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The second episode of Bigeye primarily focuses on much more powerful CPUs and 3D accelerators, finally bringing the AGP bus into action.
#8: Am5x86 - the 133MHz 486
NOTE: please ignore the K6-2 badge, it is incorrect
Pushing It Harder
Come 2012, I now had complete ownership of my grandpa's 486 computer, and finally made proper use of my Windows 95 OSR2.1 disc I had around from maybe a couple years prior. It was impressive for how it managed with this later operating system, but even in 2007 I had floated the idea of making this computer go a little faster. I didn't know how I'd go about doing that, but soon, I would find out.
The first thing I tried was a memory upgrade using SIMMs from my Packard Bell Legend 994CDT I gutted for nothing but a floppy drive to use for my short-lived dream of OS development. "Wow! This floppy disk lets you print a copy of your screen by pressing Print Screen!" is how that all went. The upgrade was highly unstable, so I did away with it and ordered new SIMMs later.
What I really had my eyes on was this magical thing called the AMD Am5x86, a 133MHz 486 CPU that theoretically compares against a 75MHz Pentium in integer-driven programs. Once that and a cooler finally arrived, I popped it into my Chicony CH-491F, and... um, the results were nasty, to say the least. The memory tick noise sounded corrupted, and the system could not complete POST. I eventually found out that many 486 motherboards could not handle the quadruple clock of the Am5x86, and had to set the multiplier to 3x in order to get anywhere. Either way, installing this CPU in that board was probably a bad idea since it doesn't supply 3.45V to the CPU; only either 3.3V or 5V.
Still, I stuck with what I had for a while, and later purchased a Trident VLB card to finally be able to use higher resolutions without suffering through these long wipe transitions from the screen constantly struggling to repaint itself. It worked when it did, but I hated how the connector easily broke loose from too much movement somewhere. I didn't have a way to physically support the very end of the VLB connectors, so when I heard about 486 motherboards with PCI slots, I knew I had to have one.
Soon, I purchased a Shuttle HOT-433 motherboard, probably after reading a suggestion to someone else on a forum regarding what supports the Am5x86. It worked perfectly with my CPU. It's arguably a much different system at this point, but I was delighted to see that I could push this thing so far while still keeping it within the boundaries of a 486. Initially I didn't get a PCI video card to go with it, but as mentioned earlier, I got a Voodoo2 in the hopes of having an amazing 1280x1024 high color GUI on the little thing. That sure didn't turn out so well.
Eventually, a cheap little S3 Trio64 did the trick. Now, you might be wondering "what about the DOS games?" and to that, while I did play a few on there, that wasn't the point. This was all nothing more than an experiment in uplifting an old system that was clearly held back by budget constraints in the 90's. A clunky but workable MS-DOS/Windows 3.1 computer was successfully turned into a competent multitasking Windows 95 machine, and it could also run Doom much better... shit, I was playing Doom as early as 2011, yet never bothered to move it over here? Of course not, because Steam is all trashy proprietary executables and missing files like the setup utility.
The Battery Goes To Hell
The Shuttle HOT-433 enjoyed some screentime in the early years of my channel, getting a video of its own as well as an appearance in Hardcore Windows NT. Like so many mid 90's motherboards, though, it has a fatal flaw: it uses one of these Dallas RTCs which combines the NVRAM and battery into a single chip. What this means is that when the battery runs dry, you can't even temporarily retain any CMOS settings because it'll just immediately forget them when rebooting, putting you in an endless loop of battery failure errors. Because this very same kind of battery is directly soldered to the motherboard, I had no way to replace it for a long time.
With no way to be able to use this motherboard, I had no choice but to hide it away in a box for years, until I only recently learned how to solder using some Hakko tools, including a desoldering gun which helped me a ton with many of the other Socket 7 boards as well. The Shuttle HOT-433 and all the other motherboards used in Bigeye now have DIP-24 sockets to easily move Dallas RTCs around, so when I want to use a motherboard, I just drop a working RTC in it and start recording.
Imagine getting nostalgic about a computer from 1995 that you first used in 2012...
#9: nVidia RIVA 128
Finally, an AGP slot! Intel's 440LX chipset introduced this dedicated video bus in late 1997 exclusively for use with the Pentium II. It seemed like the power of the PCI bus would suffice for generations, yet already it was being heavily saturated just a few years after its introduction.
But first, let's talk about the Pentium II at play here. If you thought the Pentium Pro was huge, you'll be shocked to see that the Pentium II's form factor is comparable to that of a video game cartridge. If you're thinking a CPU coming in such a large package must be so hyperpowered, you wouldn't be wrong, but the real purpose of its bizarre design is reducing manufacturing costs. The earliest Pentium II actually showed up in early 1997 before AGP came around, reusing the 440FX chipset prevalent in Pentium Pro computers.
I mentioned earlier that the Pentium Pro cost so much to manufacture, and that's why Intel opted for a new design that is more of a hybrid of the onboard cache found on Socket 7 motherboards and the full-speed L2 cache in the Pentium Pro. The actual CPU is plastered in the middle of a PCB, and some external cache is placed to the side of it. Compared to the Pentium Pro's full speed L2 cache, this only runs at half the speed of the CPU. In various benchmarks, the Pentium II is still faster clock for clock, and definitely an improvement for anyone coming from the Socket 7 platform.
The CPU board plugs into a Slot 1 connector, and is often shielded by a SECC (and later SECC2) package. This package is held in place by two retention brackets which mount onto the motherboard. In the case of SECC packages, locking tabs on the CPU are pushed outward to ensure it doesn't fall out; for SECC2 CPUs, the retention brackets are supposed to have a locking mechanism themselves.
I really like Slot 1 CPUs for how they can be swapped out so easily without having to reapply thermal paste every time, but at some point this design was gonna have to go. The art of L2 cache integration wouldn't be perfected in Intel's high-grade CPUs for another two years. Plus, if you're collecting a lot of slot-based CPUs, they'll take up considerably more space in your boxes and shelves.
Onto AGP... AGP is not a general-purpose expansion bus like PCI and ISA are; it's only for video cards, and only one AGP slot can exist on a motherboard. This new port has a more direct connection to the CPU and is unphased by the shared bandwidth of PCI slots. Even so, AGP cards will function as ordinary PCI cards given a chipset driver is not loaded or the operating system is incapable of leveraging the AGP bus to its full extent.
While I am not well-versed on AGP's functionality, I can tell you that its bandwidth is at least several times higher than the PCI bus depending on the version the chipset uses. In the case of Intel's 440LX chipset, AGP's maximum data rate is always 533 MB/s compared to 133 MB/s for PCI. This may not be fully saturated on a system like this, but it certainly provides an abundance of room for growth.
I have not tested any matching PCI and AGP cards side by side, but one thing I do know is that AGP's benefits seem to become more readily apparent at higher resolutions and/or with large textures that can't fit into the video card's own memory. This August 1997 article from Tom's Hardware better explains how it works with their own test results, but to put it simply, high bandwidth and low latency allowed AGP to do a lot of stuff that simply isn't practical to implement in PCI.
To leverage the AGP bus, you need to have the right operating system loaded on your computer. On this system, I'm running Windows 95 OSR2, but that does not even come with full AGP support by default; you have to install the USB supplement as well, as that updates VMM32 to work with this port. If you're running Windows NT 4.0, you'll need to install Service Pack 3 or later. Windows 95 RTM, Windows NT 3.51, and even Windows 3.1x can work with AGP cards as well, but only in PCI mode. A post-SP5 update will need to be applied to NT 3.51 to fix certain bugs stemming from an AGP card being used.
#10: 3dfx Voodoo2 SLI
But it turns out AGP didn't mean jack shit in the face of 1998's greatest PCI card: the 3dfx Voodoo2! This thing could rip through just about any game of its time even on a Pentium MMX. 3dfx very much understood the importance of 60 FPS in games, something that consoles never took seriously. Indeed, consistently high frame rates meant Quake speedrunning was far more attainable, as was deathmatching.
A Voodoo2 had considerably more EDO RAM installed, meaning you could play at 800x600 with a single card as opposed to generally being limited to 640x480 with the Voodoo1, and larger textures could be loaded. It's most certainly not an AGP card, so it won't be able to get additional texturing benefits, but for any game that fits in it, it puts it on a fighter jet.
What makes the Voodoo2 something special is the ability to combine two of them together using an SLI cable. This is nothing like modern SLI, as it is a completely different technology known as Scan Line Interleave. This feature can push even higher frame rates on a very fast CPU and allows for silky smooth gaming at 1024x768. If you don't have an SLI cable handle, you can always make one from a conventional floppy cable with the right tools...
Something else that should be noted is the 440BX chipset, which was a major advancement over all of Intel's chipsets since the release of the first Pentium in 1993. The 66MHz front side bus found in both a 430FX chipset and the 440LX was proving to be a constraint, but the 440BX lifts this to 100MHz, ensuring the CPU doesn't run too many circles around the other components.
The 440BX chipset is amazing in all stretches, and its high level of flexibility makes it an optimal choice for anyone starting out in retro builds or just needing a single solution on tight space. If you do get one, try to go after the later ones that support Coppermine CPUs so you're covered on all native CPU speeds from 233MHz to 1.1GHz.
#11: ATI Rage 128
The Pentium II was hella expensive. It was sure to guarantee you the topsiest of gaming performance, but you may have had to settle for the AMD K6-2 instead. This CPU runs on a superset of the Socket 7 platform, denoted as Super Socket 7 by its 100MHz front side bus. Intel was eager to abandon the Socket 7 platform, so other chipset manufacturers took their place with their own implementations of AGP, which were all not something one could count on so much.
Make no mistake, the ATI Rage 128 is a fast video card, but a number of things hold it back: the AMD K6-2 still struggles on floating point operations, and Quake has no 3DNow! optimizations of which this CPU would like to make use of. On top of that, VIA's implementation of AGP is rather sucky. With the wrong video card installed, it may fall back to AGP 1x (266 MB/s), something not even Intel's first AGP chipset ever needed to use.
Like MMX, 3DNow! reuses the FPU register set, so it is 100% usable in Windows 95. There are two key factors motivating the creation of AMD's own instruction set: an unwillingness to license Intel's upcoming SSE technology initially, and providing an alternate route to boost 3D games on their CPUs while still being stuck with a slow FPU. For games which used 3DNow, it certainly helped, although I don't know by how much. I know Unreal and Quake II (the latter having a special version written by AMD themselves) made damn good use of it.
The K6-2 I'm using is actually overclocked slightly from its stock 450MHz, because I really wanted to crank out a little extra juice so as to not make the ATI Rage 128 look as embarassing as it might otherwise. Raising the multiplier a notch doesn't do all that much, but I have found it to be considerably stable. GLQuake actually crashed once while I was recording, but I think I'd blame the chipset more than anything else.
#12: Quake on Windows NT!
Ah, so that Win32 porting came in handy for those days at work! Who said Windows NT isn't a gaming platform? It's the developer's fault for not using OpenGL like smart programmer John Carmack does! Windows NT has everything you could ask for that's not DirectX - full AGP functionality, audio output, and even symmetric multiprocessing for playing GLQuake while encoding a video! I can't say I understand why Microsoft didn't take greater strides in implementing DirectX in NT4... maybe they were putting it all in Windows NT 5.0, which ended up taking a lot longer than expected.
The top-class hardware of 1999 was a substantial advancement over last year. The Pentium III introduces yet another instruction set, this time with dedicated XMM registers. Known as Streaming SIMD Extensions, or simply SSE, the Pentium III once again implants a forefront for the future of software. You know that if Quake doesn't utilize MMX optimizations, it certainly wouldn't even know about SSE, but even if a game itself doesn't have specialized routines, something else does.
Some video drivers, particularly from 2000 and later, have their own SSE optimizations in place specifically to aid in speeding up frame rendering. In order to use these optimizations, you must have an operating system that's aware of the XMM register set. Windows 95 and earlier operating systems do not support SSE at all, and Windows NT 4.0 requires Service Pack 5 or later to use it. Strangely, even some very late beta releases of Windows 98 (yes, the first edition) support SSE. I suppose Intel and Microsoft were working closely to ensure it could be implemented correctly before release, back when some referred to it as "Pentium II with Katmai Extensions".
The nVidia TNT2 Pro is a pretty good card if you're looking for something cheap and fitting for a 1999 build. It works very well with OpenGL and Direct3D, and will provide a reliable frame rate for a number of old games. Make sure you use as early of a driver as possible, as later driver versions are known to have degraded frame rates and even break older programs.
#13: Athlon + Voodoo3
Where Everything Really Started
While my family has owned several other computers prior to this one, this badass machine is the very first one I clearly remember using. I had no idea we used a 486 of our own until 1998, when it was replaced with a Compaq Presario of some model (powered by an AMD K6 I believe), and even that computer I don't remember using until it was taken to my grandma's house.
This computer was amazing. It proved to be highly resilient to bloatware from when we got it in 2000 up until it was replaced with a custom Pentium 4 machine in early 2005. It was built by my uncle, who is much more tech-savvy than most in my family. Even as he upgraded this computer from Windows 98SE to the highly bloated Windows XP Home Edition, he sharply understood a computer like this would need upgrades, so when it was finally retired from full-time use, it had 256MB of RAM installed.
Now, I always hated Windows XP. It was a fucking mess, very ugly, and broke some of my favorite programs of the time. Still, I'm sure my uncle understood that a switch to an NT-based platform would've been necessary in order to avoid further encountering negative quirks in Windows 98. I could nitpick about the idea that we could've done all fine with Windows 2000 from the start instead, but regardless, the Athlon really pulled us through the years.
Had it not been for the knowledge and resources my uncle provided over the years, I wouldn't have any idea where the hell I'd want to be 5, 10, or 20 years from now. I dream of revitalizing old hardware with a new and compelling adventure for MS-DOS and legacy Windows every day, but many projects and consistently sleepy mornings always get in the way of an inner desire to write the program for it... this website included!
In any case, this computer remained in storage at my uncle's house for 10 years, until I asked him about it one day for some pictures of the inside of that thing. Some time after that, they drove a long way to give it to me, and since then it's played a major role in many of my videos, finding use in every Hardcore Windows series ever made, and ever will be made.
The K7M's Work is Not Complete!
This computer is nothing like what it once was, and I intend to make it stray yet further from its original form. What I desire most for this computer is to finally give it the crowning hardware it's been without for 20 years - the mythical 1GHz Thunderbird Athlon. It has to specifically be that core, as it uses full speed L2 cache as opposed to another 1GHz model having to use external cache with heavily reduced speed.
It may not seem too significant since everyone wants to build a dream PC of some era with only the most high end parts as good as used, but for me, building maxed out systems has never been so much about the nostalgia of reliving old software with greater vibrance than ever before... just as it started with my grandpa's 486 computer, it's purely for the sake of advancing such hardware forward, making sure it's not left behind so sorely in today's world of 16GB-esque requirements.
Old hardware has the power to create new experiences for all. This is unfortunately the last of the inherited hardware I've covered in Bigeye, but make no mistake: what stemmed from a desire to go back and relive the days before home computing became so disgustingly modernized ended up creating countless new memories to look back on, often driven by the creation of the videos my channel has.
I'm stunned that I even had it in me to be able to do the same for others, for I always saw myself as a forgettable nobody in this field. I've heard testimonies from others saying my videos helped them get through shitty times, or made them want to build their own retro computers. In truth, I still see my channel as a hindrance to my end game, but then again, it seems everything is every day. I know I'll get there eventually, but at least now I have something stable to fall back on whenever I stumble along the way, even if YouTube's robots have not been kind to me.
What the Athlon Meant for Others
At this point, you know the AMD Athlon was a HUGE deal for me. It was also a huge deal for the tech industry as a whole when it made its roaring debut in 1999. Finally, a competitor could unquestionably kick the ass of one of Intel's top products, and this was only the beginning of their uprising. No longer was AMD constrained by a weak FPU in their new product lineup, for this one could induce fear within Intel.
AGP was still an issue for the Athlon as it had no truly reliable chipsets to work with for a while, but that doesn't even matter if you install a 3dfx AGP card. In spite of their connectors, they do not utilize any AGP extensions, yet still pack a punch without much of a struggle given the right software.
Regardless, it wasn't just a powerful FPU that made the Athlon truly amazing... it was EVERYTHING. The Athlon had a beefy 128KB combined L1 cache, an extended 3DNow! implementation, a back side bus for external cache, and enhanced branch prediction. All around, it could outclass an equally clocked Pentium III in many applications. For system builders that despised Intel, this was a triumphant victory in ravaging the monopoly Intel held on the high end desktop market.
The earliest Athlon CPUs were reminiscent of a Pentium II or Pentium III Katmai, using a cartridge form factor with external cache modules to the side of the CPU. Starting with the Thunderbird Athlon lineup from mid 2000, L2 cache size was cut in half, but fully integrated into the CPU and running at full speed, much like Intel's Coppermine core released in late 1999. These cartridge-based CPUs used a "Slot A" connector, which is an electrically incompatible reversion of the Slot 1 connector designed to save on manufacturing costs for vendors producting both Intel and AMD motherboards.
AMD would go on to create a standardized 64-bit superset of the x86 architecture (laughing in the face of Intel's disastrous Itanium architecture that's only now about to be discontinued), effectively establishing themselves as a credible titan in the industry... you know, just in case there was anyone who still believed Intel could be the only good CPU manufacturer at that point. AMD was later dethroned in 2006 by the Core 2 lineup, but has bounced back aggressively in recent years with the Ryzen... I'm sure you must know about that. I use one myself, and do not intend to go back to using anything Intel as a daily driver anytime soon.
Since early Athlon CPUs still have not licensed SSE technology, they could actually be used in some seriously overpowered Windows 95 machines, as you'll now only be missing out on more complete USB support and ACPI... if you really want those. Though if you still want the benefits of Windows 98 without its bloated Explorer interface, you might be interested in Redtoast.
About that Voodoo3...
The Voodoo3 3500 is the fastest model in the extensive Voodoo3 series. It uses a certain kind of breakout connector that's supposed to provide both VGA and television output. Of course, someone like you is probably not going to want to bother hooking this thing up to a television; you just want to use the monitor! If you can't find or afford a breakout connector, you can grab a specific Monoprice VGA adapter for very cheap and bend the shielding outward to get it to connect to this card.
#14: Tualatin + Voodoo5
I skipped the Coppermine core and went straight to the fastest Tualatin CPU. Coppermine is pretty good, but I really wanted to highlight this other core that was overshadowed by the disgustingly inefficient NetBurst-based CPUs. These CPUs were incompatible with most existing Socket 370 motherboards and adapters when they were introduced in 2001, as they ran on lower voltages.
The 1.4 GHz Pentium III-S was released at the beginning of 2002 as the last of the Pentium III desktop models. The "S" indicates this, like some others before it, was intended for use in energy-efficient servers. Server-oriented Tualatin CPUs had 512KB of L2 cache and could be used in SMP; normal Tualatins could not.
These days, the 1.4 GHz Pentium III-S is highly sought after for a number of reasons: for one, it's a Pentium III and not a Pentium 4, very clean and efficient. It's very useful for anyone wishing to create some kind of all-in-one solution for running their old software, and it's even strong enough to run some modern operating systems without too much of a hiccup, especially in an SMP setup.
Another highlight of this build is the 3dfx Voodoo5 5500, which would ultimately be the last stand of a company with extraordinarily talented engineers. Like the Voodoo3 seen earlier, this card does not make use of AGP extensions, although their AGP cards are still slightly faster than their PCI counterparts due to them running on an independent bus. These cards do not fetch for cheap second hand... you may end up finding some listed dangerously close to their original retail prices.
The Voodoo5 seems to be designed reflexively to nVidia's GeForce 256 that shook the reign of 3dfx, coming in a giant PCB with two VSA-100 chipsets operating in SLI. This thing required power to be supplied from a separate Molex connector... you could mock how it was ahead of its time given how oversized and power hungry today's GPU's are, but the Voodoo5 is still a powerful 3D accelerator and works just as well as a 2D card.
I do wish 3dfx was around for longer. They've been going through development hell with a video card codenamed Rampage, and based on what I've heard about it, it would've obliterated all the other video cards that came out in 2001. At the same time, do know that a company is a company, and could very well turn bad at any given moment... perhaps in some alternate universe, we're all complaining about 3dfx's monopoly on the graphics card market. Of course their brand is permanently saved from such scrutiny since it was dissolved by nVidia... I'm sure that company is very honest and benevolent to all gamers.