Category Archives: Retro Computers

Building a Retro Gaming Rig – Part 5

In Part 4 of this series, I took a look at some sound card options. I’m now getting a lot closer to having this build finished, but there is still one key piece missing – storage.

When dealing with old hardware, hard drives simply don’t age well. Anything with moving parts is prone to failure and degradation over time. Not only this, but as the bearings wear down, the drives begin to have an annoying whine and droning noise that can be heard rooms away.

I’m all for the genuine nostalgic experience, but slow and noisy drives with 20 years of wear behind them are not something I’m particularly interested in. That said, I knew that I wanted to retrofit a modern storage solution to work with this machine.

Challenges and Limitations

Having worked with older hardware before, I was prepared for some challenges along the way. There are numerous drive size limitations and other BIOS quirks that I’d need to navigate around. Below are just a few:

  • Most 486 and older systems are limited to a 504MB hard drive due to a limit of 1024 cylinders being supported in the BIOS.
  • Many systems in the late nineties simply didn’t support drives larger than 32GB due to other BIOS limitations.
  • With a newer BIOS, some IDE systems can support drives as large as 128GB, which was the LBA limit with an ATA interface.

Clearly there are newer IDE drives with capacities beyond 128GB, but these drives require newer Ultra ATA 100/133 controllers. After doing some testing, I discovered that the Asus P2B that I outlined in Part 1 of this series had a 32GB drive limitation with the latest production BIOS and a 128GB limitation with the newest beta BIOS. The MSI MS-6160 that I covered in Part 3 was limited to 32GB. Since this was the board I wanted to use, I could only consider IDE solutions of 32GB or less if I wanted to stick with the onboard controller.

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Building a Retro Gaming Rig – Part 4

Welcome to part 4 of my Building a Retro Gaming Rig series. Today I’ll be looking at some sound cards for the build.

Back in the early nineties when I first started taking an interest in PC gaming, most entry-level systems didn’t come with a proper sound card. I still remember playing the original Wolfenstein 3D using the integrated PC speaker on my friend’s 386 system. All of the beeps, boops and tones that speaker could produce still feel somewhat nostalgic to me. We had a lot of fun with games of that era so didn’t really think much about it. It wasn’t until 1994 that I got my first 486 system and a proper Sound Blaster 16. It was then that I really realized what I was missing out on. Despite having really crappy non-amplified speakers, the FM synthesized MIDI music and sound effects were just so awesome. And who can forget messing around with ‘Sound Recorder’ or playing CD audio in Windows 3.11!

With all that in mind, it was clear that I needed a proper sound card for my retro build. But that really isn’t just a ‘checkbox’ to tick – on machines of this era there really was quite a difference between cards and to get the proper vintage experience I’d have to choose correctly.

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Building a Retro Gaming Rig – Part 3

Welcome to the third installment of my Building a Retro Gaming Rig series. Today, I’ll be taking a look at another motherboard and CPU combo that I picked up from eBay on a bit of a whim.

In Part 1 of this series, I took an in-depth look at some Slot-1 gear, including the popular Asus P2B and some CPU options. As I was thinking ahead in the build, I got frustrated with the lack of simple and classic-looking ATX tower cases available these days. Everything looks far too modern, has too much bling or is just plain gigantic. Used tower cases from twenty years ago are all yellowed pretty badly and just look bad. On the other hand, there are lots of small, simple and affordable micro ATX cases available.

Micro ATX – or mATX – motherboards were actually pretty uncommon twenty-odd years ago. PC tower cases were pretty large and in those days people really did use lots of expansion cards and needed the extra space. Only very compact systems and OEMs seemed to use the mATX form factor at that time. Many of these boards were heavily integrated, lacked expansion slots and stuck you with some pretty weak onboard video solutions.

MSI MS-6160 Motherboard

In an interesting twist, I came across an MSI MS-6160 mATX board based on the Intel 440LX chipset that seemed to tick many of the right boxes. The combo included a Celeron 400MHz processor and 512MB of SDRAM for only $35 CDN.

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Building a Retro Gaming Rig – Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I took a close look at the Asus P2B slot-1 motherboard and some CPU options. Today, the focus will be on graphics cards.

Evaluating Video Card Options

If this were a pure a DOS build, the card I chose wouldn’t matter very much. I’d simply be interested in something with decent 2D image quality and enough VRAM to support the resolutions I’d want to use. The majority of DOS games don’t offer 3D acceleration but because I wanted a system that would run some Windows 9x based titles, a 3D card would be ideal for that genuine experience.

The years leading up to the millennium were very exciting from a graphics hardware perspective. In 1998, 3D accelerated cards were much more accessible to the average consumer and major strides were made in performance and price.

3dfx Interactive

If you were at all into PC gaming or PC hardware back in the late nineties, you will be well acquainted with 3dfx Interactive. Although the company went bankrupt in 2002, 3dfx was the pioneer in mainstream 3D gaming technology up until that point. The card that brought them to fame was their 3D-only ‘Voodoo Graphics’ adapter released in 1996. They were also well known for their proprietary Glide API that many games of the era supported. The turning point for me personally was when I first experienced GLQuake on a Voodoo card back in 1996. I remember being totally blown away after seeing the surreal lighting and 3D effects and was determined to buy one. After saving up while working a summer job in 1997, I bought the 6MB Canopus Pure 3D card based on the famous chipset and never regretted it for a moment. I used that card for several years until buying a Voodoo 3 3000 later on.

The 3dfx Voodoo Banshee

Being that my retro rig was supposed to be of a 1998 vintage, I had originally started looking at the Voodoo 2 released that year, which was superior to the original in every respect. My next choice was the AGP version of the 3dfx Voodoo 3. Unfortunately, both of these models were fetching well over $100 on eBay, and outside of my budget for this weekend project. They are simply in high demand and are genuine collectors items at this point.

Undeterred, I shifted focus to another part that was a bit less popular but still had all the 3dfx flare of 1998 – the 3dfx Voodoo Banshee. The Banshee was a first for 3dfx in two respects – it was their first single chip 2D/3D solution and their first AGP based card. The 3D portion of the core is almost the same as the popular Voodoo 2, but had only one texture mapping unit instead of two. The resulting performance drop was partially offset by a higher core and memory clock speed but it still had plenty of power for games of that generation. As an added bonus, the 2D performance and image quality of the Banshee was excellent – almost as good as the top notch 2D cards of the time and removed the need for a separate 2D and 3D card in the system.

Today, the Banshee cards don’t sell for quite as much as the Voodoo 2 or Voodoo 3, but can still go for between $60 and $120 on eBay.

3dfx1-1

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon an awesome deal on a 16MB Ensoniq brand Banshee card for only $25 USD. It was probably only still available because the eBay listing didn’t include the words ‘3dfx’ or ‘Voodoo’ in the description. After the shipping, duty and exchange I think it came to under $50 CDN. Not too bad for a rare piece of history.

Ensoniq no longer exists, but was best known for their audio products. They were purchased by Creative Labs shortly after this card was produced. After seeing some of the other Banshee models from other companies, I actually like this card best because of the larger heatsink on it. Most of the other cards have rather small chipset style coolers. They all seem to be passive, but I can confirm that these cards do get rather toasty under load.

3dfx1-2

In 1998, dual monitor outputs and DVI were reserved only for elite workstation cards and specialty products. Just a simple VGA-out can be found on the Ensoniq Banshee. Some cards of this era differentiated themselves with TV S-Video and Composite outputs, but nothing that would interest anyone today.

It was interesting to see two mysterious headers on the card. One is a 40-pin female IDE-style connector, and the other is a 26 pin header of some sort. My first thought was that they may have been for future SLI support, but after doing some digging these turned out to be standard feature connectors. These were found on many cards of this vintage for daughter boards and other add-on modules. Technically, the 36 pin SLI connector found on Voodoo 2 cards is indeed a feature connector of sorts as it allows the cards to communicate over a high-bandwidth channel without having to saturate the PCI bus.

AGP Variations

The earliest 3D cards were all PCI based, but in 1998 many first generation AGP variants were on the market, including the Banshee. A lot of people building retro rigs seem to forget that there were actually several AGP ‘versions’ to hit the market over the years and not all were backward compatible. An AGP 1x card released in 1998 very likely won’t work or even fit in an AGP board released a few years later.

retro-slot1-23

AGP 1x and 2x are very similar and provide power to the card at 3.3V. AGP 4x and 8x came out a few years later and were limited to 1.5V. As you can imagine, putting 3.3V through a card designed for 1.5V could be pretty catastrophic. To prevent these problems, slot and card ‘keying’ were implemented to ensure you couldn’t physically insert a card into an incompatible slot. As you can see above, the 3.3V AGP 1x slot on the ASUS P2B has a plastic ‘key’ about a third of the way in from the left of the slot. A 1.5V 4x/8x slot would have that same key, but in a different position closer to the right of the slot.

Interestingly, some cards that came out later on were actually compatible with both 1.5V and 3.3V AGP slots and had two key indentations on the card. The card in the image above is a 2003 era ATI Radeon 9200 SE. I have used this same card in a newer 8x slot machine as well as the 1x ASUS P2B.

The budget priced Radeon 9200 SE is actually about 9 times more powerful than the Banshee. I had considered using this Windows 98 compatible card in my retro build, but it just didn’t have the same nostalgic value that a genuine 3dfx card does. For now, it’s been serving as a spare.

Conclusion

I was really excited to get a 3dfx card – especially without having to shell out too much. It’ll be great to use a card from that era and to use the 3dfx proprietary glide API for many games as well. I think that the Banshee is a perfect match for the build and I look forward to getting everything put together!

Next up, I’ll take a look at a couple of sound card options, including both ISA and PCI cards. In an added twist, I also bought a compact micro ATX socket 370 system that I’ll evaluate as well.

Building a Retro Gaming Rig Series

Part 1 – ASUS P2B and Slot-1 CPUs
Part 2 – 3D Video Card Options
Part 3 – The mATX MSI MS-6160 and BIOS Woes
Part 4 – Choosing a Sound Card
Part 5 – Hard Drive/Storage Options

Building a Retro Gaming Rig – Part 1

Welcome to a new hardware build series where I’ll be sharing my experiences building a retro Intel gaming system. In part 1, I’ll be going over some of the hardware I picked out for this build and doing a bit of a photo shoot. I apologize in advance for the copious amounts of trivial history and nostalgic rambling in this post, so please feel free to skip the first few sections if you’d like to get straight to the gear. For those who appreciate the trip down memory lane, please read on! 🙂

Introduction

Twenty seventeen has been a real year of nostalgia for me when it comes to PC hardware. It all started earlier this summer when my Brother in-law was cleaning out his basement and gave me a couple of classic PC systems. One was a 1993 era DEC 486 and the other, a 1995 era NEC Pentium 90 system. These systems brought back so many good memories and were a real joy to use and restore. Although the first PC we had in my house growing up was a much older clone from the late 80s – possibly an 8088 or 286, I was really too young to appreciate it and preferred my NES/SNES at the time. I remember teaching myself how to use DOS with it but it wasn’t until 1994 that I could convince my parents that I needed a new computer – you know, for gaming educational purposes.  After doing some research and shopping around, I got a shiny new 486 DX2/66. It may not have been state of the art at the time, but with 8MB of RAM, a CDROM, 430MB Hard drive and a real Soundblaster 16, it ran like a dream. I spent hours upon hours on that machine and it wasn’t long before I had added a 14.4 modem and really got into the BBS scene as well. About a year later, my parents surprised me with a top of the line NEC Pentium 100 system with 16MB of RAM and the 486 replaced the old monochrome 8088 in the basement. Coincidentally it was almost identical to the Pentium 90 given to me by my brother in-law.

The Goal

Although these two retro rigs were a lot of fun to restore and use, I wanted to build a machine that was a bit more flexible, could be customized and used for not only demanding DOS/Windows 9x games but also most of the classics as well. The main issue with these two older machines is that they are both proprietary AT based systems with many BIOS quirks, compatibility issues and other limitations. Even the Pentium 90 with 24MB of RAM just wasn’t fast enough for newer DOS games like Quake. In short, I wanted a custom retro build that was fast, reliable and compatible – something with some nostalgic value and some pizzazz but also well suited for daily use.

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Refurbishing Old Keyboards

Today I’m going to shift gears a bit and take a look at some retro PC keyboards.

keyboard1-0

I’m currently in the process of refurbishing a couple of old PCs, including a classic DEC brand 486 DX2 and a newer 2001 era AMD Athlon system. A lot of people see these machines as trash, but for me there is a lot of nostalgia around systems like this and I see value in trying to restore and maintain them.

One of the first problems I ran into when trying to test out these systems is that not all keyboards were created equally. There are several connector standards that have been used over the years including AT, PS2 and more recently, USB. I have always kept a couple of USB to PS2 adapters for occasions such as this, but to my surprise, three USB keyboards I tried were simply not functional when using the PS2 adapter. As it turns out, there needs to be some intelligence in the keyboard itself to know when its been plugged into a PS2 port in order to function based on that signalling standard. The only keyboard I could get to work with the adapter was my trusty DAS Keyboard, that I was not willing to move away from my main system.

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