Saturday, March 23, 2013

1999 PC Gaming Dream Machine

Computing hardware just before the turn of the century was surprisingly versatile.  In the year 1999, on the graphics front the nVidia Geforce 256 SDR/DDR, the S3 Savage 4/2000, the ATi Rage 128, 128 Pro & Rage Fury MAXX, the Matrox G400 and the 3dfx Voodoo 3 were all introduced.  In CPUs, the Pentium III was released in speeds up to 800MHz* and Athlons up to 750MHz.  Hard drives were approaching sizes of 30 to 40GB on the high end.  The Intel i820 & i840 chipsets with RDRAM was introduced to a lot of controversy, the Via Apollo Pro 133/133A brought official PC133 SDRAM support to the Pentium platform.  The AMD 750 chipset was introduced to support the Athlons.  Modern optical LED mice like the Microsoft Intellimouse allowed optical mice to be used on surfaces other than special mouse pads for the first time.

Other staples from prior year or two included the Windows 98 operating system.  The most advanced sound cards of the time were the Sound Blaster Live! series and the cards using Aureal's Vortex 2 chipset.  CD-ROM speeds had more or less peaked by this time, and DVD-ROM drives were becoming more common in systems.  Hardware mpeg2 decoder boards like the RealMagic Hollywood Plus and Creative DXR2/DXR3 boards were still recommended for smooth DVD playback.  The Voodoo 2, especially in a 24MB SLI configuration was still a popular choice, as were the nVidia TNT2 Ultra cards.  The BX chipset from 1998 was still going strong, and Pentium IIs and Celerons were also selling well, being cheaper than the flagship Pentium IIIs.  1999 was probably the last year where you could be guaranteed to find an ISA slot on a motherboard.  ATX based motherboards ruled and tower cases rather than desktop cases were the norm.

In 1999, some things had not changed much.  Cases were still often beige or off-white.  Monitors were big CRTs, and multimedia speakers topped at a four speaker setup (Klipsch ProMedia v2.400s being highly recommended).  Keyboards had pretty much gone to the cheap rubber dome technology (stick with an IBM Model M or Northgate Omnikey), but mice were still using PS/2 ports.  Ball mice with scroll wheels were still popular, and USB optical mice would just being introduced.  A 3.5" floppy drive was still standard for a machine, even if only to load drivers off floppy disks and boot disks.

In this article, I describe the options that could put together what I believe to be a dream machine from 1999 without breaking the bank or waiting too late in the year to enjoy the use of the component parts.  I will discuss the pros and cons of the available choices.   I will also point out upgrade paths.

1.  Motherboard

The motherboard is the backbone of any system, and many choices of components will revolve around the motherboard.  I chose a motherboard based on the Intel i440BX.  This system chipset had rock solid speed, reliability and compatibility.  The AMD 750 chipset was probably the only available chipset for the Atlhons at the time, but the hardware was immature and prone to problems with AGP cards.

The VIA chipsets did not offer quite the performance as a BX chipset.  The Pro Plus did not support PC133 SDRAM officially, either.  It also had serious AGP performance issues.  The 133 offered Ultra ATA/66 support and supports a 1/2 AGP clock divider, so it can run at 133FSB without problems.  The performance of the IDE left something to be desired.  The VIA chipsets had infamous issues operating correctly with the Sound Blaster Live! cards, resulting in crackling, hard drive errors or crashes.  The problem seems to be focused on boards with the 686B Southbridge chip, but it may be fixed in the latest drivers and BIOS updates.

Nobody recommended buying an i820 motherboard at the time of its release.  Rambus RDRAM was simply too expensive and the chipset earned a black mark.  The performance of the high end i820 boards barely reached the BX, and the BX was able to compete with the workstation i840 chipset.  Boards using SDRAM, via an adapter, had poor performance.  Performance users avoided the i810 due to the integrated graphics and lack of PC133 SDRAM support.

The ASUS P3B-F is an example of an excellent Slot 1 motherboard.  Slot 1 CPUs range from a Pentium II 233MHz, a Celeron 266MHz and a Pentium III 450MHz all the way up to a Pentium III 1GHz.  While later Pentium IIIs and Celerons used Socket 370, they can be used in this motherboard with a Slotket adapter, which converts a PGA Pentium III/Celeron into a Slot 1 Pentium III/Celeron.  Slot 1 CPUs which this board can support without any additional hardware are as follows :

Pentium II "Klamath" - 233, 266, 300
Pentium II "Deutsches" - 266, 300, 333, 350^, 400^, 450^
Celeron "Covington" - 266, 300
Celeron "Mendocino" - 300A, 333, 366, 400, 433
Pentium III "Katmai" - 450, 500, 533B, 550, 600, 600B
Pentium III "Coppermine"* - 500E, 533EB, 550E, 600E, 600EB, 650, 667, 700, 733, 750, 800, 800EB, 850, 866, 933, 1000, 1000EB

^ - Pentium IIs using a 100MHz FSB

* - Revisions of the board below 1.03 do not support the CPU voltages required by the Coppermine Slot 1 CPUs.  However, Coppermine CPUs of this period run from 1.6v-1.75v, which is within acceptable safety margins when used with 1.8v motherboard.  Speeds faster than 800MHz were not released until 2000.

The P3B-F comes in two common varieties, a 1/6/1 and a 1/5/2 AGP/PCI/ISA configuration.  The 1 ISA slot seems to be the more common board.  Unusually for a board of this era, it comes with 4 DIMM slots.  Most boards of the time only came with 3 DIMM slots.   Each DIMM slot can accept a 8MB-256MB SDRAM.  RAM can but need not support ECC, registered RAM can be used, single or double-sided RAM, but only unbuffered RAM.  With 4 DIMM slots you can run the board with the maximum 1GB of RAM.  Unlike earlier boards from ASUS and other manufacturers, all settings can be set in the BIOS, so no fiddling with jumpers or dipswitches is necessary.  This is extremely helpful for over/underclocking.  Also, like most motherboards of this era, this is a no frills board.  There is no onboard sound hardware, no extra SCSI or IDE ports, no LAN port and only two USB 1.1 ports.

The BX supports front side bus speeds (FSB) of 66MHz and 100MHz.  The chief weakness, if any, of the BX series is its lack of official support for the 133MHz FSB.  BX motherboards can use PC133 SDRAM, but setting the FSB to 133MHz will cause an issue with the AGP port.  The AGP and PCI slots derive their operating speed from the FSB speed.  FSB speeds this board supports via the ICS-9250 PLL are 66, 75, 83, 100, 103, 105, 110, 112, 115, 120, 124, 133, 140, 150.  PCI dividers include 1/2, 1/3 & 1/4, but AGP dividers only include 1/1 and 2/3.  This is a limitation of the BX chipset.  So if you ran a 133FSB CPU, you would be running the AGP slot at 89MHz, well above the spec of 66MHz.  Graphics cards may or may not be able to handle that speed.  I/O voltage setting can be changed from 3.50v to 3.65v.  CPU voltages can range from 3.5v to 1.8v (rev. 1.02 and below) or 1.3v (rev. 1.03 and above).

Out of the box, the motherboard supports BIOS multipliers from 2.0x to 8.0x.  A BIOS upgrade will be required to support CPUs requiring multipliers over 8.0x.  It may or may not be possible to select 8.5x, 9.0x, 9.5x, or 10.0x using the dipswitches.  CPUs that use multiplier settings above 8.0x will force their own multiplier settings, regardless of the motherboard's settings.  Pentium II Deutsches CPUs and more recent CPUs are multiplier locked, so they will ignore any multiplier settings and force their own.  (Some Deutsches CPUs below the 450MHz models can accept a lower clock multiplier than that for which they were designed, but will not work with a higher multiplier).

The Winbond Multi I/O chip used by this board will support two floppy drives.  Certain other boards, like Intel's BX boards, only support one floppy drive.  The last BIOS is 1014 beta 3, and the flash utility can upgrade it in real mode DOS.

Relatively few other BX boards have a four DIMM slot configuration.  The official Intel Spec did not guarantee stability with more than three.  The ASUS P2B-F is one of them, but does not have a Multiplier or FSB configuration option in its menu.  It always comes with two ISA slots.  The MSI BX Master is a good board with six bus mastering PCI slots, but not as stable as ASUS's boards.

The ABIT BX6 and BX6 2.0 are good choices and were very popular, but do not have the build quality of ASUS and often have problems with bad capacitors.  The original BX6 came with 3 ISA slots and 4 PCI slots, which in my opinion do not strike the right balance for a machine for 1999.  The BX6 2.0 had a better balance with two ISA slots.  ABIT pioneered the jumperless configuration approach, and this board allows you to set everything in the BIOS.  It comes in a 1/5/2 AGP/PCI/ISA configuration and also supports 4 DIMM slots.  It supports CPU voltages as low as 1.40, so it can readily support Tualatin CPUs.  It supports FSB speeds of 66, 75, 83, 100, 103, 105, 110, 112, 115, 117, 124, 129, 133, 138, 143, 148, 153.


2.  CPU

Since the choice of a BX motherboard eliminates the Althons, we should focus on the CPUs that would have been available in late 1999.  The Coppermine CPUs were released in late October up to 733MHz and in late December speeds of 750 & 800MHz were also made available.  The prices ranged from $240 to $850.  However, Tom's Hardware complained in February of 2000 that the Pentium III 800 was very hard to get, so I would suggest its lack of availability and high price puts it outside the reach of anyone working within a reasonable budget.

I would not recommend the Katmai processors for a 1999 dream machine.  The half-speed L2 cache, the comparatively ridiculous power draws compared to the Coppermines make them a poor choice.  The Slot-A Athlons are much better CPUs than the Katmai CPUs.  Intel's introduction of the Coppermine CPUs allowed it to seriously compete with the Althon.

I would select the Pentium III 600EB.  This is a 133FSB CPU using a 4.5x multiplier.  This means it can use 300, 450 and 600MHz speeds without running anything out of spec, except for the AGP slot.  It was the fastest Intel CPU under $500 at the time of its release.  A reasonable overclocker's option is the 100MHz version, which uses a 6.0x multiplier.  I overclocked one back in the day to 800MHz by setting the FSB to 133MHz and I could not remember any obvious stability problems attributable to it in years of use.

Historically, in late 1999 there were well-documented shortages of the Pentium III Coppermines.  No one I know of has boasted of building or buying a system in 1999 with a CuMine inside it.  These shortages lasted well into the year 2000.  Intel's transition from the Slot 1 to the socket 370 CPUs was not incredibly smooth.  I would suggest that it would have been a rare system builder who could have actually been running a CuMine in 1999, especially in speeds above 600MHz.

3.  RAM

SDRAM is the only choice available for a BX motherboard, and PC133 SDRAM was available in 1999.  SDRAM really did not differ too much from manufacturer to manufacturer.  CL2 offered lower latency than CL3 SDRAM, but did come at a price increase.  128MB was considered sufficient for 1999, but 256MB was not considered an insane amount of RAM.  While this board will support up to 1GB of RAM, Windows 98 will likely not boot unless a few adjustments are made if you have more than 512MB of RAM.

One of the best features of the P3B-F is that it includes four DIMM slots.  This means that a maximum of 1GB of PC-133 SDRAM can be installed.  This is the maximum amount of RAM supported by the BX chipset.  SDRAMs in the BX should be unbuffered/not-registered, and can have latency settings of CL3 or CL2.  CL2 is the best.  256MB is the maximum for any SDRAM that will fit in a BX DIMM slot.  Windows 98SE will have problems if the system has more than 512MB of RAM, but they can be solved.  Some games, usually DOS games, begin to complain if more than 128MB is installed, so I have kept my system to that amount.  Take care not to mix and match SDRAM latencies. Also, try to use the same size, speed and latency of DIMMs and the same chip configuration (single sided/double sided).  This will decrease boot times.

4.  Case & Power Supply

In the twentieth century, cases always came with a power supply.  Our motherboard uses the ATX form factor.  By 1999 the AT form factor was no longer a major competitor in the marketplace except for Super Socket 7 boards.  Typically a 300W ATX power supply is sufficient for anything from 1999 or earlier you will put in a consumer system.  Cases these days use ATX 2.x power supplies, and these lack the -5v of the ATX 1.2 and earlier standards.  They also tend to have hard drive cages running all the way down the system, blocking full length expansion cards.

Since a 1999 motherboard will almost certainly contain ISA slots, which have a -5v pin, it may be necessary to look for an old ATX power supply.  If you can find an ATX power supply with a -5v line (pin 20, white wire), use it.  Since BX motherboards typically have ISA slots, the -5v line could conceivably be used. Without that -5v power, the Roland LAPC-I and the Sound Blaster 2.0 will not work.  Some older ISA VGA cards also use the -5v pin.  Some power supplies may come with a 4-pin Pentium 4 power connector, but they may still support a -5v line.

A truly contemporary 1999 computer case is very hard to find.  It is much easier to find an OEM case from Dell, HP, Gateway or Compaq and try and fit a motherboard inside it than it is to find a true ATX case from 1999.  Cases released in 1999 tend to be white or beige, and generally use quality sheet metal.  They will have room for only 2-3 3.5" internal drives.  Some may not have an intake case fan.

This is an area where I had to make a concession, I used an Antec Solution Series SLK 1600 that was from a later period.  However, it is still white/beige, not particularly stylish by modern standards, but has front-mounted USB ports.  Virtually no BX board has a header for front-mounted USB ports.  The Antec case is a mid-tower cases with three external 5.25" bays, two external 3.5" bays, and three internal 3.5" bays.  It comes with a 300W power supply but no fans.  It should be able to fit full-length ISA cards, unlike most modern cases which have internal bays going all the way down the system.  There are seven slots for cards and the included I/O bracket will fit the standard BX ports (2 x PS/2, 2 x Serial, 1 x Parallel, 2 x USB). Finally, it came with a reset button.

5.  Graphics Cards

In 1999, the concept of having more than one graphics card was not considered unreasonable for the performance demanding gamer.  Of course, only one AGP slot would ever be found on a motherboard.

A.  Voodoo 2 & 3

The 3dfx Voodoo accelerator card could not be used without a separate 2D card, and many of them were still in use in 1999.  The 3dfx Voodoo 2 was even more successful, two cards could be used in an SLI configuration but you still needed a 2D card!  However, this took up to three PCI slots or two PCI slots plus the AGP slot, so it was a considerable investment of available motherboard resources.  The Quantum 3D Obsidian X-16/24 sandwiched two Voodoo 2 chipsets on a single PCI board, but the card was very expensive at the time and hard to find today.  The Voodoo 2 was the last non-integrated 3D accelerator of any consequence, the chipsets of 1999 all tried to show they could equal or surpass its performance.

The greatest legacy of Voodoo and Voodoo 2 is the Glide A(pplication)P(rogramming)I(nterface).  3D accelerated games by this time were using one of three APIs.  Direct3D, OpenGL or Glide.  While Direct3D was a Microsoft product, it was still considered relatively immature compared to Glide.  Still, many, many games used it.  Developers like John Carmack of iD Software always used OpenGL in their games.  However, other games saw the best performance or features using Glide, like Unreal, Unreal Tournament and Ultima IX.  

One emerging feature during this year was support for 32-bit 3D accelerated graphics.  Voodoo 2s only supported 16-bit 3D accelerated graphics, as did the Glide API.  While the Voodoo3 processed 32bit 3D accelerated graphics internally, externally it displayed an output between 16 and 32-bit.  32-bit graphics came with a performance cost, and in some cases the hit was substantial.

A single Voodoo 2 supported z-buffered 3D accelerated graphics resolutions up to 800x600 with one card, and a second card in SLI mode was needed to unlock 1024x768.  Higher resolutions were not supported.  The Voodoo 3 could support either resolution and higher resolutions like 1280x1024 and 1600x1200.  Voodoo 2s come in 8MB and 12MB EDO RAM varieties, and in SLI mode both cards must have the identical amount of RAM and ideally be from the same manufacturer.  The SLI cable is a 34-pin ribbon cable (think floppy cable) with a twist for the middle four wires.  It is easy to make.  Clock speeds also vary, but the Voodoo 2 is designed to run at 90MHz.

Finally, the Voodoo 2 requires a separate 2D or 2D/3D card to function.  It uses a VGA pass-through cable to connect the VGA output from the 2D board with its own VGA output.  The resulting output may show a loss of quality.  Using a KVM switch can alleviate this problem.

Retail Voodoo 3 cards, the 2000, 3000 and 3500, all came with 16MB of SDRAM.  Some OEM models (1000, Velocity 100) only came with 8MB of RAM or ran at a clock speed of 125MHz.  A few OEM cards used faster SGRAM instead of SDRAM.  The 2000 and 3000 come as AGP (common) or PCI (rare) cards.  The chief distinguishing factor between the three models is the clock speed, 143MHz for the 2000, 166MHz for the 3000 and 183MHz for the 3500.  The 3000 AGP has a TV-out port and the 3500 has a TV & FM tuner and a dongle that attaches to the DVI-like port that provides for VGA, component, S-Video and composite output.  Though the port is the same as the DVI ports for digital display devices like LCD monitors, it actually does not generate the signals necessary for LCD displays.

The PCI versions of these 2000 & 3000 are not significantly slower than their AGP 2x versions because the Voodoo 3 chipset did not take great advantage of the AGP features.  This is demonstrated in one instance as the Voodoo 3, like its predecessor is officially limited to 256x256 textures.  Other cards identified here can support 2048x2048 textures due to their more complete AGP bus implementation.  For a BX machine being overclocked to 133MHz, the PCI versions of these cards will have no problem because they are being run at the proper PCI bus speed (33MHz).  However, the AGP versions of these cards will likely have serious issues being run at 89MHz, way above the AGP spec.  The Voodoo 3's built in 2D accelerator offers very fast and extremely compatible VGA and DOS speeds.

B.  nVidia Geforce 256

The Geforce 256 came in SDR and DDR varieties.  The first uses SDRAM, the second DDR-DRAM.  Memory sizes were 16MB and 32MB.  These cards were manufactured by third parties and analog output quality can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.  The other chipsets in this overview were all contained in boards manufactured by a single manufacturer, at least for most of their market lives.  Unlike all the other players on this list, the Geforce series always had a solid full OpenGL implementation in their drivers, and were the cards to beat in Open GL games like Quake II and III.

Hardware Transform & Lighting was introduced in the Geforce 256 and DirectX 7.0, but it would not see use in many games other than Quake III Arena for some time.  No other 1999 consumer based 3D accelerator could support HT&L.  The Geforce 256 generally minimized the performance hit for 32-bit graphics.

Some cards come with true DVI-D as well as analog VGA outputs.  The AGP versions of the card support AGP 4x.  I had a Geforce card back in the day and it never seemed to exhibit a problem in my BX board which was using a 133FSB and a resulting 89MHz AGP clock.  DDR based Geforce cards were very expensive and hard to find in 1999, especially as the cards were released in the last quarter of 1999.   An SDR card will show nearly as good performance until the resolution goes above 1024x768 in most games.

Ideally, and this would have been very expensive at the time, a Geforce 256 DDR 32MB with a pair of Voodoo 2 cards in an SLI configuration would have been the ultimate configuration possible for 1999.  A Voodoo 2 card can be configured to act like a Voodoo card, which is useful in those Glide games designed to work only on a Voodoo card.  Otherwise, the Voodoo 2s will handle all Glide duties, while leaving the OpenGL and Direct3D games to the Geforce, unless the Voodoo shows better performance or compatibility.  Fast and compatible VGA and DOS speeds.

C.  Other Accelerators

The Matrox Millenium G400, especially the MAX, was a very serious competitor as well, in fact Maximum PC put it in its 1999 Dream Machine.  It has extremely reliable image quality, unlike the hit-and-miss image quality of the various manufactuer's Geforce cards.  However, the G400 took quite a while to get its OpenGL I(nstallable)C(lient)D(irect) up to standard.  Matrox cards have comparatively poor DOS VGA compatibility.

The G400 came in three varieties, the 16MB SGRAM G400, the 32MB SGRAM G400, regular and MAX versions.  The MAX versions has a faster core clock & RAMDAC.  All these cards have a "Dual-Head" display for two monitor support in Windows 98.  It compares very favorably against the Voodoo 3 3500 in performance benchmarks, but does not reach the Geforce's level most of the time.  The software DVD decoder that came with the board can bring CPU utilization to reasonable levels.  The other cards in this roundup with one exception have no special DVD/mpeg2 acceleration qualities.

The Savage 2000 had poor Direct3D performance at launch but decent OpenGL performance.  The first card to use the chipset was the Diamond Viper II Z200, and it came with 32MB of SDRAM.  Generally it was released just before the Geforce and actually was not that far behind that card on average.  No major issues with DOS or VGA compatibility.  It was supposed to have hardware T&L support, but the support is broken and disabled in the drivers.  It did support, however, S3T(exture)C(ompression), which would become more widely used in titles after 1999.  The Diamond card had serious compatibility issues with VIA chipsets of the time at launch.

Pre-Radeon ATi 3D accelerator cards are an odd bunch.  The ATi cards never quite beat the nVidia cards of this generation.  The Rage Fury MAXX put the idea of SLI on a single card well before the Voodoo 5, but it only works in Windows 98 & ME.  Also like the Voodoo 5 5500, each Rage 128 chip had 32MB of SDRAM for its use.  The performance at launch was not quite up to the Geforce SDR level.  While these cards have better DOS and VGA compatibility than the Matrox, it is still not that great.  It does have hardware acceleration for DVD video.  It did not support Windows 95 at all or Windows NT systems at launch.  16-bit video quality was also an issue.

6.  Sound Cards

The main gaming feature in sound in 1999 was 3D positional or surround sound.  The two competing standards in this year were the Creative EAX extensions to DirectSound 3D and the Aureal A3D Sound API.  Most PCI cards from this time period supported the baseline DirectSound 3D.

A.  Creative Sound Blaster Live!

Creative introduced its Sound Blaster Live! in 1998 and was Creative Labs' flagship consumer product.  It firmly embraced the PCI bus whereas previous CL cards were OEM or budget designs.  The Live! 5.1 would be released in 2000 and the Audigy in 2001.

The original Live! was offered in a full and a value version.  The first generation full version has a model number CT4620.  This card came in the box with the Digital I/O Card, CT4660.  This card connected via a 40-pin straight through ribbon cable.  This card, which takes up another slot, adds a MIDI In and MIDI Out port, but uses those extremely hard to come by these mini-DIN adapters, also used by the Roland SCC-1 and MPU-401/AT.  The CT4660 also had two coaxial input jacks, one for S/PDIF in and one for S/PDIF out, and a 9-pin proprietary S/DPIF output port intended for Creative Labs' or Cambridge Soundworks' speakers.  The second generation full version Live! card is CT4760 and removed the I2S_IN header but added a stereo mini-jack S/PDIF connector.  It supports four channels of digital audio output.  The S/PDIF connector uses logic levels up to 5v, whereas most coaxial S/PDIF connectors only go up to 1v.  Damage to equipment can result, so running the S/PDIF through a coaxial to optical S/PDIF converter may be the best bet.

The original value version was the CT4670, which had color-coded but non-gold plated jacks.  It did not have the I2S_IN.  The revised value version was the CT4830, mainly produced for OEMs, which included the I/O expansion port and an external digital S/PDIF jack but left off the CD S/PDIF connector.

The third generation of the Live! cards are the 5.1 cards and use the SBxxxx model designations.  The SB0060 is the retail card.  The connector on these cards can carry the analog center and subwoofer channels or the digital S/PDIF, with or without Dolby Digital 5.1 decoding.  It can support 5.1 decoding with the old CT4660.

There is the CT4770 Optical Digital I/O card + CT4800 Digital Input/Output Module.  This combination of add-on card and external dongle adds Midi In, Out, Line in 2, Optical in, Optical Out, Coaxial In & Coaxial Out.  Line In 2 is not supported on the CT4620 and the CT4670 can use this card for the S/PDIF only.  None of the add-on cards use the actual PCI slot, just the mounting area for the slot.

Finally, the Live!Drive CT4860 and Live!Drive II CT4861 were released.  These were 5.25" bay devices that added similar functionality to the Digital I/O cards.  Chief additions were a mic in 2 and a headphone input and volume wheel.  Requires molex connector for power.  The Live!Drive lacks the Aux In 2 and Optical In and Outs of the Live!Drive II.  The Live!Drive IR uses an infrared controller and its model number is SB0010.  The CT4620 may not work with the mic and line in 2 inputs, and the CT4670 will only have limited functionality.

Earlier Creative Labs Sound Blaster PCI products only support EAX in software at best.  The Sound Blaster Live! has hardware support for EAX 1.0 and 2.0.  As these standards were developed for the Live! cards, they will have the best compatibility.  EAX Advanced HD 3.0 came with the Audigy, so any support for that would be in software only for the Live! cards.  There may be software support for A3D 1.0.

B.  Aureal Vortex 2

Aureal in 1999 was heavily promoting its Vortex 2 chip, supporting its A3D technology.  A3D comes in 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 versions.  Most games only support 1.0, and often support DirectSound 3D as an alternative.  The advanced 2.0 effects were supported in games like Half-Life, Hexen II, Quake III Arena, SIN, & Unreal Tournament.  3.0 was released only a few months before Creative bought Aureal, Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force is one of the very few games known to support it.  No cards other than the Vortex 2 ever supported A3D 2.0 or 3.0.  The Vortex 2 chip is known as the Aureal AU8830A2, and a later revision with better performance is simply the AU8830.  Vortex 1 cards use the AU8810, AU8820 or AU8808 chips, but only support a limited feature set of A3D 2.0 and have no EAX support.  Several companies used the AU8830A2 chip, the most well-known board being the Diamond Monster Sound MX300.  The most likely way to find an AU8830 chip is to find a retail Aureal Vortex 2 SQ2500 card.  The "SuperQuad Digital" is the OEM version.  The SQ3500, which was an SQ2500 + Turbo DSP daughterboard, was never released.  The DSP daughterboard was intended to provide hardware assistance for Dolby Digital decoding.

Virtually all the Vortex 2 cards have a waveblaster connector for MIDI daughterboards and either an optical or coaxial S/PDIF output.  Diamond Monster Sound 3D MX300 requires a daughterboard, the MX-25, for S/PDIF.  Only 2-speaker A3D is supported through the S/PDIF.  The final Vortex 2 reference drivers, 2.048 offered initial support for EAX 1.0.  The 2.048 drivers are a bit buggy, and the 2.041 drivers are a recommended alternative.  A3D 3.0 is not available in drivers below 2.048.

Both the Live! and Vortex 2 series have one major failing.  Their DOS game compatibility is less than ideal.  The Live! emulates a Sound Blaster 16 and the Vortex 2 a Sound Blaster Pro.  The Live!, however, requires the loading of EMM386.EXE in Real Mode DOS, and there are games that will not work when an expanded memory manager is loaded.  Ultima 7, Serpent Isle and Commanche are games that will not work either in Windows or with an expanded memory manager.  The Vortex 2 does not suffer from this problem, but DOS games requiring or taking advantage of the improved features of a Sound Blaster 16 over a Pro will not sound as good.  Both cards have pretty terrible Adlib FM Synthesis emulation.  The Vortex 2 also does not quite perfectly emulate the ADPCM compression modes of the Sound Blaster, which games like Duke Nukem II use.  Vortex 1 cards may only support games running in a DOS window in Windows 95 or 98, which obviously is not sufficient for many DOS games that cannot run in Windows.  The Vortex 2 Sound Blaster Pro TSR takes up a fair bit of conventional memory and should be loaded in upper memory.  Without that TSR the MPU-401 and gameport will not work in Real Mode DOS.

C.  Yamaha YMF Series

An excellent third alternative is a card using a Yamaha YMF-7x4 chip.  OEM boards from the mid-to-late 90s frequently used this chip.  The YMF-724 is the base chip, and there exists 724B, 724C, 724D, 724E, 724F, 734, 740, 740B, 740C, 744 & 754 chips.  Yamaha's chips contain a true YMF-262 OPL3 chip, so there are no quality issues with Adlib music for DOS games.  The driver does not require EMM386.EXE to be loaded, but some games will not work with the Sound Blaster emulation unless it is loaded.  Ultima 7 will work with the driver and no EMM386, but DOOM will require EMM386 loaded.

Some boards have S/PDIF output for pure digital audio streaming.  These cards provide only one of two known ways to obtain a true digital OPL3 capture from a PC.  (The Sound Blaster AWE32s without a CT-1978 chip is the only known other method).  These boards emulate a Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 and do it very well.  Unlike the ISA YMF cards, it will not emulate the Windows Sound System.  Only those few games that use 8-bit to 3-bit and 8-bit to 2-bit ADPCM will not work with these cards.  Duke Nukem II uses these modes for certain, but not all, sound effects.  I have yet to find a DOS game that requires a Sound Blaster 16 to work.  Fallout, which is barely a DOS game, ships with broken Sound Blaster/Sound Blaster Pro drivers.  However, copying over the drivers from another game that uses the same driver model, like Spycraft, will get the drivers working with this card.

These cards' DOS legacy abilities are dependent on the motherboard chipset.  I have found a chart that summaries them :

YMF724, YMF724B, YMF740, YMF740B, YMF740C

                430TX   440LX   440BX   ALADDIN4   ALADDIN5   else
ISA             O       O       O       O          O          X
INTA            O       O       O       O          O          *2
PC-PCI*1        O       O       O       X          X          X

YMF724C, YMF724D, YMF734

                430TX   440LX   440BX   ALADDIN4   ALADDIN5   else
ISA             O       O       O       O          O          O
INTA            O       O       O       O          O          *2
S-IRQ *1        O       O       O       O          O          X
PC-PCI*1        O       O       O       X          X          X
D-DMA           O       X       X       X          X          X

YMF724E, YMF724F

                430TX   440LX   440BX   ALADDIN4   ALADDIN5   else
ISA             O       O       O       O          O          X
INTA            O       O       O       O          O          *2
S-IRQ *1        O       O       O       O          O          X
PC-PCI*1        O       O       O       X          X          X
D-DMA           O       X       O       O          O          X

*1   If you wish to use S-IRQ or PC-PCI, the side band (SB link) must be connected.
*2   INTA# IRQ cannot be changed.

Creative Labs, early in their PCI days, designed the SB-Link connector to provide the ISA IRQ and DMA signals needed for full DOS Sound Card compatibility for PCI cards.  The curious thing is that beyond the OEM-only AWE64D, CT4600 & CT4650, Creative never used this connector again.  The motherboard and the card must each have a 6-pin SB-Link connector.  The connector provides the S-IRQ and PC-PCI signals.  Most YMF cards have the connector, early BX motherboards tend to have the connector.  Most of ASUS P2B motherboards do support the connector.  The ASUS P3B-F does not have a connector, but there are solder points for someone to solder in a connector to the board.  The ABIT BX6 2.0 does support it.

The motherboard given as an example for the 1999 Dream Machine, the ASUS P3B-F, does not have an SB-Link connector ready to use.  However, the BX chipset does provide a working D(istributed)-DMA signal, and the YMF chip can use the PCI IRQ INTA as if it were an ISA IRQ.  Thus the card will work with real mode DOS games using the Adlib or Sound Blaster if the proper drivers are loaded.  Some games, like DOOM, will require the driver that requires EMM386.  Other games, like Ultima 7, do not require the EMM386 driver.

The Yamaha Waveforce 192XG is a good example of a retail card that uses the chipset.  This card uses the YMF-724E chip, so it will support D-DMA on a BX board.  I have tested a YMF-744 chip and it also works with the D-DMA option on the BX.  I assume the YMF-754 also works.  The 744 & 754 support four-speaker output, the earlier devices only support two speakers.

As far as 3D support, the card supports the Sensaura 3D API, which does provide for A3D 1.0 emulation. Sensaura, like EAX, is an extension to DirectSound 3D, as opposed to A3D, which is an entirely separate API like Glide or OpenGL.  The drivers can also emulate EAX 1.0, but only with Windows drivers 1040 or below.  The last drivers for these cards are 1048.

D.  Legacy Sound Support

Almost every BX board released in the full ATX form factor will have at least one ISA slot, as will most VIA and AMD boards.   Thus the problem of DOS sound support is not a huge issue.  A Sound Blaster 16 will suffice for virtually any game, even if it is not ideal.  I would avoid using any card with an OPL2 (Yamaha YM3812) chip like the Adlib, Sound Blaster 1.0-2.0, Sound Blaster Pro 1.0 or Pro Audio Spectrum cards, as the OPL2 has trouble with data being sent to it at high speeds.  Also avoid the LAPC-I unless you know your power supply is capable of delivering -5v.  Finally, make sure your case will accomodate a full length 13" card before inserting an AWE32 or Ensoniq Soundscape.

I find difficulties with plug and play ISA sound cards when using real mode DOS under Windows 98SE. While these cards work well under Windows, their initialization programs will need to be run when they are being used in real mode DOS.  Try to find non-ISA PNP cards, even cards that require software IRQ/DMA initialization like the middle Sound Blaster 16s, early Sound Blaster AWE32s and non-PNP Gravis Ultrasounds are better.

7.  Hard Drives & Hard Drive Interfaces

The Intel BX chipset dual IDE ports support Ultra DMA/33 or ATA-4.  This means that transfers to and from hard disks are limited to 33MB/sec.  Ultra DMA/66, ATA-5 controllers were available in 1999 such as the Promise Ultra66 controller.  This controller does not support RAID, and  unless you use RAID 0 you are unlikely to see performance benefits from the hard disk drives available at the time.  The BX motherboard only supports 28-bit LBA, which limits the hard drives to 128GB.  Windows 98 will not correctly partition a hard disk greater than 64GB without a patched FDISK and SCANDISK will not work on hard disks more than 128GB in size.  ATA-6 controllers will support 48-bit LBA for large hard drives, but they were not readily available and the largest consumer hard drives were roughly 30GB (and very expensive) in late 1999.

The other option was SCSI.  The most advanced interface within a high-end gaming system was Ultra 2 SCSI.  The ASUS P2B-DS supports Ultra 2, Ultra Wide and SCSI-1 & 2.  The Tyan motherboards of this time also tend to support SCSI.  PCI boards also offered SCSI controllers.  The fastest hard drives for IDE used 7,200RPM speeds, but some SCSI drives could run at 10,000RPM.  SCSI drives tended to be smaller than IDE drives, and were generally used when reliability or performance was critical.

A good IDE drive from late 1999 would have 512KB to 2MB of cache, 18-22GB size, and would of course spin at 7,200RPM.  IDE drives were close to 30GB by the end of 1999 and the practical limits of Windows 9x FAT32 implementation.  IBM's hard drives reputation had yet to be hit by the 2001 Deskstar (nicknamed Deathstar) 75GXP.  Quantum, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Western Digital & Seagate were making decent drives at this time.

8.  DVD Decoder

In 1997, the first games were released on DVD-ROM and taking advantage of the improved DVD-Video/mpeg 2.  Games such as Tex Murphy : Overseer were released simultaneously on CD and DVD, with the DVD videos had higher resolution, no interlacing and more color.  Other games like Wing Commander IV : The Price of Freedom were first released on CD then later given an enhanced (double-sided) DVD release.  The DVD release of Wing Commander was only offered in a bundle.  Other games with enhanced DVD releases include Zork : Grand Inquisitor, Tender Loving Care, Journeyman Project 3 : Legacy of Time and Star Trek : Starfleet Academy.

Not all games subsequently released on DVD actually support DVD Video.  Amerzone does not, and games like Baldur's Gate only use the DVD format to avoid disc swapping.  Still others like Outcast supported Dolby Digital 5.1 on its DVD version and contained movies that could be played on a DVD player.  The former is also supported in the DVD version of Civilization : Call to Power and the latter is also available for the DVD version of Riven : The Sequel to Myst.

Decoding mpeg2 video in the late 90s was such a processor intensive task that hardware decoder boards were released alongside DVD drives.  The most important board for gaming was the Creative DXR2 board, CT7120.  This board is supported by virtually every DVD-ROM game.  It was usually released alongside Creative's Encore DVD drives in a kit.  It provides coaxial S/PDIF output and supports AC-3/Dolby Digital passthrough.  It supports composite and S-Video output and dual HD-15 ports for a passthrough for VGA output, just like the Voodoo 2.  Later Creative released the DXR-3 board, CT7230.  This card added an analog stereo output and used a proprietary cable for the VGA input.  The Sigma Designs Realmagic Hollywood Plus+ is virtually the same card and was well recommended for providing trouble-free DVD playback.  Wing Commander IV, without fanpatches, probably will only work with these boards.

A closely related issue is non-DVD Dolby Digital support.  A hardware decoder will provide such support through an S/PDIF output, whether coaxial or optical.  While Dolby Digital can provide up to 5.1 speaker support, the available sound cards of the day only had support for four speakers through analog outputs.

The first generation Sound Blaster Live cards, which only provided S/PDIF output through the I/O cards, can pass AC-3/Dolby Digital through to an external decoder.  The second generation has the digital output on the main card and can do likewise.  The Aureal Vortex 2 cards with a S/PDIF output can also pass AC-3 through.  Released in the year 2000, the Sound Blaster Live 5.1! can decode Dolby Digital 5.1 in software and output it to three pairs of stereo analog outputs or pass it through to an external decoder via its S/PDIF jack.  Those Yamaha YMF cards with a S/PDIF output probably can also support AC-3 passthrough.

As far as DVD drives went, the Creative Encore PC-DVD 5x drive was about the fastest you could get in 1999.  DVD drives of 1997-1999 vintage do not incorporate region encoding on the drive (rpc1), but do so on the mpeg2 decoder.  Thus if the Realmagic Hollywood Plus board is not set to the region of the DVD you wish to play, you are out of luck unless there are you can find a way to reset the region code or there are still selections left on the card.  The Pentium III 600EB is sufficiently fast enough to decode DVD Video at full speed with a software only player like Mediamatics DVDExpress.

9.  Network Interface Cards

Just about any card released during this timeframe will support 10/100 Fast Ethernet.  PCI cards like the 3Com Fast Etherlink XL were very popular and reliable.  Windows 98SE has driver support for the 3Com card included, and there is a packet driver available for it to run DOS Internet applications.  Transfers from modern computers, either through the Microsoft Network/Network Neighborhood (Windows 2K/XP) or an FTP client/server (Windows Vista/7/8) will be made much more convenient through connecting the computer to a router.  Consumer-based Gigabit ethernet cards had to wait for the 21st Century, as would modern wireless cards.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember it very well, I had recently built a Pentium 3, 800 mHz, 256Mb Ram, 7 Gig HD, and a 8mb ati radeon I do believe. I wonder where that machine went.