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Why are 3Com NICs regarded in such high regard?

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First post, by appiah4

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I have a few of them but today I realized I never used any of them in my builds. PCs ranging from Pentium MMX to K6-2s and Pentium II/IIIs I have are all equipped with Realtek, Broadcom, Intel and in one case even a TP-Link NIC and they all work fine in Windows 9x.. What is it that makes 3Com adapters so much better than the others? Should I replace mine with them, because I can still get quite a few of them for quite cheap.

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Reply 1 of 60, by derSammler

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3Com cards are active ones (with own CPU, RAM; doing protocoll handling etc.) while most other cards are passive, meaning that the CPU must do most of the work. Active cards are better especially for slower PCs.

Last edited by derSammler on 2018-05-10, 08:31. Edited 1 time in total.

Reply 2 of 60, by konc

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And if you go back to ISA era their significance is even bigger, they were "the serious stuff". Options were limited, 3Coms were reliable and flooding the market, drivers for every OS are now everywhere.

Reply 3 of 60, by appiah4

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derSammler wrote:

3Com cards are active ones (with CPU, RAM; doing protocoll handling etc.) while most other cards are passive, meaning that the CPU must do most of the work. Active cards are better especially for slower PCs.

At what processor speeds does the difference become negligible? Am I better off replacing my PII and below PCs, for example, with 3Com NICs?

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Reply 4 of 60, by Cyberdyne

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Well in fast Pentiums and any Pentum 2/3 the advatage is neglible in 100MB/s mode.

But anything older, it really maters.

I am aroused about any X86 motherboard that has full functional ISA slot. I think i have problem. Not really into that original (Turbo) XT,286,386 and CGA/EGA stuff. So just a DOS nut.

Reply 6 of 60, by tayyare

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appiah4 wrote:
derSammler wrote:

3Com cards are active ones (with CPU, RAM; doing protocoll handling etc.) while most other cards are passive, meaning that the CPU must do most of the work. Active cards are better especially for slower PCs.

At what processor speeds does the difference become negligible? Am I better off replacing my PII and below PCs, for example, with 3Com NICs?

I wouldn't bother. How much, and how often do you need a network connection with your already set up and running retro rigs? It would probably be marginal speed increase anyway.

I like 3coms, and all my retro rigs have one (except two XP builds with onboard NICs) since

- I know them as very reliable and hasslefree products when I was really using them back in the day
- They are (were?) available by truck loads and very cheap (both in ebay and local market)
- Driver support is easily available for all relevant OSes

Furthermore, I like their combo versions (509B and 905B) just for their looks. I love those BNC connectors(*), I believe every retro rig need to have one 🤣

(*) Nostalgia again, our first LAN setup was based upon 8 bit ISA cards and 10base2 cabling (BNC connectors, coaxial cables, terminators...), just to play Doom II (Doom I could be played with null modem cable by two people). We were doing LAN parties with four mates as early as 1994 🤣

Last edited by tayyare on 2018-05-10, 09:05. Edited 2 times in total.

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Reply 7 of 60, by appiah4

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Well, to be honest I use the NICs pretty much only at the initial setup phase of my retro gaming, I tend to set up the computer and install the network adapters, I then bulk-download Win9x support files (drivers, patches etc.) and the ISO images of the games for that period from my NAS setup. After that, the NIC is almost never used aside from uploading screenshots and diagnostic information etc.. So I guess I will just leave them alone unless one day I have too much time and too little to do in my hands (yeah right)

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Reply 8 of 60, by dionb

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appiah4 wrote:
derSammler wrote:

3Com cards are active ones (with CPU, RAM; doing protocoll handling etc.) while most other cards are passive, meaning that the CPU must do most of the work. Active cards are better especially for slower PCs.

At what processor speeds does the difference become negligible? Am I better off replacing my PII and below PCs, for example, with 3Com NICs?

You can tell when the difference became irrelevant by the decline and eventual takeover of 3Com 😜

For a 486, the difference between a basic NE2000 (i.e. RTL8009/8019) and 3Com was huge. For a P2 it would be noticeable. In later P3s it was measurable in online games, but only relevant if the CPU was really being maxed and every FLOP mattered. By the time of the AthlonXP and P4 it was only relevant if you were maxing your NIC at the same time as well (those were the days before Netflix...).

3Com was by no means the only active card vendor. But they had the best driver support, at least under old OSs, and - just as importantly - the premium you paid for all that was relatively modest: more than the low-end dumb controllers, but far less than 'enterprise grade' (eg. Intel) stuff.

Bottom line now:
- the cards are easy to find
- the drivers are easy to find
- they're easy to get running
- performance is good

Although I frequently grumble at 3Com fetishism, when it comes to 16b ISA I still have not seen a card that in is in any way superior to the 3C509B.

The same does not apply to 8b ISA - the 3C501 was famously brain-dead and the 3C503 was better only in that it actually worked. PCI 3Com cards were good, but far less compelling than at 16b ISA - also because Intel & AMD had serious alternatives for acceptable prices.

Reply 9 of 60, by Deksor

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Another advantage is that the 3c509b has its drivers directly in windows 3.11 and 95 and the 3c905b has drivers provided with windows 98SE which means all you need is your original disks to setup the computer and once that's done, no need to grab a floppy disk/burn a CD to set it up. That also means that you can go directly to grab the drivers for the rest of your config again without 'needing additionnal disks. (Except for 3.11 where you'll probably need the tcp ip stack)

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Reply 10 of 60, by dr.ido

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For ISA I found that generic NE2000s were hit and miss. Sometimes they worked. Sometimes they're wouldn't be detected. Sometimes they would show up in device manager as okay, but wouldn't connect to the switch. The 3com cards always worked for me.
By the time I was using PCI I wasn't finding as many 3com cards around. DEC and later Intel cards became more common. I never really preferred one brand over another or did any comparisions. Anything I didn't have find drivers for that worked was good enough - DEC, Intel or 3com in desktops. For laptops it was Xircom - drivers always there and no dongles to break or loose. I've got a whole box of them somewhere - used them in everything from 486 to Pentium 3 laptops.

Reply 11 of 60, by firage

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3Com was a standard, and Intel was the only other 'prestige brand' that lasted from the early 90's into the 2000's. Since they all basically cost the same to get now, my preference is Intel stuff over anything else. Intel had solid automatic full-duplex support in the Pro/10+ ISA card, while it has to be forced on to be enabled with the 3C509x range.

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Reply 12 of 60, by chinny22

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Finding drivers is definitely one of the big selling points,
But with HP takeover, this wont be the case for long and will have to rely on places like vogonsdrivers

Reply 13 of 60, by Jo22

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I like the 3Coms, because they work out-of-box with WfW 3.11..
It can even auto-detect them (among others), which I think is really is cool. ^^

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Reply 14 of 60, by Orkay

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3Com NICs are really convenient to install and use. I have four 3C905C-TXM cards, and they have broad OS support (DOS, Windows 3.11 and later) as well as integrated PXE boot ROMs, which I plan to use for installing old Windows systems without a CD.

Reply 15 of 60, by Tiido

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For ISA based stuff I always go with 3com cards, they have significantly better network performance than all the crappy NE2000 things. For PCI based machines I haven't seen a whole lot of performance difference with any type of card except 10/100 Realteks which aren't all that nice. I tend to use Intel cards with PCI things.

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Reply 17 of 60, by Anonymous Coward

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The AMD based cards were also quite nice.

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Reply 18 of 60, by PTherapist

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I'm using a 3C509 of some variety in 6 of my retro builds, including 1 16-bit 3C509B in an 8-bit slot on my 8088 XT build with it's boot ROM enabled for XTIDE Universal BIOS. Relatively straightforward to configure the 3C509 for this purpose and so the card not only allows me to transfer files back and forth over the LAN, but also I can use XTIDE's virtual serial drive functionality to access virtual Floppy and/or Hard Disk images. No need for multiple floppy disks laying around, a great alternative to a Gotek Floppy Emulator. Great for booting PC Booter games too! 😎

I also have another 3C509-COMBO as a spare, which I have to get around to testing at some point as it's the 1 card that looks completely different to all of my other 3C509s (a more basic looking PCB, with less components).

For the PCI based builds that don't have onboard network, the most common and cheaply available PCI cards that fill my retro builds are the RealTek RTL8139 & Intel Pro/100. Of those, I prefer the RTL8139 for the same reason as the 3C509 in the ISA systems - driver support! I collected most of those PCI cards during the early 2000s and I don't recall 3Com PCI cards being very common at that time.

Reply 19 of 60, by tayyare

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PTherapist wrote:

I'm using a 3C509 of some variety in 6 of my retro builds, including 1 16-bit 3C509B in an 8-bit slot on my 8088 XT build with it's boot ROM enabled for XTIDE Universal BIOS. Relatively straightforward to configure the 3C509 for this purpose and so the card not only allows me to transfer files back and forth over the LAN, but also I can use XTIDE's virtual serial drive functionality to access virtual Floppy and/or Hard Disk images. No need for multiple floppy disks laying around, a great alternative to a Gotek Floppy Emulator. Great for booting PC Booter games too! 😎

I also have another 3C509-COMBO as a spare, which I have to get around to testing at some point as it's the 1 card that looks completely different to all of my other 3C509s (a more basic looking PCB, with less components).

For the PCI based builds that don't have onboard network, the most common and cheaply available PCI cards that fill my retro builds are the RealTek RTL8139 & Intel Pro/100. Of those, I prefer the RTL8139 for the same reason as the 3C509 in the ISA systems - driver support! I collected most of those PCI cards during the early 2000s and I don't recall 3Com PCI cards being very common at that time.

They were common in late 1990s and early 2000s (before chipset integrated ethernet functionality started to shrink their business) as reliable and acceptable price, mainstream items. Not cheap and by the truck load electronic waste 🤣

My own personal 1997-2000 era NICs were also Realteks (because they were cheaper - I still have one in working condition 😊) but we were using 3Coms in all the companies that I worked for during that era.

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Diamond Monster 3D 12MB SLI
SB AWE64 PNP+32MB
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Adaptec AHA29160
3com 3C905B-TX
Gotek+CF Reader
MSDOS 6.22+Win 3.11/95 OSR2.1/98SE/ME/2000