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The first episode of Bigeye covers much of the hardware which existed when Quake first came out. When it came to true 3D gaming on the PC, the floating point unit was everything, but other solutions are bound to show up in the near future.
Do note that some of these computers have highly extensive commentary that goes into detail regarding my personal experiences with them and elsewhere. I've subdivided the longer sections for slightly easier reading.
#1: i486 DX2
A Backstory of a Future Rooted in the Past
This computer is of high significance to me, even if it seems to be just another one of those 486 computers.
I was never around for the peak of this computer's relevance, but it is where I really got started with retro computing. It was originally owned by my grandfather and went through a number of changes when he had it. The case, which is of a completely unknown model, housed a 386 motherboard from 1992 to as late as 1994 before the CH-491F took its place. Its specs are hardly the same now as they once were, for it was largely stuck with a 40MHz Am486, 12MB of RAM, and a proprietary Mitsumi CD-ROM drive. This computer enjoyed regular usage up until the very beginning of 2000, where it was replaced by a Dell Dimension XPS T600r.
Unlike the IBM XT he owned previously, this system was thankfully never discarded. It was simply moved to the other side of the basement for me and some others to play games on it in the early 2000's. I hardly ever visited my grandpa's house back then, so I don't remember playing anything on there beyond Snoopy's Game Club, some typing game, and DONKEY.BAS. To put it in perspective, it was only about once every Christmas Eve that we'd drop by his house. I very much wanted to visit his place more often, but it simply never happened.
When my grandpa moved in 2005, the 486 computer was left to sit somewhere in the basement, and never thought of ever again... but was it really? The following year, I was really starting to regret giving up two old computers, and indulged myself into trying to relive the experience I once had with Windows 95 and 98 on those things. Many strange barriers got in the way of me being able to use an old computer once again, like my dad telling me I can't use the Packard Bell Legend 994CDT we had because it'll catch fire. I was stuck with the new and trashy computer stuff, and resorted to making bizarre "animations" about Windows 95 using screenshots from GUIdebook Gallery.
In the midst of 2007, I became a full time Mac user because of how awful new PCs were (convenient timing, as they JUST started becoming good again). In turn, I so badly wanted to do even as much as use an actual compact Mac from the 80's, but simply never had any such opportunity to do so. eBay was written off as 100% scams by my family, so I was under the impression that it was absolutely impossible to get any old hardware. Despite this, I had this other really cool opportunity to use another computer...
...or rather the same one I've been talking about here. Come August or September 2007, I think I asked my grandpa about that computer in the back. He told me it didn't work, but later elaborated it was the mouse that wasn't working; everything else was fine. That moment we powered it on for the first time since maybe 2004 was already a gush of nostalgia... I guess three years really does make a difference. I didn't have to learn how to use the DOS prompt right there and then thanks to a menu program I could navigate to run other programs, but sure enough, I was up for the challenge of learning it some weeks later.
How I learned about the DOS prompt was actually very cumbersome. I was told that DOS was awkward 1984 technology, but I can prove the lessons I got were far more convoluted than it needed to be. You know how you can use CD to move across directories relatively, like cd lemmings? He told me that wasn't possible, and so I took his word for it that you always had to type absolute paths like cd\games\puzzle\lemmings! I wish I had consulted another online reference to know how it actually works, but when you know absolutely nothing about something and all you have is a mentor that doesn't quite understand the full scope of it themselves, you're basically put in a place where you have to assume that's how it's done.
Regardless, every visit to my grandpa's house to get to use that computer again became a sort of meditation session, just to see that glorious desktop power up again. We never solved that cursed mouse issue... not until two years later when I got to take it home for myself, and my much more tech-savvy uncle gave me a new serial mouse that FINALLY allowed me to fully utilize Windows 3.1 as I dreamed of doing. At that point I was slipping away from Macs, thanks to my uncle helping me build a Core 2 Quad system that would show me just how much I was missing out in the world of PCs. I still had a sour impression of Windows Vista lingering in me, so I preferred to run Linux or FreeBSD on it.
Perhaps all of this is better suited to an article of its own, but believe it or not, the story of this 486 computer continues later in Bigeye. At least now that you know why it matters to me so much, and that my channel probably wouldn't have been the same without it. What's happened to this computer recently?
As of now, this computer is in a state somewhat faithful to what it was previously, something useful for performing meditation that takes me back to the very retro year that is 2007, sitting at a very similar concrete wall. This computer has been upgraded with a lot of faster components, particularly VLB cards for video output and IDE. Originally, it had some slow as hell Oak Technology 512KB VGA card from 1991.
Still, I've tried to make it as similar to its last state in 2009 as possible. It still has the same keyboard from earlier (a dual mode kind with an AT/XT switch underneath!) along with one of the original hard drives, and its exterior is functionally almost the exact same as it was before, if you compare the two images above.
As a rule of thumb, all 486 computers are terrible for Quake. None of them have strong enough integrated coprocessors to meet Quake's demands. Still, it's not like you wouldn't want to try your hand at it if you couldn't afford a new computer... I mean, what harm can it do? You've got a shareware version you can try!
Since recording Bigeye, this computer once again sits in the back as it did in 2005, sleeping in some cozy metal shelves, anticipating its next day of stardom...
#2: Gateway 2000 P5-133
At 2:43 he do the beesawed!!!
Now here's a computer that YOU will probably be reflecting on more often than I will! I have no idea what this computer was originally used for, as I got it from a thrift store for $3 with an empty Windows 98 installation. Can I just say right now that Windows 98 is NOT appropriate for a 133MHz Pentium??? My dad was putting up with the very same thing on his Packard Bell Legend 994CDT when he got it from my uncle in 1998, and personal video footage from 2009 confirms it was slower than a slug with a wad of paper for a shell! Seriously, STOP DOING THIS!!!
So of course I put a stop to that madness on the P5-133 by giving it a more sane operating system - Windows 95 RTM! This was back in 2016 when I didn't have a lot of computers to work with, so I'm sure I got a lot of use out of it back then. Its most notable usage is in a video closing in at a million views, bass use a computer.
That video was more of an attempt to redefine the largemouth bass, as I had this gut-wrenching feeling that its existence was being insulted by the same old stale tropes like "this thing's ONLY purpose is to be the main object in sport fishing" or "hey sing a popular song wouldya!!" Having an oversized plush representation of said fish on hand, I hired him for the task of shedding new light on his kind!
It seemed to work wonders in the long run, and it's a good thing it did... figuring out how to film all of this in a convincing enough manner was a real challenge, especially given the tight corners I had to work within. I shattered a fluorescent lightbulb while filming this, seriously. It would've been nice if I knew how to correctly respond to such an incident before it happened... DO NOT VACUUM THE MESS AS I DID!!! These bulbs contain fuckin' mercury!
As for all of that junk you may have noticed behind the bass... that's not mine. I don't own an XBox One, and have completely lost interest in console gaming. That belonged to a family that moved in here for a year and a half, the kind that perfectly fit the stereotype of a bunch of stupid American assholes. They were filthy, lazy, arrogant, disrespectful, and an absolute nightmare to put up with. I'm honestly shocked I was able to put out as much as I did over the course of 2016, before those twits were finally kicked out. It was hard to sleep or record commentary with them frequently shouting at their headsets for whatever reason.
When bass use a computer was filmed, that family was out on vacation, so I had a window of opportunity to exercise a lot more creative freedom. Since that TV was having problems displaying a 70Hz BSOD, I had to move a ton of crap out of the way to set up the fish's workspace with an actual monitor, and I am not kidding when I say that family was filthy. I uncovered so much trash of which they couldn't even be bothered to walk a few steps to throw out. An excess of candy wrappers, straws, batteries, maybe some crackers... I could've puked on the spot, it was THAT bad.
Ya done good, fishy... the P5-133 got plenty more use in a number of other works, including that video's sequel as well as The 32-Bit Difference and beige dream, but it's largely fallen out of favor as I know how to replace Dallas RTCs now; those things were very common in the mid 90's. I really don't like OEM systems.
bass not play quake
Don't be stupid. You know a fish cannot flex its fins well enough to click on the correct button of a multi-button mouse. Get him a Mac! This computer is for MY HAND, MY FINGERS. I am the one who can actually appreciate a much higher frame rate supplied by the Pentium's FPU.
Given the scale of Bigeye, there were a few things I needed to repair before I even got started with filming this computer and some others. The P5-133 is extremely picky with hard drives; if the BIOS doesn't like it, it won't be recognized during POST. I had to go back and repair the hard drive the computer originally came with, as I broke the Molex power connector as I was about to get started recording for The 32-Bit Difference. I really don't know what this bridge thing does, but it was there when I got it, so it must be important...
The 133MHz Pentium is the fastest one available for a Socket 5 motherboard. I always found it pretty annoying that Socket 5 and 7 are so similar, yet just different enough that 166MHz CPUs aren't compatible with the former. It doesn't help that there's no onboard cache on here, nor is there an option to install some, so the P5-133 is going to be held back to some degree. This is why I hate OEM systems; they often leave out a lot of good things that even flimsy no-name computers with Asus motherboards gladly offer.
Still, Gateway, back when it was Gateway 2000, made some pretty damn good systems back then! The case looks like it would've seen use as a mid-range server with its full tower design sporting a secondary hard drive cage in the back, but it just so happens to be targeted towards home users. The metal is very high-grade, which I suppose is a more common trait in OEM systems than custom-built ones cutting corners.
Gateway made a wide variety of systems for everyone, if you can believe it. They catered to the budget market, of course, but they also targeted professional users and even enterprise environments, boasting about how they make Pentium Pro computers while everyone's still trying to sell their lesser computers with pipeline burst cache, pipeline burst cache, PIPELINE BURST CACHE! And...?
I guess they turned into a garbage brand later on. I mean, I've always associated Gateway with trash, so I was surprised to see how amazing the P5-133 is for what it's worth. No bizarre riser cards, no holding back in its design, no ECP parallel ports... yeah, never mind, of course Gateway was gonna start to suck at some point. Fuck you, Rick Snyder!
#3: Asus P/I-P55TP4N
No joke, that's what they were bragging about, PIPELINE BURST CACHE. Why? I guess they couldn't think of anything else. I suppose it has to be better than the synchronous/asynchronous cache previously implemented on many motherboards from 1995 and earlier. Unfortunately, my P55TP4XE, which has the latter, doesn't POST, so I'm unable to make a fair comparison.
Any L2 cache at all on a Socket 5/7 motherboard may not seem like it does much, given the frame rate only improves by a little over 3 FPS. In many ways, though, having the extra cache is a big deal, even if one is to jump from 256KB to 512KB. While onboard cache is nowhere near as fast as internal CPU cache, it can do a lot to reduce strain on the much slower EDO RAM.
This looks like the kind of computer I'd actually want to use, except for the fact that the case is horribly yellowed. Worse yet, when I opened it up, everything was absolutely loaded with what I'm pretty sure is nicotine. Cigarettes ruin everything they touch... I've never bothered with retrobrighting, but I most definitely spent several wet paper towels trying to get all of the grime off. Even the power supply was clogged with that mess, so it was a definite no-go. Not that I have a lot of good power supplies to use with AT systems, anyway...
Now, about that S3 ViRGE, it works fine as a 2D video card, but it also has 3D acceleration... if it can even be called that. Try it with GLQuake and prepare to be disgusted, because not only is it even slower than software rendering on my 486 DX2, it also renders so many things incorrectly. What a pathetic attempt... if you're looking for a good 2D card you can afford, try looking at the Trio64 lineup, because it's much less pretentious.
Otherwise, this is a good computer, even if it does cling to archaic standards. The 430FX chipset is most suitable if you're wanting an authentic 1995 to early 1996 retro build. Asus hardware is known to be reliable and flexible, so you'll be getting something good with this one.
Like many other upcoming Socket 7 motherboards, the Asus P/I-P55TP4N has been modified to take a DIP-24 socket. Some unused pins were pushed out of each new socket using needle-nose pliers, and the RTC chip itself was removed using a Hakko FR-301 desoldering vacuum. If you're looking to do frequent soldering/desoldering work, this tool is invaluable. I find it much less cumbersome than trying something like solder wick, heat guns, or whatever other crazy supplies I can't possibly be expected to acquire all at once.
#4: Asus P/I-P6NP5
Forget pipeline burst cache... how about this: the L2 cache should be thrown into the CPU, making it about the size of a modern Threadripper. It worked, but it was incredibly expensive to manufacture, so this CPU was reserved for the most elite computer enthusiasts... and by that I mean "buncha numbnuts with a shitton of cash".
Actually, it was really important in workstations and servers, but when it comes to playing Quake in 1996, the kind of computer you got determined the caste you were assigned to, especially online. If you received the blessing of the Pentium Pro while I didn't, you had the tactical advantage. 50 FPS in Quake was a huge deal back then.
With the Pentium Pro comes a number of very significant differences to expect in the system architecture it rides on. With L2 cache being moved to the CPU, there is now no limit on the amount of RAM you can install without suffering performance penalties; you're only limited by how much the chipset can actually handle (1GB in the case of the 440FX) and the amount of RAM slots you have. It's tough to think of what 512MB could be used for on a Pentium Pro... running a newer operating system, maybe? MS-DOS sure isn't going to address more than 64MB.
Another point of interest is the availability of a new video memory caching mode, called USWC, or Uncachable Speculative Write Combining. This allows video data to be transferred between the CPU and video memory much more efficiently, but it must be supported by your video card or your display will be corrupted. There are a number of ways USWC can be enabled.
If you know your video card supports USWC and you plan to use it with MS-DOS, you can enable it using your BIOS setup utility or by running FASTVID. In Windows 9x/NT, your video driver may enable USWC automatically when booting.
Now, Pentium Pro CPUs were already difficult to manufacture, but they may very well be an endangered species, ruthlessly hunted down by gold scrappers day and night for nothing but their gold, which is then exchanged for more valuable cash. I, for one, will not stand for that shit, for it is in the most literal sense no different from whaling. What's next, you gonna make Pentium Pros become enslaved to showbiz, performing virtual reality 3D projector orca shows? These processors must be released to roam free in (basement name here)
For more information about the endangered Pentium Pro, contact the Canadian Wilderness Bureau in Ottawa.
#5: Cyrix 6x86 PR166+
For six years, Intel would crush every other FPU out there to bits, and the Cyrix 6x86 was no exception. This was a pretty good CPU in arithmetic operations, perhaps faster than a Pentium of equal clocking, but when you go to play a 3D game like Quake, you may find that the frame rate is much less steady. Such is the reality people had to face for not shelling out the cash for Intel's overpriced CPUs...
The PR166 in the model number stands for Performance Rate: 166MHz, suggesting its effective speed against a Pentium in integer operations. The actual clock of this CPU is 133MHz. As with different types of cache, I have not bothered to do side-by-side comparisons of similar hardware in Bigeye; all I do here is show greatly varied hardware configurations in practice.
I have never used a Cyrix-based computer in my childhood, so I can't say from personal experience what that was like. 6x86 might imply that this CPU was designed for the P6 architecture, but it's actually made for P5-based boards. (P5 can be referred to as 586 and P6 can be called 686, both successors of the 486.) Nonetheless, it does implement a number of similar traits the Pentium Pro is known for - out of order and speculative execution, to name a few.
Also note the L which immediately follows the 6x86. This indicates this is a low power version of the 6x86 which doesn't output as much waste heat. In today's world of big ass heatsinks and power-hungry CPUs, you might shrug at the idea of a CPU having a TDP of 105W, but even heat output ranging from 20-40W found in the 6x86 and Pentium Pro was considered startlingly hot. Heatsinks and thermal compound were so measly, you'd think they simply weren't ready for these kinds of CPUs.
Over here, you also get your first glimpse at the 430VX chipset, which replaced the aging 430FX chipset from 1995. It's not too remarkable, but it permitted tighter memory timings in EDO and FPM DRAM, which made more efficient use of the CPU being used. There is one thing that allows it to stand out, and that's none other than the ability to take SDRAM modules. These are even faster than EDO, but being so early to support the new standard, you're very limited in the kinds of modules you can install.
You have to ensure your modules are not too dense in order to have their full capacity addressed; for reference, 32MB 16-chip SDRAM modules will be fully utilized, whereas 32MB 8-chip modules will only be seen as 16MB modules. If you really want a 430VX motherboard, try to get one with two SDRAM slots. It's really better to have 64MB of RAM installed to maximize versatility in your system.
#6: SiS 5598 Chipset Graphics
How would you like to have your graphics card inseparable from your motherboard? The SiS 5598 chipset makes this possible. SiS was known for creating chipsets with integrated graphics for budget-oriented systems. By integrating video hardware into the motherboard's chipset, a separate video card is not even required; all you have to do is plug in a VGA connector that mounts to the back of the case, if it's not already hardwired to the rear I/O panel.
When it came to general purpose 2D graphics, SiS onboard graphics worked pretty well. It was also easily adaptable to different configurations thanks to the user-adjustable shared video memory setting in the BIOS setup utility. If you happened to be tight on system RAM (which was very often the case for this class of systems in 1998), you could sacrifice higher resolutions and color depths to speed up your computer a little bit. Of course, you could take back all of your RAM by installing an external PCI video card.
Some Socket 7 chipsets such as the SiS 5598 were functionally superior to even Intel's 430TX, as they could allow onboard cache to address a lot more memory - 128MB of RAM for the 5598 as opposed to 64MB for the 430TX. Even so, you may prefer to stick to an Intel-based chipset since they tend to be more reliable... not that I've encountered so many issues with non-Intel chipsets myself, at least when exclusively dealing with PCI/ISA cards.
I don't know about the later SiS chipsets, but the SiS 5598 is highly versatile for just about anything you could ask for. You can obtain drivers for Windows 3.1, 95, and NT, and I'd guess Windows 98 and later include them already.
#7: Pentium MMX on Windows 95B
Finally, it's Windows 95 time! MS-DOS was still very much a widely used operating system in home computers throughout the late 90's, but a lot of programmers knew that the future was going to be rooted in Windows. Even with the benefits of DPMI, high-end software was starting to become too powerful for the technical limitations of DOS. At the same time, standardized APIs made it easier for programs to directly interact with complex hardware - DirectX, OpenGL, and Glide, to name the most well known ones.
So the inevitable happens - Quake is ported to Win32 as WinQuake, and can now run at less awkward resolutions or even inside a window. It's not as fast as the original DOS executable, but it matters for that it can run on Windows NT now, which Microsoft's future was dead set on.
It wasn't going to matter for too much longer that Win32 equivalents of DOS programs would be slightly slower, for CPUs were becoming much faster. Take the 233MHz Pentium MMX, for example: already, it was significantly faster than an equally clocked classic Pentium, in part due to its doubled L1 cache. Compared to the Pentium Pro's beefy cache immediately making tons of programs run faster, however, the real power of the Pentium MMX was yet to be realized when it was first released.
This CPU laid the groundwork for future software to utilize its brand new instruction set, known simply as MMX. MMX reused the register set normally assigned to the x87 FPU to carry out different optimizations that could make 3D games run even faster than they would with brute force FPU work. Initially, optimizing programs for MMX-capable CPUs was not an easy task due to the immaturity of compilers designed to do all of the work; MMX routines were often written in assembly instead. Quake does not make use of MMX instructions, but its successors most certainly do.
The Tseng Labs ET6000 is a highly sought after video card, for it was one of the fastest cards available in 1996. No doubt it's highly practical for a Socket 7 build, for it achieves its fast video bandwidth without using USWC, a feature confined to the higher end P6-based chipsets. Later cards could definitely run faster, but they're almost certainly going to be held back by P5's limitations.
What's even harder to find than ET6000 cards is the strange, bulky MDRAM modules they use. Unlike EDO RAM found in most expandable video cards of the time, I can't even find any listings of the memory modules themselves on eBay, so I lucked out when I found one maxed out at 4MB. If you want to put together one like this yourself, your best bet is to cannibalize one or a few others to create the most ultimatest Socket 7 machine of all time.
#7a: 3dfx Voodoo
Same configuration as above, but with this card at play
Around the same time the Pentium MMX came around, so did the 3dfx Voodoo. This is where 3D acceleration on the PC really kicked off. Having a background in arcade games, 3dfx was poised to turn your computer into a superpowered gaming system far beyond the likeness of the PlayStation or Nintendo 64.
Unlike most other video cards, the Voodoo does not output 2D video; you can't use it with a GUI or DOS prompt. Instead, you pass your existing 2D card through it with a very short VGA extension cable, or you can also use separate monitors for 2D and 3D output if you really want to. I learned this the hard way when I was looking to get a better video card for my heavily upgraded 486 computer, and had to end up using a KVM cable to connect my Voodoo2 with an Oak Technology ISA video card. This was back in 2012 when I hadn't even started playing Quake yet, so I ended up never making use of 3D acceleration on there. It would've been cool to see otherwise.
The dedicated chipset on the Voodoo not only offloaded work from the CPU to make it run faster, but also had additional functions to make it look better than it would with a CPU rendering everything itself, texture filtering being the most obvious one. Though the point of it "looking better" does stir up a little controversy, because some people actually prefer software rendering. In fact, I kind of do myself since I can more easily control the brightness/gamma from within the game rather than some separate control panel. GLQuake is too dark by default, which is a serious issue even whenever I don't see my reflection in the monitor!
This is only the beginning of true 3D gaming on the x86 platform. Soon, new techniques will be developed to make Quake and many more games like it run even faster!