The Lost Joys of Configuring a 90s PC (repeatedly)

Something is missing from today’s society. Something deep. Something primal. Indeed, something I spent a huge chunk of my teen & pre-teen years engaging in. During the early hours of the day, through the afternoon and often through the night. Of course, I’m talking about setting up and configuring PCs.

You might say that kids today have it easy, with their ready to go tablets. Their factory setup laptops and their automatically updating phones, where applications can be downloaded and installed in a click of a button. BUT YOU’RE WRONG. Kids don’t have it easy. They have it hard…. and the reason for that is that they are missing out on a valuable life principle. That principle, is that you have to work for what you want. You have to work damn hard, and most of the time, you have to learn a lot of new shit in the process. You’ll make mistakes, sure. But that’s ok, because ultimately, you’ll persevere, again, again and again until you eventually prevail and reach your goal.

Windows 3.11 setup disk 1
The first disk in the Windows 3.11 setup process

This is the kind of experience that say, upgrading from Windows 3.11 to ’95 brought. Or installing a new sound card and then trying for days to get the IRQ and DMA settings to work properly with DOOM. It was often a painstakingly long process, involving many breaks (often to play another game that you’d already managed to get working – only to find that it had suddenly stopped working), involving much effort but ultimately, when it was done, a massive, massive heap of satisfaction and delight. Once you got that damn piece of software to work, you used it. And you used it damn hard. You didn’t just flick it on, play with it for a few minutes and then discard it. You played it, even if it was shit. Even it was worse than flicking dog shit off the bottom of your trainers for 4 hours. You played it, and you damn well made sure that you enjoyed it. Even if it was just playing with the Mystify screen saver for an hour.

“I can’t come down for tea mum, I’m waiting for my sceen saver to activate so I can see my scrolling message.”

Bliss. Fucking bliss.

Now, I was introduced to computers before the IBM PC compatible. The Sinclair Spectrum broke me in with my first basic program when I was about 5. Then the Commodore 64 came my way, followed by the Atari ST and Amiga. All of these machines possessed their own unique challenges. Their own learning curves, and indeed their own set of bespoke problems. The thing with these machines however, is that for the majority, they’re closed units. There are no real variants. All the machines are setup a particular way, they are all designed to run a particular way and everything is tested to ensure it’s as compatible as can be across the whole range.

Installing a soundcard
Installing a soundcard in a 486 Compaq Prolinear. Love it!

BUT, because PCs are built from an absolute hashtag of different components from the disk drives down to even the Central Processing Unit. There’s problems. There’s always problems. Couple this with different operating systems, running programs designed to be compatible across various iterations and you have fuck up heaven. This was especially apparent before Plug & Play, and indeed in the early days of plug & play. It was also exacerbated by the lack of internet and driver ability. If you didn’t “HAVE DISK” then you didn’t have functionality. Or at least you had a distinct lack of functionality.

So in a way, kids do have it easy today. But I wouldn’t trade my 90s experience of the PC for the world. You can keep your damn tablets. Regardless of the fact I use one on a daily basis…. WHATEVER, don’t judge me. Arsehole.

Some Things Kids are Missing out on

Don't forget to ask Jeeves
Jeeves was always a favourite companion of mine. He’s changed now, since he went on that skiing holiday.

Here’s a small selection of things that kids just don’t really get the joy of participating in nowdays;

  • BIOS Configuration
  • Setting Time Zones and indeed the actual time
  • Manually performing a dial up connection to get on the internet
  • Driver setup
  • Blue screens of death (not as much anyway)
  • Editing config.sys
  • Editing autoexec.bat
  • Freeing up as much memory in DOS as possible, including loading drivers into high memory so that DOS games that can only use the 640KB standard RAM have enough resources
  • Disk read sounds
  • IRQ Port configuration
  • DMA allocation
  • CD driver installation
  • Mouse driver installation
  • Adding all this into the config.sys and autoexec.bat
  • Defining default paths
  • Encarta
  • Britannica
  • Dot matrix
  • Corruption
  • More corruption
  • Further corruption
  • and additional corruption
  • Slowness (although actually, operating systems seem to have a whole lot slower)
  • Guess work
  • No sound
  • PC speaker sound
  • Not being able to update or download drivers from the internet
  • Problem solving without using asking Jeeves or searching Alta Vista (that’s still the main search engine….. RIGHT?)
  • But hey, at least we didn’t have to wait for our computers to shut down

A Typical Process

90's PC hydration
It’s important to remain hydrated whilst configuring a 90’s PC

So let’s run through a typical process. It’s a process that I’ve recently endured whilst trying to re-create some 90s nostalgia. A process where time seemed to disappear into a vortex. Possibly not because I was enjoying it, but more because it puts you in a zone. A zone of concentration, of suspense and of intrigue. Indeed, I experienced some things that put me right back in the 90s, such as forgetting to eat until the task was done and generally becoming dehydrated until I at least got a working DOS prompt. The goal I set out to achieve was to install a Windows operating system on a PC, then install a few games and be able to play them WITH sound (and don’t denounce the importance of a working sound card). The plan wasn’t for a specific Windows either; as long as it was pre XP, any windows that would fucking work was absolutely dandy.

An easy task you may say, well, well…. wellllll…. let me run you through it so that you can share in this experience and also bask in my deep, deep joy.

Step 1 – Get a Working PC

Compaq Prolinear 486
The Compaq Prolinear 486, with a Deskpro 386 on top for good measure (you never know when you might need a 386)

I had a Pentium 2 333, with DOS 6.22 already installed, which was handy. So I decided to opt for the well implemented Windows ’98 operating system to kick things off. Being from the latter part of last century, thankfully, this machine was able to boot straight from CD, something that wasn’t even a reality in the mid 90’s. So I went about this straight forward task.

Windows ’98 Setup ran….. and failed. It ran again…. and failed. I continued with this loop and finally came to the conclusion that something wasn’t working. The installation was complaining about some sort of memory allocation issue or something, so I tried Windows ’95. A risky choice as this machine was released several years after the error prone OS.

But hey! It installed. Well, kind of. Several blue screens later, and even with an attempt to upgrade from 95 to 98, I gave up. This clearly wasn’t the operating system, or probably, even the machine for me.

Thankfully I had another grey box that I could use instead.

Step 2 – Get a Working CD Drive

Now, having a spare PC, was rarely an option in the 90’s, so if there was a major software/hardware issue, then you were pretty screwed. Thankfully it’s 2015, so enter the Compaq Prolinear 486 DX4/100. A fine, fine machine. The initial problem with this machine was that the floppy drive had literally fallen apart. So after spending a bit of time forcing that back together, DOS installed successfully Then I proceeded…. to find out the CD DRIVE DIDN’T WORK! Give me strength…. So, out with the old and in with the new. And whilst I was there, I boshed in a Soundblaster compatible ISA soundcard. Splendid.

On this occasion, I’d had enough of Windows ’95 and it’s latter incarnations. So good old 3.11 was order of the day. And thankfully it installed without a hitch. Superb!

Next, I needed to get sound functionality. But there was a problem. My sound card’s drivers were on CD. This PC didn’t have drivers to use it’s CD-ROM drive, so I had to search the depths of my old disk collection to find something appropriate. After much searching, between bouts of corrupted floppys, I found a generic driver and opted to install it. And, install it I did. However the drive didn’t function.

Jumper settings! I hadn’t changed the jumper settings! Off with the lid again, and a quick amendment from master to slave had the 48x speed beast operating. I even connected the digital audio line to the sound card whilst I was there, allowing CD’s to play seamlessly through my PC speakers, like witchcraft.

The soundcard drivers installed quite easily on DOS and was pretty straight forward in Windows 3.1 as well. Winner!

Step 3 – Find a Working Game

I wanted to use my original software here, so I searched for a suitable game, and past various bouts of corrupted media. I discovered Duke Nukem. However, it didn’t have any sound. Various configuration and reconfiguration of the autoexec.bat and in game settings however, did yield results and soon enough Duke came alive, to kick some ass and chew bubble gum.

corrupted DOS disks
Finding a working game on disk is increasingly difficult, thanks to magnetic corruption

Doom 2 failed to install, it got to the last disk, but it was frankly, corrupted to high heaven.

Next, I gave syndicate a go. However, being an older game it wasn’t as straight forward. You see DOS games used to be limited to the 640kb of low level memory PC’s used to have as standard. Anything above that is extended memory which needs additional drivers to make use of such as emm386.exe. But because Syndicate couldn’t use that memory, I endeavoured to edit the DOS startup files, autoexec.bat and config.sys to unload as much unneccessary crap as possible. This included the CD-ROM drivers and system files such as country.sys that tell DOS what keyboard setup you have.

Then, I needed to find a DOS mouse driver. Which I did, but it wouldn’t install. So I fell back to working out which files were necessary, copying them myself and then adding them in to the autoexec.bat.

Syndicate then worked, but crashed. So moving on.

Space Hulk caused similar issues and required changing the IRQ and DMA settings for the sound card, as the game itself lacked the ability to change which channels it used. This meant editing the startup files again, rebooting and trying again. After several reboots, various memory hacks and various configurations of the sound card, it worked! Wahey.

Other games were just shit.

Step 4 – Windows

Windows 3.11 was actually the most straight forward of all the processes. It installed easily, the sound drivers installed easily, and it happily made use of the monitor’s SVGA resolution capabilities. It wasn’t always as straight forward as this, but hey, on this occasion winner.

As for Windows ’95 driver issues. Well, that’s a story for another day.

I feel I must point out that I’ve removed or condensed a lot of the steps involved in this process, and with troubleshooting time, it took me the best part of a day! So, please show this video to your kids, perhaps they’ll see what joys they’re missing out on. Or perhaps, like I re-discovered, they’ll appreciate what a crock of stress inducing shit we had to go through just to play a game. Herald modern times!

View the Video

To watch the video for this article and see the process unfold, look no further than below…


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Ah, the days of 90’s computering. My first PC was a 1995 Compaq DeskPro 486XE running windows 95. Exactly the same as that Prolinea above, Save for windows 95, a CD drive, and COMPAQ in the later Red letters. didnt do too much upgrading on it though, i gave it to my aunt to use, and got it back 2 years later. Still works great today, except the cd door hangs open!

then Got an UlTRA pc (Some generic PC my parents bought at a local computer store for $1299 in 1998) with an intel Celeron 433mhz and win 98SE from my mother, around 2003, used it daily till 2012. Modded it to hell and back,(as much as a 98SE could do, anyways) better fans, a beefier power unit, a 40 GB Western Digital hard drive, and another 20 Mb Seagate drive, 512MB Ram, replaced the original with a 533Mhz Celeron overclocked to 1.5 Ghz. I learned alot with my 95 and my 98, even built a win 98 PC out of pieces from junked ones for my (other) aunt.
Unfortunatly, newer pcs aren’t as easy to upgrade. Fun times.

I do have a 1992 486 Prolinea as well, looks the same, save for win 3.1, and a 5.25 floppy drive.

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