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Known Old Software "Friendly" Machines

For the extremely dedicated, I've put together a list of machines that, while running software in their class adequately, can also run old software very well with a minimum of tweaking (or no tweaking at all). This list spans most needs and price ranges, so there's probably a machine here that can fit your wallet.

Generic AMD 386/40: A Solid Oldskool Machine

The AMD 386/40 (a 386 clone running at 40MHz) was extremely popular for its time, as it both outperformed a 486/25 and was $50 cheaper. The oldskool advantage to a 386/40 is primarily in two areas: Speed, and resistance to obscure programming techniques.

The speed advantage occurs when you pop off the turbo button--instant, smooth hardware slowdown to 8MHz, enough to cure almost every single speed-related problem, including errant copy-protection timing routines. One motherboard I worked with even had an option for auto-detecting when slowdown should be enabled: It would slow the machine down to 8MHz automatically during floppy disk accesses, to allow the copy-protection routines to work better. How cool is that?

The second advantage is a natural resistance to obscure programming techniques, like self-modifying code. The 80386 doesn't have an internal cache like the 486 and higher, so most self-modifying code works as good as it did on the original 8088.

You can find a full 386/40-based clone system for as little as $100. If you'd rather build your own system, Ebay, at the time of this writing, had several 386/40 motherboards with 4MB of RAM at a starting bid of $6.50.

Generic Intel 486/66: Riding the Wire

The Intel 486/66 (a true 80486 running at 66MHz) does not offer quite as many advantages as the AMD 386/40 for running old software, but it has the advantages of maturity:

You should be able to find a 486/66 system for about $200 or less. Ebay, at the time of this writing, had several complete systems with a minimum bid of $150, and motherboards for $25 to $35. The 486/66 chip itself is $25 new from Intel.

Gateway Pentium 120: You can teach an old dog new tricks

This is an extremely targeted system--that is, you probably won't find an exact Gateway Pentium 120 for sale, even from Gateway. It is included here only for completeness.

My old Pentium 120, as shipped, had both a 5.25" drive and a 3.5" drive in a single unit, the BIOS setup offered a slowdown option that slowed the CPU down to 8 MHz, and it had four internal ISA slots, which is more than enough for getting older peripherals working. Most clones in this class (90-133MHz Pentium) perform suitably, and also run Windows 95 very well with a non-crappy video card. You can find complete systems in this class minus a monitor for less than $500.

Dell Optiplex GXpro 200: An Oldskooler's Dream

The cream of the crop, the Dell Optiplex GXpro 200 is a Pentium Pro running at 200MHz, is my current machine, and is probably the best machine I've come across for running old games in addition to being an extremely capable workstation. While not listed on their website any more, you may still be able to purchase it from Dell by asking a sales representative on the phone about their old stock.

Here's the rundown on why this is the best oldskool machine I've ever owned:

There are other reasons this machine is great that are not directly related to running old games:

And that's without using a single screw! That's right--no screws.

It is entirely possible that many (or all) new Dell machines are like this, but you might want to peruse their excellent technical website to get the exact specs of the machine you plan to buy. On the OptiPlex GX Pro tech notes, the reference to the key-combo-triggered slowdown toggle is slightly obscure, but it is listed.

  1. Introduction
  2. Cripple Your PC
  3. Tweaking
  4. Floppy Drive Problems
  5. Sound
  6. Video
  7. Emulation
  8. Oldskool-Friendly Boxes
  9. Conclusion
  10. Resources
  11. Appendix A: Windows 9x Options

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This page's content was last modified on Dec 21, 2015 4:31 pm.
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