Saturday, February 27, 2016

Retro Series build 1: The DOS era 486 PC (UPDATED)

C:\>mkdir C:\AMD486\RetroPC

Miss these commands anyone?

   If your familiar with the command line above, then there is a great chance you used a PC with the operating system MS-DOS installed on it. These PC's flourished during the mid 80's and into the early 90's. Once windows became the norm, DOS began to slowly fade into the wayside. Windows was flashy and easy to use. A few clicks of the mouse did as much as all those command lines could do and then some. Yet the early versions of Windows had there shortfalls. Watching your PC freeze up or reboot became the norm for some. For gaming Microsoft tried to get most companies to release games exclusively for the operating system. But a major benefit of DOS was minimal amount of resources required to run the OS. This was particularly beneficial to gaming as more memory and CPU headroom could be used for the game. Early versions of windows were very resource hungry and because of this, the performance of gaming suffered. So while in the end, most of us gave into the colossal juggernaut know as Microsoft. We still remember the DOS era PC as a gateway into gaming on the PC. With a catalog of some of the more influential games every created for the OS. Titles like Doom, Warcraft, Sim City all helped create great new genres of gaming.

ID Software's Iconic Doom

   If you haven't noticed, I have a deep passion for classic gaming. I grew up playing all the classic gaming consoles from Coleco to the NES. I first lived in a ruff neighborhood and gaming was the only friend I could count on during those days. It wasn't till I was about 11 or 12 that I begged my mom to pull out the credit card for a shiny new PC. Our first family PC was a Packard Bell 486 with MS-DOS and Windows 3.1. It had a Intel 486 DX2 @ 66mhz along with a whopping 4MB of RAM. I remember playing Doom till the early hours of the morning. It was a experience like no other with all the lights turned off. Besides killing demons I also blasted a few X-Wings in Tie Fighter during those late hours. (Sorry rebels out there) DOS gaming felt like it was ahead of everything once VGA graphics and fast CPU's came into play.


  This computer became my gateway into PC building and computers in general. A few months after we got the computer into our home, I became very curious about what was inside. One night while my parents were asleep, I decided to take our only family PC apart and check it out. It honestly wasn't a full disassemble, but enough to check everything out. Mind you I was probably 11 or 12 at this time. Once I had my fill I hurried and put it back together. I thought I heard someone getting up, so I didn't even get to reboot to make sure it still worked! To my great relief, the next day she fired right up and was as nothing happened. Needless to say had my father found out about it, I would have been no longer part of this world.

Legendary CPU of the time. The 486 DX2 66mhz

 So missing the glory days of command lines and blazing fast processors, I decided to build a retro DOS based PC. Then it hit me, why not do a series of retro AMD builds working my way up to today's systems. Thus the Retro Series was born... For those who either have been asleep or not present in the past few years. AMD bought out the graphics card manufacture ATI and they are a major part of the company today. ATI was 3DFX's (Bought out by Nvidia) and Nvidia's major competition. They delivered graphic cards that were on par with the other guys at excellent prices. Once Raja Koduri joined ATI and released the Radeon 9700 Pro, the gloves were officially off and ATI was a force to be reckoned with. But that's a story for my next generation of retro builds to come later. With that said and being a member of Red Team Plus, my builds will be AMD/ATI based.


This is the first in a series of builds spanning DOS to the later iterations of Windows PC's. My DOS era PC features the following hard ware specs.


OS= MS-DOS 6.22

CPU= AMD 486 AM5x86 @133mhz

RAM= 16MB of 72-pin SIMMs  (2x8MB)

Motherboard= Zida Tomato 4DPS Ver 2.1

Graphics Card= ATI 3D Rage II

Sound Card= Creative Sound Blaster 16 VIBRA 16XV

CD-Rom Drive= Creative/Sony Quad Speed

Floppy Drive= Sony

Zip Drive= Internal Zip 750

Hard Drive= Kingston Compact Flash card 8GB 

Power Supply= Star Tech 230w AT PSU 

Monitor= HP 7540 CRT

Creative Sound Blaster 16 VIBRA 16XV


Zida Tomato 4DPS Ver 2.1

ATI 3D Rage II and AMD AM5x86 Processor



















    Compact flash cards are basically IDE drives with a different interface. A simple adapter can make them work with old motherboards as boot drives. Some of the faster cards will have trouble booting once DOS is installed. But this Kingston card is know to work great with DOS and is the reason I chose it. I would have used a traditional mechanical IDE hard drive, but the smaller drives are getting hard to find new. Plus these flash cards are silent and more reliable.

Kingston CF card in IDE adapter

    MS-DOS 6.22 can only see 8GB of drive space with a motherboard that supports LBA. This though has to be in 2GB partitions as those are the largest size you can make. So I have 4 Partitions created, basically 4 drives of 2GB. Plenty of space for those DOS classics.


 The case for this build is a tower AT, Not ATX. AT was the first PC layout created in those days before the ATX spec was released. Cases typically have just a 6 pin din port opening for the keyboard and spots for serial and game ports. Not like the ATX spec of today with it's cutout for the IO shield for all your connections. I thought about getting a desktop style case that the monitor sits on top of. Just like my first Packard Bell computer. But decided on the tower in the end so I could show off the build inside. Cases back then came in one color primarily. Beige... No windows or fancy LED fans like today's DIY PC's. So with this build I decided to use a classic case but add a little modern flair with a window cut in and a basic white LED strip. I was extremely lucky to land the case I did. I found this beauty on eBay from a guy whose Uncle used to own a PC store back in the mid 90's. He had put all the inventory he never sold in storage where it sat for years. His nephew offered to sell his stuff on eBay and that's where I came in. All I paid was $50 shipped for a brand new in the box AT tower case! These were going for $80+ used at the time I got it. It had a power supply and was in pristine shape.
Brand New!


$50 Unreal...


 The stock power supply was very loud. Manufactures didn't care about noise in those days and the fan speed was killer. Then again the exhaust fan on the PSU is the only exhaust for the case. But these components don't get too hot and a slower, quite fan would have gotten by just fine... So I bought a new PSU that is much, much quieter. A Star Tech 230w AT power supply fit the bill. It had a faulty AT switch so I had to swap it out with the original one. These power supplies power on with a switch, not through a motherboard header like today's ATX power supplies.

AT Power Supply On Switch

  Speaking of not getting to hot, the CPU heat sink is cute compared to today's standard behemoths. With liquid cooled or massive tower style heat sinks. Today's hardware cooks and needs some metal and airflow to keep it in check. The initial 486 processors didn't even need a heat sink! But with later models, it was recommended to at least have a passive one installed. I found a new heat sink off eBay for $14. It features a mind blowing 40mm fan! I replaced the stock fan on the heat sink with a after market one. I went with Fractal Design fans for this build, with nice white blades.

Stock fan replaced with a Fractal Design 40mm fan. 80mm intake fan for the case.

   With all my builds I tend to try to come up with something different than the norm. Since floppy disk were part of the build, I came up with a cool idea of dressing up the case with them. Three disk placed next to the window I cut out on the side panel. Two with a company logo, plus one for my personal initials. The classic AMD green arrow and the red ATI logo of old. Both logo's as they were back when these components were new and in the wild.
Laying it out
Window cut

The result, disk held in place with double sided tape.


The other side panel is more simple with just some logos and such.

Nice and clean


    Input consist of a standard AT keyboard and a classic ball style mouse. Before fancy optical and laser mice, we had to clean out the crap stuck around this ball. Good times!









   For audio I picked up some great and cheap speakers with a awesome wood grain. Figured this look definitely had a retro feel as everything was covered with fake wood laminate back then. These Genius 14w wood speakers are perfect and sound great as long as your not trying to throw a party with them.


   Last but not least, we need a monitor to view all the action on. I scored a brand new HP 7540 CRT off eBay for $75 shipped! It's a fantastic monitor packing a max resolution of 1280 x 1024. Granted my DOS build won't need resolutions that high. My next PC in the series will share the same monitor and will make use of the higher resolution.
Dazzle screen saver running on the HP 7540
Duke Nukem!



  I decided that I needed some way of transferring large files to and from this PC. I was originally going to get a network card and connect it over LAN to my Windows 10 rig. But I decided to do it in a more retro fashion. So I went and got a ZIP drive. I have a external ZIP 250 for my Windows 10 machine, and a internal ZIP 750 drive for the DOS rig. Picked up a couple ZIP 250 disk and it all works great. Zip drives other than being a little noisy aren't to bad.

ZIP 250 disk

ZIP 750 drive below my standard floppy drive



   I originally only had planned on having MS-DOS installed for a OS. But my memories of clicking through Windows 3.11 came back. That's what was installed on my first PC, so I said why not? 

Install just getting underway
Windows 3.11 Install screen

Look mom, no start menu!


   That completes this build. With everything in place it's time to load up some classics and enjoy the past. My kids get to see what I experienced growing up with some awesome AMD/ATI hardware powering it.