in that archive works perfectly with Michael Brutman’s mTCP suite and now I can quickly and easily FTP files to and from the machine.
Last, but certainly not least, I wanted to replace the sound card that came in the machine with an AWE 32, so I could hear games sounding exactly as I remember them. I snagged a budget model CT3910 on eBay and then spent another few days trying to get the thing to work correctly. Once again I had more trouble finding the correct software than I’d anticipated, but with another question to the Stack Exchange and a lot of trial and error I finally found a version of the software that worked as expected. It wasn’t long after that I had one of my favourite MIDI files cranked up.
More To Come
I’ve had a lot of nostalgic fun with this machine so far, playing some shareware classics and sinking in a lot of hours to Transport Tycoon Deluxe (a game that’s already eaten a substantial amount of my life). I’m planning to install BeOS R5 on it (I still have my boxed copy) though I think I’ll need to upgrade the RAM to 32MB to do so. I picked up an old game-port Sidewinder joystick for a massive $10 at Cash Converters, but as of yet I’ve not managed to get TIE Fighter to run… one thing I’m not too nostalgic about is futzing around with memory management in DOS, and TIE Fighter requires 2MB of EMS free, whereas nothing else I run needs it.
I’ve already written some code in QBASIC and the next stop is to do some Glide programming again. I’ll never forget the first time I drew an RGB triangle on screen using Glide, and I’m actually excited to reproduce that once I get Borland or Microsoft C installed.
PCs Have Changed
I never thought I’d get nostalgic for old PCs because PCs are PCs right? I’ve always thought of my modern machine is just an evolution of the same basic computer, and while that’s true in one sense, the continual development and change over the years has been a gradual thing, making the process of change somewhat invisible. I remember USB being introduced, and AGP coming along, but I’ve realised that my timeline of these things is rather confused, and I’d genuinely forgotten how different things were just 20 years ago. My Atari machines and others are exactly as I remember them being, but this Pentium? It’s much older than I remember. It’s a dull beige slab, and I love it.