Archive for the 'Hardware' Category

13
Jan
20

Cyrix 6×86 Generic PC with ECS P5VX-Be Mainboard

During the recent holiday season I took the kids to visit my parents out on the farm. During my time there I had some time to drag out some old computer hardware from storage. The PC  I dragged out today was bought as an upgrade and replacement for our then aging 386. I don’t remember exactly when we got this machine, but judging by the date codes on some of the hardware it has to be sometime in 1998. It is a socket 7 based system with a Cyrix 6×86 PR 166Mhz with 16Mb of RAM assembled by a local system integrator. So it was certainly a fairly budget machine for the time, however it felt like a huge upgrade coming from what we had. It has been stripped for parts, but the fundamental components remain, here’s a photo of the chassis and another of the remaining components

Taking a look inside we see most of the PC is still there, the main things missing are the optical drives, floppy drive and some cabling. Whilst it’s not complete the majority of the components are in working order.

Taking a closer look at the lower front of the mainboard we can see that there is one of those annoying dallas clock chips that can go flat and leave a PC unable to remember its configuration. The CPU and its heatsink are also mounted here, the Cyrix chips are interesting beasts, whilst they were budget parts in many senses they achieved good results depending on the workload. Typically workloads making heavy use of the FPU were better suited to either Intel or AMD parts, but other loads that make heavy use of the main integer core could run faster on these Cyrix parts. Our experience with this particular sample was that it could do all the same jobs and play similar games, but sometimes your performance would be worse or better depending on what you were doing.

My Dad used this machine for the farms business accounting, and for that it did a fairly good job. Being a teenager during this machines work life I used to play quite a few games on it. DOS games worked very well in general, games like doom basically ran perfectly, and even the first Quake did ok as long as you didn’t crank up the settings. Windows 95 gaming depended on the game, partly due to the limited amount of RAM the machine had, which I think limited what we could play more than the CPU. 3d games in general didn’t work so well, partly due to the lack of a 3d accelerator and RAM.

The graphic card was fairly basic being just an Octek S3 Trio64V. It is quite compatible with DOS games and works ok with 2d applications, but it doesn’t do any 3d acceleration at all. 3d games we played had to use software rendering, some of which didn’t perform well while others were quite playable. These cards were quite common due to their low cost.

The Quantum Fireball Hard disk was about 1.6G in size from memory, its death is  what ultimately forced this machine into retirement. From what I’ve read online this was a relatively fast drive in it’s day, which makes it an odd choice for this otherwise fairly budget system. I seem to have had bad luck with Quantum drives as they seem to die more often than others I’ve owned. It was quite dirty before I wiped the dust off, although I think the dirt you find out on the farm is generally less hazardous than dust in the city.

The motherboard is a P5VX-Be made by Elitegroup (also known as Elite or ECS). It wasn’t a particularly high end board for the time, but it was perfectly serviceable for most tasks. There are two issues with this chipset that could be a problem. Firstly the chipset only caches the first 64Mb of RAM out of a 128Mb maximum which could drastically slow down windows if you had more than 64Mb. Also the maximum FSB that it supports is 66Mhz, which meant it couldn’t support some of the faster AMD and Cyrix parts that were available.

These two issues aren’t as bad as they sound, remember that most systems of the day had 16Mb or 32Mb of RAM with only very high end systems using 64Mb. Also looking around at FSB speeds of socket 7 CPUs there aren’t that many that require higher than 66Mhz speed. So it would have been a very unusual (and expensive) build that couldn’t really use this board. For a retro enthusiast today it could be a problem, but for us at the time it was perfectly adequate.

Other features of the board are the usual integrated peripherals such as floppy and hard disk controllers, serial and parallel ports. Also integrated is a Crystal SRS (CS4327B) sound card, a sound blaster compatible device that supported DOS games as well as having a decent windows driver. We were still playing quite a few DOS games at the time, so this was quite a bonus and worked exceptionally well. Especially considering our previous machine only had the PC speaker for sound.

Working with this board isn’t too bad, as the jumpers are mostly labeled in a way that is visible while the board is installed. It doesn’t seem to be too hard to work on, although I’d suggest having the manual so you know what configurations are valid and to double check your jumper settings.

Whilst this machine is anything but high end it gave us a pretty good service life and was capable of doing most tasks that we gave it. Even if it was sometimes not particularly fast it was a very big improvement over the 386 and 486 machines we had previously There were limitations in what games we could play, but that really only became very limiting once 3d acceleration became mandatory for gaming.

07
Aug
19

Teac USB Floppy drive FD 05PUB

Recently I bought a new Ryzen based PC, which has a distinct lack of legacy support and even lacks optical drives. This is hardly surprising as this is the logical conclusion of what has been an increasing trend of storing and transferring data with flash drives, on the “cloud” or other network enabled means.

It does however pose a problem for someone like myself who collects and uses a number of older machines of various vintages and architectures. Many older machines don’t have network support and don’t accept USB flash drives natively. So without the ability to use older mediums such as floppy or optical discs it can be quite difficult to transfer data to and from vintage hardware.

There are fortunately some options for adding some legacy support to modern machines, such as USB optical and floppy drives. There are also some options for adding modern device support to old machines such as a floppy emulator that accepts USB flash drives as input. For me, rather than getting numerous floppy emulators, I thought it would be better to add floppy support to my new modern machine.

So off to ebay I went and got a generic USB floppy drive for about $12 AUD. It turned out to be a Teac FD 05PUB (also known as UF000x). This model turns up everywhere as it has been made for a while and re-badged as IBM, HP and DELL drives all at some point or another. Looking around I found this was basically the only model of USB floppy drive currently available, which could be a problem as some people have had trouble getting these to work on windows 7 and 10 due to driver issues.

I was unluckly because my particular unit appeared to be faulty, not being able to read disks created by known good drives and not even being able to read data it has itself written. I suspect it had suffered some damage in shipping as the seller had not packaged it well, using a cardboard envelope with no padding for shipping. Although it could also be the build quality as the unit feels extremely cheap, which frankly it is. Either way I’ve returned my unit for refund (hence the reason there’s no photo of it).

It’s now several months later and I’ve finally decided on and received a new solution. This nifty little doo-daa is basically a USB to 40 pin floppy adapter. This allows me to use any standard 1.44Mb 3.5 inch floppy drive I have laying around as a USB device. This has the advantage that I can use known good drives that are in alignment and have clean heads, and if something mechanical fails I can simply swap the drive. Here’s a photo of it with a Sony 3.5 inch floppy drive, one of the younger drives in my collection.

The USB adapter and a Sony 3.5″ drive.

It does have some downsides, such as not having a case and requiring a power supply for the drive itself. This is hardly surprising as it’s really designed for adding internal floppy drives to modern machines that lack the legacy controller. It also supports only one type of drive, so you won’t be using any 5.25 inch floppies with this. Interestingly it is reported by the OS as being the same device as the first drive I bought, confirming to me that the first drive was indeed faulty as it uses the same device driver.

At least I now have a very basic solution for data transfer, although it’s not ideal. I’m yet to investigate using serial ports on my new PC, which luckily the motherboard has a header for. This is mainly for larger data transfers, with the initial software loaded on the target machine likely by floppy.

13
Jul
19

Epson EX 1000 Dot Matrix Printer

As is usual for this time of year I’ve come to my parents place for a visit. Some of our old computer hardware is still in storage here, some of which I’ve already documented. Today we’re going to take a quick look at our old printer, an Epson EX 1000.

We got this particular example with our first computer early in 1990, at the time I remember there being many dot matrix printers in service, but technologies such as inkjet and laser were emerging as better alternatives.

It was quite noisy when printing, and shook the computer desk which it sat on. We had the tractor feed option which allowed the use of continuous paper, which was handy when printing a large amount of text such as program code. It could print graphics, which we occasionally used, but with only the black and white ribbon the images weren’t of a high quality. I remember having a colour ribbon for ours, but never actually using it.

Looking inside we can see the print head, and the wire that is used to move it back and forth. Many other printers used rubber belts that would eventually perish, this arrangement lasts significantly longer and would continue to work even now. Although looking at the guide rails they would need polishing and lubricating before it could be used.

The printer has a small control panel to set the font and print quality manually. This could be controlled by software, I remember MS works would change these settings and allow for different fonts in the same document.

There is this curious slot with a connector which isn’t described in the manual. I assume it’s for additional buffer memory or perhaps for adding other type faces. There is an internal slot for connecting other types of interfaces such as IEEE-488, but on our printer this isn’t populated as we just used the standard parallel interface.

The tractor feed mechanism can be seen here, with some teeth that engaged with holes in the paper. Setting this up initially was a bit tricky, but saved constantly feeding in paper manually and gave you a wider printing area. You could feed in standard A4 sheets as well.

Dot matrix printers such as this one have many draw backs, such as being noisy and having lower quality print. However they stuck around partly because they were generally quite reliable and were very cheap on consumables. I remember a printer much like this one at my fathers old workplace hidden away under a sound proof hood continuously printing almost every day. This printer remained in service until we upgraded to a new PC and printer some seven years later.

 

17
Jun
19

My Old PC

Quite recently I bought myself a new Ryzen based PC as my main desktop rig. The machine it replaced is around 10 years old, whilst it’s definitely not vintage in any way it’s interesting to look back at the hardware. For some context I was working for a local IT company when I built this machine, and we were just starting to build the first i7 based machines. We were having issues with getting compatible RAM working with them, and we had to sink a significant amount of time getting the first ones to run well. This influenced my decision to go with an AMD based system at the time. Here’s a photo of the system.

It is built in an Antec Sonata Proto chassis as it came with a nice 500W power supply that we had experience with having reasonably good reliability. I removed the door as it was an annoyance when using the optical/floppy drives. I have two Pioneer DVD drives and a floppy drive which is unfortunately the wrong colour for my case. Lets take a look inside.

The CPU is an AMD Phenom II x4 955 which runs @ 3.2 Ghz. It’s not as fast as many of the early core i7 chips, but compared quite favourably in terms of performance per cost at the time. Surprisingly it actually continued to perform quite well for basically everything except newer games, it did manage to play World of Warships and Minecraft right up to its retirement. It’s installed in a Gigabyte MA490FX-UD5P which is a high durability design featuring solid capacitors, more copper and decent heat sinks for the VRM and chipset. These measures seem to have been effective given the longevity of this machine.

4Gb of Corsair 1333Mhz DDR3 memory was quite good when I first built this machine, but started to look a bit limiting later in its life. Upgrading this would have been a nice performance boost, but wasn’t really possible for me during it’s working life.

The GPU is an ATI Radeon 4850 HD made by Gigabyte. Again this was alright when everything was new, but it doesn’t perform well on newer software. I suspect it held the machine back the most when it came to running newer games, although it has proven to be quite reliable, something many other graphics cards can’t claim. Oddly the board seems to have drooped or bent during its life perhaps from the weight of the power cabling, that can’t be good for it, but it hasn’t failed.

Three 1TB hard disks make up the storage. The black WD1002FAEX stores the operating system and software installation as well as some of my data. Bulk data such as disk images and media are stored on the first of the two green WD10EADS drives, the second drive acts as a backup of the other two. Surprisingly I’ve never run out of space on these drives. The only reason to replace them is really the extremely high power-on hours count. In my chassis the drives are mounted using silicon vibration damping grommets.

Initially I had Windows XP installed on this machine, mostly as I wasn’t all that enamoured with Windows Vista and Windows 7 was a couple of months out. I used it in this software configuration for quite a long time, way past the end of XP’s life. As software like Firefox (and others) gradually dropped updates and support it became harder to use, so about half way through its life I installed Debian Linux on it. I was able to get most games and software I needed to work running. I retained the old win XP install (dual boot) so I could use anything that didn’t work, although in practice that was very infrequent.

This old PC certainly lived longer than most desktops, and I’m kinda sad to retire it despite my newer machine performing better in every measurable way. With a memory and graphic card update it would still make quite a usable machine today, but with my newer system I enjoy energy savings and higher performance that made the upgrade very worth while.

22
Jan
19

Quick Look: a not so mysterious hard disk

I’ve been quite busy over the holiday break, but whilst visiting my parents I found what I thought was a mystery hard disk. Here’s a photo.

It has Trigem on the label, something I’ve not seen before. I didn’t know until looking closer at the drive much later that it’s actually a Samsung drive manufactured for Trigem, who was the company behind e-machines. So it’s no surprise that it was in an e-machine that Dad found it.

If you look on the underside of this drive you can see that the board is even labeled as being a Samsung Voyager 3A, 4A or 5A.

Having discovered it’s not exactly as mysterious as I thought I decided to power it on and give it a quick test to see if it works. Given that it had been floating around Dad’s shed for quite some time I was quite surprised that it spun up and had no bad sectors. It achieved about 9MB/s using a USB2IDE adapter when reading the entire surface. I loaded up some disk diagnostic software to check out what kind of condition the drive is in.

It identifies itself as a Samsung SV0322A spinpoint drive and despite its age it seems in relatively good condition. It’s quite small at only 3.2Gb, but it will probably be useful for a retro machine running either DOS or Win9x, so I’ll be adding this drive to my collection of other retired hard disks.

12
Nov
18

Mainboard: AOpen MX3W

Today I’m looking at a Socket 370 made by AOpen around mid 1999. It’s a clearly budget board as we will see when taking a closer look. I referenced this contemporary Anandtech article whilst writing this. I’m trying out a different device for taking the overview photos today as my old camera has seen better days. Let us begin with a shot of the whole board.

The first obvious thing is the mATX form factor and the lack of an AGP slot. So this was definitely not intended for the gaming or high performance market. It sports an Intel 810-DC100 chipset with the basic on-board video, and an AD1881 soft audio codec for sound. The chipset is interesting as it has the FSB and memory clocks separate. The memory will run at 100Mhz at a maximum, whilst the FSB can achieve speeds well in excess of this. This board can increase the FSB speed but the RAM clock cannot be changed. This means that any overclock could only be effective up until the point the memory bus becomes saturated, at which point overclocking any further would not increase performance.

Cache SRAM chips

The on-board graphics are fairly basic, it’s roughly equivalent to the Intel i740, a GPU that was never known for being particularly fast. It uses the system memory for much of the work involved in 3d rendering, which obviously consumes memory bandwidth the CPU could potentially require. To mitigate this flaw a 4MB cache was added to this version of the chipset, it is used mostly for storing the Z-buffer. I’d imagine this makes a fair difference whilst rendering 3d images, but doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

The on-board sound solution is similarly very basic. It’s an AD1881 audio codec, which Anandtech described as a “soft” audio device. By this they meant that much of the processing work for audio is done by the host CPU rather than specialised hardware on the sound chip. This is much like early sound cards which relied on the CPU for mixing audio channels together as the hardware only played back a stream of samples. At the time this board was made there were plenty of more advanced sound chips available that could do everything in hardware, some even turned up as integrated sound.

In terms of performance this board wouldn’t be all that good compared to the higher end. However that’s not what it was really designed for. For basic use such as office work and web browsing this would have been adequate for the time.

From a technicians point of view there are a few issues with this board. Firstly, there isn’t much variability in how you can build a system with it, only budget machines are really possible. The on-board graphics does not perform well and there is no AGP slot for an upgrade. There are only two memory slots which are limited to 100Mhz RAM, so you’re quite limited in how much and how fast the memory can be. Finally the floppy connector is in an odd spot near the AMR slot, this results in running a ribbon cable across the board which is generally bad for air flow in the case. My particular example is further hampered by one of the memory slots having a broken retaining clip.

For the end user it would probably perform well for most basic tasks, but get bogged down when they do something requiring a little more grunt. The lack of upgrade options would probably be an issue for some depending on what their needs are. Given that it’s a budget model none of this should be surprising, only people looking for a low price would have found this appealing.

29
Jun
18

Motherboard: MSI 970A-G43

I had almost ran out of old motherboards for this section when my brother gave me this particular board. He gave it to me as he had upgraded to a Ryzen based system and this one had failed. Unlike the others so far this one is actually relatively modern, although by no means current as it is at least about 4-5 years old. It’s not really remarkable in any way, but it has many typical features of modern boards I’ve not yet discussed.

Here’s a picture of the board.

It’s an AM3+ socket board with an AMD 970 + SB950 chipset which was fairly middle of the road performance wise when it was new. Part of the reason for this came down to AMD not having a competitive CPU on the market at the time, this was well before the Ryzen chips had launched. Lets look at some of the features of the board.

Most peripherals that you could need are integrated, with the exception of the graphics card. There are plenty of USB connectors on the back as well as in header form, although only a few of them are USB3. The on-board SATA controller offers basic RAID capability, and the audio chip is adequate but neither are as good as dedicated cards at their job. Like earlier boards, part of the issue is the location of the audio chip, with it being located near the bottom of the board. This increases the chance of noise and crosstalk affecting audio quality. The LAN chip supports up to gigabit speed as you’d expect.

Like most modern motherboards support for most legacy hardware has been dropped with a few exceptions. There are two PCI ports for old expansion cards, a serial port header, and surprisingly PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse. With the wide spread use of USB for keyboards and mice these days it’s a little odd to still see old school PS/2 ports.

A big change over older boards is the move away from electrolytic capacitors towards solid polyester capacitors. There are lots of benefits arising from this change, the best of which is the increased lifespan and durability. The downside seems to be increased cost, as there are more capacitors, but I think the trade off is totally worth it. Here you can see the voltage regulation circuits for the CPU, it appears for each voltage there is two caps, 4 FETs and an inductor. Nearby are a further 7 capacitors which could be more bulk capacitance for the voltage regulation, but could also be for the nearby USB ports. Also note the board has marking and holes for a heatsink, but in this instance one is not fitted.

Modern boards don’t really use jumpers for configuration any more, but the front panel header still needs a nice clear silkscreen label. Unfortunately MSI could have done better with this particular board, there are two headers relevant to the front panel, both have labels, but they are both a bit hard to read. If you were handling many of the same board this wouldn’t be a huge issue as you’d learn the layout, but it would be a bit of a pain the first few times. Otherwise there aren’t any issues that make it hard to install or maintain.

This board would be a reasonable choice for many end users who only use their machines for basics such as web browsing and email. My brother used it for lighter gaming loads such as minecraft, which it handled reasonably well with a decent GPU, however it was never suitable for heavier games that are more processor intensive. Being relatively young it’s not really suitable for a retro PC as there is no support for an older OS available.




Blogs I Follow

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Mister G Kids

A daily comic about real stuff little kids say in school. By Matt Gajdoš

Random Battles: my life long level grind

completing every RPG, ever.

Gough's Tech Zone

Reversing the mindless enslavement of humans by technology.

Retrocosm's Vintage Computing, Tech & Scale RC Blog

Random mutterings on retro computing, old technology, some new, plus radio controlled scale modelling.

ancientelectronics

retro computing and gaming plus a little more

Retrocomputing with 90's SPARC

21st-Century computing, the hard way

lazygamereviews

MS-DOS game reviews, retro ramblings and more...