I think, however, that I have figured one thing out: there is no perfect retro laptop that will fulfill ALL my needs all at once […]
I think, however, that I have figured one thing out: there is no perfect retro laptop that will fulfill ALL my needs all at once.
So I have split it into two. Here they are:
The DOS/Win31/Win95 laptop
This will be capable of the following:
- Perfect or near-perfect DOS video/sound compatibility
- Not too large or too thick, of course this is all by 90's standards. The 365CD for example was fine. The 385XD was too large for me due to being 3-spindle.
- Minimum of original Pentium speeds, for everything up to mid-late DOS era, think Duke3D or DOOM as a maximum.
- Great keyboard touch
- Can run DOS but also Windows 95 for writing, internet browsing, etc.
- Ability to connect to Internet, and run browsers like Netscape
The Late DOS / Windows 98 / 2000 / Linux experimentation laptop
- DOS compatibility sufficient for late DOS era games that require lots of speed
- Can run Windows 98 / 2000 for millennium-era Windows productivity and internet things
- Can also run some type of Linux for experimentation
- Great keyboard touch
- Connects to Internet and can run later browsers like RetroZilla well
- Could also do things like play MPEG videos and DVDs
Hopefully I can finally converge on a good setup this way. It will be a lot of configuration and setting things up to get everything to work properly, but I expect it to be rewarding.
I'll document any further adventures in this thread.
No, there's generally no perfect retrogamer laptop out there. There's probably several machines each good for certain game/app types for a certain era, but definitely no silver bullet. No pre-AC97 audio support for anything past 2000, no fine grained multiplier support if it's not a AMD K6-2/3+, and even amongst the oldies, there are certain machines that can support higher RAM ceilings than others.
If you want something that is good as a pure DOS/Win3.1/early Win95 machine, look for a Compaq Armada 77x0MT.
Pentium MMX, 144MB of EDO RAM max, S3 Aurora+ graphics, ESS Audiodrive (ES1878) sound for the 7730s and 7750s. You should be able to toss any PCMCIA/Cardbus based wireless or ethernet card onto the machine as you deem fit. The keyboard isn't too bad, and it's relatively small for 1996 standards. That being said, I don't play that much Commander Keen so I don't judge DOS compatibility based on it.
As for the second requirement....eh, that's even more difficult. If your definition of late era DOS games include something like US Navy Fighters, you'll need a laptop that allows you to turn off video shadowing on BIOS, and as far as I am concerned playing with Dell/IBM/Toshiba machines, nothing from that era has the option to do that...you'll need to be more specific what constitutes a late era DOS game. Something right before WinG/DirectX hit?
Example: Both Wing Commander 4 and TIE Fighter SVGA (The one that ran off a CDROM) worked fine in pure DOS for both my IBM Thinkpad T21 (S3 SavageIX) and Dell Latitude C600 (ATi Rage Mobility M4 - based on the Rage 128 chipset), both stutters in Microsoft Flight Simulator 5, and only the T21 worked with Rowan's Air Power: Battle In the Skies in SVGA mode (Rowan's SVGA drivers simply did not work with the M4). Lucasarts' Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe (SWOTL) worked great on the T21 but tends to lock up on the C600 - not sure why. Both have its good and bad in FM synthesis. The Crystal Soundfusion on the T21 is "decent" in most apps, works great in most, failing in stuff like Lemmings. The Thinkpad Hotkeys volume control works great in DOS with the loud onboard speakers, so playing Civilization/SWOTL on it is a good experience. The ESS Maestro 3i in the C600 sounds okay (sometimes better) in FM synthesis, but the Fn-hotkeys do not raise/lower audio volume in DOS, and with the tinny onboard speakers, confer a poor experience.
Keep in mind that:
a) Both Trident / C&T are both considered budget video chip makers by the end of the DOS era, so you typically won't find it on the slimmer chassis out there.
- Trident had the Cyber 9xxx and CyberBlade series, but they are mostly used in budget machines (when the vendor can't score an ATi, S3 or Neomagic onboard). A notable exception is the Thinkpad 560/560E series, which is a notable light machine that features the Cyber9382. Unfortunately they have a serious design issue which leads to their logic board/DC board junction cracking due to fatigue...so you won't see many of them on eBay nowadays.
The Cyber9397s are based on the 3DImage 975 and are found on the Thinkpad 770X/Z series. Those are not heavy machines, but the 3DImage 975 also have a reputation for being extremely buggy in Direct3D. The oldschool IBM docks do have Midi/Joystick port out, so it is technically possible to bypass their onboard audio (Crystal Soundfusion based) with a Roland MT32 (or run it through MUNT). It doesn't bother me that much. They can also take 3dfx voodoo2 SLI in the dock.
- C&T's 65554 is a decent chip for Pentium/early PMMX, but Neomagic went in and ate their lunch. You would not find very many Pentium 150+ laptops with C&T graphics. C&T were bought out by Intel, combined with the Real3D assets Intel bought from Lockheed Martin, and that turned into...Intel Graphics.
An example of a machine fitting that description? Gateway Solo 2200/2300.
b) Neomagic were the king of the slim/mainstream mobile video during the MagicGraph 128/256AV era. Sure, they were mediocre in DOS, but good enough in DirectDraw - their power budget is great, the 256AV can do Xv/DVD video playback acceleration, and their performance is considered "good enough" in Windows 2D gaming like Transport Tycoon Deluxe, Diablo, Starcraft and Civilization 3. Hell, I played Quake 2 in software mode on a Dell Latitude CPi, and that was good enough.
c) Only Japanese makers put real Yamaha OPL cards onboard. Japanese vendors like Toshiba and Sony did pair their OPL cards with Neomagics, and later on, S3 Savage IX.
A good example would be a Toshiba Protege 3010CT, or the first Sony C1 Picturebooks.
d) S3 had the Aurora+, Trio+ and the VirgeMX, but the only serious takers are 2nd tier Taiwanese ODMs (like CTX) and...Toshiba for their budget lines. Not small machines. The Virge might have a reputation for not being fast in Direct3D, but their image quality during the resulting slideshow isn't complete crap, and they are "okay" in DOS. I still prefer a SavageMX, though.
e) If Neomagic was the mainstream for '97-98, ATi were the top...even though they were not that great in retrospect. Their early Rage Mobility line (Pro LT/M1/P) were neither fish nor fowl: not very good for Direct3D, but also not very good for DOS. Their 3D performance were not improved until the Rage128 Mobility and the Radeons came to being. DOS stuff is "okay" as long as you stick to VESA or bog standard VGA (like for Master of Orion). Anything running proprietary SVGA drivers? Eeeeeeeh, no. Just no. The Rage Mobility line does have good LCD expansion, dualhead support and Xv/DVD Acceleration (IDCT offloading) at a good power budget, which made the popular with OEMs for the more expensive offerings.
An example will be like the Compaq Armada M300 - decent P3 based subnotebook, Rage Pro LT/8MB with an ESS1978 audio chip.
f) Modern Linux on 32 bit x86 generally look for PAE and NX bit support in their CPUs, so you want at least a Dothan Pentium-M, and more realistically, a Yonah Core Solo/Duo (Lenovo Thinkpad T60 and the like). Those machines don't do pre-AC97 audio, and hunting down drivers for their devices in Win98/2K will be...fun. You could look for older Linux, but you can do that on a Pentium II or III with something like DamnedSmall LInux. For Win2K or XP, I wouldn't run it on anything less than 256/320MB of RAM. That's 440MX/ZX chipset territory.