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What's a good MS-DOS computer for a beginner?

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Yeah, I've watched The 8-bit guy's video on MS-DOS laptops, and trust me, you can't get a Compaq LTE laptop for $25 anymore.

What's a good MS-DOS computer to use that's not too expensive, but runs software/plays games well? Laptops, desktops, portables, it doesn't really matter for me, as long as it does its job. If I'm going for a laptop, I'd prefer a 486 or Pentium I with windows 95 or 98, but those seem to expensive, so regular MS-DOS or Win 3 is fine as well.

Are the gas plasma screens on Compaq Portable IIIs any good? If it's at least 3/4 as good as the crt in the Is and IIs, then it's fine, but I'm presuming it suffers from some problems as well.

Also, would you recommend a 486, AMD K6, or a Pentium I computer? I don't want anything too new(preferrably nothing newer than a Compaq Armada).

After all this, hopefully, I'll eventually have a nice little(or big) MS-DOS computer to play Planet X3 on! Thanks in advance!

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486 DX2/66 was considered a sweet spot for DOS Gaming back then. Pentiums and higher are often associated with Windows. I did my DOS Gaming on a DX2/50 and eventually a Pentium II 266. I lost interest in DOS Gaming after that because the 3D craze was starting, and moving into Windows.

 

I often believe the processor is only but part of what makes a DOS machine a DOS machine. You gotta consider legacy ports like LPT and COM. ISA slots with ISA bus signals. Separate sound card like a SoundBlaster for DOS. And other minor technicalities.

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If you can dig up a Unisys CWD-4002 (486) or 5001 (Pentium), they make nice DOS machines, but you will need an ISA sound card to really make the most of 'em.  Oh - and they're too small to fit CD-ROM drives except via the parallel port, so you'll be relying on networking.

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Faster is good but it needs to have a dos compatible sound card.  A couple of ISA slots can help with that.  You can always slow down a fast computer if necessary.

 

The brand of computer doesn't matter.  Nonames did well in the 1990s.  A quality motherboard like asus would be good.

 

Nothing wrong with gas plasma displays as long as it supports vga and an external monitor.

Edited by mr_me
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We have a few of those Compaqs...the 486s are nice, but there's no sound card. There are, however, volume controls for the PC speaker, which seems like a no-brainer, but most PCs never had. I don't have a docking station for them, so I can't comment on that.

 

We have a few of the Pentiums as well, and they do have nice integrated audio cards, but the screens are higher resolution, so not great for most DOS titles (IIRC, they get window-boxed, plus the horizontal res is scaled slightly to make it true 4:3 aspect ratio). Might be fine if you dock it and/or use external monitor + keyboard.

 

All the models we have, the keyboards are okay, but not fantastic...maybe a little cleaning would help. The BIOS needs a boot disk to access, and even when you get it, there's very little you can change. Speaking of disks, the floppy drives will probably need new pulleys.

19 minutes ago, The Usotsuki said:

If you can dig up a Unisys CWD-4002 (486) or 5001 (Pentium), they make nice DOS machines, but you will need an ISA sound card to really make the most of 'em.  Oh - and they're too small to fit CD-ROM drives except via the parallel port, so you'll be relying on networking.

I'm usually too lazy to network...I either use thumb drives (if there's Win98 and USB), or an IDE2CF adapter. Or if I really have to, I have a few working floppies + drives.

 

But it is nice to have a CD-ROM, since I have so many discs around.

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486 DX-2 133  or Pentium 90.

 

Hits the sweet spot in most cases.  Get a nice PCI video card. Say a Riva TNT, or a TNT2.  Thats period.

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IIRC some TNT boards have problems with 15:15:!6 color format - whatever that means. I clearly remember some games not displaying correctly. Looking like a faulty overlay mask with pink & white pixels. But the issue was corrected in the TNT2 and the video BIOS.

 

FWIW the Riva-128, an older part with lesser 3D capability, has the fastest 2D of all period boards. It was seemingly unanimously decided by all manufacturers that 2D was dead. So no more advances were made on that front. The pipeline for this chip is simple and unencumbered.

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I love my 486, but it's a limited platform that I wouldn't recommend to someone wanting only *one* DOS computer. It's not really capable of playing later, CPU-intensive DOS games (Descent, Duke3D, Quake). Maybe a 486DX-100 would allow for an okay experience (not for Quake), but I'd still aim for a more recent CPU.

 

Again, if you plan to have only one retro build, go for an AMD K6-2+ based system on a Super Socket 7 motherboard. It's not cheap, but the versatility is worth it. You can then use a program called SETMUL to set the multiplier in a range of CPUs (including the K6-2+) as well as turn the caches off and on -- all from the command line. You will then be able to slow your PC down to 486 speeds, giving you the ability to play any DOS game that is not too fast on a 486. This route will require you to source a good video and sound card as well. If you think you're going to want to play any FPS Windows games, you're better off with a Pentium 3 but will lose the SETMUL functionality.

 

I don't recommend a laptop for DOS gaming, but if you want to go down this route, you need a laptop with video that has good DOS compatibility. They're not all the same. Any S3 graphics (Trio64, Virge) will be a good choice. And you want to look for a laptop with Yamaha OPL3 sound or a good clone. It's hard to connect a controller to laptops because most lack a game port. Some may have USB, but then you're into late Windows 95 territory. You don't need super-high screen resolution because you won't be playing most DOS games at a resolution higher than 640x480 (most below that). A 1024x768 screen is ideal. I have a Toshiba Tecra 550CDT that is a very nice DOS gaming laptop.

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I agree that a desktop is the way to go especially for a beginner on a budget. Laptops from this era were very expensive and oriented towards business, plus expansion is much harder. 
 

I would hit the thrift shops, personally. (Actually personally I prefer emulation with DOSbox to ancient hardware, but that's not what was asked)

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My dedicated MS-DOS machine (Sadly it is buried in a closet currently...), uses a K6-2 200mhz. Works great for the early era win98 stuff and if I disable both 1st and 2nd level cache in the BIOS, it will reduce it down to 386-25mhz speeds which is good for playing the late 80s and the first 2 Wing Commander games. I have it installed on an old Asus TX-97E motherboard if memory serves.

 

I really need to pull it out as I'm sure the caps need to be replaced on the mainboard along with the CMOS battery and just other routine maintenance.

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6 minutes ago, -^CrossBow^- said:

My dedicated MS-DOS machine (Sadly it is buried in a closet currently...), uses a K6-2 200mhz. Works great for the early era win98 stuff and if I disable both 1st and 2nd level cache in the BIOS, it will reduce it down to 386-25mhz speeds which is good for playing the late 80s and the first 2 Wing Commander games. I have it installed on an old Asus TX-97E motherboard if memory serves.

 

I really need to pull it out as I'm sure the caps need to be replaced on the mainboard along with the CMOS battery and just other routine maintenance.

I didn't realize there was a 200MHz K6-2... I have a K6 (first one) that is 200Mhz...

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Pretty sure mine it is only 200mhz. I know it is a K6-2 and not a K6 as I skipped the first AMD K6 series. After my K6-2, my next system was a Celeron 300a (running at 450mhz or course...).

 

You might be right that it is actually a fast proc, but I likely have the bus speed reduced in addition. Again it has been about 6 years since it was fired up last and I looked at it in detail. I really need to pull it out because I've always had an issue with card sag on my LAPC-I board installed in it since this full tower case it is all in, doesn't have brackets for full length expansion boards. I literally have an old CD case that some blank CDRs came in stuffed under it to keep it semi level LOL!

 

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2 minutes ago, -^CrossBow^- said:

Pretty sure mine it is only 200mhz. I know it is a K6-2 and not a K6 as I skipped the first AMD K6 series. After my K6-2, my next system was a Celeron 300a (running at 450mhz or course...).

 

You might be right that it is actually a fast proc, but I likely have the bus speed reduced in addition. Again it has been about 6 years since it was fired up last and I looked at it in detail. I really need to pull it out because I've always had an issue with card sag on my LAPC-I board installed in it since this full tower case it is all in, doesn't have brackets for full length expansion boards. I literally have an old CD case that some blank CDRs came in stuffed under it to keep it semi level LOL!

 

Ooh, LAPC-I. Love it. One with the connector box just sold for $800 on eBay.

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AMD K6s seem to be rather cheaper than anything with a Intel CPU in it.

I'll probably search around some Goodwills and flea markets(there must be someone who thinks that 25 year old computers are complete junk and toss 'em in the donation bin) so buying these on eBay paying hundreds of dollars seem a bit stupid.

Besides, there's a place I know a place where I can be guaranteed to find an original 5150 for below $30, and late 90's laptops for around $10. So I'm probably gonna look through there and find a decent working one.

Thanks!

 

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You guys are straining my memory, but I seem to recall Sony VAIO laptops, the little purple ones, as good for multimedia and maybe even games way back then ... the problem I remember was that they didn't have NT or Windows 2000 driver support so they were stuck in Windows 98-land forever. That was a dealbreaker for me, but for you, it's a feature. 

 

AMD K6 was indeed way cheaper than Intel, that's what I would use in my builds back in those days. 

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Hey guys, is there any real advantage to have one of these machines besides nostalgia? I'm talking about performance with games compared to DOSBox. I'm curious about that, are there any DOS games that run badly on emulators?

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Emulator timing isn't always perfect, and some people like to play with old hardware. The thrill of the hunt is part of the fun as well. 

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31 minutes ago, IntelliMission said:

Hey guys, is there any real advantage to have one of these machines besides nostalgia? I'm talking about performance with games compared to DOSBox. I'm curious about that, are there any DOS games that run badly on emulators?

DOSBox doesn't work too well on games with CD audio... I mean from the actual CDrom and not those games that have been edited to use .ogg files like many of the Steam or GoG releases do...

Edited by DragonGrafx-16

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27 minutes ago, IntelliMission said:

Hey guys, is there any real advantage to have one of these machines besides nostalgia? I'm talking about performance with games compared to DOSBox. I'm curious about that, are there any DOS games that run badly on emulators?

I think I said this in a thread from years ago, but the appeal that retro DOS/Windows 98 PCs have for me is ... problem solving. There's a satisfaction in getting everything to work just right with the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom of the community. Using the perfect drivers, tuning the settings for optimal experience, etc. For instance, right now I'm playing around with my K6-3+ build and an AWE32 with 28MB of RAM. I've loaded a 28MB sound font and am listening to Tyrian's music with this new sound font. That's why it's fun for me, but I'm in a very small minority of enthusiasts.

 

But if you just want to play the games, the emulation is the route for you.

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I still have a K6-2 266Mhz and a Micronics C200 board to go with it. Oddly enough it's one mobo to survive multiple cleaning stints and purges. I keep pushing it around and stuffing it under something.

 

1 hour ago, Flojomojo said:

Emulator timing isn't always perfect, and some people like to play with old hardware. The thrill of the hunt is part of the fun as well. 

 

I'll grant you that emulator timing isn't always perfect. But the thrill of the hunt? Not so much. It isn't fun when you have to cruise around to 20 thrift stores in a 100 mile radius looking for vintage computer equipment. It is fun, however, when you unexpectedly see something and get to open up the case to determine exactly what's in it.

 

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Part of "their" fun, not part of "our" fun.

 

I can see the appeal even though I don't do it myself.

 

I used to be an adventurer like you, then I took an arrow to the knee, yadda yadda. 

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16 hours ago, boxpressed said:

It's hard to connect a controller to laptops because most lack a game port.

Yes. I built a parallel port adapter for mine, so I can use SNES gamepads. It's nice because the program lets you bind the buttons to keys, so I'm not restricted to games with gamepad support, and it supports more buttons than PC game ports do.

 

12 hours ago, IntelliMission said:

Hey guys, is there any real advantage to have one of these machines besides nostalgia? I'm talking about performance with games compared to DOSBox. I'm curious about that, are there any DOS games that run badly on emulators?

Mostly nostalgia, and hearing the whirr of a slower CD-ROM, the clicking of an old HDD, the grinding of a floppy disk, etc...I have one computer that I keep Windows 98 installed on, so I can play late 90s games with my Voodoo 3 and my Aureal 3D sound card (the few games that support it sound amazing). I know a lot of people are really into MIDI hardware (Roland, etc.). I have a few nice SoundBlaster cards, but I need to figure out how to flash the proper headers onto them, because I can't install the stupid drivers >_< (but that's more for WinXP than DOS)

 

I know there are better emulators than DOSBox out there, but a lot of them require a pretty powerful PC. DOSBox really struggles with the later era games, so I usually use Virtual PC for those. For the really old games (like pre-286), they run far too fast in DOSBox...and dropping the cycles down for one section of the game will make another section of the game too sluggish... You would think someone would come up with a simple emulator specifically for this era, but the only one I've used is on the Nintendo DS, and it's unfinished and closed source (some games are buggier than others).

Edited by Asaki

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On 2/2/2020 at 2:37 AM, Asaki said:

You would think someone would come up with a simple emulator specifically for this era...

Wow, I actually found one...it's programmed in Java, though... https://www.pcjs.org/

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