VOGONS


Dos gaming on the go

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First post, by TrashPanda

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Looking at two cheap laptops for some DOS gaming portability, neither is amazing but both are roughly in the same ball park for DOS performance and compatibility.

First laptop is a Toshiba Satellite 4000 CDS (Pentium II 233, 160MB ram, Yamaha OPL3 based sound), its in immaculate condition physically but has no battery or HDD but these can be replaced.
Second laptop is a IBM Thinkpad 365XD (Pentium 120, 40mb ram, ESS1688) it too is in perfect condition physically, battery doesnt hold a charge but Thinkpad batteries are easy to replace.

Both machines have Floppy and CD and both are priced the same.

The Satellite looks to be the better option but it straddles that DOS/Windows9x divide and that Yamaha sound system based on manuals looks to need windows to load wavetables. The Thinkpad comes with a sound system that should work without needing win9x installed. The ThinkPad should also be easier to repair and find parts for as locating a battery for the Satellite here in Australia might prove difficult.

Its a difficult choice so I pass this question to this forum for advice.

If you had to choose which would you pick? and why.

Oh noes, the cap let the shmooo out 😁

Reply 1 of 22, by dr.ido

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The 4000CDS will have an absolutely unusable DSTN display. The 365XD could have either a DSTN or a TFT depending on configuration - ideally you'd want the one with the 640 x 480 TFT for DOS as the scaling on the 800 x 600 is nasty.

Reply 2 of 22, by TrashPanda

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dr.ido wrote on 2021-12-22, 10:05:

The 4000CDS will have an absolutely unusable DSTN display. The 365XD could have either a DSTN or a TFT depending on configuration - ideally you'd want the one with the 640 x 480 TFT for DOS as the scaling on the 800 x 600 is nasty.

DSTN .. Dual Scan Twisted Nematic ?

Im unfamiliar with this type of screen.

Not sure how to tell what panel the Thinkpad has but its screen is super bright compared to the Satellite which is dull and quite dark.

Oh noes, the cap let the shmooo out 😁

Reply 3 of 22, by dionb

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TrashPanda wrote on 2021-12-22, 10:10:

[...]

DSTN .. Dual Scan Twisted Nematic ?

Im unfamiliar with this type of screen.

Short and sweet: crap. Slow crap. Makes TN TFT look great by comparison.

Not sure how to tell what panel the Thinkpad has but its screen is super bright compared to the Satellite which is dull and quite dark.

Sounds like it could have TFT - or just a better backlight. In any event probably the better of the two for that reason alone.

Reply 4 of 22, by dr.ido

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DSTNs were found in the cheaper models as back in the day a TFT would add around $1000 to the price of the laptop. They have poor contrast, color and response time. Even scrolling and mouse movement will blur, let alone games. If they're side by side and the Thinkpad looks that much better then it's probably safe to say the Thinkpad is a TFT model.

Reply 5 of 22, by TrashPanda

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Did a little digging as the Thinkpad has the Type service tag on it which can be used to get better details on it, its a late model 365XD (2625-4E9) with the PCI bus, CD drive and 10.4 TFT so looks like it'll be my next purchase !

Oh noes, the cap let the shmooo out 😁

Reply 6 of 22, by Garrett W

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Laptops of that vintage regularly have monitors that are ill-suited for games. I personally never understood the fascination with laptops. I don't want to be a party pooper, but if your goal is to solely play DOS games on the go, perhaps a laptop from a few years ago or even a newer one with an IPS screen and DOSBox installed will fill that gap.

Reply 7 of 22, by TrashPanda

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Garrett W wrote on 2021-12-22, 11:50:

Laptops of that vintage regularly have monitors that are ill-suited for games. I personally never understood the fascination with laptops. I don't want to be a party pooper, but if your goal is to solely play DOS games on the go, perhaps a laptop from a few years ago or even a newer one with an IPS screen and DOSBox installed will fill that gap.

I dont like DOSbox, Ive used it briefly in the past due to GOG packaging their DOS games with it, it always felt like a poor imitation of the real thing and had too many limitations that it will honestly never overcome due the nature of early PC DOS hardware being as varied as it was.

One day it might be as great as WINUAE is but even then I prefer the real Amiga hardware if I have access to it. So if I can find a suitable old laptop that I can load up with all manner of old DOS games even with an imperfect screen then I would rather do that. All this aside .. I have a massive archive of DOS games none of which are setup to work with DOSbox and would likely require me to do a lot of work to get them all working with it. (Work I wont have to do with original DOS period hardware)

So thanks for the suggestion Ill keep it in mind for all the GOG DOS games I have !

-Edit This is the point of being a retro hardware collector, be willing to accept even the imperfect hardware for what it is and what it can offer to the experience, nothing is more enjoyable than the challenge of getting an obscure bit of junk working and documenting the journey for others to learn from. (and there is a metric ton of obscure DOS period hardware !)

Oh noes, the cap let the shmooo out 😁

Reply 8 of 22, by BitWrangler

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I have a later model of that thinkpad series, does quite well. Mine is a bit delicate though, dodgy hinges and power plug, so don't cart it around much. My portable portable retro system is a PII Armada 1750. My thinkpad more often seems to serve "tweener" duties as I have 98 on it and a small DOS partition, it can use USB sticks and floppies. For later viewers of the thread, unless you like text adventures, don't go much earlier than mid pentium class for a retro-gaming laptop, because finding one with a fast enough, pretty enough screen and that also has sound at all was like hunting the holy grail when they were still current. Finding one out of what's left now is gonna take you years or cost you more than a new laptop. As you might read above, even in Pentium or better, finding a good screen needs care. Didn't really become a "non-issue" until into the 2000s, well apart from being really picky.

I don't quite consider DOSbox in the same class as WinUAE... nearer thing to UAE in PC realm is an emulator like Bochs.... nearer thing to DOSbox in the Amiga realm is something like "relokick" for booting older games on a newer kickstart ROM. Though they are a lot different in execution. But if you want real simple DOSbox use, look to the excellent DBGL front end.

So if you want ultraportable DOS gaming, netbooks with Atom N270 or better are good up to early pentium required games with DOSbox through DBGL on windows of some flavor (Or Linux, Lubuntu 18 LTS) ... Still portable but 4:3 bigger screen, then I'd recommend something like a PentiumM "centrino" class as being the better more survivable systems of the last of the 4:3 era... (Where you run into bumpgate, leadfree and cap plague problems on other platforms) .. which will also get into pentium required titles. With 2ghz or better though you should get into P-MMX. Later still, you can find 16:10 screens which work nice for a lot of DOS stuff on AMD Turion X2s and Core2 class, which are fast enough in dosbox emulation terms to run anything, and probably have enough graphics oomph to run voodoo wrappers. Though don't get too early a model of those latter as they are still in the major tech fails black hole.

edit: Possibly there's a "go native" option on early netbooks EEEpc etc with via CPUs, which can be controlled for speed, but you're probably going to have a lot of problem solving on the sound front. With DOSbox the CPUs are weak, so I don't think anything more demanding than Wolf3D would be very satisfactory.

Unicorn herding operations are proceeding, but all the totes of hens teeth and barrels of rocking horse poop give them plenty of hiding spots.

Reply 9 of 22, by TrashPanda

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The ThinkPad has a TFT screen so it wont be amazing but it should be good enough for 640x480 and 800x600, and trying to go much higher CPU wise leads to other issues namely on the sound front where a lot of fabs moved to PCI bus sound or early integrated ALC setups, they also started to integrate a lot more hardware that used windows based PNP drivers.

So really you have a tiny band of hardware to play with and I really dont need another windows 9x Laptop since I have the Compaq N600c and a Surfacebook 2 for everything else, I dont have just a DOS only portable machine which is why I was looking at this ThinkPad 365XD.

I guess I could keep waiting there are a few MMX ThinkPad models that dont have PCI sound that might show their noses on eBay and the like eventually, a MMX Pentium would be nicer than the Pentium 120 in this machine. Till then I can make do with the Evo N600c and its pure DOS mode oddities.

(I honestly dont want to resort to DOSbox if I can avoid it, its great for what it does but its no magic wand and yea .. its a ton of work for me to set everything up)

Edit - WINUAE is really quite something, amazing how much it has progressed in recent years with its emulation.

Oh noes, the cap let the shmooo out 😁

Reply 10 of 22, by BitWrangler

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Yah, the PCI sound thing, there's a lot of Armada and Evo models with the ESS sound chip that is kinda workable.

edit: oh I was meaning to mention the trick with LCDs... they're faster when they are warmer. Modest warmth application can help, like sitting it near a heat vent or radiator. No hotter than a human could bear, and ideally, where only the screen is exposed so the CPU cooling system isn't breathing hot air too. I dunno if some are so affected that a hot water bottle or heating pad strapped to the back of it would improve them enough, but if it's really motion blurry it's worth a shot.

Unicorn herding operations are proceeding, but all the totes of hens teeth and barrels of rocking horse poop give them plenty of hiding spots.

Reply 11 of 22, by xenaretos

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BitWrangler wrote on 2021-12-22, 14:51:

I don't quite consider DOSbox in the same class as WinUAE... nearer thing to UAE in PC realm is an emulator like Bochs.... nearer thing to DOSbox in the Amiga realm is something like "relokick" for booting older games on a newer kickstart ROM. Though they are a lot different in execution. But if you want real simple DOSbox use, look to the excellent DBGL front end.

I'd call PCem a pretty reasonable equivalent to WinUAE for old PCs. Modern laptops should be able to emulate PCs up to Pentium MMX era or so.

Reply 12 of 22, by creepingnet

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For me personally.....this is a difficult choice.

When I was looking for my vintage DOS system of choice, I spent over a year on it, researching, and what I found was almost every system has it's pros and cons...

Inside the thread
- Toshiba - plentiful, harder to get parts for, tend to stay cosmetically nicer, a lot use DTSN screens (Bad), keyboards seem alright, trackpoint is annoying for some things.

- IBM - plentiful, expensive, easy to get parts for, rubber coating turns to goo, has active matrix more often than not in my case, but does tend to crack apart (I owned a755CD for many years that fell apart), awesome keyboard, trackpoint can be a little annoying at times for certain things

Personally, I'd go for the IBM, and I have toyed with picking up a 365 model a few times already, including when I was shopping for my first Versa (40EC).

The most difficult part of finding vintage laptops for DOS that work for you, which I'm sure others have mentioned, is the tiny window in which 640x480 was still common, 800x600 was just coming in, the Pentium was on it's way in, and the 486 on it's way out (DX2/4), and they just started to put sound on the laptops....usually IBM MWAVE or ESS688. Seems the magic CPU of that era would be the Pentium 75MHz models. What you'll actually get is a bus-castrated Pentium, acting more like a 486 DX4, with an Active Matrix Screen and ESS or MWAVE (IBM) audio. My two personal favorites were the IBM ThinkPad 755CD and NEC Versa P/75.

On a side note, I think our pool of viable early-mid 90's DOS laptops will widen more as more people make PCMCIA audio cards for them. There's already 2 in the works, I think one is actually a finished design, but you have to build it yourself unfortunatley.

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Reply 13 of 22, by BitWrangler

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Maybe PCMCIA sound will open up less than we would think unfortunately. For one, some models seem just about unpossible to find the DOS card services drivers for now. Secondly for those that have that, memory management could be tight for the games needing a large amount of conventional memory. Thirdly, late 386 though 486 to early pentium laptops were particularly likely to commit the "cardinal sin" of locking you out of the 384k UMA entirely, so with those you might have trouble getting more than 500k conventional free when you require card services also.

Unicorn herding operations are proceeding, but all the totes of hens teeth and barrels of rocking horse poop give them plenty of hiding spots.

Reply 14 of 22, by DaveJustDave

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Here's another alternative.. a Motorola Droid 4. Has a slide out keyboard, runs dos box really well (dosbox turbo even works with Munt, so you can have MT32 sound).

I set one up a few years ago, and i've found it pretty good for playing old sierra adventure games on the train.
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Reply 15 of 22, by creepingnet

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BitWrangler wrote on 2021-12-22, 17:45:

Maybe PCMCIA sound will open up less than we would think unfortunately. For one, some models seem just about unpossible to find the DOS card services drivers for now. Secondly for those that have that, memory management could be tight for the games needing a large amount of conventional memory. Thirdly, late 386 though 486 to early pentium laptops were particularly likely to commit the "cardinal sin" of locking you out of the 384k UMA entirely, so with those you might have trouble getting more than 500k conventional free when you require card services also.

I think the key with PCMCIA is to take that into consideration and try and avoid card services when possible with either a very small dedicated driver that accesses the card directly (like my Cisco Aironet WiFi Card or my Panasonic Sound/SCSI has). That will save on RAM. I also have had luck loading certain card services high too. Got 545K Free on my M/75 in FreeDOS with both the SNDSCSI and Aironet running. The "newly made pcmcia sound card" thread IIRC has a member who is not using card services but rather his own TSR - much like the Aironet and Sound/SCSI, to act in lieu of card services. That's the "trick". I'm not so sure about the CardBarker project, but I think that also uses a TSR if I'm not mistaken.

I've toyed with attempting to make my own cards as well, and at worst, a well written, tiny, TSR would be my prime choice for getting the card to talk to the software, not the OEM card services. The ones for my Versa alone are a NIGHTMARE - there's like six different TSRs that load at boot so your average user circa 1994 can just slap in any of the NEC approved storage/network/modem/DV cards and they will work plug'n'play(Pray) style in Windows 3.1 and DOS, but in the retro-computing realm, you don't really need it. My use-case would be just slap in the card, put a tiny TSR loaded as a device driver or as an EXE at boot time, most likely in high memory if possible, sound comes out through the int_spk line on the card like a modem does, and you're done. 2 guys seem to have already done that, but I'll stop before veering too far out of scope fo the thread as until this stuff is out/made/in use here, it's just me putting there's some hope out there for widening the scope, even if a little bit.

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Reply 17 of 22, by Falcosoft

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TrashPanda wrote on 2021-12-22, 13:26:

...
I dont like DOSbox, Ive used it briefly in the past due to GOG packaging their DOS games with it, it always felt like a poor imitation of the real thing and had too many limitations that it will honestly never overcome due the nature of early PC DOS hardware being as varied as it was.
...

Would you name a few of that limitations? I seriously think that your argument about the 'varied PC DOS hardware' is much more an argument for DosBox than against it.
E.g. it's a mission impossible to find a retro DOS laptop that supports all the possible sound/music options offered by DOS games.
Namely SB/GUS for digital sound and FM/MT-32/General Midi for music.
The same is true for video: CGA/EGA/VGA/VESA VBE support at the same time.
As for the CPU part you can freely adjust the performance for speed sensitive games and so on...
In this respect DosBox is nowhere a limited/poor imitation of a DOS PC, but much more an emulation of a never existed dream DOS PC.

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Reply 18 of 22, by creepingnet

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Falcosoft wrote on 2021-12-22, 21:12:
Would you name a few of that limitations? I seriously think that your argument about the 'varied PC DOS hardware' is much more […]
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TrashPanda wrote on 2021-12-22, 13:26:

...
I dont like DOSbox, Ive used it briefly in the past due to GOG packaging their DOS games with it, it always felt like a poor imitation of the real thing and had too many limitations that it will honestly never overcome due the nature of early PC DOS hardware being as varied as it was.
...

Would you name a few of that limitations? I seriously think that your argument about the 'varied PC DOS hardware' is much more an argument for DosBox than against it.
E.g. it's a mission impossible to find a retro DOS laptop that supports all the possible sound/music options offered by DOS games.
Namely SB/GUS for digital sound and FM/MT-32/General Midi for music.
The same is true for video: CGA/EGA/VGA/VESA VBE support at the same time.
As for the CPU part you can freely adjust the performance for speed sensitive games and so on...
In this respect DosBox is nowhere a limited/poor imitation of a DOS PC, but much more an emulation of a never existed dream DOS PC.

Imho, DOSbox is a viable alternative, it's not my favorite, but it really does not have that many issues. My primary issue with it is when people expect me to use it on a RetroPie, since there's only one release that runs smoothly on 386-486 era games on there...and it changes between GL and Libretto releases.

The main thing about DOSbox and why people don't like it is that it's not an old computer. You don't have the whirring fans, the spinnning drive, the visual artifacts of an old CRT or Active Matrix display. You don't have to interact directly with floppy diskettes or CD's. It does not have that "cool" factor that an old PC has in that here's a machine, 20-30-40 years old, that still runs as intended, and you can tweak and tune the darned thing using obscure knowledge and a rare skillset to do something nobody thinks it can (still) do.

That's also one of it's huge benefits though because then you don't end up like me, wheedling around old PC's like a maniac because you're done tinkering with this one or that one. You don't need a closet, garage, attic, or storage unit to dedicate to your ever-growing PC horde.

TBH, almost all of this stuff is subjective and it's interesting seeing everyone's use-cases via suggestions because we all come up with unique choices and ideas on how to get our "Fix" of retro. There's no real rules of how to go about it. Just pros and cons, and the pros and cons are different for everyone.

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Reply 19 of 22, by TrashPanda

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Falcosoft wrote on 2021-12-22, 21:12:
Would you name a few of that limitations? I seriously think that your argument about the 'varied PC DOS hardware' is much more […]
Show full quote
TrashPanda wrote on 2021-12-22, 13:26:

...
I dont like DOSbox, Ive used it briefly in the past due to GOG packaging their DOS games with it, it always felt like a poor imitation of the real thing and had too many limitations that it will honestly never overcome due the nature of early PC DOS hardware being as varied as it was.
...

Would you name a few of that limitations? I seriously think that your argument about the 'varied PC DOS hardware' is much more an argument for DosBox than against it.
E.g. it's a mission impossible to find a retro DOS laptop that supports all the possible sound/music options offered by DOS games.
Namely SB/GUS for digital sound and FM/MT-32/General Midi for music.
The same is true for video: CGA/EGA/VGA/VESA VBE support at the same time.
As for the CPU part you can freely adjust the performance for speed sensitive games and so on...
In this respect DosBox is nowhere a limited/poor imitation of a DOS PC, but much more an emulation of a never existed dream DOS PC.

You are right DOSbox does have its advantages and I can see why some people will consider it superior to the real hardware and well good for them I wont stop them from being happy with it.

I find it limiting in ways that people who extoll DOSbox simply dont understand and will likely never understand, I guess its because I lived in the DOS era and used and worked with that hardware and software extensively. For me using the original hardware is like returning to an old book, one you have read a hundred times but haven't touched in years but its immediately familiar to you. Sure I could just buy that book in Ebook format and read it on my Ipad rather than picking up the real thing .. but is it the same .. no its a poor imitation.

If you have ever smelled an old book or picked one up and felt the old paper or walked into an old library filled with old books you might understand what I mean, DOS era hardware is the same, it has a smell to it the sounds the feel of it and it might be surprising but each bit of hardware has character especially as it gets older.

DOSbox is that Ebook and Ipad, its convenient but it has none of the feel or character and you are limited by what the developers are able to emulate correctly.

You might just think this is a bit of old guff and thats ok but I've tried to give an explanation of sorts and if you have read this far, thankyou.

Oh noes, the cap let the shmooo out 😁