The Pentium Era – My Retro Computer Hardware Journey

In the mid 1990s at the age of 10 or 11 our family computer got an upgrade. Retaining it’s old beige ATX chassis, the internals were upgraded from a 486 DX2-66, to a Pentium 166 MMX. Quite the jump in processing power!

Unfortunately (for me) my parents were not keen on upgrading DOS and Windows 3.1 to the newly available Windows 98. My uncle, the seasoned computer expert, had convinced my parents that Windows 95 was evil and we wait for the bugs and other issues to be sorted out first. Not a bad software strategy in hindsight though.

DOS gaming on the Pentium

For the first couple of years I had to make do with DOS gaming, even with the ‘unlimted power’ the Pentium 166mhz processor could offer.

Windows 95 and DirectX had finally given a good, common API for game developers to use for game development. Gamers everwhere were starting to reap the rewards of this movement. Unfortunately I would have to wait until our machine got Windows 95.

For the time being games such as Duke Nukem 3D, Quake, and Carmageddon (all DOS compatible at the time) would have to do. Looking back I was quite young to be playing those games, but I knew it was all fantasy and they didn’t negatively affect me.

Windows 95 Upgrade

After a number of years, the system received the long awaited Windows 95 upgrade. Some of the first Windows 95 games I remember being able to play (and binging on) were:

  • Diablo
  • StarCraft (yes it was already 1998 by this point!)
  • POD: Planet of Death (first game to leverage the MMX instruction set as I recall)

Reliving the Pentium Days

In a moment of nostalgia, I recently picked up an old retro Pentium Compaq Armada 1592DT laptop. With Windows 98 installed, I’ve been enjoying some memories from the mid to late 1990s.

I’ve now got a bunch of DOS and early Windows games installed, including:

  • Turbo Pascal 7 (reliving my early teens programming memories)
  • Diablo. I own the boxed orginal, and loved this game. It runs great on this system.
  • DOOM
  • Duke Nukem 3D, and a bunch of old Apogee shareware games, like Terminal Velocity, Wacky Wheels, ROTT, Raptor, etc…
  • Final Reality benchmark – unfortunately this is too ‘new’ for the machine, and can only render in Direct3D Software Mode at a few frames per second.
diablo installer on the pentium system.
Diablo’s Installer – DirectX 3.0. Wow. This must have been one of the first games on Windows 95.

Even my son has shown interest in this aging system. He saw me testing some of the games out, and immediately took to playing Duke Nukem (1).

I’ve found myself getting this system out on quiet evenings to play the odd game here and there, and even tried my hand at writing some Pascal on it.

It may be clunky and extremely slow by today’s standards, but there is something magical about reliving parts of your childhood like this.

The 486 era – My Computer Hardware Journey

486 processor

My computer hardware journey started in the mid 1990s, when I was about 10 or 11 years old. It started out with me dismantling and reconfiguring various 486 machines. These were also known as i486 or Intel 80486 systems.

Electronics had always been a big curiosity for me. As a child I liked to open up devices and extract their internals. I would collect PCBs and join them in nonsensical ways, imagining I had invented new and wonderful devices, capable of many great things.

To illustrate my passion for tinkering with electronics, here is a quick story going back to my toddler years: My parents had noticed my love for tools as a toddler and had tried in vain to make them safe for me. According to my father, he once added a solid lump of pratley steel putty to the end of a sharp screwdriver for me. An attempt to make it safe for me to handle. As soon as I saw this, I threw it to the ground in protest. I only wanted real tools. One of the toys I had was an old 5+1⁄4-inch floppy disk drive!

My First 486 Build

Fast forwarding to the mid 1990s, I was far more capable with tools and had begun to scavenge surplus PC hardware. My uncle owned a PC repair shop where I grew up. As far as I recall I managed to scavenge old discarded parts from his collection, as well as other sources. Schools or universities that would throw out old machines as they cycled or upgraded them, cousins or family friends that had no need for old systems, etc…

The very first working system that I managed to modify was an Acer branded 486 desktop system. It had a horizontally aligned desktop chassis, one that allowed you to place a CRT monitor on top of.

This isn’t the exact one, but mine looked just like this, minus the CDROM drive.

I remember it had a 486 SX-33 CPU. A rather weakly clocked 486 processor, that didn’t even require a heatsink and fan assembly. The 486 SX processors had their FPU (floating point unit) disabled. I imagine this reduced cost and heat output.

This wasn’t exactly a scratch build, but it allowed me to get my feet wet in the world of computer hardware.

Upgrading the CPU

I swapped out the CPU for a 486 DX2-66, a much faster processor, adding a small aluminium heatsink and fan. The fan was powered by a molex power connector.

Memory and Upgrades

Another upgrade on this particular system that I remember was going from 4MB of RAM (SIMM, or single in-line memory module) to 8MB.

I don’t recall if the memory was the 30 or 72 pin type.

Hard Drive Configuration

Among other upgrades, the hard disk drive got swapped out for a slightly larger one. I think the capacity was somewhere around 400MB.

This upgrade had me reading manuals and learning about the importance of jumper placement. The drives connected with an ATA ribbon cable. It was important that the jumper on the back of the hard drive was configured according to the other devices sharing the same cable.

The jumper could be configured to make a drive device 0 or 1 (also known back then as the master or slave device) when sharing the same ATA cable.

The cables themselves were also rated for different transfer speeds. For example 16 or 33 MB/s, and later cables allows Ultra DMA to be used for speeds above 66 MB/s.

Future 486 Systems and Nostalgia

That Acer machine was a good learning experience for me. Soon after that time, I started building and configuring more 486 systems. I had all sorts from 486 DX2-66 to DX4-100 machines.

I started a little side hustle, where I would pick up old components and build fully configured systems, selling them in the local paper’s classifieds section.

Thinking back, this was seriously impressive for a kid my age. By the late 90s (at age 12 or so) I was earning chunks of cash from selling systems that I had built for next to nothing.

Fixing Old CRT Monitors

One of the big wins for me was when I learned from my uncle how to ‘fix’ blurry CRT monitors.

If opened up, all monitors had analog adjustment dials (potentiometers) that could be turned with a screwdriver to control the flyback. One of these would control focus.

I would gather up old CRT monitors that nobody wanted anymore because they had gone ‘blurry over time’. The fix was simply to adjust the focus potentiometer inside while the monitor was on. Of course this was very dangerous as these old monitors contained high voltage capacitors that remained charged up for a while, even after power was disconnected. However, having learned from an adult, I was very careful about this, and the payoff was being able to make cash from selling full systems with monitor included.

This was an amazing time for me as a kid. I learned how to operate DOS, and further operating systems such as Windows 3.1 and further on, Windows 95.

Computer Knowledge Acquired from my ‘486 era’

Here are some random things I learned in the 1990s during my time tinkering with 486 systems. I guess some of the time was also spent with older 386 machines too.

  • DOS configuration using the CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files
  • Expanded memory manager configuration with EMM386.
  • Configuring CDROM device drivers in DOS and setting them up on boot.
  • Writing simple batch (.BAT) scripts.
  • Simple QBASIC programming.
  • A little later on, Turbo Pascal programming basics.
  • Compression and decompression with tools like ARJ.
  • Manual sound card configuration by selecting specific addresses and channels.
  • Networking two machines using serial or parallel cables (COM or LPT), and using laplink software to copy files between.

Gaming and PC use in the 1990s

Not all of my computer time as a kid was spent working with computer hardware. I enjoyed playing games just as much.

Some of my most memorable and favourite DOS games that I enjoyed playing on the first 486 system my parents owned, (and later on the 486 systems I built were):

  • X-Wing and Tie Fighter
  • UFO – Enemy Unknown
  • Ultima VIII: Pagan
  • Master of Orion (MOO)
  • Wacky Wheels
  • Death Rally
  • Screamer
  • Cannon Fodder
  • Strike Commander
  • Wing Commander

I also fondly remember writing science fiction (short stories) in word processing software in DOS and then printing them out on a dot matrix printer. I would take these to school and share with friends (who would also do the same thing).

Notes:

The featured image of the 486 SX CPU is sourced from: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Intel_i486_sx_25mhz_2007_03_27b.jpg and comes with this creative commons license.