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An ode to Socket 7


You know what I spent my nights dreaming about when I was 11? Besides the Thinkpad 765D and acts I didn't yet understand involving cartoon characters, that is. Ohh Sonic...
Err, right. I thought about building the ULTIMATE PC. None of this farting around with an Apple IIgs, One day I would build the best desktop that money could buy. It would be so cool, with a K6 CPU and Windows 98! But of course I was an 11 year old being juggled through foster homes when I wasn't staying with my welfare-supported mother, so they were only dreams.

But now I'm a rich successful supergenius tech at a computer recycling center, so I have access to once top end hardware for bottom of the barrel prices. This in combination with my own collection of hardware too rare or once valuable to throw out was a recipe for glorious nerdgasmic disaster. It should come as no surprise then that I decided to finally build my dream machine, using old games and software with poor windows XP support as justification. So here we go, let's party like it's 1999!

First a few rules so I can break them at the onset and get it over with.
I intended this machine to demonstrate the very best of home computing in 1999. That means all the outlandish addons and x-treme upgrades that would appear in magazines of the day at prices beyond the reach of mere mortals. By that logic though I should be basing this machine around an early Athlon. Perhaps because of its underdog charm, my love of taking a platform to its (il)logical extreme, or just because I spent so much of my youth fiddling with Socket 7 machines, I decided to go with a K6 instead.
I've also had to make an exception for the primary video card, due simply to the lack of an appropriate one. The card in there now didn't come out until 2000. Perhaps this machine received an upgrade a year into its fictional existence.
In any case, this machine still retains its period feeling, so I'm satisfied with it.

With that out of the way, let's start building.

First thing any machine needs is a solid motherboard. I spent a shameful amount of time digging through review sites from the stone age and archive.org to find the best board of the era. There's a massive list to choose from even if you exclude all the boards which history hasn't recorded any detailed specs for. I narrowed it down by laying out some requirements; It had to use SD-RAM, it had to have AGP, it had to support a 100 MHz bus and it had to fit in an AT case. Further reducing the list to boards with either an ALI Aladdin V or a Via Apollo mVP3 gave me about 5 boards to choose from. After that I simply went with the first board from the list to come through Free Geek, which turned out to be the Gigabyte GA-5AA. On reflection I doubt I could have done much better.

Next we need a CPU. By now I shouldn't have to tell you that I went with a K6. I've always been impressed by AMD's devotion to a platform Intel had abandoned years earlier; The K6-2 400 made a great upgrade for Pentium I users on a budget. But for once the price was not the deciding factor in assembling a PC, so I went with the fastest K6 I could find. At the moment that means an AMD K6-II+ 550MHz. This is a close relative of the much rarer K6-3+, and that means performance to rival Intel's top chip of the day, the far more expensive Pentium 3 450.

After that we just need some RAM and we have the basics of a computer. The GA-5AA has 3 168 pin DIMM slots officially supporting a maximum of 256 megabytes of PC-100. But let's face it, who had more than 256 megs laying around to test with back then? Manufacturers often skimped and claimed a RAM ceiling of whatever was available at the time. So on a hunch I went through my RAM drawers and picked out 3 nice 256 meg sticks. Sure enough, it worked! After several minutes of counting, the POST screen displayed 768 megabytes of RAM installed.

This might not actually be such a great idea though. It turns out the GA-5AA can only cache up to 256 megs given the stock 512k cache and the installed TAG RAM. That means installing more RAM than that will result in a net loss of performance whenever the system isn't using enough RAM to start swapping to the drive. Oh, but wait! The + model K6s contain their own on die L2 cache, with the motherboard cache being turned into an L3. That means in theory we're now up to 512 megs of RAM that can be cached.

This has been a very long way of saying that I'm not sure how much RAM I'm going to be putting in my K6 yet. So for now I've just filled it with the 768 megs I picked out and will call that good until I can run some memory benchmarks.

Onward!

The board is starting to come together.

Wait, what's that massive reddish-brown thing where the CPU belongs?
Okay, okay, I fudged the rules a third time and used a heatsink that was originally mounted to some overclocked Athlon. But given the tiny case and huge amount of hardware this thing will be surrounded by, I figure a heatsink no one will ever see is an acceptable break from reality. It's either that or have an unstable machine.
Although I suppose that might make it feel more authentic.

Now for the question on everyone's mind. What's the video system like?
I'm glad you asked...

Gamers of the late '90s had a lot of options, such as dedicated 3D accelerators or integrated 2D/3D cards, and every choice had its tradeoffs. The biggest choice was between the Glide API based Voodoo accelerators or the many DirectX cards exploding onto the market. Many games were optimized for one or the other, meaning if they ran at all on the wrong card you were subjected to blocky backgrounds and low res textures. Moreso than usual, that is.

After much thought I decided to cheat and avoid the choice entirely.
I installed both.

So into the AGP slot went the amazing Asus 64mb Geforce 2 GTS Deluxe Edition, with Video in/out, 3D glasses (Take that, Avatar!) and the best DirectX GPU the market had seen thus far.

...And into the PCI slots went a pair of 3DFX 12MB VooDoo 2s in SLI!

Years before nVidia started cranking out PCI-E cards with SLI connectors, 3DFX had a working dual GPU setup in PCI with the Voodoo 2. Together they provided a staggering maximum resolution of 1024x768, and the prettiest game of Carmageddon 2 you ever saw. It should come as little surprise then that nVidia bought them and eventually adapted SLI to work with their own cards.

How, you may ask, do you have 2 and a half graphics cards with 1 monitor? Well, as I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of dedicated 3D accelerators around at the time. These cards connected between an existing 2D-only video card and the monitor, and when a 3D application was launched they snuck their 3D graphics overtop the 2D signal coming off the primary card. But nothing says that primary card can't also be 3D capable, so I've hooked the Voodoos up to the Geforce. End result, whichever card is better suited to the game in question is the one that gets to do the rendering.

Now we need some A to go with the V. I chose the beautiful Creative Labs Soundblaster Awe64 Gold Edition. This was pretty well the last of the ISA Soundblaster cards, meaning the end of proper DOS game compatibility. It also introduced a remarkably good midi synth with 8 megs of RAM for custom soundfonts. It's so good that I intend to make MP3s of a few favourite game soundtracks for my daily listening.

After that we're down to the fiddly bits. A very of-the-period AT case was saved from being recycled and loaded with the typical 3.5" and 5.25" floppy drives. To fill in the remaining drive bays I turned up a Zip drive and a 56x (no, not 52, 56) Aopen CD-ROM drive.

And here we are all together. Or almost, as I forgot to plug in the SLI cable.

Wait, what's that between the Soundblaster and the Voodoos? Why, it's a Cisco Aironet 350 ISA WiFi adapter, of course! That's right, this is a computer from 1999 that can get on a WiFi network under DOS. I'll probably replace it with one of the typical ISA 3Com ethernet cards in the future, but for now it's a great conversation piece.

Here's a shot from the back. It brings a tear to the eye, doesn't it?

And here it is running. I was very lucky to get a front panel readout with 3 digits. Now no one can deny my geek cred.

So what do you run on such a beast? I figured there were too many good games with strange requirements to settle with one operating system, so I've loaded up a bit of everything. DOS 6.22/Windows 3.11 for workgroups, Windows 98SE, OS/2 Warp and BeOS all make an appearance. That means I can hit it with just about any game from before 2000 and find a way to make it work.

Where will I go from here?
I'd like to find the K6-3+ version of my chip, or one of the mythical 600 MHz prototypes. I'd also like to get the RAM expansion board for the soundblaster. Beyond that I'm pretty happy with how the machine came out. Many more hours will be lost to Commander Keen, Jetpack and Monkey Island.

On a final note, I'm working to get a Thinkpad 756D as well. Turns out dreams can come true.

...Sonic?

Page created April 8th 2010
Last modified July 7th 2010

He's the fastest thing alive!