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Vintage PC Appreciation Thread

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I've recently been thinking about building up some vintage PC systems for DOS-based applications and games. As part of that process (and as I mentioned the other day in a status update), I acquired an Amdek 310A, an MDA amber monochrome monitor much like the one I used with my first PCs:

 

01.jpg02.jpg03.jpg04.jpg05.jpg06.jpg

 

I've been on the lookout for one of these for a while, and I'm especially pleased with this one: it may not be apparent from the pictures, but this monitor has no screen burn and no case yellowing, and the glare filter mesh over the CRT is in perfect shape. Nostalgia aside, I like amber monitors mainly because I find them to be very easy on the eyes; they're still my favorite type of display for writing and for playing text games. I'm just glad I still had a Hercules-compatible graphics card in one of my parts drawers!

 

DOS-based PCs have a reputation for being too much trouble to set up because of hardware conflicts and memory management headaches, but I still enjoy using them for several reasons:

  • Once you put a DOS system together with the necessary drivers and memory managers and all the software you want (which doesn't really take much longer than building a modern computer from parts), you almost never need to make changes to it again. That's not a luxury you can easily enjoy with today's Web browsers and network-aware operating systems, where forced upgrades and security updates become an issue. But for a standalone system dedicated to writing or games or light-duty programming, it's comforting to know that, unless I have a catastrophic hardware failure, I won't need to mess with it again for ten years or more.
  • Compared to today's bloatware, well-written software from that period is wonderfully efficient. A full-featured word processor like WordStar or XyWrite can fit into a couple of megabytes, and even a properly configured 25MHz 386SX boots faster than a lot of the Windows desktops that are still in service today.
  • I have a lot of respect for DOSBox, and I've got it installed on my NVIDIA Shield for traveling, but there are still certain things that emulation can't do quite as well as real hardware. I haven't yet been able to replicate the exact look of the monitor pictured here on modern displays, for example.
I won't be migrating entirely to one of these old machines, of course, but I can see myself happily using them even today for certain productive computing tasks, not just for games.

 

Does anyone else still use vintage PC hardware or software? If so, feel free to post about it here! I'll post some more pictures once I get everything together. I eventually want to have several PC systems alongside the other vintage computers in my lab, each one representing a different era: a 386-class DOS system (this will be the one with the monochrome monitor), a 486-class VESA Local system for mid-90s DOS games, and a late-90s Win32 system (I've already started working on that one).

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I was bitten by the vintage PC bug a couple of months ago. I spent a few years playing retro consoles back in the day (1980-83), but my interest in PC gaming lasted much longer (1983-2000). I'm surprised it took me this long to wax nostalgic about DOS and Windows 98SE! I've been spending more time on Vogons.org than on AA lately.

 

Over the past couple of months, I've built a 486DX2-50 and restored a Dell Optiplex GX1 with a PII. I also bought an OEM box with a Celeron 466 and the parts for a 866MHz Coppermine box. Plus about a dozen video cards and a dozen sound cards.

 

It took me a long time to realize that the real appeal is not the gaming but the problem solving that leads to it.

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I thought 80486's were futuristic and totally bad ass because they could load text files in under a second whereas my Apple //e would take many seconds.

 

Now! I think as software gets more and more stupid-bloated-up the intelligent among us will appreciate the simplicity of 486 and earlier machines. I can't see myself going beyond the 486 and Win 3.11 much when it comes to classic PC paraphernalia. Though I do have a beaten-up Pentium III I dick around with. But it seems to me that starting with win95 there's always had to be some kind of tweaking that would undo itself or morph into or affect another setting. Uhm yeh..

 

I really hate the amount of updating today's shit needs. Constant updating and changes to the OS is not in agreement with healthy mechanical hard disks. It upsets the natural order of things and causes loads of fragmentation and slowdowns. And blahh blahh.

 

Make no mistake, I run a tight ship on one of my XP machines. It was last installed on June of 2007. 34 processes, all accounted for. Manual updates. No spyware, no adware, no system-draining scanners or anything. Tight $MFT and NTFS structures order. Everything. All that good stuff. Complete documentation for all applications. Complete install discs, or complete install.exe files. I could rebuild this bitch from a blank disk and be fully functional without the internet whatsoever! Of course it's imaged and backed up appropriately too.

 

Well.. I look forward to seeing what everyone else is doing. And when I have time I'll spiff up my 486 machine and do a photo op-ed. One neat thing is I collected a lot of marketing material related to the specific machine and its peripherals. Spec sheets and flyers and tech briefs, that sort thing. And of course I have all the documentation too. It is a 80486 DX2/50 with 16MB ram, 200MB HDD, 15"CRT, Cirrus Logic 5422 1MB 16-bit ISA video card, 5.25" & 3.5" floppy drives, Serial+Parallel+IDE Multi-I/O card, 2nd parallel port, Micronics motherboard w/256k socketed SRAM cache, SoundBlaster 16 with wavetable daughtercard and ASP chip upgrade, 1x (150KB/sec) CD-ROM, Practical Peripherals 14.4 modem, all ISA slottage, 124 key programmable keyboard, ball-based mouse.. and so on and so forth.

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I have bought a 233 mmx pentium last year, installed a voodoo2 12mb. Still need to find a nice crt monitor, since my lcd has trouble with some of the resolutions. I also have a commodore pc10-III, it boots up but i don't get any picture. Need to find a 8bit vga card for it to see if that fixes it.

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I thought 80486's were futuristic and totally bad ass because they could load text files in under a second whereas my Apple //e would take many seconds.

 

Now! I think as software gets more and more stupid-bloated-up the intelligent among us will appreciate the simplicity of 486 and earlier machines. I can't see myself going beyond the 486 and Win 3.11 much when it comes to classic PC paraphernalia. Though I do have a beaten-up Pentium III I dick around with. But it seems to me that starting with win95 there's always had to be some kind of tweaking that would undo itself or morph into or affect another setting. Uhm yeh..

 

I really hate the amount of updating today's shit needs. Constant updating and changes to the OS is not in agreement with healthy mechanical hard disks. It upsets the natural order of things and causes loads of fragmentation and slowdowns. And blahh blahh.

 

Make no mistake, I run a tight ship on one of my XP machines. It was last installed on June of 2007. 34 processes, all accounted for. Manual updates. No spyware, no adware, no system-draining scanners or anything. Tight $MFT and NTFS structures order. Everything. All that good stuff. Complete documentation for all applications. Complete install discs, or complete install.exe files. I could rebuild this bitch from a blank disk and be fully functional without the internet whatsoever! Of course it's imaged and backed up appropriately too.

 

Well.. I look forward to seeing what everyone else is doing. And when I have time I'll spiff up my 486 machine and do a photo op-ed. One neat thing is I collected a lot of marketing material related to the specific machine and its peripherals. Spec sheets and flyers and tech briefs, that sort thing. And of course I have all the documentation too. It is a 80486 DX2/50 with 16MB ram, 200MB HDD, 15"CRT, Cirrus Logic 5422 1MB 16-bit ISA video card, 5.25" & 3.5" floppy drives, Serial+Parallel+IDE Multi-I/O card, 2nd parallel port, Micronics motherboard w/256k socketed SRAM cache, SoundBlaster 16 with wavetable daughtercard and ASP chip upgrade, 1x (150KB/sec) CD-ROM, Practical Peripherals 14.4 modem, all ISA slottage, 124 key programmable keyboard, ball-based mouse.. and so on and so forth.

 

I would have been so disappointed if you didn't post in this thread, Keatah :-D

 

 

 

I love vintage computers, and one of the big reasons is I feel there was less waste and laziness with vintage machines. With so little to work with in terms of hardware specs, programmers and engineers had to be meticulous, careful, and creative with everything they did. It was elegant in a sense, the tricks they used to push the hardware to its absolute limit. Today, with so much in terms of hardware resources and software packages, any hack can slop together something and fire it out onto the internet, assuming that everyone will have 16gigs of RAM and a quad-core CPU. Sure, I like modern games and I have a decent rig that I love to use for editing pictures, doing graphic design, and playing some games, but it's just not the same as firing up a classic machine and appreciating the effort that went into it. One of the things that bothers me most is I'm not quite old enough to have lived through that era, but I most certainly wish I could have experienced it first-hand.

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Best thing about DOS that I had forgotten about:

 

Don't like or want a program you just installed?

 

del *.*

cd..

rd [crap]

 

Like it never existed.

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It looks like we're not alone in appreciating the elegant minimalism of classic software:

George R.R. Martin Writes on a DOS-Based Word Processor From the 1980s

"I actually like it. It does everything I want a word processing program to do and it doesn't do anything else. I don't want any help, you know? I hate some of these modern systems where you type a lowercase letter and it becomes a capital. I don't want a capital. If I wanted a capital I would have typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key!"

Minimalist word processors like WriteRoom and Byword are popular among writers and other users looking for a distraction-free writing window. Plus many people use apps like Freedom and Concentrate to control which websites they can navigate to while they're working, thus reducing distractions. But Martin's solution seems optimal, especially if you're sitting down to write thousands of pages.


WordStar 4.0 is the word processor that Martin uses. I believe that William F. Buckley was also a lifelong WordStar user.

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I like some luxuries but I prefer using Corel WordPerfect on System 7. Word processors are great but they really got all the features I would want to have locked down by the 90s. Since then it has been nothing but bloat and feature creep.

 

I'm sure those programs are great or whatever for people who need to make complicated looking reports with lots of graphs, spreadsheets, etc. but that's not what I use it for and the actual "word processing" part gets real tedious when I have to fight the automatic "help" just to get it to work. I'm sure there are ways to turn all that crap off but w/e I'll just use what I know works instead of teaching myself something I don't really like already anyway.

 

I used to have DOS commands internalized but I haven't dinked around in DOS in ten years or so since my old Win 95 laptop finally gave up the ghost. Now I just use DOSBox to run a few games. I'm a little better with Linux as knowing CLI is really helpful to get the most out of Chrome OS.

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For my word processing uses, unfortunately I have to use Microsoft Office, preferably Office 2007 or later. In my class work I have to do a lot of recording data sets with Excel and generating meaningful plots to include in Word. If all my reports were turned in on paper, I suppose I could use any software I wanted, but it seems like I always have at least one professor that requires them to be submitted online or e-mailed in .DOCX format.

 

You know, I really should get my 'legacy interface' build set up with a comfortable DOS operating environment. Right now it's dual-booting DOS and Linux (though Linux is mainly just for comfortable networking access and imaging floppies remotely) but it's not really usable for much except the aforementioned floppy imaging. I've got a nice Diamond sound card in there that would be great for DOS games, but I need to get some speakers for it.

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Word processors are great but they really got all the features I would want to have locked down by the 90s. Since then it has been nothing but bloat and feature creep.

 

I'm sure those programs are great or whatever for people who need to make complicated looking reports with lots of graphs, spreadsheets, etc. but that's not what I use it for and the actual "word processing" part gets real tedious when I have to fight the automatic "help" just to get it to work. I'm sure there are ways to turn all that crap off but w/e I'll just use what I know works instead of teaching myself something I don't really like already anyway.

I teach Microsoft Word to college freshmen as part of my introductory computer classes, but I always tell my students that, for pure brainstorming and rough-draft writing, Word isn't the best program to use. The simple fact that Word is a WYSIWYG application seems to be a stumbling block to the students: because they see what the final formatting will look like as they write, they are very tempted to correct the formatting as they go, editing and writing at the same time, which is a very poor way to write. Instead, I ask them to use a simple text editor first, concentrating only on the text, and then to move the text into Word and apply the formatting only after the text has been finalized (or close to it).

 

For myself, I want to take that idea to the next level, assembling a simple, distraction-free writing environment which eliminates even the needless complexities of a multitasking graphical interface, built on a stable software stack which does not require the frequent updates and changes that Microsoft Windows and Office require. I don't know if WordStar will be my final word processor of choice—I own a CIB copy of WordStar 5, but I also like XyWrite—but I think that those who still use WordStar today are on the right track.

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Instead, I ask them to use a simple text editor first, concentrating only on the text, and then to move the text into Word and apply the formatting only after the text has been finalized (or close to it).

 

 

I use Windows Notepad pretty much every single day.

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The graphics card I learned to play DOOM and RAPTOR on. I've posted this pic a long time ago, but it is part of the 486 which I'll be dusting out and spiffing up.

post-4806-0-60571300-1405388948_thumb.jpg

Edited by Keatah
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The graphics card I learned to play DOOM and RAPTOR on. I've posted this pic a long time ago, but it is part of the 486 which I'll be dusting out and spiffing up.

attachicon.gifDSCN7821.JPG

 

I actually do still have the old graphics card that was in my family's PC in the '90s, but I can't use it because it used the VESA extended bus, and I no longer have a working motherboard with the VESA extended connector. Also, I took the EPROM out of the card to test an old programmer I got my hands on and I think I misplaced it somewhere, so... oops.

 

I'm currently using an ATI Rage LT Pro based PCI card in my 'legacy interface' build. ATI only officially provides Windows 98 drivers for it, but at one time I had found drivers that worked as far back as Windows 3.1 (although I think they were for an older version of the card and perhaps didn't provide full support, but since they provided 1024x768 and a reasonable number of colors, they worked well enough for me).

 

EDIT: I'm pretty sure the VESA card is a Diamond Stealth 64 DRAM. Looks like the VESA version is kind of expensive but someone has a few of the PCI version on eBay for really cheap. Maybe I should go ahead and buy the PCI version, since I could actually use it. Then again, I'm not sure if it would give me any benefits over my current card.

Edited by jmetal88
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I just put my Diamond Stealth 64 DRAM VLB back into commission after almost 20 years. Still works great. It is one of the few VLB graphics cards that ran with my old 486DX-50 (not DX2-50) with a 50 MHz bus in 1991. The bus speed was too much for lesser cards. Plus it had an S3 chip, so it was compatible with almost every 2D game.

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The graphics card I learned to play DOOM and RAPTOR on. I've posted this pic a long time ago, but it is part of the 486 which I'll be dusting out and spiffing up.

Ah yes, the Cirrus Logic GD5422. Great video chipset. It's the same one that was used in the Diamond SpeedStar 64 ISA card, which I still have in one of my 386 machines. I bought that card at Computer City (anyone remember that store?) in the late 90s, and I was impressed that, even on a 40MHz 386DX, it allowed me to play Doom at maximum resolution and screen size without any apparent slowdown.

 

Diamond Multimedia was my go-to brand for basic video cards in the 90s. I still have a few of their Stealth64 VESA Local video cards (some sealed in the box!) with Cirrus Logic chips, and I've also got a stack of their PCI cards with S3 chips.

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Old PC hardware has just never appealed to me much. I'd rather run old PC games in a virtual environment than dedicate a machine to them.
However, I do have a Tandy 1000HX that boots DOS from ROM... just in case.
I don't think I have any other PC hardware that predates the Pentium III.

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Ah yes, the Cirrus Logic GD5422. Great video chipset. It's the same one that was used in the Diamond SpeedStar 64 ISA card, which I still have in one of my 386 machines. I bought that card at Computer City (anyone remember that store?) in the late 90s, and I was impressed that, even on a 40MHz 386DX, it allowed me to play Doom at maximum resolution and screen size without any apparent slowdown.

 

Diamond Multimedia was my go-to brand for basic video cards in the 90s. I still have a few of their Stealth64 VESA Local video cards (some sealed in the box!) with Cirrus Logic chips, and I've also got a stack of their PCI cards with S3 chips.

 

I remember Computer City, although the color yellow is the only thing I can picture of its logo. To me it was runner-up to CompUSA, where I would go if I had the choice. (I used to buy software from Soft Warehouse, the company that became CompUSA.) But Computer City had some stuff that CompUSA didn't, and it was still a fun place to visit. The only thing that I can distinctly remember buying at Computer City was the PC version of Final Fantasy VII in the trapezoidal box. I ran it on my AMD K6-2 box with an Nvidia Riva 128 video card, one of the first good 2D/3D combo cards. Good times.

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Ah yes, the Cirrus Logic GD5422. Great video chipset. It's the same one that was used in the Diamond SpeedStar 64 ISA card, which I still have in one of my 386 machines. I bought that card at Computer City (anyone remember that store?) in the late 90s, and I was impressed that, even on a 40MHz 386DX, it allowed me to play Doom at maximum resolution and screen size without any apparent slowdown.

 

 

I hate to burst your bubble. Look. When I was into Dooming and loud explosions and stuff I remember seeing a demonstration of the 386DX-40. This variant was very very important to PC gaming at the time. For it had a 40MHZ bus, and that is why you didn't see any slowdowns. I believe in some situations the 386DX-40 would go faster than a 486 DX2/50. And it certainly wiped-ass with 486-sx-anything. It was main cpu-memory bus doing the work.

 

Now..

I personally was never too impressed with the 5422 chip as an accelerator in Windows 3.1 gaming. But then, with all the other klutzy stuff going on in that environment I can't blame all on the chip. I bought it for the price and truecolor capabilities and the VESA modes so I could play with Fractint. S3 chips were the go-to stuff for games and compatibility. Cirrus was the low-cost stuff.

 

But hey, I'm not here to rag on any one bit of hardware. It's cool it's still working and that we have the stuff from way back when.

 

5422datasheet.pdf

 

The really good RedHill guide (for anyone just getting into classic PC stuff).

http://redhill.net.au/ig.html

http://redhill.net.au/iu.html

Edited by Keatah
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Old PC hardware has just never appealed to me much. I'd rather run old PC games in a virtual environment than dedicate a machine to them.

However, I do have a Tandy 1000HX that boots DOS from ROM... just in case.

I don't think I have any other PC hardware that predates the Pentium III.

 

 

Well.. the thing with old PC hardware is that none of it is classic. It was all commodity crap. Built, bought, and sold for the cheapest possible price. With exceptions of course. None of it was unique enough to evoke interest today. So much of it was non-descript get-the-job-done type of things. Very much industrial. Little or no personality. Drab interfacing. More bulky physical material than electrified guts. Even those glorified gaming rigs with low-rider lights and bling-bling fans are all the same. Dull drab cookie cutter material. Nothing to stir the emotions.

 

I tend to think of the PC platform as a nostalgic filter of the finest grade. You had to have actually owned one and had good times with it. You would have to have spent time setting it up and playing with it. And not just any old activity, but typically engrossing work or something creative. For me it was some of those things, and then of course playing DOOM and RAPTOR. And the glorious excitement of a 200MB HDD! That was small car-load of Practical Peripherals' Sider 10MB HDD's!! I would never fill that disk in a million years I said to myself. 6 months later I got a second 540MB HDD.

 

And then there was the ongoing tedium of getting AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS just right. I spent many hours, days, developing a single set of files that would run every bit of software I ever had. All except for one single game. Just one. I had to make a boot disk. I never thought of it as fun. But I knew it was a temporary state-of-affairs and that we'd evolve away from that sort of thing.

 

DosBox is a great way to check out the classic games without the time-wasting tedium and maintenance of vintage hardware. I do my classic gaming that way too. It sucks that development has all but stopped at version 0.74.

 

When I get into fixing up and restoring my 486, it'll be mostly cleaning, dusting, polishing, arranging cables, rust-proofing, testing old software, cleaning contacts, reseating chips, inspecting solder joints. Nothing brain draining. I highly doubt I'll be making any changes since the last time I did so in the late 1990's. Everything was working then, no reason for it to have changed itself up now.

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I hate to burst your bubble. Look. When I was into Dooming and loud explosions and stuff I remember seeing a demonstration of the 386DX-40. This variant was very very important to PC gaming at the time. For it had a 40MHZ bus, and that is why you didn't see any slowdowns. I believe in some situations the 386DX-40 would go faster than a 486 DX2/50. And it certainly wiped-ass with 486-sx-anything. It was main cpu-memory bus doing the work.

 

Now..

I personally was never too impressed with the 5422 chip as an accelerator in Windows 3.1 gaming. But then, with all the other klutzy stuff going on in that environment I can't blame all on the chip. I bought it for the price and truecolor capabilities and the VESA modes so I could play with Fractint. S3 chips were the go-to stuff for games and compatibility. Cirrus was the low-cost stuff.

True, S3 was the best in those days (I still use them, too), but there were a lot worse options than a Cirrus Logic card. Have you ever used a Trident? :skull:

 

I'm sure that the CPU had a lot to do with it, but I switched to the SpeedStar 64 from some other ISA VGA card (don't remember which one), and it provided a noticeable boost to the graphics. I used it in Windows 3.1 in high-color mode, too, at resolutions as high as 1600x1200. Not bad for an ISA card, especially since there weren't many left to choose from by the late 90s.

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Trident.. I believe so. Not for gaming though. I also messed around with a Tseng Labs ET-4000. And they were all before my PC gaming days. Anything below the 486 I can't really comment on much. The experiences were non-memorable and non-personal. The first graphical WOW moment was DOOM and RAPTOR, and to a lesser extent Microsoft Arcade, and the Activision ActionPacks. I always wondered what emulation would be like 20 years later, and well, here we are..

 

I used to mess around with Sci-Tech Display Doctor, still have several versions of it. On the GD-5422 I never got a lot of speed increase across the board, but several games such as Duke Nuke'em 3D benefited greatly with a certain VESA mode. Nearly 2x performance increase.

 

I just unpacked my Zip Disk 100 (Parallel Port model). I remember purchasing this to extend my storage. I figured at the time $40 bucks for a pack of 3 or 5 100MB disks was better than another hard disk. But I eventually used the drive to transfer data around, and to my P-II much later. It was indeed more valuable as a transport device than a storage device.

 

post-4806-0-96990900-1405417660_thumb.jpg

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I posted this similar text in a previous message:

 

"I even remember how when I ordered my first 80486, a DX2/50, from Gateway 2000, how I had the choice of what productivity application I could get! The salesman made me feel so important because I was getting real & genuine Microsoft software as freebie bonus! It was great. He took the time to explain exactly what my options were what what package might or might not be a good fit for me. I picked Word, as that's what I had a real need for back then. It was nice, sophisticated, and I felt like I was in a real store; but in reality talking on the telephone. And when the system arrived it was ready to roll. There was no other shit on it. Believe it! No malware or shovelware or free trial offers. No half-assed incomplete sigh-me-up payware. No subscriptions and no accounts. It was ready for serious business. Not like the shit you get from retail today."

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