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.

My workspace and hardware zen

Everyone has their own relax or zen area where they like to spend time getting away from reality and de-stressing. One of mine just happens to be the same place where I get a lot of work done – my main gaming platform and home office area! Since we moved into our new flat, I found that there wasn’t much space to set up my PC. Last weekend I whipped out the old jigsaw and sliced a couple of inches off the side of my PC desk in order to get it to fit into this corner.

I then decided to neaten up and organise everything a bit to enhance my working conditions when I do work from home. I made a “ghetto” iPhone dock out of the packaging the phone came in, using the plastic dish the phone is cradled in. I cut out a small area at the bottom for the iPhone connector to fit in, then routed the cabling into the box itself, which sits diagonally in the lid of the box, flipped upside down. The cable then comes out the back and plugs in to the power socket behind my desk. This keeps the cabling nice and neat and I just plonk the phone down into the dock when I get home for a charge. I don’t need a USB connection to the PC as I have SSH enabled via a jailbreak – I therefore use Wifi access and WinSCP or SCP from Putty to transfer files between PC and phone.

Behind this is my touch sensitive desk lamp, in front of the dock is my work IP phone which connects up to our VOIP server. Then we have my main PC which consists of the following: Asus P45 P5Q motherboard, E8400 3.0GHz Core2Duo CPU overclocked to 3.6GHz in Summer and 4.0GHz in Winter. 4GB OCZ DDR800 RAM running at DDR1000 speeds and an ATI HD 4870 graphics card which has a custom flashed bios which overvolts the GPU and applies a generous overclock. I used to have a nice quiet watercooling loop in the PC, but sold it recently and went back to air cooling. I plan on doing another Watercooling build soon and will hopefully post the process and worklog here when I do. The other peripherals consist of a Dell 24″ LCD (1920×1200), G15 Keyboard and Logitech MX518 mouse.

I use this PC for just about everything – all my PC gaming, Web browsing, a little bit of programming and Virtualisation (On top of Windows 7 Professional it is running VMWare Server 2.0) with a variety of guest VMs that I use for testing and practising various Windows and Linux server technologies.

Other hardware I have lying around is an old Dell Poweredge 2U server which I run VMWare ESX 3.5 and a Dell Optiplex machine running uBuntu 8.04, with VMWare Server 2.0 for linux and a guest VM operating system running on top of that which runs uBuntu Server 9.04 and this very website.

Anyway here are a few photos of my nice clean new workspace.

Mac vs PC Parody

This is quite old but I still find it hilarious the way the majority of Mac users love to brag about their Apple products. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Apple. I even own an Apple Powermac G3, running Mac OS 9 which I used to use for design. They are however just PCs running Mac OS with different looking peripherals in the end.

The fan boys are the people that ruin Apple products though. These clips below illustrate this “fanboism” quite well…