learning curves

Unique Hardware = Unique Headaches.

Earlier this week, I was banging on about how bloody rad it was to have all my nostalgia bones tickled by all those awesome graphics, digitized sound and FM music coming from the faithful little beige box. I also mentioned that there was some petty issues that were no big deal.

The petty annoyances are just that: petty, and having that little bit of extra work make the times where I get everything working like magic so much sweeter.

I’d like to point out that I’ve been eating my words for the past two days.

Curiousity Is Cruel Mistress

For the week or two after picking up the machine, I was having a blast. I spent most of my time trying to figure out what games I actually wanted to play, more than getting into any system or OS drudgery. I managed to get a few old favourites working, and even started writing up a review of One Must Fall as the next article. It was all going so well.

So what on earth happened?

I ran out of space on the hard drive. That’s it, the singular proverbial cause of two days of frustration. When I picked up the machine, I was told that there was a 2GB hard drive installed in the machine. Yet, when I checked available space in both Windows and via the dir command in DOS, the total space amounted to 504MB. This is due to the BIOS not recognising any drive over the 504MB limit as a main drive. There’s a couple of workarounds that I came across, but the easiest way I found was through using what’s called a Dynamic Drive Overlay, or DDO.

A DDO is a classic example of bootstrapping, where a small program is used to enhance the capabilities of the initial hardware. In this case, a DDO will override the motherboard’s BIOS’s hard drive controller, allowing the system to access areas of the drive past the 504MB limit. There’s a few options when it comes to DDO’s that work in this situation, but a lot of them are proprietary, and only work with certain brands of hard disk. I eventually settled on using a DDO called EZ-Drive, as it looked to have the best compatibility with the drive I was using. Normally, I’d go into detail about how to get all this running, but Phil over at philscomputerlab.com has a wonderful install guide right here. Go check out his site and his YouTube channel, some interesting stuff over there.

The Big Mistake

All this EZ-Drive and DDO stuff is neat, but in order to access the full drive, I was going to need to format the C: drive. I’ve got a full set of DOS6.22 disks, Windows 3.11 disks, and I made copies of all the drivers that were stored on the hard drive. I knew the models of the sound card, as well as the CD drive. I made sure I had all the software I needed to get everything running, and it would be a fresh install. Everything was set, and I formatted the drive and got EZ-Drive up and running. So far so awesome. Here’s where I screwed up, and it comes as a warning to anyone else working on unfamiliar hardware. I’m going to put this in bold so you know I’ve got my serious face on.

Remember to back up your driver configuration as well as the drivers.

This came back to bite me in the arse something shocking when it came time to install the sound card and CD-ROM drivers.

And Now, A History Lesson

Before I get into what the exact problem was here, a quick look back to the introduction of the CD-ROM drive. Just like any new technology, the CD-ROM was an amazing leap forward, allowing for massive amounts of data to be stored on a single disc, as compared to other removable media like the then ubiquitous floppy disk. So you can get an idea, my first computer had a 420MB hard drive. The smallest CD format can hold 650MB. You can fit more on a CD than most hard drives of the era could hold. Granted, CD burners of the time were expensive and rather unreliable, so most people couldn’t use them to write to, but it’s really damn impressive.

However, when the CD drive was introduced, there was no standard when it came to connecting a drive to the system. Eventually most drives used the IDE standard, but before that was adopted, there was a lot of different ways of connecting drives, and a lot of manufacturers used proprietary ISA controller cards with their own connectors and cables. A similar situation can be seen at the dawn of 3D acceleration, where different chipset manufacturers had vastly different APIs until 3DFX came along with the Glide API and gave a glimpse into the future. A future that 3DFX wasn’t going to see, but others took the idea of a common API for maximum compatibility and ran with it.

Transitional Hardware

Here’s where the root of all my issues came from. The CD drive in my 486 is a Sony CDU33A-01. It’s a 2 speed CD-ROM drive, and is one of Sony’s first CD drives. This specific model was designed to work with either one of their proprietary ISA cards, or with a compatible Sound Blaster card – The Sound Blaster 16 CT2260 MCD. There’s other compatible cards, but this exact Sound Blaster card is installed in my machine, and acts as a controller card for the CDU33A-01. It took a while, but I managed to track down drivers that would work with the card, as well as drivers for the CD drive. Yet even after running the sound card setup and the CD drive setup, the system still refused to recognise the CD drive.

After trawling through every readme file, and attempting to find documentation on some of the most obscure corners of the internet, it turns out the solution was a classic PEBKAC error.

PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair

On the setup disk for the sound card, there was two setup files: SETUP.EXE and SETUPSB.EXE. I think you can guess what the SB stands for on the last file. That’s right, Sound Blaster. Old computers suffer no fools, and a lot of the time it’s due to something tiny like this that brings everything down.

For those interested, here’s the line in the CONFIG.SYS file that works for this drive/sound card configuration:

DEVICE=\DEV\SLCD.SYS /D:MSCD001 /B:230 /M:P /K /C

and for the AUTOEXEC.BAT:

\DEV\MSCDEX.EXE /D:MSCD001

\DEV\ is the default install address, and can be changed when you install the drivers.

Finally,

So that’s the story of the first major hurdle I’ve faced. Now I can get back to writing that One Must Fall article.

–J

why the 486DX2?

The incredibly subjective reasons.

There’s a strange indecision when starting up something a new site, or any project for that matter. At times like this, I always find it’s best to start at the beginning.

Intel released the first 486 (also known as the i486 or the 80486) back in 1989 as the successor to the venerable 386 processor, and was in production as late as 2007, which came as surprise to me, but after thinking about it for a while, there would have been a lot of industrial or commercial uses for the chip outside of the home markets. Still, that’s an impressive lifespan, especially when you take into account the massive improvements in processor speeds that were made throughout the start of the new millennium.

I could spend a lot of time rabbiting on about specs and miscellaneous trivia, but there’s a lot of people out there that could do it far better than I. If you’re interested, check out the wikipedia page. (I do like the fact that the 486 was the first x86 chip with more than a million transistors. That’s kinda neat.)

Instead, I’m going to go through some of the reasons why I’m starting out with the 486, some of the downsides, as well as how I went about getting my hands on one.

Games, Games, Games

I’d be lying if I said I wanted to get a 486 for anything other than games. The period of time between 1990 and 1995 is a golden period for the x86 PC’s, rivaled only by arcades when it came to gaming horsepower. With the advent of VGA and SVGA graphics, digitised sound via the SoundBlaster or Gravis UltraSound cards and having the extended storage space provided by the emerging CD drives, there is a massive amount of awesome games that were developed for the PC platform during this time. This was during the infamous console wars, where the majority of school kids would argue vehemently for their platform of choice, almost leading to fist-fights in certain circles. That ended as soon as Doom hit. You had a computer that could run Doom? You had some clout, boy. It wasn’t until the PlayStation and the Nintendo64 came out that fellow students began to migrate back to consoles, and take up arms against each other to fight for their platform of choice.

It was games like Doom, Wolfenstein3D, Duke Nukem 3D, Wing Commander, Day of the Tentacle and The Need For Speed that were the talking points, and the SNES and Mega Drive seemed quaint by comparison.

Sheer Bloody Nostalgia

My first PC was a 486. I remember when my dad brought it home, and we set it up on the kitchen table, all huddled around this majestic beige box as it sprang to life for the first time. The only computers I had used were old Apple IIe’s and Macintosh’s at my school. There was Granny’s Garden and Clockwise, and that was it. I remember seeing Day of the Tentacle for the first time, the bright and vibrant artwork and jaunty music leapt out of the screen. Shareware helped as well, being able to go down to the local newsagent and buy a pack of ten floppy disks each with a couple of games on each was amazing. Thinking back, the majority of games I had back in the day were shareware. I never played the full versions until I was older, fondly thinking back on wishing for the full versions of those games, and wanting to fulfill those unrequited boyish desires for completionism.

The Search Begins

I’ve been toying with the idea of buying another 486 for a fair while, especially after the original machine that we had kicked the bucket. I’d always been keeping an eye out on eBay, but the majority of machines were from the US, and whilst the machines would have been cheap, paying for the shipping made it just out of the range of affordability. I’m not sure what changed, but the realisation that computers from the 486 era were not going to be getting any cheaper, I decided to take the plunge and look in earnest for the nostalgia machine of my dreams.

Where’d the 486 go at?

I was a bit deluded when I started looking. I figured that there would be old 486’s coming out of the woodwork, just sitting in someone’s shed, or down in a storage centre. I’ve also mentioned that I can be a bit daft at times, right? First step I took was to check on gumtree. (Australia/UK’s Craigslist) Best I found was an old rusted case that didn’t boot, had no hard drive, was fitted with a Trident graphics card, and had no keyboard, mouse or monitor. For 70AUD. It was the only one available for sale in my city on gumtree or eBay. I did contact the guy and offered 50AUD, but he had just put it up on eBay. (It sold for 36AUD)

So both eBay and Gumtree were full of duds.

The best advice I can give, and what I ended up doing to get my hands on a decent, working system, is to post to social media. Have a look on Facebook for local computer clubs, or even better, find your local city on reddit. I’ve found the majority of major cities around the world have their own subreddit – just type in /r/yourcity at the end of the url and you should find something close. I managed to find a complete system for 100AUD thanks to a redditor. It was at the top range of the budget, but there’s times where paying a little extra for peace of mind is worth it.

It’s always the little things

Even though I bought a complete running system that had been set up properly, there’s two major issues you’re going to run into. Firstly, getting any software onto the damn thing is going to be a nightmare if you haven’t got the right equipment, and even finding the software itself is a hassle. I recommend getting a machine with a CD drive, just for the fact it’s far easier to transfer a lot of data, and for the great CD games, but even more than that, invest in a 3.5″ floppy drive and some blank disks. eBay is your friend here, although I picked up a USB floppy drive from an office supply place for about 15AUD.

If you get a machine with a network card, transferring via a LAN is doable, but getting a 486 with Windows 3.11 talking to anything past Windows 98 is an exercise in frustration and failure. There’s workarounds, I personally set up a temporary FTP server on my main machine and used WS_FTP on the 486 to transfer some things, but it’s not ideal. (This is definitely a story for the next update)

The other main hurdle is going to be troubleshooting. Google is your friend, but it’s a pretty flaky friend at times, especially when it comes to looking up some obscure setup files. There’s also the jokers who’ll just laugh at you for not emulating. It’s far easier and less stressful to just ignore these people.

Thoughts after the first fortnight

Working with such an old machine is kinda humbling, and puts into perspective how far computers have come, especially when it comes to configuring systems. I never realised how much modern computers rely on things like USB, or how god damn easy it is to network modern Windows machines. The lustre of the rose tint has fallen a bit, but the core enjoyment I had when I was a kid is still there. The petty annoyances are just that: petty, and having that little bit of extra work make the times where I get everything working like magic so much sweeter.

–J

FUTURE UPDATES:

I’m going to be looking at the DOS 6.22 startup files soon, as well as memory management, drivers, as well as the FTP solution for the lack of network shares.

I’ll also start looking at some of the games I’ve been playing.