Let’s Build a Retro PC – Part 1


 

pc6

Not just a beige box.

Retro is The New Black

Have you ever wondered what happens to all those beige boxes you remember from the 80’s and 90’s? Well some of them end up in flea markets, car boot sales and Ebay, if they haven’t already been crushed or thrown in some inner city canal along with all those supermarket trolleys. But many of them and their components, sit next to their modern rival offspring in dens, lofts, basements and studies from here to Chipping Norton.

The fact is, people love to restore things, whether they be cars, boats, fabulous oil paintings or computers. There’s something intrinsically rewarding on coming across a seemingly useless piece of junk and breathing new life into it, almost as if you were the very person it was waiting for all those years.

sprintunit

Wonderful SCSI.

Which brings me to when I recently took a trip back down memory lane with a customer who asked me to take a look at his Polaroid Sprint Scan 35+, which he brought over to me with a box of SCSI cards and cables, together with a very down and out looking PC, with which he had been working, but rather slowly.

nicepc1

Don’t come near me!

The end result of this exchange being a happier customer going home with a functioning 1997 model scanner and a replacement PC running Windows 98.

This brought forth an itch I needed to scratch and since it was still raining outside, what better time to dust off the old Pentium II? This particular beast has seen many incarnations, initially as a 486DX running Windows 3.1, until, over the years, the innards gradually became separated from the case, leaving it rather forlorn and empty looking in the corner of the garage, whilst real life wreaked its havoc outside.

Chips with everything

Sometimes I take old PC’s in part exchange and a while ago, I was able to acquire a Slot 1 motherboard to add to my collection of CDROM’s, old memory modules, floppy drives and other assorted paraphernalia squirrelled away in boxes under the sales counter.


bits

Where to start?

Breathing new life into the old Compace Rally (1992) was more of a pleasure than a chore and since the case still had its original AT 200W power supply (1992) and Panasonic (1995) CDROM, I at least had something to play with. I would have preferred an Asus or Soyo motherboard to the much maligned PC Chips M729 I had acquired, but it was certainly better than zero.

As I fitted the components together, it occurred to me how fantastically simple PC architecture really is. Much like Lego, things can only really mate up one way, if you discount the floppy drive of course, which even now appears to defeat logic, with its twisted cables and oh! so friendly power connector.

But to me, the machine would be of little use if I couldn’t play games, so I carefully dusted off my pair of Voodoo II PCI cards and mated them up with an ATI Rage Pro 4mb, sitting in the AGP slot with the pass through cable, for SLI gaming in its purest form.

3dfx

3dfx SLI

After some initial cussing with the PC Chips Taiwan website and being totally gobsmacked that they actually still existed, I managed to achieve a memory bank of 256 Mb, in carefully selected DIMMs. The next stage was a little tricky as I had to decide whether to flash the BIOS with some unknown Taiwanese ROM file, that would either allow the motherboard to see a hard drive larger than 8Gb, or simply kill it stone dead or just insert the Quantam Fireball 10Gb and let sleeping dogs lie. I chose the latter, being the Devil I already knew.

Although the motherboard was a tad scruffy, it did at least have headers for a PS2 mouse and two USB ports, which were luxuries I wasn’t really expecting. I passed on the modem header though, hoping I’d never have to use it and slotted in a 3Com PCI LAN card, a CM Audio ISA card and finally a PCMCIA ISA interface controller card for good measure.


Abort, retry, fail?

So, with the PC now fully loaded, it was time to really go back in time, boot to a floppy disk and listen to the chirping, whirring and unmistakeable grinding sound of a floppy in action.There are ways to boot to a Windows 98 install by snappier means, but if you’re a purist and you’re reading this, you’ll know why we don’t do that won’t you?

MSCDEX found the CDROM, which is always a relief, knowing that you’re not on a path to insanity and I was able to finally type in:D:\SETUP, watch the newly built computer come alive and become the machine it was designed to be.

By some curious miracle and remembering to copy the Win98 folder to the root of the drive, the motherboard drivers went through in a breeze, which left me with the more pleasurable task of installing the more important features, such as the 3dfx, ATI and sound drivers and setting the resolution to a more bearable tolerance level than the 4 bit brain burning horror fest that windows sometimes likes to throw at you.

PC7

Memory lane.

So, as I was just beginning to dust off those brain neurons and remind myself just how Windows 98 enjoys a torture session by throwing illegal operations at you, a veritable stampede of desperate customers broke out in the shop, forcing me to continue this nostalgia fest in PART TWO.

 

About the Author

Marc Thomas

Marc is an avid traveler, motorcyclist, entrepreneur, and gamer from Buenos Aires, Argentina. His interest in computers and technology began in the early 1990's when he was introduced by a friend to a Zenith Data Systems computer running DOS. In the years following he has experienced all versions of the Windows operating system, built hundreds of systems, and fixed many more for his customers.

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