Friday, December 24, 2021

Packard Bell : PC-Compatibles for the Masses, 1990s Style

In the history of personal computing, we often discuss the great pioneers who brought digital computing from the universities and the state to ordinary people, companies like Apple, Tandy, Commodore, Atari.  These companies, which had big successes in the late 1970s and through the mid 1980s, did succeed in exposing millions of people to computer technology.  But these non-PC compatible computers did not become ubiquitous household items, they were very expensive and offered little assistance for day-to-day non-business activities.  The PC became dominant in the late 1980s in the US market and not too many years afterward in the rest of the world.  One of the key players in that success was Packard Bell, and in this blog post I will talk about the company and my recent experience with one of its PCs.

A Brief History of Packard Bell

Not mine, but a good example of this type of Packard Bell Tower

Packard Bell began selling PC compatible machines during the mid-1980s, and by the late 1980s had acquired a reputation for selling affordably-priced PCs.  Packard Bell specialized in targeting retailers whereas other companies like Dell and AST were sold via catalog and telephone orders.  Packard Bell computers were generally not stocked with the latest and greatest in CPUs and video cards or overly large sized hard drives, but you could walk into a store, see a computer on display, demo it, talk to a store employee and walk out of that store with the canonical setup of monitor, computer and printer. 

Packard Bell tried to make computing easier for newcomers.  Their systems usually came bundled with some basic productivity software and, in the 1990s, the latest in Microsoft operating systems.  They also came with their own graphical user interface, the Packard Bell Navigator.  System-manufacturer specific GUIs were not novel at the time, Tandy had Deskmate for example. GUI programs you could buy off the shelf were also fairly popular, Digital Research offered GEM and Microsoft Windows was not ubiquitous until Windows 95.  IBM offered OS/2, which was more of an operating system than a GUI but still had to maintain some DOS compatibility.  Packard Bell's Navigator worked as a substitute for the more advanced Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 and was key feature to help ease new computer users into the powerful computing of the 1990s.

Packard Bell's reputation for affordability eventually cost the company, as that affordability came at the expense of quality control.  Packard Bell was notorious for using recycled and refurbished parts in new machines and not telling the customer.  Other companies also used refurbished parts in their new computers but were less dishonest about it.  Coupled with the fact that Packard Bells often came with a lot of bloatware and slower hardware, the company found itself something of a victim of its own success.  In the late 1990s, brands like Compaq, HP, Dell, Gateway had better reputations, something important for businesses, and were able to match Packard Bell on price.  The gaming PC was also something that came fully into being in the late 1990s, and Packard Bell was slow to embrace high performance components.  The members of the computer buying public who had been educated with the assistance of Packard Bells did not need to show brand loyalty when it came to buying replacement computers and teaching the younger generations how to use them.

System Specs

With a brief history of the company out of the way, let us turn our attention to today's machine, a Packard Bell Platinum 2010.  This computer was released in 1997, and here are its specs :

CPU : Pentium 166MMX

Motherboard Chipset : Intel i430VX

Motherboard Connectors : 2 x IDE, 1 x Floppy, 4 x 72-pin SIMM

RAM : 16MiB EDO DRAM (2 x 72-pin SIMMs)

Cache : 256KiB L2

Video : S3 Trio 64V+ w/ 2MiB RAM

Audio : Packard Bell 030275 (Sound + 33.6K Modem)

Ports : 1 x VGA, 1 x Serial, 1 x Parallel, 2 x USB 1.0, PS/2 Keyboard, PS/2 Mouse

Expansion Slots : 3 x ISA, 3 x PCI (1 shared)

Drive Bays : 2 x 3.5", 3 x 5.25"

Disk Drives : 1 x 1.44MiB 3.5" Floppy, 16X Goldstar CD-ROM,  2 GiBSeagate HDD (both IDE)

Enclosure and Styling

Even though those specs may be a tad modest by 1997 standards, there is a lot of utility in this box.  But first let's talk about the box.  One thing Packard Bell did not skimp on was the design of its enclosures in this period.  Its cases tended to stick out compared to generic cases.  Their cases often were a brighter shade of off-white compared to the more typical beige boxes of the era with clean lines, unobtrusive buttons and professional lettering.  Plus it had this abstract logo of a face which, in my opinion, was one of the best logos for a computer company ever made.  

Included Sound Card

The enclosure has some unusual features for the time period.  The base is very wide and metal on the inside.  The machine is unlikely to tip over thanks to the wide base.  The top of the enclosure is slightly rounded, which makes for some precariousness if you wish to put something on it.  The front of the enclosure extends outward from the base rather than being flush with it, but the back is flush for all the enclosure's height.  The flared sides do not seem to be functional but more of an aesthetic choice to distinguish this enclosure from a typical rectangular computer tower.  Packard Bell did make some more typical desktop and tower designs, but this ziggurat-shaped tower was found on many system models.  

Getting into the system starts out easy, all you need to do is to unscrew the three screws on the back and pull back and up.  The cover and front panel are plastic, as is the back rear piece, but inside its all metal.  Once the top cover is off you can unscrew the front panel with a screw on each side, then wiggle the panel from the top to release the plastic tabs that fit into the metal case.  That will give you access to the CD-ROM and Floppy drive, the former of which uses drive rails and the latter only uses screws.  The hard drive is mounted on the side, secured by one screw and then standoffs which slide into notches in the metal.  Slide the hard drive out to remove the tray holding it.  The drive cables are not generous with their length, but the short lengths helped keep the system tidy.  

The rear plastic cover is held in by four locking tabs which can be pushed out and then several tabs at the bottom which can be wiggled out.  Dirt tends to get trapped in the rear plastic by the power supply, so clean this area if you find a new system using this enclosure.

Getting to the mainboard is a bit of a challenge.  First you must unscrew and remove the riser card.  Then you must unscrew three screws on the CPU side and two screws on the connector side.  Finally you have to leverage the motherboard out at an angle.  Due to how the case meets the enclosure, you will be hard pressed to secure the ISA card in the lowest slot without a right-angle Phillips screwdriver.

The power supply seems generic but it uses the AT connector pair, not ATX.  It has a thick wire connected to the power button.  Its screws are hidden under the rear plastic plate.  One refreshing thing about AT power supplies is that pushing the power button truly turns the system off.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

For mid-1990s gaming, this system comes on strong.  The S3 Trio 64V+ is a solid PCI-based graphics card.  It is a fast 2D card and will run just about anything using VGA or EGA.  The video quality is sharp at the gaming resolutions you should be using on this machine (320x200, 640x480).  The graphics chip can support 800x600 at 32-bit color, 1024x768 with 16-bit color and 1280x1024 with 8-bit color.  It pairs well with a dedicated 3-D accelerator like the 3DFX Voodoo or the NEC PowerVR cards.  In (unaccelerated) Quake running timedemo demo3 at 320x200 and -nosound, I can get an FPS score of 37.20.  Quake is very playable on this system.

The name of the sound card, "Packard Bell 030275" is fairly meaningless, but its feature-set is surprisingly good.  This card was made by Aztech, a frequent supplier to Packard Bell.  In the beginning, Aztech used Creative Labs and Analog Devices manufactured chips to produce Sound Blaster/Windows Sound System Hybrid cards.  In this card, all that functionality has been condensed down into one main chip.  The chip, the AZT2320, uses a genuine Yamaha OPL3 core or an excellent clone, supports Sound Blaster Pro digital audio output features, Windows Sound System (possibly), Gameport + MIDI and Waveblaster.  MIDI is UART MPI-401 compatible.  There is also a 28.8K/33.6K modem on the card, but the one on my card lost a battle with an electrical surge and can no longer work.  The card is Plug-n-Play based, so it will require a driver to configure its resources.  The card has a native 16-bit mode, and this is what its Windows drivers use.  The card supports a Gameport, Line Out, Line In and Mic In as well as the RJ-11 connector for a telephone cord.

The positive compatibility features of this card include a lack of clicking with 8-bit audio, hanging-note free MPU-401, stereo mixer capability (Wolfenstein 3D) and support for 8-3 and 8-2 DMA modes (Duke Nukem II).  The negative issues include distortion with Sound Blaster digital audio and difficulties configuring the card to use IRQ7 (required by several early games).  For regular audio I found that the Master Volume can be kept up to 100, but the Wave and the MIDI/FM will suffer from severe distortion above 25%.  You can keep those levels low and still have decently loud audio with the Master Volume.

One real oddity I found with the Sound Card was that the CD-Audio cable which came with it would not output CD Audio from the drive.  The cable looked factory original, but the volume slider did not affect the ability of the card to play CD Audio.  I jerry-rigged my own cable and tried other audio input headers on the board.  The one that worked, "TV" I think, was controlled by the Line In volume dial.

The CPU can be upgraded with Socket 7 CPUs, up to 233MHz with MMX or downgraded speeds as low as 75-90MHz (without MMX).  In Destkop Pentiums, this gives you 166, 200 and 233 in MMX variants and 75, 90, 100, 120, 133, 166 and 200 in non-MMX.  If you wish to go AMD, the K5 series should work (PR75, PR90, PR100, PR120, PR133, PR150, PR166, PR200) as was as the early members of the K6 series (166, 200, 233).  On the other hand, if you enjoy a more exotic taste in CPUs, the Cyrix 6x86 and the WinChip should be usable.

The L2 cache is only 256KiB but regardless of the cache amount, the VX chipset can cache up to 64MiB of RAM.  The chipset supports FPM or EDO DRAM and there are four SIMM slots.  16MiB may seem a little light on RAM, so an upgrade to 32MiB is an inexpensive way to cut down on the virtual memory usage and hard drive thrashing.  By mistake I upgraded to 48MiB.  Originally I thought I would have to remove the motherboard to install the RAM, but I was able to manage it with just pulling out the drive cables.  Putting the drive cables back in was a little tricky.  

The system came with Windows 95 OSR 2.0.  Windows 95 OSR 2.0 comes without the extra performance hit of OSR 2.5, namely the Active Desktop.  It also includes the USB Supplement which can be uninstalled. The system has two USB 1.0 ports but the USB ports are disabled in the BIOS by default.  It is probably for the best as early USB was nothing to write home about.

When I acquired my machine, the hard drive still had its old data on it.  Of course it had some new data as well, but the system had not been altered too much.  This meant that I could identify a good Master CD using the Internet Archive.  Packard Bell included a lot of bloatware on its systems, but this system had some good programs like Microsoft Word 95, Microsoft Works 4.0, Quicken and Microsoft Money.  It also had a few games including ports of Sonic the Hedgehog, Ecco the Dolphin and Comix Zone, SimCity Classic and POD.

I wanted to "factory reset" this system to get it back to stock.  Getting the system reinstalled was a chore.  The Recovery CD is not bootable even though the BIOS supports booting off CD-ROM, so a floppy disk was required for a truly clean reinstall.  Making the floppy disk required files off the CD-ROM, but those files would not install a CD-ROM in DOS, so I had to tinker with the config.sys and autoexec.bat to get the disk to install a DOS CD-ROM driver and load MSCDEX.  

Once CD-ROM access was obtainable off floppy drive, I then proceeded to format the hard disk to wipe it.  There is no program on the root of the Recovery CD which starts the installation process.  The program which appeared to start the recovery/installation process was called "DOSRUN.EXE" in the directory "DOSMENU".  Not the most intuitive.  This program installed Windows 95 OSR 2.0 without any difficulty, but when I finally got to the Windows 95 Desktop, none of the bundled software was installed.  

It did not help during this process to find that the included CD-ROM drive, even though it was a 16x Goldstar drive, would refuse to read standard CD-R discs.  I only had an image of the Recovery CD, so it had to read it or I was stuck.  The drive would read manufactured audio and data CDs ("pressed" discs), but it only read some Music CD-R discs I burnt several years ago.  I bought some more Music CD-R discs from the same brand (Maxell) but the drive would only read them at speeds no better than a floppy drive.  In order to get the Recovery CD running at a reasonable speed, I temporarily replaced the CD drive with a CD drive with support for burning CD-Rs.  

Even with most of the optional Windows programs installed, without the bloatware, the resulting install came in at about 200MiB.  Before almost 2/3rds of the system's hard drive was taken up. mainly by the built-in bloat.  Fortunately the installation did install all the correct hardware drivers for the built-in graphics and sound card.  The hard drive thrashed much less often after the reinstall.  

Windows 95 and DOS Games

Windows 95 will try to emulate the DOS environment for DOS games, but the stock settings may not be ideal.  When it comes to DOS games from 1990 and beyond, there are typically four hurdles that may need to be overcome, Mouse, CD-ROM, Expanded Memory and Sound Card Configuration.  With Windows' DOS emulation, if a game calls for a Mouse, a CD-ROM or Expanded Memory, Windows can provide it without having to load a mouse driver, a CD-ROM driver, MSCDEX.EXE or EMM386.EXE.  Loading a DOS driver in Windows is redundant and will only eat up precious low conventional memory.  Only Sound Card configuration files need remain in Windows' AUTOEXEC.BAT or CONFIG.SYS.

Windows 95 has two ways to get to "real-mode" DOS.  The first is the Windows "Restart System in MS-DOS Mode", the second is selecting the Command Prompt option in the Windows boot menu which can be brought up by pressing F8 before the Windows splash screen appears.  Either way, real mode DOS requires a full CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT if you want Mouse, Sound, Expanded Memory and CD-ROM.

If you choose the "Restart System in MS-DOS Mode" method, in order to set a custom AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS, you must edit the Properties of the file called "Exit to Dos" in the \Windows directory.  Go to the Program tab, click the Advanced button, check the MS-DOS mode box and in the text boxes add in the lines to load your drivers.

If you choose the Command Prompt option, in order to load device drivers, you must use the menu function, first found in MS-DOS 6.0, to specify additional drivers to be loaded in DOS but not Windows 95.  Lines specific to Windows 95 go underneath a label named "[WIN95]", lines specific to MS-DOS go underneath a label named "[MS-DOS]", and lines common to both Windows 95 and MS-DOS go underneath the label "[COMMON]". 

Final Words

Packard Bell's PCs were a fixture of the personal computing revolution from the late 80s to the later 90s and were many people's introduction to the world of personal computing and IBM PC compatibles.  Because Packard Bell was so successful, its machines are fairly common wherever vintage PCs cam be found.  While they seldom have the specifications of a custom-built PC, they make for solid, reliable gaming PCs.  The Platinum 2100 is a fine example of a Windows 95 and late DOS-era Gaming PC, it has all the pieces you need for a quality experience, a decent-sized hard drive (one rid of bloatware), a highly compatible sound card, a solid video card and plenty of expansion options.  If you find one that's on its way to the recycler, don't let the Packard Bell name prevent you from rescuing it.  

1 comment:

  1. Spent quite a lot of time playing games on a very similar "ziggurat" style Packard Bell at my dad's office. I'm not sure about the exact spec, at that time I mostly understood the "marketing" part of the spec (MHzs and MBs). It was for sure a Pentium, not sure if it was MMX, either 166 or 133 with Windows 95 (probably OSR2, it definitely had IE 3.0 installed, and my father never upgraded it). He used it well into year 2000 (he's not the type of person who cares about his computer being sluggish until he can get his things done) and I don't think it ever broke down, so I was always surprised about people saying these were unreliable.