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486 vs Pentium for a Retro build

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First post, by jasa1063

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I had to make a decision on my latest retro build whether it would be a 486 or Pentium. I ultimately chose the Pentium because anything that requires a 486, a Pentium can handle better. It allows for an ATX motherboard which can be used with a modern case and power supply, which is the biggest reason for my going with a Pentium. I also chose a Pentium MMX as it allows for a bit more flexibility when used with SETMUL as revealed in this YouTube video by PhilsComputerLab:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8s0H5_-SRU

Finally you get the added bonus of being able to run Windows 98 much more effectively than with a 486. I would be interested in hearing others opinions on this topic.

Reply 1 of 22, by The Serpent Rider

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General opinion: yes, use Pentium MMX with ATX board. That should be sufficient, but not perfect, for late DOS era and some early 2D Windows games.

Last edited by The Serpent Rider on 2020-07-09, 01:04. Edited 1 time in total.

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Reply 2 of 22, by jakethompson1

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486 hardware is so nostalgic though!

I do think some of it is the thrill of getting all the hardware working together especially ISA stuff - the degree of control with IRQs, IO ports etc.

I agree that at least for someone's first attempt at this, Socket 7 is a much better fit. Even if AT, you at least have onboard IDE, serial, parallel, maybe even PS/2.

It's kind of silly when someone first wants to get into building this old stuff and immediate goes to some 486 VLB board and doesn't have a floppy drive or floppy emulator, doesn't have a CD recorder, etc.

Reply 3 of 22, by The Serpent Rider

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Even if AT, you at least have onboard IDE, serial, parallel, maybe even PS/2.

Eh, not really. There are plenty of ez to work with 486 boards like LuckyStar LS486-E. And PS/2 mouse also not a huge problem now: Another PS/2 Mouse ISA (ISA8) card adapter
But 486 isn't optimal for anything, especially if you want to choose the dreaded VLB route.

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Reply 4 of 22, by jasa1063

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For a nostalgic point of view a 486 is pretty cool, but from a functional point of view not so much when you need to run a wider array of software. I have a K6-III+ build that can do everything my current Pentium build can do and then some, but I wanted an all Intel build of both the motherboard and CPU. It serves both the nostalgic urge I had and the functional need of the software it can run. I guess in the end it's all matter of personal preference and we all have varying tastes.

Reply 5 of 22, by firage

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You can't quite do everything with one build. I set out for a 486 because I want to run Windows 3.1 and older/different sound cards than in my much faster Win9x build.

I had a P200 for long enough back then. That hardware's boring to me, personally.

My big-red-switch 486

Reply 6 of 22, by Pierre32

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I shopped for a 486 last year, intending for it to be my only retro machine. I ended up with a Presario all-in-one, which I adore, but is quite limited. I also ended up with a Socket 7 system, and then did a ground-up 386 build which pushes things about as far as a 386 can go. The end result is that the 386 is now my killer old-stuff machine, and the Pentium picks up the mid 90s stuff. So the poor old Presario doesn't have much of a role!

I would still love to do a 486 VLB build just for the journey, but it wouldn't add to my gaming abilities.

Reply 7 of 22, by dionb

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Basically the question is: are you more into the software or the hardware aspect?

Socket 7 Pentium hardware, particularly with solid later Intel chipsets, is problem-free, works pretty much like modern hardware and basically is something you can forget is there (apart from the well-documented speed aspect). Take a decent-brand board with reliable BIOS and it's so easy it's almost boring - at least to the hardware geek. That lets you focus on the software.

486 by comparison is more challenging on all fronts - more compatibility issues, choices about which I/O controllers to use, more primitive, limited BIOS with eccentricities. The sort of things hardware geeks love to get their teeth into.

So if you're into just using the system, go for a reliable Pentium any day, but if you want to (constantly) tinker, a 486 gives you much more scope to do so (and lose hair over it) 😉

Reply 8 of 22, by BinaryDemon

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Pierre32 wrote on 2020-07-09, 09:33:

I shopped for a 486 last year, intending for it to be my only retro machine. I ended up with a Presario all-in-one, which I adore, but is quite limited. I also ended up with a Socket 7 system, and then did a ground-up 386 build which pushes things about as far as a 386 can go. The end result is that the 386 is now my killer old-stuff machine, and the Pentium picks up the mid 90s stuff. So the poor old Presario doesn't have much of a role!

I would still love to do a 486 VLB build just for the journey, but it wouldn't add to my gaming abilities.

This makes me a little sad because I’m in the same boat. I currently have a 386 and Pentium/3dfx but neither of those represent hardware that I owned back in the day. The hardware I have true nostalgia for would be a DX4-100 VLB system. I’ll probably still get one eventually. 🙁

Check out DOSBox Distro:

https://sites.google.com/site/dosboxdistro/ [*]

a lightweight Linux distro (tinycore) which boots off a usb flash drive and goes straight to DOSBox.

Make your dos retrogaming experience portable!

Reply 9 of 22, by chinny22

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You went with the right choice for the reasons already stated and that's from someone who has 2 486's and no socket 7 PC's

BinaryDemon wrote on 2020-07-09, 10:36:

This makes me a little sad because I’m in the same boat. I currently have a 386 and Pentium/3dfx but neither of those represent hardware that I owned back in the day. The hardware I have true nostalgia for would be a DX4-100 VLB system. I’ll probably still get one eventually. 🙁

Don't be sad or underestimate nostalgia. My DX2/66 VLB still gets plenty of use at that's the PC I had growing up. The Pod 83 is the more capable machine but rarely gets used.
Just depends on what "mood" your in on the day

Reply 10 of 22, by chrismeyer6

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I'd love to build a 486 of some kind one day just for the experience and fun of it. But in the end build what makes you happy and you'll love every second of building and using it.

Reply 11 of 22, by leileilol

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If you want an "easy" 486 you'll probably want one of those later 95-96 boards with all the onboard IDEs and FDCs. Still won't mitigate jumper hell though. You're going to learn to love jumpers. There's also cache politics too 😀

It's definitely got nostalgia/period appeal with the heavy association of the turbo switch for many of the appropriate AT cases.

On the other hand, a 96 i430 board with anything in it feels relatively more contemporary.

apsosig.png

Reply 12 of 22, by jheronimus

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Tricky question — I like both 😀

486 is nice if you like tinkering with hardware, want a very authentic build, or you have strong nostalgic feelings about the platform. Otherwise, it's a way to spend loads of money to get a computer that barely compares to the cheapest Pentium out there. Like you've said, there is nothing special about 486 in terms of performance, features or compatibility.

Socket 7 ATX is great because it's flexible and covers a huge time period. If you get a Super Socket 7 motherboard, you'll be able to use CPUs from 75MHz down to 600MHz (early to mid Pentium 2 performance). You also get a huge selection of video cards, sound cards and so on. Like you've said, you don't need ancient cases, power supplies, mice or keyboard.

ATX is particularly nice because it's very easy to build systems. A typical AT system will be littered with cables — because even late 486 PCI boards only have the AT keyboard port and everything else needs a breakout panel. Furthermore, the big thing about ATX was the fact that the CPU and memory don't obstruct any of the expansion slots. If you want, you can install full-length cards in every slot — and I mean stuff like AWE32 or some of the more exotic video cards. With AT you'll have to look for a better motherboard layout.

The downside is aesthetics, of course. Doing a period correct ATX build might be harder compared to AT. You might end up with a system that has impressive specs, but will look like a plain "old box" with no visual features like turbo button or CPU frequency indicator.

Will this be your only build? If so, I would actually recommend going with a Slot 1 system. You still get an ISA slot for true DOS sound, but the CPU will be enough for running even the latest DOS games at high resolutions. You do lose the setmul functionality and compatibility with some games — but you'll get a much better experience in most games. Also, Slot 1 motherboards are much easier to find compared to Socket 7 ATX motherboards.

My Telegram blog about retro hardware (in Russian)

Pentium 133, 32 MB RAM, S3 Trio64V+, Crystal 4232, Dreamblaster X2 and Roland MT-32
Pentium III 1000, 512 MB RAM, Voodoo 5 5500 AGP, SB Live 5.1, SB32 CT3930, Gravis Ultrasound Max rev2.1

Reply 13 of 22, by Intel486dx33

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jasa1063 wrote on 2020-07-08, 23:43:

I had to make a decision on my latest retro build whether it would be a 486 or Pentium. I ultimately chose the Pentium because anything that requires a 486, a Pentium can handle better. It allows for an ATX motherboard which can be used with a modern case and power supply, which is the biggest reason for my going with a Pentium. I also chose a Pentium MMX as it allows for a bit more flexibility when used with SETMUL as revealed in this YouTube video by PhilsComputerLab:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8s0H5_-SRU

Finally you get the added bonus of being able to run Windows 98 much more effectively than with a 486. I would be interested in hearing others opinions on this topic.

The 1st gen Pentium changed the world. Everything from running on enterprise servers to desktops. Paired with Win NT 3.5.1 or 4.0 and Win95
It was a wreaking ball devastating all the computers of that era. It basically ran USA and much of the world.
MS-Windows would hog up the network and knock off other computers.

I use my Pentium MMX 233 with 32mb ram and S3 video card , 3com NIC, and Sound Blaster Pro 2.0
Strictly for playing DOS games. It run great just crunching thru most games with no problems or hesitation.
I can even disable cache in bios to play at 386 and 486 speeds.
And it play good at any speed. Audio sound good to at any speed.
A Sound blaster AWE32 or AWE64 with DOS drivers would sound good too.
I run DOS 6.22

Reply 14 of 22, by squelch41

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Pentium if you want something to work
486 if you want a fight/puzzle 😀

I started my pc era at pentium 200mmx in about 1997.

Built a 486 vlb now because wanted to see what it was like to build a machine pre pci, pre integrated ide etc. It's been really fun but has taken a long time and been challenging 😀
Plus learnt new skills like eeprom writing.

So, ultimately, depends what you are looking for 😀

V4P895P3 VLB Motherboard and AMD 486 133MHz CPU
64mb RAM, CF 4Gb Hard disk,
Realtek 8019 ethernet + XT-IDE bios extension ROM, ES1869 soundcard, Unknown brand VLB multi-io card with Cirrus Logic GD5428 1mb VGA on it.

Reply 16 of 22, by AlaricD

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Strangely, the 486 is less of a favorite of mine compared to 386 or Pentium, but that boils down to pure nostalgia, I'm sure. I also like those 386-to-486 upgrade chips, even as the rest of the 386 board's architecture means that it'll still be at a disadvantage (for example, smaller motherboard cache and no VLB slots). Kindof odd that I like a REAL 386, or the upgrade chip on such a board but then am not quite as big a fan as genuine 486. But the rather-matured 386 boards vs. the very early 486 boards were often much better; it took some time for the 486 to itself mature as a platform.

I'd avoid earlier 486s and go to a board designed for a DX2-66 at least. The same with Pentiums; I like to think (and it may purely be my imagination) that it really took until the P100 (and for a contemporaneous board) for it to really be worth moving to. The 60s and 66s with their potential FDIV problems and things not quite stable yet in general push me away from them-- but my 430FX board (despite the cacheable memory area limitation) with a P200 is a good, solid system. I think with it the main drawback is that there's no turbo switch (there no pins on the area marked for turbo, maybe it could work if I attached a switch), but there's such a broad range of support for PCI and ISA cards, making it rather flexible (no AGP, though). I remember when I first got it with a P100, and it was a stellar upgrade and DOS gaming was awesome (except for the version of Zaxxon I had that didn't use the system timer, rather it was CPU timing dependent, meaning you'd fly right into the wall before you could even twitch the joystick), and Windows 95 was great-- then going to the 200MHz CPU really extended the life of it. It's still great for 98 and Age of Empires with the Age of Kings expansion.

Part of the charm of any of these systems is understanding and working with their limitations, but also recognizing the advancements they represent. I suppose this is why the 386 is my favorite CPU; the Virtual x86 mode was a gigantic leap forward that we owe so much to today.

Reply 17 of 22, by dionb

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Intel486dx33 wrote on 2020-07-09, 19:01:
The 1st gen Pentium changed the world. Everything from running on enterprise servers to desktops. Paired with Win NT 3.5.1 or 4. […]
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jasa1063 wrote on 2020-07-08, 23:43:

I had to make a decision on my latest retro build whether it would be a 486 or Pentium. I ultimately chose the Pentium because anything that requires a 486, a Pentium can handle better. It allows for an ATX motherboard which can be used with a modern case and power supply, which is the biggest reason for my going with a Pentium. I also chose a Pentium MMX as it allows for a bit more flexibility when used with SETMUL as revealed in this YouTube video by PhilsComputerLab:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8s0H5_-SRU

Finally you get the added bonus of being able to run Windows 98 much more effectively than with a 486. I would be interested in hearing others opinions on this topic.

The 1st gen Pentium changed the world. Everything from running on enterprise servers to desktops. Paired with Win NT 3.5.1 or 4.0 and Win95
It was a wreaking ball devastating all the computers of that era. It basically ran USA and much of the world.
MS-Windows would hog up the network and knock off other computers.

Eh? The first-gen Pentium in 1993 was massively overpriced, couldn't divide, ran hot, sold poorly and couldn't be paired with WinNT 3.5.1 or Win95 as they wouldn't be released for another two years yet. If you actually bought one back then, it only outperformed a 486 at FPU tasks and in 1993 most FPU-heavy applications ran on non-x86 workstations.

Until 1995 and the i430FX - two years later - combined with cool, higher-clocked 3.3V CPUs Pentium was an overpriced underperforming white elephant.

Reply 18 of 22, by jakethompson1

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dionb wrote on 2020-07-09, 23:21:
Intel486dx33 wrote on 2020-07-09, 19:01:

The 1st gen Pentium changed the world. Everything from running on enterprise servers to desktops. Paired with Win NT 3.5.1 or 4.0 and Win95
It was a wreaking ball devastating all the computers of that era. It basically ran USA and much of the world.
MS-Windows would hog up the network and knock off other computers.

Eh? The first-gen Pentium in 1993 was massively overpriced, ran hot, sold poorly and couldn't be paired with WinNT 3.5.1 or Win95 as they wouldn't be released for another two years yet. If you actually bought one back then, it only outperformed a 486 at FPU tasks and in 1993 most FPU-heavy applications ran on non-x86 workstations.

Until 1995 and the i430FX - two years later - combined with cool, higher-clocked 3.3V CPUs Pentium was an overpriced underperforming white elephant.

I think first-gen in this case means everything before the Pentium Pro. And you could argue it did "take the wind out of the sails" of the idea of moving PCs to RISC [all arguments of later x86 having a RISC core aside] - the final blow of course being x86_64. Now, with Apple Silicon, perhaps there's an Act II?