08
Apr
13

Building a DOS Machine

Testing the machine

Testing the machine

This weekend I finally got around to building a proper DOS machine for playing my old school games and testing my Pascal code. I am fortunate enough to have an extensive collection of old PC hardware because I used to work in IT support for a local computer repairer, so I was sometimes able to get my hands on some old hardware.

I decided to use an old Pentium 200Mhz MMX machine that I had donated to me by one of the clients I did work for in the past. It was running windows 95 and has 64Mb of memory so DOS was no longer used by the time this hardware existed, but I figured it would be great for running games such as Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem 3d. Also running older DOS games is easy using moslo, which is an utility for slowing the CPU down for programs that require it.

The machine was donated to me basically complete with a few minor technical issues. The main hard disk and OS had failed and failed badly, fortunately the secondary hard disk (a western digital 10G drive) was in exceptional condition so I simply removed the master hard disk and adjusted jumpers as necessary. The lithium clock battery was dead, which was an easy fix as I had a few good spares in my drawer. Lastly there was some extra hardware which I didn’t really need and decided to remove. I removed a ISA based modem card and an ISA SCSI card along with the CDROM that was attached. I kept the IDE CDROM drive that was installed.

Servicing

Servicing

So the hardware I have left in the machine after servicing it is;

  • Pentium 200Mhz MMX processor
  • main board (I didn’t bother checking out the model, it has everything I need)
  • 64Mb SDRAM
  • 10G IDE Western Digital HDD
  • CDROM drive (it’s a CDRW drive that is fast enough for pretty much any DOS games)
  • S3 Virge Graphics card 2MB (more than enough for my needs)
  • an ISA sound blaster card that came in the machine.
ISA Modem

ISA Modem

It’s actually much faster than I really need for a DOS machine, but I don’t have a functional 486 main board to use instead. I would like to set up a genuine 386, 486 or 286 system as well but I don’t have tons of space and unfortunately don’t have the parts to build a complete system.

So it came time to install DOS on the system, but I had some strange troubles getting it to boot from the floppy drive! It seemed like everything was fine, but the BIOS wouldn’t attempt to boot off the floppy. I tried a number of different floppy disks and tested the system in a few ways, finding out along the way that booting of the CD drive worked. So I ran a memory test, checked out the hard disk, erased it and performed some other tests but couldn’t turn any problems up. It turned out that the floppy drive itself was the problem despite it appearing to work. A spare floppy disk drive solved the problem.

VGA Card

VGA Card

So now the install disks booted, and installation of MS-DOS 6.22 itself went very smoothly. The maximum partition size that I could use was about 2GB which obviously was more than enough for DOS and 3 other partitions. I made the extra partitions so I could sort and categorise what I was putting on the machine.

More Testing

More Testing

Configuring the system was pretty easy, especially compared to more modern systems! The default configuration was pretty good so I simply added the extras I wanted such as a mouse driver and CDROM driver. Because I have so much memory in the machine I decided to include a 8MB RAM disk for some occasions where fast disk speed is handy (such as using VGA Planets). In the end I had plenty of memory left over and over 600KB of conventional RAM available, so pretty much any DOS game should run.

Installing DOS

Installing DOS

Having everything set up I decided to start transferring software across to the machine. I did this with a null modem cable and laplink software for DOS (version 3). Laplink makes it very easy to transfer large amounts of data from one machine to another, allowing you to view the directory tree of a remote machine, and copy files in both directions. The only trouble with using serial is that it is comparatively slow, in hindsight I could have used the CDROM drive if I had some blank CDs.

Serial Transfer

Serial Transfer

I’ve been tinkering with the machine since, testing games and thinking about what shell I would like to use. I used the dosshell on MS-DOS 4.01 back when I was a kid and found it was pretty easy to use, so I decided to try the shell that came with MS-DOS 6.22. I found that it was also pretty easy to use and has some nifty features such as task switching, but unfortunately games like Quake do not like it very much where as the old shell from DOS 4.01 works fine. I do like the newer file manager better however.

Dosshell

Dosshell

I am planning on adding windows 3.11 to the machine eventually as this will mean I can run some of the cool games and software that ran on it. I’ve also since found that the fan in the PSU isn’t working, it’s supposed to be thermally controlled so as to make as little noise as possible, but I’ve never seen it fire up. I added a bit more ventilation to the case and it seems to run ok for now, it doesn’t generate much heat as it is a fairly low power machine.

File Manager

File Manager

The experience has been fun and nostalgic at the same time, using real floppies and serial cables, and adjusting the configuration were all fun and fairly simple. Once done the system is lightning fast, and all the software I’ve tested so far works quite well. It responds even faster than my modern machines do. This makes me wonder if we have really gained anything over the old technology, why are machines that are orders of magnitude faster in hardware feeling slower than old machines?

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