Behold: The 5×86 System Build Is Complete!

Back in November I became inspired by the knowledge that my favorite old school DOS MODplayer had “recently” received an update, and expressed my intention to more-or-less recreate the 486-class DOS PC upon which I enjoyed many, many hours of MOD music, scenedemos and games back in 1996 or so.

Well, it was a long road getting everything together, but a few weeks ago I finally completed the build. I took a detour or two from the original plan but, for the most part, the PC is the same machine I was using nearly 20 years ago:

  • AMD 5×86 133 (overclocked to 160MHz, making for a 40MHz bus)
  • ASUS PVI-486SP3 motherboard (VLB, PCI, ISA slots) w/ 256K L2 cache, 32MB RAM
  • Cardex Tseng ET4000/W32p-based VLB video card w/ 2MB DRAM
  • Adaptec 1542 SCSI controller
    • Seagate Hawk 1GB SCSI HD
    • Toshiba 32x SCSI CD-ROM drive
  • Gravis Ultrasound (“Classic”) w/ 1MB sample DRAM
  • 3Com EtherLink III Ethernet adapter
  • The same Focus FK-2001 mechanical keyboard and Logitech serial mouse from my original, 1996 PC
  • MS-DOS v6.22, Windows 98 OSR2.5, Norton System Commander 7

Some of the more interesting drills were trying to get a SCSI drive to work with my original DPT SCSI card (I ended up jumping over to a more widely supported, if less mighty, Adaptec card), sourcing SRAM chips to upgrade the motherboard cache as well as the oddball 24-pin DRAM chips needed to upgrade the video card to 2MB RAM, getting Ethernet networking running under DOS (with mTCP), and fixing the CMOS battery well after I snapped part of it off…

A number of twitter pals urged me to film the build, so I did, but it’s a pretty rough production, I must confess. Still, those wanting to see this system come together, here it is.

I’ve actually had more fun with the completed system than I imagined I would. I’ve got it loaded with demos and games and MOD/S3M/XMs. It’s been great fun seeing what more or less the highest spec “486″ system you can build is capable of. In fact…I’ve had so much fun with scenedemos in particular that I have decided to build a second PC designed to chase down the next era of productions, the ~1997-2001 DOS demos that run in high res, high color VESA framebuffers. Socket A Athlon Thunderbird 1400C, here I come! (And, of course, I’ll bring a full report as that project unfolds.)

Posted in DOS / Win PC | 8 Comments

Computer Users’ Groups of My Past

I’ve spent the past couple of months procuring parts and assembling a 486-class DOS PC that is more or less a replica of the 486 PC I had back in college, in 1994. That’s the machine that first delivered the Internet to my home (by way of dial-up 28.8Kbps PPP). Prior to that it was all BBSs and FidoNet relays. Once I had the Internet on my desk, the Usenet, or “news groups,” was my arena. It’s still around, but it doesn’t have the same feel, to me, that it once did. There, I’ve long been a stranger.

With this “new” DOS PC I built, I’ve been thinking a lot about things that were and are no longer. Another item on that list, for me, is the local computer users’ group.

Back in the day, young readers, every system had its own ecosystem. This was before the Mac / Windows domination. That being the case, and given the lack of widespread, online communication, users’ groups were an important way for devotees of a particular system to share tips, techniques, and general knowledge.

I was a member of several users’ groups in my youth in the Hampton Roads area of southern Virginia (USA), and I wanted to list them here, along with the names of a few group members that I can recall, in hopes that this post might find them out there (please comment, old friends).

Tidewater 99/4 User Group ( ~1982 )

  • Judy North
  • Barry Ensley

[ An Apple II user group the name of which I cannot recall ] ( ~1984, ~1988 )

  • Dennis Bartlett (Hampton, VA)
  • Doug Lamb (Newport News, VA)

P.A.C.E. (Peninsula Atari Computer Enthusiasts) ( ~1987 )

  • Joe East (Hampton, VA)
  • David Koster (Hampton, VA)
  • Maria Campbell (Newport News, VA)
  • Chris Tanner (Hampton, VA)
  • Jeff Cleveland (Hampton, VA)
  • Joe Cullen (Hampton, VA)

A.L.F.A. (Amigoid Life Form Association) ( ~1989 )

  • Patrick Birkmeyer (Hampton, VA)
  • Norman Goswick (Hampton, VA)
  • Myron Sothcott (Newport News, VA)
  • Shawn Liptack (Hampton, VA)

For a fledgling geek, users’ groups were wonderful. My parents divorced in the mid-’80s and my father would drive me to the various group meetings around town, over the years, usually held in a local high school or community college. We saw great new hardware and software demonstrated, and generally had a splendid time as a like-minded group. I wish I still had just one of the membership cards from the groups of my past to share, but it seems that all have disappeared.

It’s worth nothing that users’ groups still exist. I have considered, on several occasions, attending a somewhat local Amiga group and an Apple Newton group in Maryland, but I’ve not yet taken the time, sadly. Currently, Twitter serves as my sort-of users’ group surrogate. But, it’s nicer to gather in person.

Are you or were you part of a users’ group? Please share your memories.

[ Photo of the Amarillo 99/4A Users Group (1988) courtesy of ]

Posted in Just Rambling | 7 Comments

Steve Jobs: American Cool

Living just out outside of D.C., my wife and I often find ourselves in the district on the weekends, taking our daughter whatever museum is at the top of her list at the given moment. Today we visited the National Building Museum followed by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. While in the latter, we stumbled upon a limited time exhibit called American Cool (which runs through September 7th). It is a photo account of a great many cool characters through recent American history, including Madonna, David Byrne, Sam Shepherd, Tom Waits, Paul Newman, Jimi Hendrix…and Steve Jobs.

The Steve Jobs display took me somewhat by surprise. I mean, in my world he was beyond cool, but his presence in the exhibit was a surprise. It was good to see, though. And it makes sense, really.

I wanted to share the photograph and accompanying text for the vast majority of readers who won’t be attending the exhibit.

Steve Jobs 1955 – 2011

“Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish” — the concluding thought in The Whole Earth Catalog — served as Steve Job’s unofficial motto. Drawing inspiration from that bible of the counterculture, Jobs recast how people think about and use technology. As the cofounder of Apple, he worked in the shadow of such behemoths as IBM and Microsoft. Yet, with great nimbleness and much brashness he led an upstart company that transformed the consumer electronics industry with revolutionary products such as the Apple II and Macintosh computers, iPod, iPhone, and the iPad. Jobs was always the face of Apple, and his much-publicized ambition to create more elegant and “user-friendly” devices made him part of a national tradition of inventor-heros dating back to to Thomas Edison. “Think Different,” Apple’s highly successful advertising campaign introduced in 1997, was not only a shrewd marketing slogan but also exemplified Jobs’ relationship with the larger industry. Channeling his inner Steve McQueen, the jeans-wearing executive often raced his motorcycle between meetings during Apple’s early years.

Charles O’Rear (born 1941)
Reproduction print from 1981 original
National Geographic Image Collection, Washington, D.C.

For anyone living in the D.C. area, the American Cool exhibit is definitely worth a look.

Posted in Just Rambling | 7 Comments

Susan Kare and Burrell Smith Talk Macintosh

The Macintosh recently turned thirty, and surrounding this milestone in the iconic (pardon) machine’s history, several presentation videos and unused promotional commercials featuring the people behind the Mac have come to light. Two in particular stand out to me.

The first features Susan Kare, the artist and graphic designer who joined Apple in 1982 and created all of the Mac’s 32×32 pixel icons, fonts, and…other graphics. The short, unused commercial featuring Kare and software developer Bill Atkinson, courtesy of John Nack on Adobe, shows Kare discussing the Macintosh’s bit-mapped display – a rather unique feature, at the time.

Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld said, of the video:

Here is another unused commercial for Apple’s original Macintosh computer that was produced by Chiat-Day in the fall of 1983. This one features brilliant Macintosh artist Susan Kare, who designed the Mac’s fonts and icons, extolling the virtues of the exciting new medium.

Obviously (you clicked on that link up there, right?) I have a special place in my heart for Susan Kare and her work. And that should let you know how honored I was to receive a Christmas gift from her this past year. (A full story on that, soon.)

The second video I’d like to share is of Burrell Smith, designer of the Macintosh digital board (the motherboard), explaining the operation of the revolutionary computer in rather whimsical terms. Of all of the original Macintosh team, it is Burrell Smith that I most respect for his work. Sadly, I have yet to try a pineapple pizza.

The video was clearly recorded as part of a session involving much of the original Mac team, some of which can be seen in one of the historic Apple videos I placed online a few years back. (See the complete set.) Read more about this genius digital designer in CNET’s recent piece, “Burrell Smith: Macintosh Hardware Wizard.”

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be there on the front lines, engineering the computer that would make computing accessible to the masses, so long ago. I can’t imagine it, but I try with some frequency.

Posted in Macintosh | Leave a comment

Happy 30th Birthday, Macintosh

On this day 30 years ago, the computer that arguably changed the world was announced. The Macintosh, fathered by Steve Jobs and his eclectic, rag tag team of engineers fueled by pineapple pizza, came into the world, and computing has never been the same since.

This may sound like hyperbole, but I believe it to be true. I was there. Well, not literally there in Cupertino. But, I am old enough to have been around to see most of the era of personal computing. I received my first computer for Christmas in 1982. I was 10 years old. I got my first Apple (a //c) in 1984 and my first Macintosh — the original Macintosh — in 1985. I lusted after the machine for a full year before I had one on my desk, but I did have an original Mac when it was Apple’s new and greatest thing.

Two days before the product announcement, the famous “1984 Commercial” teaser aired during Super Bowl XVIII.

Before the Macintosh, computers were entirely command-line driven. Well, except for the Apple Lisa that preceded the Mac. But it was too expensive and too slow. Both it and the Mac were based on Xerox technology (you’ve heard the story), which was just as well, because while Xerox R&D is legendary, their vision for bringing such technology to the market was rather poor. (“Real artists ship,” as Steve said.)

The Mac has always been, in a word, elegant. However, during Apple’s hardest times — mid-’97 or so — it wasn’t the most advanced platform out there from an OS kernel perspective. All that changed NeXT took over Apple in 1997 and Steve Jobs returned to the company he co-founded two decades earlier. That’s when OS X took shape and became the best operating system this self-proclaimed operating system aficionado has had the pleasure of using.

My experience in using the Macintosh all these years has been exceedingly positive, and I expect to be a Mac user for life. Not because I am a blind fanboy, but because of what the system is made of. Life’s too short to spend time with flawed platforms.

Apple has setup a very nice tribute site on honor of the Macintosh’s 30th birthday. Additionally, have a look at the trove of decades-old Apple and Macintosh promo videos I posted a few years back.

In closing, I present a list of the Macs I’ve owned over the course of my life. (My overall systems list can be seen here, and my timeline of Apple products of every sort can be seen in my Steve Jobs tribute post.)

  • Macintosh (original, 128K) – 1985
  • Macintosh LC – 1991
  • Macintosh 512K (“Fat Mac”) – 1998
  • Macintosh Plus – 1998
  • “Blue & White” Power Macintosh G3 – 1999
  • Power Macintosh 6100 – 2000
  • Power Macintosh G4 – 2001
  • Macintosh Plus – 2002
  • Macintosh (original, 128K) – 2002
  • Power Macintosh G5 – 2004
  • Mac mini G4 – 2005
  • Lisa 2/10 (not a Mac, but…) – 2005
  • MacBook Pro (Core Duo) – 2006
  • Mac Pro (quad Xeon) – 2006
  • Power Macintosh G3 (beige) – 2007
  • MacBook (Core 2 Duo) – 2008
  • MacBook Air 11-inch (Core 2 Duo) – 2010
  • iMac 27-inch (Core i7) – 2011
  • MacBook Air 11-inch (Core i7) – 2012
  • Retina MacBook Pro 15-inch (Core i7, office issued) – 2013

Happy 30th birthday, Macintosh. You changed the world, as Steve knew you would. Thank you for that.

Posted in Macintosh | Leave a comment

DOS Box Build: Update #1

A few weeks back I wrote a post detailing my desire to build a 486-class DOS box. In the time since then, I’ve been actively digging parts out of my storage shelves and scanning eBay for the remaining, needed items.

I though I’d post a list of parts for this build, and where I am on each right now, given that things are getting pretty close to go time.

In hand:

  • ASUS PVI-486SP3 motherboard
  • AMD 5×86 133 CPU
  • Tseng ET4000/W32p-based VLB video card
  • V53C8256HP45 DRAM DIPs to double video card’s RAM (to 2MB)
  • Gravis Ultrasound (Classic, ISA) w/ 1MB RAM
  • DPT PM2021 SCSI controller (ISA)
  • Logitech MouseMan 3-button serial mouse
  • MS-DOS 6.22 install floppies
  • Windows 98SE install CD

Ordered, on the way:

  • AT-class desktop case with 3.5-inch floppy drive and PSU
  • 3COM EtherLink III 10base-T ethernet card (ISA)
  • 2x 16MB 60ns Fast Page Mode,  non-parity DRAM SIMMs
  • Nine CY7C199CN-15PXC 15ns, 256Kbit, parallel SRAM DIPs (to provide 256KB motherboard L2 cache)
  • 486 heatsink / fan
  • Arctic Silver 5 thermal compound

Yet to procure:

  • SCSI CD-ROM drive
  • SCSI hard drive
  • IDE 5.25-inch bay combo flash RAM card reader

Now, as I mentioned in my earlier post, I am basically trying to build a replica of the PC I had in 1996. It started out as a 486DX2 66 in 1994 and was upgraded over the next two years. Because of my rather particular hardware requirements, this project has taken on a cost well beyond what I had initially envisioned. I think I’ve spent close to $500 so far, though the original 486DX2 66 I procured to run NeXTSTEP for Intel in 1994 cost a full $4,500 (= student loan).

The purpose of this machine is to have an (ideal) vehicle upon which to enjoy mid-90′s era DOS demoscene productions, MOD/S3M/XM audio tracks, and games. The system should be capable of running Windows 98SE quite well, but that’s really a secondary consideration.

I shall post another update in a week or so — that, perhaps, being a full build video. Time (and shipping progress) will tell.

Posted in DOS / Win PC | 12 Comments

My “Portable Week” Offering to /r/RetroBattlestations

Another week, another competition over at Reddit’s /r/RetroBattlestations. This week was Portable Week. The challenge was on the easy side this time around: display a message of greeting to the subreddit on the screen of a portable retro battlestation. Now, while iOS devices have been pretty much the extent of my mobile dealings over the past six years, I got pretty deep into mobile devices back in the late ’90s, and even then, many of those I went for were retro units grabbed from eBay — some of my first purchases on the lord of auction sites, in fact.

So, going into this challenge, I had a few devices to choose from, and I think I put together a nicely varied little set to send greetings /r/RetroBattelstations’ way. Clockwise from top right, the devices shown are: Apple eMate 300, Apple Newton MessagePad 130, Texas Instruments Compact Computer 40 (CC40) with its notable Hexbus interface, HP OmniGo 100 (80186-based, interestingly), and a Philips Nino 300.

So, there you have it.

Previous /r/RetroBattlestations efforts:

Posted in Handhelds | Leave a comment

The First GIF I Ever Saw

Above, is the first GIF I ever saw.

What you are looking at is a scan of a color printout that I made with my Okimate 20 wax transfer printer in 1987. I had an Atari 520ST at the time and, as I recall, the image was one of several GIFs included on the Compute!’s Atari ST magazine’s bundled floppy, along with a GIF viewer. CompuServe rolled out the initial GIF specification (GIF87a) in 1987, and the magazine had a feature on this new format, I believe.

Thanks to the severity of my geekness at the time, I cherished the amazing color (!!!) Okimate 20 printouts and took to placing them in a scrapbook / photo album. This is why, after 26 years, the printout looks brand new. (The passage of time can’t be blamed for the quality, here…)

I recently found this photo album tucked away on a shelf in the basement and thought a few folks out there might enjoy my tale.

Also, GIF is pronounced with a soft “g” — “jif.” I was there.

Posted in Atari, Just Rambling | 3 Comments

I Reached for the Nuon for “PONG Week” Over at /r/RetroBattlestations

The project / competition fun continues over at /r/RetroBattlestations. We’ve now had BASIC Week, Spooky Week, Logo Week, and most recently PONG Week at the retro computing subreddit, and each one has been a blast.

PONG Week challenged participants to pull out their favorite retro game console and record a photo or video of it playing PONG or a PONG variant, such as Breakout. (No emulators allowed.) Now, I have a good number of retro consoles setup and ready to go, but across the lot of them, I don’t have many PONG-like games. Happily, perhaps my most interesting retro console, a Nuon (a Samsung DVD-N501 with Nuon chipset), has a homebrew game scene and downloading and burning titles to DVD is a snap. So, I dug around and found Breakout, programmed by Stephen Anderson. It fit the bill, and here’s the video.

Now, homebrew Breakout for the Nuon is certainly not the most inspired take on PONG that I’ve ever seen. As this is, sadly, the case, I recorded a few minutes of Nuon VLM-2 (Jeff Minter’s integrated Virtual Light Machine) magic running against an ELO audio CD after the Breakout demo. You gotta love those visuals.

Next stop: Holiday Music Week…

Posted in Gaming | 1 Comment

Setting Out to Build a 486-Class DOS Box

This is a quick post to lay out the plan for a retro project that has recently struck me and to which I have committed fully.

It hit me when I heard that CapaMod was updated in 2008.

So, back in 1994 I purchased an expensive, build-to-order PC from eCesys (of Alaska) to run NEXTSTEP for Intel v3.2. The system consisted of the following:

  • JCIS motherboard w/ Intel 486DX2 66MHz
  • 16MB RAM (that was a lot for 1994)
  • Chips & Technologies Wingine video card
  • DPT PM2021 SCSI controller (ISA) with attached 700MB & 500MB HDs, CD-ROM, and Zip Drive
  • Pro Audio Spectrum 16 soundcard (ISA)
  • 17-inch Altima CRT

And all the hardware was black in color, in the spirit of NeXT. I ran this system under NEXTSTEP for about nine months before I gave in to the lack of mainstream apps under NEXTSTEP and the desire to load up the capacious HD with DOS demos and games and, yes, Windows 3.1. Once I went this route, I replaced the Wingine (take a moment to read about that technology) with a Hercules Dynamite Power VLB video card based on the Tseng Labs ET4000/W32p chipset, one of the very fastest in terms of DOS graphics performance. The Pro Audio Spectrum 16, I replaced with a Gravis Ultrasound (or GUS), an extremely powerful (for the time) wavetable audio card that supported 1MB on-board sample RAM and playback on up to 32 hardware channels, using little more than 0% CPU resources. It was one hell of a machine for early ’90s DOS scenedemos and games.

In time (1996), I replaced the motherboard in that tower with an ASUS PVI-486SP3 in order to jump to an AMD 486DX4 120. That was a nice boost, but I soon took it further to an AMD 5×86 133 overclocked to 160MHz, which is pretty much equal in performance to a Pentium 90.

Coming from an Amiga background and being a fan of the demoscene, I was a big SoundTracker MOD (and similar formats) fan back then. The GUS was one of the best sound cards out there for MOD playback and the most accurate MODplayer app available was CapaMod, a DOS player written by Capacala. I spent weeks in front of that app, cranking tunes through my Bose RoomMates.

So, I was tweeting about the GUS for some reason recently, when someone pointed out that CapaMod had been “recently” updated. So, I fired it up in Boxer (DOSBox) and played a few MODs. They played, but with a bit of stuttering. DOSBox has GUS emulation (hat tip), but it’s not perfectly smooth, at least not on my not-so-meager mid-2011 iMac (quad-core Core i7 3.4GHz with 16GB RAM).

This got me to thinking about how great it would be to once again listen to those tunes played back at high quality on a machine that used custom hardware to overcome CPU limitations — a machine built around an architecture where hardware sound channels and DMA audio matter, distant from the computers of today, where 200 “channels” could be mixed into just two hardware channels in software, hardly taxing the multi-core CPU running at many thousands of megahertz. The thought of again seeing all aspects of such a system pushed to its limits by the many incredible PC scenedemos of the early to mid ’90s began to sound pretty great. Not to mention classic DOS games played on real metal.

In short, I feel things were more fun when exceptional MOD playback and demo performance was a true feat, rather than a cakewalk to the host hardware. This is a be a big part of my attraction to vintage Amiga hardware, and retro systems in general.

And, so, I am setting out to put together a system very close to the one which I’ve described, that I began enjoying nearly 20 years ago. I still have my trusty GUS soundcard and the DPT PM2021 SCSI controller — they’ll be part of the system. It’s off to find the right motherboard, graphics card (anyone have a Hercules Dynamite Power VLB they want to part with?), CPU, and case / PSU.

I’ll keep you posted. Wish me luck!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, I’m getting lots of good info for this project from an incredible set of forums I only recently discovered: VOGONS (Very Old Games On New Systems).

Posted in Other Platform | 6 Comments