Friday, March 29, 2013

Exposing the Code Wheels - PC Game Document Copy Protection at its "Most Advanced"

In the mid to late 80's, computer gamer players were beginning to get fed up with playing games strictly off floppies.  The market, at least in the United States was clearly gravitating to the IBM PC platform.  That platform, which at best supported 16-color graphics and few sound choices, had one huge advantage over the more technically impressive Commodore Amiga & Atari ST machines, standardized support for hard drives.  As MS-DOS came with virtually every clone PC and offered standardized methods for interfacing with hard and floppy drives, combined with prices that made hard drives within reach of consumers and smaller businesses, game companies started to realize that the days of floppy-only games were coming to an end.  At first, several game companies like Sierra tried to compromise by allowing a game to be installed to the hard drive, but requiring a copy-protected "key disk" to be in the floppy drive when playing the game.

Consumers still complained because floppy disks were fragile and they wanted to make backups of their games.  Thus came the next evolution of copy protection, the document based check.  Now disks were wholly unprotected and could be backed up as many times as the consumer liked.  However, at some point in the game, the game would ask a question that could only be answered by referring to the game's documents.  The most simple version of this form of protection would be "Enter the third word in the fifth paragraph on page seven of the manual".  King's Quest IV, Leisure Suit Larry II and Police Quest II all use this, although the latter two incorporate graphics to make the protection codes harder to disseminate.  Its probably the most common form too.

However, some publishers did not like the simple approach.  First of all, it was too obvious and dull.  Second, although most homes did not have a photocopier in these days, the local library usually did.  Several alternate approaches were tried.  One was to publish codes in a separate code book and make the resulting codes difficult or impossible to copy.  Maniac Mansion had a codebook that in the original Commodore 64, Apple II and IBM PC releases, was made difficult to copy by using dark red paper and black ink for the codes.  However, apparently this was not deemed secure enough, so when Lucasfilm games re-released the game in a high resolution PC version and for the Amiga and ST, they used white paper, printed the codes in blue and printed the words "Maniac Mansion" in red over the codes, requiring a red gel filter to read the codes.  A decent color printer or scanner can beat either of these forms of protection, a little photoshop helps.

Other games use included unusual items like maps, which not only were used as a selling point but also served as copy protection when the game would ask the coordinates for a particular area on a map.  Maps, especially color ones, were often found in role playing games and games requiring trading.  Still, a photocopier would work here.

The main focus of this article is the Codewheel, the most intricate form of copy protection offered in PC Games.  The first known codewheel was included in the Infocom Text Adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging.  Here it is :

It had an inner and an outer ring, turning the ring would reveal a color which corresponded to a pair of numbers.  The inner ring concealed sixteen different colors.  While the codewheel may seem more complex due to small marks and large marks and 32 numbers on the inner and outer ring, the inner ring window is the double the width of the distance between two numbers on the code wheel.   Naturally therefore, you would think that there are only therefore sixteen possible options.  However, one color can correspond to thirty two combinations of numbers.  Since the game gave you the color and the inner number, you had to respond with the outer number.  As you had to know which inner number corresponded to which other number, the total possible combinations would be 512 (16 colors x 32 number pairs)

Today, with a scanner, this codewheel can be fully represented with fifteen images.  Put them in order in a pdf and the resulting page flipping will resemble the user actually moving the codewheel.  It can also be turned into a table, like this :

Numbers, colors, letters and words are easy to describe in text, so publishers that came after Infocom used more complex code wheels.  Electronic Arts used a three-wheel codewheel in The Bard's Tale III,  SSI used a two-wheel codewheel with multiple windows cut into the inner codewheel for Pool of Radiance, and Interplay used a codewheel with symbols in Out of this World.

Out of this World/Another World's codewheel was used in every early disk based release for the game.  Some games would use document based protection for the IBM PC and disk-based protection for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, but this was not one of them.  At first, this Codewheel looks rather daunting :

After a few startups, however, the player would learn that the game never seemed to ask for a symbol sequence more than three symbols in length.  That means only windows G, H, I, L, N, O and U were likely to house the correct symbols.  Even so, twenty scans of this wheel would give a full representation of its contents.  The game did not care which order you input the symbols.  You may notice that the symbols are not fixed-width, which makes it difficult to easily count how many symbols are printed on the outer ring.

Here is a famous codewheel :

Most of the time, by the time the game made its way into slash releases or compilation CDs, the company would crack the codewheel protection.  The Gold Box games, Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds and Hillsfar were frequently re-released but always had paper codewheels included.  I bought a Gamefest : Forgotten Realms Classics CD and all three codewheels were included.  Pool and Curse shared a Codewheel in that one side of the outer ring had the Pool codes printed on it, the other had the Curse codes, and each side had an inner ring.  Hillsfar was on a separate codewheel.  They need not have bothered, as Pool and Hillsfar use the exact same codes on their codewheel.  Pool/Hillsfar and Curse share the same letters in the same position in the 1st ring, as the translation idea requires.  Thirty six scans are required fully represent these codewheels.

Now suppose you wanted to spread your newly acquired game over your local BBS, but lacked the cracking skills to beat the codewheel protection.  How would you manage this :

While the place names and the dates are easy to type, unless you were a dynamite ASCII artist, you would need to provide text descriptions of the faces.  Skull, fat faced pirate with skullcap, female pirate with eyepatch, blond pirate, (Guybrush) wavy haired pirate, monkey, female pirate (Elaine), pirate with two eyepatches, masked cannibal, pirate with hat (LeChuck), pirate with widows peak and goatee, dead pirate with cutlass in forehead, dead pirate with scar, bald old man, pirate with knife between teeth.  It may take the user a few times since the game mixes and matches the upper facial features with the lower facial features.  There are 105 possible codes here, but the game can throw 225 possible upper/lower face combinations at you.  Fifteen scans will fully represent this codewheel.

The most complex codewheels are the ones with a third, middle ring.  This ring may have the code or it may have a window to point to the code on the outer ring.  Accolade loved these things and used them in most of their games from 1989-1992.   Here is a deconstructed example (not to true scale) :

Although the outer wheels use symbols, at least it is team logos.  There are 72 codes on the outer ring and 66 on the inner ring for a total of 138 codes.  In order to fully capture this codewheel, you would need to scan it 144 times!  You would need to turn the inner ring 12 times for each turn of the middle ring.  Clearly, scanning is not the ideal method to capture the properties of this wheel.  Not only that, there are 1,728 possible combinations of questions the game could ask you.  A table would be huge, and a separate program to generate the code would have been useless in a single task operating system like DOS.  Even so, I doubt the game actually asked more for a code from more than 30-40 combinations, because size constraints on floppy disk games also tend to scale down the ambitions of the copy protectionists.

The solution was to destroy a codewheel and let it be photocopied, or to crack the game.  Codewheel games seemed especially prone to cracking.  Its as if the challenge invited hackers to test their mettle against the latest and greatest in technology.

As the industry transitioned to CD-ROM, codewheels became less common, even for floppy games.  Most floppy games from 1992 to 1995 either used simpler document checks or neglected to implement copy protection at all, relying on the sheer number of disks to deter pirating.

Monday, March 25, 2013

IBM PC & PCjr. vs. Tandy 1000 : Price Wars

I recently opined that the Tandy 1000 shared the benefits of the IBM PC and PCjr. while being cheaper than either of them.  I wanted to find out how true that was.  The IBM PC Model 5150 was released in August, 1981, the PCjr. in January, 1984 and the Tandy 1000 in November, 1984.  (I know the Jr. was available for sale in November, 1983, but users actually did not get the machine until January, if they were lucky).

The comparison between the IBM PC and the Tandy 1000 is easy enough.  For the prices I am using "A Guide to IBM Personal Computers", January 1985 Edition and the Tandy Radio Shack 1985 Catalog.  For the PCjr. prices, I am using the IBM PCjr. Order Form, November 1983 and Compute! Issue 53, October 1984 Article : "IBM's New & Improved PCjr." by Tom R. Halfhill.  I know that there could be deals to be had with either system, and you weren't always required to buy the maker's hardware but I am interested in the base price were you to talk into IBM's Business Center or a Radio Shack store.

Lets compare the base system units:

IBM 5150 System Unit Model 176
CPU - Intel 8088 @ 4.77MHz
NPU - Option
RAM - 256K Parity
83-Key Keyboard
5.25" Diskette Drive Adapter
2 x 5.25" Diskette Drives (Full Height)
5 x ISA slots

Base 1985 Price - $2,295.00

Tandy 1000 25-1000
CPU - Intel 8088 @ 4.77MHz
NPU - No Option (until the Tandy 1000A)
RAM - 128K Non-Parity
90-Key Keyboard
1 x 5.25" Diskette Drive
3 x ISA slots
Also has the following built-in :
Tandy Graphics Adapter (PCjr compatible.)
Tandy Sound (ditto)
Printer Adapter (card-edge)
Game Ports (Tandy joysticks only)
Diskette Drive Adapter (two internal floppies max)

Base 1985 Price - $1,199.00

For almost $1,100 less than what IBM would want, you get virtually all the functionality of the PC and some very nice extras.  Parity memory and math co-processor support may have been important to the business world, but was not much of a value for home users.  And while 5 ISA slots beats 3 ISA slots, IBM took up two with the floppy controller and any display adapter.  

Still, even with this you still need some stuff.  Here is the rough equivalent IBM and Tandy upgrade paths and the cost of them :

IBM Prices
Color/Graphics Adapter


Tandy Prices
Tandy 1000 Disk Drive Kit

Printer Adapter 75
Game Control Adapter 45
5153 Color Display 680
CM-2 Color Monitor 549.95
PC-DOS 2.1 65
256K Memory Expansion Option 489
256K Memory Expansion Board 299.95

128K RAM Upgrade 149.95

512K Memory Expansion Board 249.95

5152 Graphics Printer 449
DMP-120 499.95

IBM curiously would be happy to sell you a computer that was unusable for any practical purpose by omitting the display adapter, DOS and in some configurations, floppy drives.  I chose IBM's CGA adapter over IBM's recently released Enhanced Graphics Adapter, which while it would provide graphics parity with the Tandy Graphics Adapter, nothing supported it yet.  The EGA would set you back an additional $280.  Both 14/13" color monitors were suitable for high resolution 640x200 graphics, although the 5153 would have the nicer dot pitch.  (.31 vs. .43).  

IBM sold either a 64/256K Memory Expansion Option or a 256K Memory Expansion Option.  At IBM's prices, a fully stacked 64/256K Memory Expansion Option would cost $565, so I saved money here.  However, this adapter uses up slot 3, the Printer Adapter slot 4 and the Game Control Adapter slot 5.  No more slots, so there is no room for a second memory expansion or a Asychronous Communications Adapter (Serial) unless you added the 5161 Expansion Unit for the low, low price of $2,585.  

Tandy required a memory expansion adapter to upgrade the RAM above 128K.  The first ISA adapter came with 128K, supported 128K more and added the very important DMA compatibility.  The second ISA adapter also came with 128K but no DMA chip, and 128K more could be added for the maximum 640K.  Even though Tandy later released a board that consolidated these two expansions into one, you still had one slot for a serial card or a hard disk controller.

Tandy did not offer a two-floppy system until the SX, but it did include Tandy MS-DOS 2.11 (and GW-BASIC).  IBM hit you for extra for DOS.  In the 1980s no one could purchase a computer without a printer.  The IBM 5152 Graphics Printer was a solid, reliable unit, and I chose the nearest dot-matrix printer from Tandy's Catalog for a comparison.  Tandy's printer offerings could get very expensive.  

Total IBM PC 1985 Cost : $4,342.00.  
Total Tandy 1000 1985 Cost : $3,248.70.  

The home user clearly got better value here.  IBM had no adapter card that could replicate the PCjr./Tandy Graphics and Sound and no one else did.  More and more games were starting to take advantage of them.  

But what about the PCjr.?  The Enhanced Model was $1,269 at launch but $999 by August 1984.  Here is what that would get you :

IBM PCjr. 4863 Model 067
CPU - Intel 8088 @ 4.77MHz

NPU - No Option
RAM - 128K Non-Parity
62-Key Wireless Infrared Keyboard
1 x 5.25" Diskette Drive
Diskette Drive Adapter
Sidecar Expansion
2 Cartridge Slots
Also has the following built-in :
PCjr. Graphics Adapter
PCjr. Sound
Game Ports
Serial Adapter

Here is what you need to build an roughly equivalent system :

IBM PCjr. Prices
PC-DOS 2.1


Tandy Prices
RS-232C Option Board

Cartridge BASIC 75

Parallel Printer Attachment 99

BASIC was important in the 1980s, and to fully use BASIC on the PCjr., you needed Cartridge BASIC.  PC-DOS's BASIC and BASICA required it.  Tandy's DOS included GW-BASIC, which incorporated the functions of Cartridge BASIC.  

Although I do not know how much IBM charged for the 4863 PCjr. Display, I would assume it was roughly equivalent to the price of the CM-2.  If you wanted a cord for the keyboard, that would be an extra $20, payable to IBM.  Before the July 31, 1984 price cuts, the IBM and Tandy costs are as follows :

Total IBM PCjr. 1984 Cost : $1,508.00.
Total Tandy 1000 1984 Cost : $1,298.95.

IBM's 128K Memory Expansion Sidecar would cost $325, but the PCjr. needed a device driver to recognize more than 128K.  It was more expensive than the Tandy card and did not add DMA capability, which turned the Tandy 1000 into a truly functional machine.

While IBM's price cut and deals would eventually make the system as cheap as the new Tandy 1000 by Christmas 1984, it was scant consolation to those people who bought the PCjr. at full market price, suffered from the chicklet keyboard and found out that someone else bought virtually the exact same system and more expandable to boot only a few months later for more than $200 less.  Tandy also had a good Christmas 1984 deal, $999 could get you the 1000 and a Color Monitor (the cheap CM-4).  For a realistic user in 1985, the discounts on the PCjr. were not worth it because it was essentially a dead-end system.  A well-informed computer buyer, having read magazine articles detailing the troubles with the PCjr. and every conscientious salesperson who did not work for IBM trying to steer customers away from the Peanut should have made scared away potential buyers in droves.  All of a sudden, IBM's name no longer held the marquee value it had in the business world, and home computers from Tandy, Commodore and Apple should have looked a lot more attractive.

After March of 1985, when IBM discontinued the PCjr., the system could be had at steep discounts, but there was no future for the machine.  Game support quickly disappeared for the PCjr., but for the Tandy 1000 it increased dramatically.  Third-party options to add disk and hard drives were very expensive.  Tandy could stick it to the customer with prices for its upgrades, and compatibility with PC upgrades could be a little hit-or-miss, but at least there were first and third party options available. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dark Shadows - The Achievement of Getting Through it All

Where to begin?  Last year I acquired the complete 1,225 episodes series of Dark Shadows.  It took me thirteen months to watch the series from start to end.

My introduction to Dark Shadows came in 1991 with the revival.  I thought that the revival was a great show at the time and I still have a certain fondness for it.  I have also recently watched the DVD release of the series.  The presentation is sadly flawed, the picture has been cropped from 1.33:1 to a "widescreen friendly" 1.78:1 ratio.  Additionally, this show was shot on 35mm color film and several scenes were shot day for night.  It is easier to film during the daytime, and a filter could be applied to camera lens or the colors could be manipulated in post-processing to give a "nighttime" effect.  Usually the result has a tendency to emphasize the blue.  Unfortunately, the day for night processing was ignored for the DVD release, so there are incorrect scenes of vampires walking around in daylight (before Barnabas' treatments take effect) or at best in the late afternoon.    The original MPI VHS releases, each episode being released individually, did not have these problems and showed extended versions of the first and final episodes.

I also at some point saw House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, the films made in the wake of the original series' TV success.  They were released on VHS, but a DVD release did not come until 2012, where there was a simultaneous DVD/Blu-ray release.  This functioned as my only exposure to the original series for quite some time.

MPI released the series on DVD in 26 Collection volumes, beginning from episode 210, which introduces Barnabas, to the last episode.  Then they released 6 "The Beginning" DVD Collections covering episodes 1-209.  The company had previously released the series on VHS in 254 single volume tapes!  The enormous task of obtaining so many VHS or DVDs and the expense when I was too busy with Doctor Who delayed made my introduction to the original series.  Fortunately, MPI re-released the complete original series in one complete box set shaped as a coffin.  In this coffin will be found 22 boxes containing 131 DVDs!  Not only does this drastically reduce the amount of shelf space to hold the series, the Complete Series is much, much more affordable.

When one approaches the original series, there are four names that simply cannot be ignored, Frid, Hall, Parker and Selby, a.k.a. Barnabas Collins, Dr. Julia Hoffman, Angelique and Quentin Collins.  Jonathan Frid was a Canadian stage actor who seemingly came out of nowhere to play Barnabas, and after the series ended quickly disappeared back into the shadows.  Before Dark Shadows, the IMDB lists no film or television credits for him, and after that only two movies made soon after the series ended.  During the four years on the show, he created a portrayal of one of the most compelling characters to appear on television.  First a villain with an unhealthy devotion to finding his long-dead love Josette, then a reluctant test-subject and test overseer, finally an outright champion of the Collins family with the occasional lapse into selfishness or to slake his thirst for blood.  Frid could portray a menacing monster, cold & calculating manipulator, a sympathetic and warm cousin or a hot-tempered romantic.  Of course, among the cast members he frequently had trouble with his lines, his delivery showing a great deal of hesitation.  In the movie he seems in greater command of his delivery, doubtless the greater time to rehearse and more lenient demands of film on an actor helped him significantly.

Frid only played two characters, Barnabas and Bramwell Collins.  Grayson Hall, who was an Oscar-nominated actress prior to joining the Dark Shadows cast, played multiple characters.  Her primary character was Dr. Julia Hoffman.  For the late 60s a female doctor or scientist was an unusual role, and Hall was not intended to become a permanent addition to the regular cast.  (The character of Dr. Hoffman was originally designed for a man).  Lucky for her that her husband, Sam Hall, was one of the series main writers.  Her Julia Hoffman had a difficult relationship with Barnabas at first, but during the Adam & Eve plot line they become firm allies and except for one temporary instance they remained so thereafter.  Much fan-fiction has been devoted to exploring the relationship between the two.  Male-female partnerships (outside of marriage) were not yet commonplace in the late 60s.  The Avengers (future article) with John Steed and Catherine Gale, Emma Peel or Tara King is the best known of these partnerships from this time.  Unlike The Avengers, where Steed usually saved his (still capable) female partners, Barnabas and Julia had a more equal relationship.  Barnabas may have saved Julia from some supernatural entity but she saved him from being staked.

Hall's performance as Dr. Julia Hoffman was really twitchy.  She often wore a terrible wardrobe, blinked twice as much as her costars, wore unflattering wigs, could be counted to be very animated and when she became emotional, it was strange.  She has been described as playing her character as though she was on the stage.  To be fair, a more subtle approach may have been lost considering the relatively-low definition video being broadcasted over the air onto a 20-inch TV screen would benefit from a broader playing.  Hall also played aristocratic Countess Natalie Du Pres in the 1795 storyline, the earthy Magda Rakowski in 1897, the Mrs. Danvers-like maid Julia Hoffman in 1970 Parallel Time and the family standard bearer Julia Collins in 1841 Parallel Time.  In these roles, she seemed to tone down her more eccentric acting traits most of the time.

In 1795, we meet Angelique  the author of Barnabas' curse and many troubles thereafter.  Angelique went by many names : Miranda DuVal, Anglique Bouchard, Valerie Collins, Cassandra Collins, Anglique Rumson and, of course, Angelique Collins.  She would never stay defeated for long and her powers seemed to give her a certain form of immortality.  Against anyone but Barnabas or some supernatural power she could seemingly afflict or kill just about anyone.  All she needed was a voodoo doll and something a person owned and she could have the ultimate weapon over that person.  Of course, it helps that the actress, Lara Parker has an insane wide-eyed stare and looked comparatively frightening when she was playing a vampire for a while.  Angelique Stokes Collins was the chief villain in 1970 Parallel Time, essentially a life-essence vampire.  Parker's final role was the 1841 Parallel Time heroine Catherine Harridge Collins.  Unlike her previous roles, her last did not have any supernatural powers but did have a rational and forceful mind.

Finally, there is Quentin Collins, who like Barnabas started out villainous but eventually became heroic, if somewhat-self centered.  (In a soap opera, everyone has their own interests at heart).  When he was first introduced in 1968, he was played by the 28 year old David Selby.  His first incarnation was the malevolent Ghost of Quentin Collins, and the mutton chops and unflattering makeup he had to wear, combined with the lack of lines for his first twenty or so episodes, must have been unusual for an actor with looks that could have landed him leading-man status on a daytime soap.  Selby played five characters named Quentin Collins : the Ghost, Quentin Collins 1897, 1969-70 & 1995, Quentin Collins in 1970 Parallel Time, Quentin Collins 1840, and Quentin Collins in 1841 Parallel Time.  His main character's power, immortality, was inspired by Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey.  He was also cursed with Lycanthropy.  Selby could not don the werewolf makeup, the process would have taken hours, so the Stunt Coordinator was pressed into service.

Dark Shadows was taped in New York at ABC's Studio 2 and later 16.  It was produced by Dan Curtis and his eponymous production company, which was previously best known for filming golf tournaments for broadcasting.  Most of the actors cast were primarily stage actors, although the series hired Joan Bennett for audience draw.  Bennett was a movie star until the mid-1950s and was hired to provide some recognizable name where the rest of the cast were mainly unknowns.

One of the more unusual elements in this show was its involved use of child actors.  David Henesy, who played David Collins and other Collins children, was only nine years old when he was first on Dark Shadows, and he was there for almost throughout the whole show.  The demands of a five-day-a-week soap opera were taxing on the seasoned adult professionals, and this kid was expected to remember his lines, act appropriately and hit his marks.  On top of that, his was a challenging role, playing a troubled young boy with serious parental issues and the supernatural happening all around him to boot.  For the first hundred episodes, he was among the most dangerous members of the main cast.  He acted alongside a succession of young female actresses, including Sharon Smyth as the ghostly and non-ghostly Sarah Collins and Denise Nickerson as Amy Jennings and others.  Smyth had a blank affect about her that was ideal for a ghost, and Denise Nickerson had an extremely natural screen presence.  A soap opera may have more to do with children than many normal dramas, but Dark Shadows employed children well.  Since Dark Shadows was broadcast at 3:30PM or 4:00PM, having younger members in the audience was no doubt calculated to appeal to younger children doing their homework after school.

Once the show went to color in episode 295, any and all location filming ceased.  The series had shot location footage, including the actors, during the first year.  The only color film ever shown seemed to be the waves in the title sequence and an establishing shot of the Blue Whale.  The opening shots of Collinwood were static day or night shots of the Seaview Terrace/Carey Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, the building chosen as the image of Collinwood.  Outside scenes were always shot on sets or by blue screening the actors over a static image backdrop.

Portraiture was very important in Dark Shadows.  Portraits of Josette Du Pres, Laura Collins, Barnabas, Angelique and Quentin seemed to have powers of their own.  Josette's spirit seemed to emerge from her portrait in the old house, and unlike later portraits the face does not correspond identically with any of the main cast.  Laura Collins portraits were intended as a warning of her true nature.  Barnabas used his portrait to "will" the greedy to his chained coffin on more than one occasion.  Angelique's portraits were used to influence minds, and Quentin's held his mortality and kept his particular curse at bay.  I doubt the actors sat for most of the portraits, I would suggest the painters worked from photographs.

The music for the series was composed by Robert Colbert, who would also compose music for the 1991 revival and House and Night of Dark Shadows.  His scores were unusually moody and evocative for the time, whether for a soap opera or something else.  As the series progressed, there would be new music added.  The well-known Barnabas' theme with its low strings was not introduced with the character.  Similarly, the haunting Josette's music box theme was added some time after Barnabas gives the box to Maggie Evans.  Characters would have their own themes, Quentin's' early 20th century phonograph theme being especially prominent.  During the early episodes the jukebox in The Blue Whale plays actual music from the pop stars of the day.

Makeup is another area where Dark Shadows attempted to innovate.  When Julia's experiments to cure Barnabas' backfire and turn him to his natural age, the makeup designed by Dick Smith is fantastic.  Perhaps the makeup was a little generous considering Barnabas was intended to be almost 200 years old, but the result is extremely convincing at aging the man.  In fact, the makeup does not look too far off how Frid actually looked in his final years.  Smith topped his performance with the makeup job for the aged Barnabas in House of Dark Shadows.  Other makeup effects were usually decent.  It makes up for the terrible vampire bat effects, which were either the suspended from wires or the video shadow insert variety.

The show took itself seriously, but the production and the storylines were that of a soap opera, so the watcher has to watch this show in a certain spirit of fun.  Every time an actor flubs a line or obviously looks at the teleprompter, a boom mike, a TV camera or a grip finds his way into the scene, its always fun.  Sometimes the period costumes for the men were somewhat tight fitting to the actor and a bulge could be seen.  A drinking game could be constructed based on such oft-repeated lines "Let me go, you're hurting me" or "He is one of the living dead" and my particular favorite "I'll explain everything later."  The show frequently had to cut the credits short or eliminate them entirely to fit it and the commercials into the 30 minute time slot.

I saw the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton movie in the theater and thought it was a decent homage, but not the best pairing of the two.  (Personally I would say Ed Wood, but many others would point to Edward Scissorhands).  Like the 1991 revival, it focuses on the conflict between Barnabas and Angelique.  It does touch on certain other themes present in the original series, the precarious financial situation of the Collins family, the orphan status of Victoria Winters, the strained relationship between father Roger and son David, the rebellious Carolyn, the supernatural nature of David's mother and the Collins' Cannery & Fishing Fleet.  Unlike the original Barnabas, who had few difficulties blending into the late 60s (he learned to drive a car), the Barnabas of this movie is continually perplexed by modern innovations, something the movie uses for much of its humor.  The movie itself fits comfortably into the post-Ed Wood Depp/Burton series of film adaptations of famous works.  In short it is light, entertaining fare with little underneath the surface.

It is no mean feat to commit to a single massive series (and all the film spinoffs) and stick with it until the end.  While no one is likely to look at Dark Shadows fifty years in the future as a seminal piece of television, it was certainly entertaining and groundbreaking in its own small way.  It may never have broken into the top 10 of soap operas during its run, but all its episodes survive in one form or another, and 98% of them are on color or black and white videotape.  The other 2% come from kinescopes, and the quality is much poorer and the color is lost.  Only one episode is missing, and there is a fan recording of its audio.  Many other soap operas junked their episodes made before the 1980s.  To survive five years, broadcast over 1,000 shows that were seen by and entertained millions in a highly competitive environment and to have had lasting influence to this day is worth a few words.

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.