LOAF Fixes the Computer of Tomorrow

Discussion in 'General Wing Commander Chat' started by Bandit LOAF, May 31, 2012.

  1. Bandit LOAF

    Bandit LOAF Long Live the Confederation!

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    What ever happened to Bandit LOAF?

    When we last left our hero, he was on the top of the world. The Amiga had returned from New Zealand and been lovingly reconstructed, a thoroughly unnecessary VR helmet sat atop Karga's yellowed frame... all was right with the world.

    So what went wrong? Well, it's the oldest story in the galaxy: boy meets girl and it was very very good until suddenly it was very very bad. You don't want to hear that part. The short story was that I was too happy to spend my time playing with old computers and then I was too sad.

    "But this is war, laddie. All of us have lost someone dear to us. That does not make you special." Which is to say that I bought something dumb and it's time to start a new adventure.

    One part of the story you didn't hear is that Karga is not the happiest computer in the world today. As the man who would be Maniac said: you bojo, those boards don't work on water. Unless you got power. And I don't, at all. The VR helmet's bizarre USB competitor, Access.BUS (real thing!), sucks so much juice down a weird hole that Karga can't power her lengthy joystick-and-keyboard mess.

    Add to that the issue of Wing Commander I, II and Privateer 2 running too quickly. There was hope early on that Mario would create patches, but he's bogged down with other projects and parts of his life that don't involve Wing Commander (?!) So it's time for an executive decision. And that decision is: split Karga in two and give one half to each villager.

    Karga will remain the idealized Wing Commander Prophecy machine, featuring a Soundblaster Live, 3dfx card and so on. All the DOS toys will go to a new computer, to be named. And this is the story of how we build that computer. The ideal candidate should be able to run Wing Commander I to Wing Commander IV with enough ISA slots to handle some of my oddities. Maybe even so many ISA cards I can do something more. I haven't even properly specced it out. This is seat of the pants stuff right now.

    Which brings us to the turbo button.

    What's a turbo button, you ask? That's a stupid question, you exclaim angrily in response to my assuming you would ask that question. It's obviously a button that makes things turbo! Well hah-hah, smartass, you're completely wrong. It's actually a button that makes things SLOWER.

    Now I know what you're thinking: knowing that, why would anyone ever press the turbo button? Under what circmstances would you possibly not want your computer to be as fast as possible? Well, people are dumb. But that isn't the reason. In the early days of personal computing, processor power multiplied far more quickly than software had been designed to cope with. So when your office upgraded to blazing new 286 computers sometimes the fifty thousand dollar custom spreadsheet program built for your IBM ATs just didn't run anymore. Thus, the turbo button.

    By the mid 1990s, the turbo button was more of a rare leftover, like mashed potatoes after Thanksgiving. That is, not especially desirable after it had been in the fridge, and honestly it probably wasn't that great in the first place or people would have eaten it. And it just doesn't heat up well. Find this and other amazing turns of phrase in my upcoming book, LOAF Does Analogies.

    Nevertheless, it turns out the first generation of slot 5 Pentium motherboards sometimes still included the feature. I found a thread on Vogons < http://vogons.zetafleet.com/viewtopic.php?t=26630 > that spoke specifically of this issue and Wing Commander. A Pentium 133--ideal for WC4 and Privateer 2--can be turned into a 486 for Wing Commander 2 at the press of the turbo button and then slowed to a 386 for Wing Commander I by disabling its cache.

    Unfortunately, finding particular slot 5 Pentium motherboard models in 2012 is a little bit like... something that's hard (not in the analogies book.) Or at least I haven't had the patience to figure it out yet.

    What I did find was a REALLY STUPID eBay auction while searching for +Pentium +"Turbo Button." For fifty dollars, a man in California would ship me... well, it's best you just read the description:

    Wow.

    You don't have to remember a lot about old computers to know that this seller doesn't remember a lot about old computers... but he certainly thinks he does. So really I have NO IDEA WHAT I'M GETTING! It's a fantastic surprise and it's the first time in a month I've looked forward to something dumb. Will the mystery PC be what I want? Watch this space! If so, we'll make her shine... if not, the quest will continue.

    The highly desired turbo IBM computer arrives on Tuesday. I am sure it will be a surprise.

    And hey, like the lady says, there's always hope.
    (Do you use tumblr? Probably not, but maybe your kids do. And if so, they should follow http://banditloaf.tumblr.com for these and random Wing Commander/history/literature/topless Gilmore Girl updates. Way of the future.)
     
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  2. Bandit LOAF

    Bandit LOAF Long Live the Confederation!

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    Fixing an old computer is a lot like making love to a woman: it generally runs me about $300.

    Tuesday is still two days away so there's not a lot of story at this point. I did spec out the ideal Socket 5 motherboard, which needs to have four ISA slots and two PCI slots (or six ISA slots.) That doesn't seem unreasonable for the era, although pickings on eBay are slim and often unusually expensive.

    What's going in there? Three sound cards (SoundBlaster AWE64 Gold, Roland LAPC-I and Roland RAP-10) and the VFX1 Interface Protocol card take up ISA slots and then I will also need a generic NIC and video card which could go anywhere. That's really all I can imagine ever needing for this machine, so I don't need to go to some extreme to allow for expandability.

    I ran into a brick wall trying to learn about the turbo button. Finding a particular motherboard from that era that supports it looks like a true pain; 1997 vintage documentation seems rare online. It looks like I need to look for particular pinouts on boards that connect to the button itself and the (optional) LED on the case.

    Speaking of the LED: how cool are those? Some cases would display the clock speed in lights on the front of the machine and it would change when you pressed the turbo button! The mystery computer I bought doesn't seem to include one, but the same seller is now listing an even more mysterious one that does < http://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-IBM...NET-COMPUTER-SYSTEM-FRESHIP?item=120922447026 >. Please grant me the strength not to pay $65 for it.

    Anyway, in the absence of any hands-on PC action I wanted to take a moment to talk about my next holy grail. One thing this great computer split means is that Karga himself suddenly has a whole range of available expansion slots. All his ISA slots will open up along with a 5.25" bay and the feature connector on the video card. Which means it's time to start seriously looking for something I've wanted for fifteen years: the 3DO Blaster.

    Background: the 3DO was a mid-1990s video game console. The company was started by Electronic Arts founder and increasing bad idea sponsor Trip Hawkins. The idea was that the "3DO Interactive Multiplayer" was going to replace the VCR. The company worked differently than Sony or Nintendo... they didn't make 3DOs themselves but instead licensed the specifications to other companies. Anyone who wanted to make their version of the 3DO console could.

    The 3DO was a heck of a machine and was, by virtue of the fact that it hosted the weird and wonderful Super Wing Commander, the first console I ever owned. Teenage LOAF borrowed money from his grandmother for a Panasonic FZ-10... and I now own a closet full of them. Wing Commander fans should also know that it has a port of Heart of the Tiger that is just spectacular. It's THE great PC-to-console conversion, the gold standard that no one has ever approached.

    The problem with the 3DO experiment wasn't the strange business model or the quality of the system... it was the fact that they ended up pricing the first units at $699. When the similarly tech'd $200 Playstation premiered a few months later the battle was over.

    Now in addition to console and car-navi units made by Panasonic, Goldstar and Sanyo there was something called the 3DO Blaster. Sold by Creative Labs, the company behind the SoundBlaster standard, the 3DO Blaster was pretty much literally an entire 3DO console on an ISA card. The setup would let you play the games on your computer, either fullscreen or windowed (in Windows 3.1!) The two real benefits are that you get as clear a picture as possible at all times and that you can take screenshots!

    The downside is that they're incredibly temperamental. The 3DO Blaster works with only ONE type of mid-1990s CD-ROM drive, it requires a feature connector and a particular type of SoundBlaster... and they're also ridiculously expensive. They rarely show up at auction and when they do they can go for close to a thousand bucks.

    Which is to that say tracking one down and getting it running sounds like a hell of a good time.
     
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  3. Kyle Maverick

    Kyle Maverick Rear Admiral

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    LOAF, would a CD ROM drive from about 98-2000 be of any use? I've still got one knocking around and it was in working condition when I tested it about a year ago.
     
  4. Mace

    Mace Vice Admiral

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    LOAF, the lights on the casings are auto-considered on the pins marked turbo_sw of a board of that era. the position of the leds (no. of Mhz, or HI/LO, typically), you can configure it's display by shorting the appropiate pins around the display itself. It's the casing that handles this, not the boards.
     
  5. -danr-

    -danr- Rear Admiral

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    LOAF, I just wanted to start a sentence in the same way as the others.
     
  6. capi3101

    capi3101 Rear Admiral

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    LOAF, get me a danish!!


    (Sorry. danr jumped on the bandwagon and for some reason Strongbadman came to mind.....)
     
  7. PrimarchBentley

    PrimarchBentley Spaceman

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    LOAF, Mace is right about the LED displays; they're more a case feature. Wrangled with many during my teenaged years, powering up systems and experimentally shorting out jumpers to map out those bloody displays. Some would use the "turbo_led" lead from the mobo to switch the display between modes, others would take a lead directly from the turbo switch button to accomplish switching; seemed every one was different.

    You mention "only ONE type of mid-1990s CD-ROM drive", but don't mention which. C'mon, one of us hoarders might have one squirreled away in a stash and just not know it. Heck of a lot better than trying to wrangle with Ebay...

    Man, this post brings the memories back... I remember the first 386 in the house, and yes, that "turbo" switch switched 33MHz down to 8MHz and became essential to playing older games. And made for a slight cheat when we first got WC1 and only had keyboard control. It wasn't long until an early gen Gravis made it into the house, and my dad still swears the button on top of the stick led to arthritis in his thumb, with how much we all played up to and through WC2 on it.
     
  8. Ijuin

    Ijuin Admiral

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    I remember my family getting a 386 in 1990. Since it was the first system we had ever had with a turbo button on it (our previous system being ye olde PC-AT, bought in 1985, our first computer), my father firmly believed that the "turbo" button worked in the opposite manner--that it overclocked the system above its standard speed, and that the "slow" speed was the standard speed. This belief was bolstered by the fact that even at "slow" speed it was faster than our previous system.
     
  9. Mace

    Mace Vice Admiral

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    The creative drives came from the matshushita factory, likely a bunch of panasonic and those marketed under the creative name are identical, no guarantee those with work in that setup ofcourse... The non-standard interface cable matshushita/panasonic used was unlike the Mitsumi and Sony drives more then 40 pins wide, so you are limited(very limited) to your selection of drives. Ebay would likely be your best bet to find it, but will likely include including the 3DO card, do you have the specific model no?.

    Edit: You need the specific "Panasonic CDR 563B", a double speed drive.
     
  10. Bandit LOAF

    Bandit LOAF Long Live the Confederation!

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    That's very kind of you! I think I'm good for CD-ROM drives, though. A new OEM DVD drive works fine with Karga as a CD-ROM in DOS. (The special drive the 3DO Blaster wants is the Panasonic CDR 563B... but I probably shouldn't think about that until I actually find a 3DO Blaster!)

    Thank you very much! I never had a system with a turbo button, so I don't have any good memories to draw from. I look forward to getting my hands dirty with this stuff!

    (Mystery computer reveal coming in the next post!)
     
  11. Bandit LOAF

    Bandit LOAF Long Live the Confederation!

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    [​IMG]


    Imagine a nightmarish hellscape of impossible demonic geometry and flattened, crushed dreams. The sort of thing that, having laid eyes upon it once, you can never unsee for it starkly reminds you that the soul of the world has died and in its place there is only cruelty and thoughtlessness.


    And that's just the packaging!


    As you can see in the photograph above (photo courtesy of my sister, @hissthemovie) the seller didn't so much put the computer in a box as he did take the case, wrap it in a piece of cardboard and then tape the bulging cardboard together with... I'm not sure, exactly. It's not packing tape but it's not regular tape, either.


    Bravely, I cut into this box and discovered... something even more bizarre than the packaging. At first glance it seemed clear that this computer had spent some period of its life firmly anchored on the ocean floor. The ports were full of crud and slightly rusted and there was some sort of substance, the less said of it the better, caked on the bottom. Further inspection just raised further questions. It did, indeed, boast a 'Pentium' sticker on the front... but the rear looked like something out of the mid-1980s. No USB, no PS/2 ports. One big fat AT keyboard plug, one parallel port and one COM port. Installed in the slots were an ethernet card, some kind of sound/video combo and... a SCSI adapter?


    [​IMG]


    So I whipped out my trusty tiny screwdriver. Expecting the worst, I slid the case open...


    Apparently the guy who stored his computer in a coral reef somehow simultaneously took immaculate care of the internals. It is, indeed, somehow a Pentium. I couldn't tell what type with the fan in the way, but it's a socket 7 motherboard with a stack of PCI slots. Everything on the inside seemed very nice, with a minimal amount of dust and no mysterious sea crud.


    Then there's one final layer to the mystery: the previous owner stored the computer's documentation on top of the expansion cards. As if they were little shelves that you were supposed to stick the manuals for your devices on top of. Why that didn't ever catch on fire and kill the bizarre former owner is both a good practical question and evidence that there is no trend towards justice in the universe.


    [​IMG]


    Unfortunately, at the end of the day the mystery computer just isn't going to work. It just plain doesn't have enough ISA slots. Three instead of four, and I'm not about to give up my VR headset or one of my esoteric MIDI cards. It's possible that, with a good washing and some barnacle scraping, I can salvage the case itself and maybe even the CPU (depending on what it is)... but the dream of suddenly getting exactly the right PC on the first random try died here.


    I will fire her up over the weekend, though, and see if I can figure out the CPU and check for anything neat on the hard drive. And as the bugs say, there is no true end: I've already made plans to head to Woodbridge this weekend to scope out the computer junk store. With a little luck I'll have another motherboard as soon as Saturday... if not, it's back to eBay!
     
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  12. Mace

    Mace Vice Admiral

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    If you need all those ISA slots, you might succeed sooner if you look for a high-end 486 or very early pentium, or a 486 with Pentium overdrive chip, that has no PCI but uses Vesa Local bus on top of ISA, socket 3 or 5 is common for these boards. A fast VLB videocard for SVGA graphics will run Wing commander IV and Privateer 2 with ease. Same with a VLB multi-IO for parallel, serial ports and FDD/HDD. Get an ISA network card in it and your'e pretty much done.
     
  13. PrimarchBentley

    PrimarchBentley Spaceman

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    Looking at one right now, darned curiosity made me pull out the "project 486". I believe the original intention of the machine was to be a "native" WC3/4 box at one point...

    -Daewoo motherboard, Socket 3, currently w/ a Cyrix Cx486 DX2 66. 2x 72-pin SIMM slots (currently empty). PS2 keyboard and mouse ports. 3x ISA only, 2x ISA/VESA
    -Maxtor 7540av
    -ATI Mach32 VESA card made by Daewoo (same as mobo), not sure how much memory
    -AzTech 16-bit "Sound Galaxy Stellar 6X" (CD-ROM also AzTech, a 2x CDA 268-031).

    I also happen to have an AMD DX2-80 and an Intel DX4ODPR100 in the "CPU archive". If the mobo supports 3.3v (I believe so), I might even be able to use this AMD Am5x86 (AMD-X5-133ADZ, from the archive) to truly "max out" the mobo's capability.

    LOAF, if you're still kicking hardware around and might be interested at some point, let me know. At that point I can post pics, do a little further work (find some memory (ie. pull some out of collection to test), check out the HDD, get mobo info, etc.). She posted when I bought her, but haven't done much with her since. She was intended as a WC machine, you might actually be able to help her reach that potential.

    If I can find the key to the UberCase (why oh why did I lock it??), I can check out how many ISA slots are on this Socket 8 (woo, original Pentium Pro!) mobo. It's a server board, so chances are better than average. Also, it's an early-gen ATX, so casing it would be easier too...

    And last but perhaps not least; no barnacles... ;)
     
  14. -danr-

    -danr- Rear Admiral

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    Heh, my gut instinct on this was that you've been had , due to the weird lack of PS2 slots. Especially since re-badging 'equivalent' machines was not unpopular during a time when a 486-DX4100 was as good as/better than a Pentium 75, but perhaps not as prestigious.

    A lot of people also named such machines after lines that didn't exist, for instance, did you know there was no such thing as a 586? I bought a used '586' as a teenager for its rare prestige. - but underneath it was just 486DX.

    Glad you found it was Pentium after all.
     
  15. Bandit LOAF

    Bandit LOAF Long Live the Confederation!

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    I REALLY like this idea. The idea of using a real 486 is MUCH more appealing than having a second Pentium. Just the concept has a real cachet. If a VLB video card will run Wing Commander IV and Privateer 2 then that's just perfect. But I will have a lot to learn! I never really did any work on the internals of my childhood 286/386/486es... so it should be interesting to figure this all out!

    I'd be very interested! Please, absolutely take a look and let me know what you'd sell her for. (And it would make a great part of the story!)

    I'm off to research 486es!
     
  16. Mace

    Mace Vice Admiral

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    VLB cards ran WC4 just fine, even in highcolor in SVGAwith ease, privateer2's specs are even lower. The best VLB card you could find that is common is the TSENG ET4000/w32 VLB. The most common card is a cirrus logic-based card, and that one had a specific issue with wing4; crackles from my soundcard in spaceflight. On a BBS I found a specific fix for WC4 that I had to include on my bootdisk and it ran like a dream.

    Specific cards and boards are VERY expensive on ebay, and I it's probably best to look into people's atticks or on garage sales for entire machines for under 5 bucks.


    When intel gave their chips a specific name instead of a number, the name could be copyrighted whereas numbers could not; AMD, Cyrix/IBM, IDT and a few other minor players had to give their chips a different name. AMD had the 5x86, that was more then just a 486(!), and so did Cyrix/IBM. AMD changed the naming to K5(K for Krypton, then came the K6, K6/2, K6/3, and they still use it(K7, K8, etc..), Cyrix went on with 6x86, and renamed it M2. This went on until the socket7 platform was abandoned(Highest chip on it was an AMD at 550 Mhz), AMD started their own Athlon sockets and slots, and Cyrix, after breaking up with IBM, went with Embedded CPU's, until they sold their CPU division to VIA.

    However; "586"-class CPU's, such as the 5x86/K5 can run pentium-class software where a 486 can not(they have the extra instruction.(Windows XP for example), while "686"-class(M2, K6, Winchip) can run anything a Pentium 2/3 can(even windows 7), but with varying performance opposed to their intel counterparts that set the standards.
     
  17. Bandit LOAF

    Bandit LOAF Long Live the Confederation!

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    Interesting, thank you very much. The only limiting factor for my graphics card is the VFX-1 headset, which needs a card that has a feature connector.

    So I should look for a 486 that supports VLB and has at least... six slots (video card, three sound cards, ethernet, VFX-1)?
     
  18. Mace

    Mace Vice Admiral

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    Most boards have 7 slots, so you are safe there. A lot of boards don't have a Multi-IO card, that does serial, parralel, disk drives, so make sure it has it either onboard, of you have a 7th slot. Just about every video card of that era has a feature connector, can't remember ever owning one that lacked it. But watch out with cards from "oak technology" or "trident", they tend to have some weird issues displaying anything over 320x200 outside under DOS. A nice thing regarding these old, massive videocards that you could add memory to them, the memory chips are still available from radio shack, but 1MB should suffice.
     
  19. Bandit LOAF

    Bandit LOAF Long Live the Confederation!

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    Excellent! I'm heading to the computer junk store on Saturday, I will keep all this in mind. I'm not sure if they'll have any 486ses or not... but last time Iw ound up coming home with a Mac Plus, so you never know what you'll find!

    Adding memory to a video card sounds like a lot of fun. I remember you could do that with some of the Sound Blasters, too... I've never had a reason to, but there's still that voice at the back of my head saying I should.
     
  20. PrimarchBentley

    PrimarchBentley Spaceman

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    Keep in mind board lengths and CPU placement. Many manufacturers loooved dropping the CPU socket right at the end of the first few ISA slots. Many 486 processors above 50MHz require at least a passive heatsink, so you can lose 2/3 slots if you're using full-length cards.

    I'll poke around the project 486 a bit later tonight, take a few pics...
     

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