VOGONS


Building my own Woodgrain 486

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First post, by EddieHimself

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Where to begin? It started last year. I was looking to put together a 486 system. The first thing I needed was an AT-style case and power supply, since I didn't have one at the time. Well, what transpired was that I bought a whole Pentium II system, since it wasn't much more expensive than just buying an AT case on its own. Plus, I thought a Pentium II system might be nice, since it was similar to what we had in our Compaq Deskpro EP back in the late 1990s. And, since the motherboard supported both AT and ATX power, it meant I could put that system into an ATX case and have the AT case for the 486. Well, that was the idea. But that turned out to be a whole other story...
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Back to this system. With the Pentium II out of the way, the case--while nice looking at the front--was a bit of a doghouse at the back. The chassis had a lot of rust spots, with the cover having been shoddily painted over at some point. I knew there was no chance of getting the original factory texture if I tried sanding it down and painting it again. But then, I had an idea:
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Woodgrain
Before I could think of any of that however, there was the small matter of... the whole rest of the system. And hooboi, was that an "interesting" journey. And by "interesting," I mean:
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Firstly, I found this cheap 386SX-40 board with battery damage. Not a 486, but I figured it might be fun if I could get it fixed up. Narrator: "It wasn't fun."
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After cleaning the motherboard with vinegar (which caused my workroom to stink like a chip shop) and patching some wires... nothing happened. It refused to POST, giving me a base memory error. I realised at this point that it would require someone with more tools and talent than me to figure out what's wrong with this board, so it has been relegated to storage while I went and looked for an alternative.
A few months passed before I got back to this project. I found this 486 VLB board on the Bay of E's with an included DX4-75 CPU, 256 kB of L2 cache, and 1995 manual in pristine condition.
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I had already purchased a video and controller card for the 386. The video card worked fine, but the controller card was a different story:
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Upon booting up the system, I just got a floppy disk fail error. I had set it right in the BIOS, and I knew the drive itself was working. The next day, I just happened to get the SD-IDE interface board I'd bought, so I tried detecting that in the BIOS, and still no luck. Turns out, it was this controller card. I couldn't find any info about the card on the internet, but looking at the pinout for the controller chip, I knew which jumpers enabled the floppy and IDE controllers, and there was still no luck changing them around. It's weird, because the board itself looks in great condition, so I've no idea why it wouldn't work. But, sure enough, getting another controller card solved the problem. Since I'd ordered the first one ages ago, it meant there was no way of getting my money back on it. Grr.
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With this, I was able to get the system booted up properly with the recognised HDD and floppy disk drives. At the same time as the controller card, I also got my nice VLB graphics card, a Hercules-branded model with the ALG2228 chipset and 1Mb of video memory:
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I was able to get DOS 6.22 and Windows 3.1 running (and with the ALG2228 Windows 3.x drivers, running in 800x600 with 256 colours. Ooh!) With the annoying IDE controller/DOS setup, it means that I am limited to 504 MB of disk space on the 1-GB SD card, but it should be okay for what I need it for.

Last edited by EddieHimself on 2021-08-22, 14:05. Edited 3 times in total.

Reply 1 of 40, by EddieHimself

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Now I needed a sound card and CD-ROM controller for the full capability of the system. That's where this sound card and CD-ROM drive were supposed to come in:
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But, neither of them worked! It was pretty easy to identify the CD-ROM drive wasn't reading discs properly in another computer, but the sound card involved a lot more head-scratching. At first, I was wondering if I'd installed the CD-ROM drivers wrongly. But eventually, I decided to plug them into my PC running Windows 98, and it just refused to work as a SoundBlaster or WSS-compatible sound card, so it was clear there was something wrong there. There just happened to be an identical Mitsumi 4X CD-ROM for sale, which I picked up. I also managed to get a SoundBlaster 16 model CT 2940. I understand that these aren't as good as the non-PnP models, but it was a nice cheap price and had the IDE controller on there, as well as having the real OPL3 FM synth chip installed. So, I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth, as it were.
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With these, I finally managed to get CD-ROM functionality and sound for the system. I used a 4-GB card for a Windows 95 installation. It was a bit of a pain in the old bumhole trying to get Windows 95 installed on this old system, trying a combination of emulators and real-hardware solutions, before eventually figuring out what I needed to do. With the system only able to boot from FAT16 partitions, I separated the SD card out into two 2-GB partitions, and now have the choice between DOS/Win 3.1 and Windows 95 installations. I had also prepared the case by using some rust remover paint on the chassis, sanding down the bumps on the cover, and getting some nice woodgrain wrap on there.
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Note that, with me being a bit of an idiot and all, I managed to blow the original power LED. The new one is much too bright, so I'll have to put a resistor in there to get it a bit dimmer to match the other LEDs. At this point, I had set out what I had wanted to achieve originally with a 486-based system, which was to get around 30fps performance in Doom. But then I decided to go on the lookout for one of those nice DX4-100 OverDrive processors for a bit more oomph. The ones I saw were in foreign countries and more than I was willing to pay for an upgraded CPU all in (over £100). Luckily for me, an auction for a 486 ISA SBC with the coveted CPU came up, and I managed to get it for the starting bid of £45 plus delivery!
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I swapped around the two CPUs. I'm not sure what's next for the SBC, but that's a different matter. I was very glad to have the manual for the motherboard here, otherwise I'd have had no idea what to do with the jumpers! With the Overdrive installed in the 486, I did some benchmarking:
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So yeah, now I've got a really nice mid-1990s 486 setup going. But, perhaps most importantly: woodgrain!
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The only things left to do now really are that aforementioned LED, and get a case badge. But, other than that, this story is just about wrapped up. I hope you enjoyed reading my little build diary.

Reply 3 of 40, by Joseph_Joestar

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Intel486dx33 wrote on 2021-08-22, 16:38:

That Yamaha OPL3 sounds terrible.
You really need the “Dreamblaster X2 GS” for better sound.

Objectively, General MIDI does sound better than OPL3 most of the time. But some people that grew up listening to FM synth music in their games still prefer that version for purely nostalgic reasons. And that's perfectly fine.

That said, not all composers were equally good at utilizing the capabilities of the OPL3 chip. Quite often, they just did a basic conversion from General MIDI to FM synth, and that usually resulted in a subpar listening experience. However, in some instances, where developers put in more effort, FM synth music can sound pretty good. Here are a few of my favorites:

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / OPTi 82C930 / AWE64
PC#2: Celeron 466 / Abit ZM6 / Voodoo3 / AWE64 Gold / YMF744 / SC-155
PC#3: AthlonXP 1700+ / Abit KT7A / GeForce4 / SBLive / ALS100
PC#4: Athlon64 3700+ / DFI LanParty / 9600GT / X-Fi Titanium

Reply 4 of 40, by Joseph_Joestar

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On topic, that's a very nice rig. Kudos on all the effort that you put into building that system.

Out of curiosity, is it based on a computer that you had in your youth? I'm asking because a lot of us here tend to re-create systems that we had during our childhood.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / OPTi 82C930 / AWE64
PC#2: Celeron 466 / Abit ZM6 / Voodoo3 / AWE64 Gold / YMF744 / SC-155
PC#3: AthlonXP 1700+ / Abit KT7A / GeForce4 / SBLive / ALS100
PC#4: Athlon64 3700+ / DFI LanParty / 9600GT / X-Fi Titanium

Reply 5 of 40, by EddieHimself

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Intel486dx33 wrote on 2021-08-22, 16:38:

That Yamaha OPL3 sounds terrible.
You really need the “Dreamblaster X2 GS” for better sound.

Why are you comparing wave-table synth to FM synth? I might get a wave-table board at some point, but I still want that FM synthesis option for older games. Yes, it might not sound as "good," but if I wanted the best possible sound, I'd hook up the MIDI port to my main PC and use my 300-GB soft synth library. But that would rather defeat the point of the whole thing, in my view.

Joseph_Joestar wrote on 2021-08-22, 17:12:

On topic, that's a very nice rig. Kudos on all the effort that you put into building that system.

Out of curiosity, is it based on a computer that you had in your youth? I'm asking because a lot of us here tend to re-create systems that we had during our childhood.

Thank you :3. Funnily enough, it's not. Our first "proper" PC we had when I was a kid was a Compaq Deskpro EP 6333 with a Celeron 333 MHz. If you look at the picture of this PC running Windows 95, you can see that I have taken steps to recreate the system somewhat. This is in fact what happened with part of the Pentium II system I mentioned earlier, although parts of it also made themselves into another system as well.

Reply 6 of 40, by Intel486dx33

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258 is a really high score for a 486-dx4-100.
I only get about 200 points.
I saw on LGR wood grain PC video that he was able to get about 220 points.
Maybe Topbench benefits from using 32mb of RAM.

Even on a LS-486 PCI motherboard I have only seen scores of about 220 for a 486-dx4-100.

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Reply 7 of 40, by EddieHimself

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The cache SRAM is 15 ns and the main system memory is 32 MB of 60-ns FPM DRAM. Also, the L1 cache appears to be running in WT mode according to System Check. I'm not sure whether the Overdrive CPUs had WB cache or not. I was certainly very happy with the performance. I think somewhere in the 200 to 220 range was what I was getting with the turbo mode disabled.

Reply 9 of 40, by Matth79

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Nice... got a 486 to have a go at myself, looks like the MB didn't get significantly eaten by the Varta, as the case had been fortuitously left on its side.

If you put Win3 on as well, try out http://midiox.com/html/fmsynth.htm - OPL3 never sounded so good, well at least playing midi files authored to GM standard

Reply 10 of 40, by EddieHimself

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LewisRaz wrote on 2021-08-22, 22:16:

I think its possible you purchased the (working) controller card from me 😀

Love the build! Its performing like a beast!

Yes, I think I did. The weird thing was, I got an email from the delivery company the morning after I ordered it to say that they'd failed to pick it up from you? IDK why they sent that to me, but all's well that ends well, as they say.

Reply 11 of 40, by H3nrik V!

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EddieHimself wrote on 2021-08-22, 13:59:

At this point, I had set out what I had wanted to achieve originally with a 486-based system, which was to get around 30fps performance in Doom. But then I decided to go on the lookout for one of those nice DX4-100 OverDrive processors for a bit more oomph. The ones I saw were in foreign countries and more than I was willing to pay for an upgraded CPU all in (over £100). Luckily for me, an auction for a 486 ISA SBC with the coveted CPU came up, and I managed to get it for the starting bid of £45 plus delivery!

I would expect that that board, already running a DX4 3Volt processor would manage to run a "normal" DX4/100, and wouldn't need an Overdrive to go there ..?

Please use the "quote" option if asking questions to what I write - it will really up the chances of me noticing 😀

Reply 13 of 40, by EddieHimself

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H3nrik V! wrote on 2021-08-23, 06:03:
EddieHimself wrote on 2021-08-22, 13:59:

At this point, I had set out what I had wanted to achieve originally with a 486-based system, which was to get around 30fps performance in Doom. But then I decided to go on the lookout for one of those nice DX4-100 OverDrive processors for a bit more oomph. The ones I saw were in foreign countries and more than I was willing to pay for an upgraded CPU all in (over £100). Luckily for me, an auction for a 486 ISA SBC with the coveted CPU came up, and I managed to get it for the starting bid of £45 plus delivery!

I would expect that that board, already running a DX4 3Volt processor would manage to run a "normal" DX4/100, and wouldn't need an Overdrive to go there ..?

Probably could, but I couldn't find any regular DX4-100s for some reason. Plus, I do think the heatsink on the Overdrive CPUs looks way cool.

Reply 15 of 40, by chinny22

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486 is a funny era. Too fast for old games but not fast enough for late dos.
IMHO their true value is the build itself, and the tinkering as it's never straight forward.
It's why I have 3!

Like the build but if it was me I'd be on the lookout for a VLB I/O card for the extra cool points as much as anything.
but as its up and running I'd take my time and wait for a good price or that "perfect" card

Reply 16 of 40, by Warlord

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I've heard it depends on the turbo implementation of each boards. You can have one that doesn't do much or one that down clocks too much. Lucky for you if you find one that downclocks a lot. You can use a faster CPU and disable a cache and get to a good spot. Thats all part of the optimization. It's still a rabbit hole. for me I have to ask myself at some point what is the point.

Reply 17 of 40, by EddieHimself

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I suppose a VLB hard disk controller would allow me to use FAT32 for Windows 95 with it being a 32-bit bus. But I can't really imagine needing more than 4GB of space on this PC to be fair 🤣.

Reply 18 of 40, by H3nrik V!

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EddieHimself wrote on 2021-08-23, 10:03:
H3nrik V! wrote on 2021-08-23, 06:03:
EddieHimself wrote on 2021-08-22, 13:59:

At this point, I had set out what I had wanted to achieve originally with a 486-based system, which was to get around 30fps performance in Doom. But then I decided to go on the lookout for one of those nice DX4-100 OverDrive processors for a bit more oomph. The ones I saw were in foreign countries and more than I was willing to pay for an upgraded CPU all in (over £100). Luckily for me, an auction for a 486 ISA SBC with the coveted CPU came up, and I managed to get it for the starting bid of £45 plus delivery!

I would expect that that board, already running a DX4 3Volt processor would manage to run a "normal" DX4/100, and wouldn't need an Overdrive to go there ..?

Probably could, but I couldn't find any regular DX4-100s for some reason. Plus, I do think the heatsink on the Overdrive CPUs looks way cool.

Agreed, the heatsink looks great! But weird that you had a hard time finding regular DX4s, they used to be common as gravel ..

Please use the "quote" option if asking questions to what I write - it will really up the chances of me noticing 😀