|This page deals with if you are wanting to get into legacy computing, and are wanting to utilize actual vintage hardware - ie an actual, old, most-likely beige box or white/dark gray laptop computer released between 1981 and 1997, that uses floppy disks and runs on a processor that has a number rather than a name. If you are seeking emulation - then you probably will want to read the document about starting with software...and actually, these days, due to the cost of hardware, I suggest starting there so that you can get a feel for whether you want to do this or not. Especially if you are younger, and don't have prior experience with DOS/Win3x/Win9x/NT/OS2/early-Linux/etc.
THE "REAL THING" VS. EMULATION
The arguments for actual hardware start with the fact that the software you intend to run was designed to run on that actual piece of physical hardware. Also, the overall user-experience is far more "accurate" to what was at the time than running emulation on a modern Macintosh, Raspberry Pi, or PC (or other device for that matter). Also, it eliminates some of the problems Emulation brings about, such as being unable to use certain software that requires a certain piece of hardware plugged in, or requires certain functionality the real-world hardware has that emulation cannot accurately or in general not-at-all provide. It also allows, more easily, the use of traditional media you might have around, as well as can be a great conversation piece and display item.
The arguements against actual hardware starts at first, these days, with expense. These old computers and their associated peripherals are no longer as cheap as they were when people considered them "boat anchors" "doorstops" and "dinosaurs". Now they are more or less revered like a barn find vintage car. Another arguement against it is that you will, if you don't already have it, need to develop a specialized skillset to keep your classic machine running. It's not like you can just drag your vintage 486 to a local computer shop and they are going to fix it - they'll most likely either laugh you out of the store, or want to buy it off you so they can resell as/is for some sort of bloated pricetag, or offer to recycle it for you and try to upsell you on the latest thing, which most likely, is not what you are using such a machine for. They also take up more space than emulators which can live on your present day device(s), and can require some electronics knowledge to repair at this point. Worst of all, this can be quite addicting, because it's actually quite fun to tweak and tune on vintage hardware (I'm guilty of this myself). Like I said, it's like a Vintage car, people are now wrenching on their old IBM on the weekends instead of their old Ford.
What Kind of old PC Should I get?
This is something entirely individual to the user. There are so many differences and so many tastes in hardware usage that it can range from the guy who still has his childhood x86 system and just has that to run the games he remembers off a CF card or even the original hard disk, all the way up to crazy people like me who custom build, assemble, repair, modify, tune, and tweak old PC hardware just as much as we use the thing to run old productivity software, and old computer games. So let's look at the different eras....
Famous OEM Systems:IBM PC 5150, IBM PC XT 5160, Compaq Portable, IBM PC Jr., NEC Ultralite PC-17-02, Tandy 1000/A/HX/SX/EX
CPUS Used:8088, 8086, NEC V20, NEC V30, at speeds of 4.77MHz to 12MHz
Typical RAM Size(s):128K min, 640K Max typically
Typical Graphics System(s):Monochrome, 4-color CGA, 16-color EGA
Typical O/S(es) & GUI:PC-DOS 1.x-3.x, MS-DOS 1.x-3.x, Digital Research GEM
The XT era, also known as the PC/XT era, is that very early period of the PC starting with the earliest PC, the IBM PC 5150, released in August of 1981. There was a brief time between 1981 and 1983 where most PC "clones" were nonstandard, but Compaq, in 1982, broke that through "clean room engineering" and brought us the Compaq Portable, the first 100% IBM Compatible "clone" that was 100% legal and legally provable in court not to infringe on IBM patents, so it opened the door to what we know know of as "XT Clones" or "Turbo XTs" - basically, intel 8088 powered PC's, many of which look almost identical to the IBM PC and PC XT, but run at faster speeds. These systems are great for 1980's era, old-school stuff. Looking back from now, the best series in this line for a beginner would be an old Tandy 1000, which can be a bit of a costly aquisition (thanks a lot Young Sheldon!(rolls eyes)). The Tandy is a bit more of a walled garden as it has some lineage with Tandy's previous non-IBM Compatible line, the TRS-80 series (it uses TRS-80 joysticks and mice), but it offers 16-color graphics, and 3-voice sound, whereas an original IBM can be three to four times more expensive, and you're stuck with Monocrhome, CGA, or harder-to-get EGA at a higher cost. However, the IBM will accept more cards and standard PC peripherals, whereas the Tandy's #1 source of consternation is the KEyboard. XT Clones can be great too, as long as you are willing to do some research first to figure out what you need (I'm trying to grow this site to be one of those resources). With some of the newer open-source old-school-PC upgrade projects going on today, there are ways you could make a killer Turbo XT capable of a lot of the Tandy things, and likely faster, for less....but it will take more time and perserverence than the Plug'n'play solution a Tandy 1000 practically is.
So what is the XT Class actually good for? A surprising lot actually. Mike Brutman's mTCP Suite is an excellent way to put one of these ancient systems on the internet on your home network to connect to Bulletin Board Systems - and ASCII art from BBSes looks BEAUTIFUL on a CGA system from the 80's. You can learn to program in many languages and make new things for these old systems. Most of all, gaming, you have pretty much access to earlier versions of all the AGI/SCI Sierra titles, maybe a few with a speed penalty on slower systems. Early Lucas Arts games are AWESOME on these old systems, especially Maniac Mansion (Maniac Mansion on a Tandy 1000A with the Deluxe Mouse - you have 16-colors, 3-voice, and the speed is quite good, surprising for a XT that came out 1984). There's also a huge glut of games you can download/buy/play on these systems that will run properly on them. Also, they are the most interesting looking systems because these were before things started to level out and get more standarized.
I would best avoid early systems like the Eagle PC-xx series, Tandy TRS-80 2000 ( a whole different ball of wax from the Tandy 1000). Also, you might need to have a steeper learning curve as these systems are reaching 40 years old as of this year (2021) and may need some electronics work, but the trade-off is that XT's are so simple they are a good place to start doing motherboard modifications/repairs, and another trade-off is they tend to be less problematic than later systems because of this simplicity.
If you want to see what my ideal system for the XT class is, take a look at my Tandy 1000A, that's a good benchmark, especially once I'm done with it (8087 installed - as Sim City uses the Math Co-Processor, and V20 to speed up things like Thedexter and SCI titles), it has an XT-IDE card in it with a capacious 3GB HDD so I have plenty of room to install as much as I want on there, or run installers from a 2nd partition like some kind of mock CD-ROM.
Famous OEM Systems:IBM PC AT 5170, Compaq Deskpro 286, IBM PS/2 25/30/50Z, Zenith Data Systems SuperSport
CPUS Used:Intel 80286 and clones thereof made by IIT, Harris, Siemens, AMD, and NEC
Typical RAM Size(s):512KB to 2MB typically, as much as 16MB in a 286 system (max)
Typical Graphics System(s):4-Color CGA, 16 color EGA, 256 Color VGA (later)
Typical O/S(es):PC-DOS 1.x-5.x, MS-DOS 1.x-6.22, Digital Research GEM, Windows 3.0
The AT Era is kind of an oddball. The Intel 80286 CPU, that is the crown of this era, is a "mixed bag". It was designed before the PC was a thing, released just a year after, and utilized 2 years after in the IBM PC AT - which was an ultra-expensive PC intended mostly for BUsiness used with Unix to interface with mainframes. In reality though, they were used as fast XT's, and introduced some early versions of concepts like Expanded and Extended Memory, and were some of the earliest systems to have IDE and VGA - standards we still use to some extent today.
The 286 era machines however, are a bit of an oddball also in that they overlap the XT, turning "Turbo" off on the AT (even the original IBM had a Slow Down button - which is what a Turbo Button REALLY is), they can run a lot of early 386/486 era software, but they also can, by virtue of that button, run a lot of XT-class stuff. This also tends to make them, even the IBM's less as expensive. Whereas an original XT or PC will cost you almost $1000 these days on e-bay, an AT in similar condition will pull half-as-much....why? Because This truly funky era is also known for some weird unobtainium hardware things that were paving the way for the fiture. Things like EGA, which was a 64 color capable, 8-bit graphics standard, ESDI (Enhanced Small Drives Interface) hard disks that are very hard to find or replace today, and other odditites. But this overlap and the fact they can be easily upgraded using 386/486 era parts by virtue of being the first PC's with the 16-bit ISA bus, means that you can make quite a screaming 286 for relatively cheap if you know where to look and who to ask, and what to look out for. So if gaming in the 1981-1992 eras appeals to you a lot, a 286 might even be the way to go if you want just one old system for everything. But if you want to go beyond that, you will need at least a beefy 386 to make the grade.
Famous OEM Systems:Compaq Deskpro 386, ALR Access 386 & 486, IBM ThinkPad 300 series, Gateway 2000, Packard Bell
CPUS Used:Intel 486 SX/DX/DX2/DX4 + Clones by AMD, Cyrix, Texas Instruments, and IBM, and the AMD 5x86 133MHz variant
Typical RAM Size(s):4MB of RAM is a common baseline with RAM maxxing out around 64 for the typical user, with an actual maximum of around 128MB for some later 486 systems, and 256MB in servers of the time based on i486
Typical Graphics System(s):VGA (640x480 @16-colors, 320x200 @256 Colors), and SVGA (640x480 @256 colors and beyond)
Typical O/S(es):MS-DOS 5.00-6.22, Windows 3.1x, Windows 9x, early Linux (Slackware, Debian)
The 386 era starts in 1986, with the Compaq Deskpro 386 that beat IBM a full 9 months to the punch with the first commercially availible/popular 386 machine from a major OEM, and ends with the 486 era in 1997, technically 2001 actually, because Windows 98 SE was the last version of Windows to support a 486 CPU (and actually will run on a 386 with some trickery). This is what I call the PC's "Puberty/Teenage-hood" - with the 386 being like puberty, we have this new 32-bit CPU, how are we going to make use of this mess, and the 486 Graduating High School in 1995, with a modem, ready to take on the world wide web at a blazing DX4-100 MHz.
Honestly, if you are just interested in running later DOS or early Windows games in general, this is the era to get into. ALL of the classic DOS Games everyone still talks about 30 years later with the enthusiasm of a AAA FPS title for the PS5 - Monkey Island 1&2, Ultima 6/7, Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Alone in the Dark 1-3, The 7th Guest and the 11th Hour - were 386/486 era software titles. While they will run on later hardware, this is the era where toward the end of it, the "vintage-ness" of the hardware starts to fade a bit as we get into rounded, white cases with no turbo button, 486 DX4+ systems with PCI sound cards, USB, 3D graphics, and memory above 16MB. These hav ethe widest swath of compatibility of anything, and even some laptop 486 Laptop computers have active matrix screens and at least Windows Sound System, if not SoundBlaster compatible sound, and even those can be rigged up for 802.11b WiFi....There's a lot you can do with this era that you can't with other eras going backward or forward.
Where do you Find these Systems These Days?
Famous OEM Systems:Dell Dimension, Dell OptiPlex, IBM ThinkPad 7xx, Compaq LTE, Gateway 2000 P5 series
CPUS Used:Intel Pentium 60/66 (Socket 4), Intel Pentium 75/90/100/133/166/200/233 w/ or w/o MMX
Typical RAM Size(s):8MB Minimum, with 16MB being the typical, and as high as 64MB for systems that ran through the XP era
Typical Graphics System(s):SVGA - usually 640x480 @256 colors early on, expanded to 1024x768 3D accel. 32-bit True color over PCI much later on
Typical O/S(es):Windows 9x (95/98/Me), Windows NT, Windows 2000 Pro, Slackware/Red Hat/Debian Linux, rarely DOS
The Pentium era starts in 1993 with the "Socket 4" Pentium 60 and 66Mhz CPUs, which were the infamous CPU with the floating point bug and horrible power and cooling requirements that were rarely met on early Pentium systems - hence why the Pentium (586) generation did not gain much traction until 1995 - which I feel is the first time we saw the current pattern of PC development start. IT seems EVERYTHING hit in 1995 - the internet, Windows 95, Pentium Processors, PCI Bus, USB 1.0, a lot of practices of modern I.T. support - hype around games (Doom and Diablo to name two), FPS AAA Titles (Doom, Duke Nukem 3D), the end of DOS as a primary O/S (replaced by Windows 95), and Windows stops being a nerdy mess both in promotions and vibe, and becomes a true consumer product.
The Pentium era is great if you don't value the earlier era of systems, or plan on having at least one other system, and especially great if you are looking into laptops. The Pentium era also ushered in the standardization of Active Matrix Screens from all makers, not just major ones like IBM, NEC, Toshiba, and Compaq - and these systems mostly all had Sound CArds, either based on IBM MWave or some ESS Semiconductor based SoundBlaster compatible chipset such as the ESS688, ESS1868, or ESS1869, and you started to see such things as USB, Lithium Ion Batteries, Toward the end of the PEntium Era, the "Super Socket 7" craze started, meaning you could easily bump it up to a 686 machine if the time comes you need it (ie AMD K6), and early Super Socket 7 ATX boxes are also great because you can find brand new parts that fit and work with them (ie modern PSU's being the major one - without any adapters).
Back when I Started messing with vintage hardware of this type in 2001, you could go to any local thrift shop, flea market, even occasionally garage sales, and buy these systems for the cost of a full dollar menu dinner from McDonalds. Today, not so much. Not to point any fingers, but the retro x86 Craze has been on the rise since the mid 2000's, and I almost consider myself one of the pioneers of it, the "Bob Chandler of MOnster Truck Legacy PC's" if you put it. YouTubers have added fuel to the fire, and the prices are rising, to me, somewhat ridiculously. But you can still find them, if you know what you are looking for, and know what you are willing to spend.
E-bay is the most common resource, but not the cheapest. What e-bay is good for is hunting down inexpensive under-dog systems. That's actually how I got into the NEC Versa, I saw there was a GLUT of 1st generation 486 NEC Versa models on e-bay going for $75 or less, and their quirky design helped make them easy to fix. However, a side effect is the I have seen the prices crawl up a little, and the supplies get smaller. This is a good place to look if you have some technical skills, especially with electronics or adhesives, if you want to save some money. It is, however, a BAD place for the most part to buy high-ticket systems like IBMs, Tandys, and Compaqs - as they tend to go for the cost of a good mid priced to high end guitar. I sell there to get rid of excess inventory periodically, and I TRY to keep my prices fair and competitive while making sure I don't get ripped off.
Craigslist - which is particular to your area, may have some things. It's a good place to find free stuff like CRT Monitors, or TVs if you want to mess with CGA Composite mode on an old XT model. It however, does not have a good stock of stuff, and it's pretty random, so it's good to look just once in awhile. Also, I've found sales and buyers on Craigslist to be a bit flaky, but that could be regional (Seattle, which is notorious for flakiness).
Next up is the Vintage Computer Marketplace on VCFED, which is cool because you can ask for things in the "Wanted" forum, and look for things in the "Sale" subforum. Also, they have some running threads for Craiglist, E-bay, and some other things as well so it might be a good hub for finding other things at other places as well. I also sell there sometimes.
Another place to go is AMIbay, though it seems to have a bit more European coverage than USA coverage, and is mostly focused on Commodore Amiga, though it has expanded into other realms of vintage hardware. I've personally never bought or sold anything there but I have posted a few "Want" posts.
There are also some places that sell the open-source parts both as kits, bare PCB's, and fully assembled products such as TexElec, LoTech, and Tndy.com. These are the future of this activity, and what will keep these vintage PC's going for decades to come as original parts sources dry up and become too expensive, and eventually (hopefully) new full systems based on these older CPUs for future generations.
Other good places to look are recyclers, local computer shops, and if you're lucky enough to live in a major city, you might have places like RE-PC (Tukwila/Seattle) or things like the COmputer Reset liquidation (Dallas Texas), or Nu 2 U (Reno, NV) to purchase old parts and components from. Some local computer shops like PC Service CEnter (Sparks, NV), Computer Surplus (Redmond, WA), or even old electronics shops (ie like Southern Electronics in Opelika, AL, or during the final days of Fry's Electronics you could find some things here and there for retro-PC projects). Some places you can even strike up deals with and get them to call you when very old stuff comes in if you are willing to pay for it, or sometimes, as I've found with CRT Monitors, they are willing to give it away to you because they have to PAY to "recycle" those devices.
What is Involved in Keeping/Maintaining This Old Hardware
Vintage computer hardware is a lot like a vintage car, there's a lot of things that can and do go wrong, and there's a lot of ways to keep those things from becoming issues in the future. I'm going to run down a list of maintainenance items, and then a list of common problems and common fixes for old systems.
Common Issues (and Their (easier) Fixes)
- Cleaning The System Outside - I usually just use Windex, Magic Erasers (especially on metallic parts and on screens that are particularly dirty), and on rare cases Goo Be Gone or Acetone to remove stickers.
- Cleaning the System Inside - Can of Compressed air, maybe an old toothbrush for really stubborn stuff stuck on old heatsinks such as those found on 486's on up. I have a larger paintbrush (like the kind you use on a house) to sweep off large sums of dust from things like MOtherboards and case bottoms. good idea to wear gloves with some cases as the metal edges on stamped steel and stamped alloy cases are sharp sometimes.
- File Management on Hard Drive(s) - This will become a problem more as you install more stuff, create more content with your old PC, or if you are frequently tinkering/experimenting with various software and drivers and whatnot like I Do. It's not unusual for me to have all sorts of double copies, excess directories, and whatnot on my huge-hard-disk 486 systems, but it's also essential if you are wanting to work with a system with the original small-capacity hard disk or a strictly floppy system, it's very easy to "Waste" floppies by filling them up and not labeling them, it's also very easy to cram a 250MB HDD completley full if you are dabbling around with all sorts of stuff on your old system (did that to my vErsa 40EC, hence the 80GB today).
- Defragmenting Hard Disk Drives - What happens to old hard drives over time, is the data on the drive is not packed into neat rows on the same cylinder, heads, or sectors, instead it's scattered all over. "Defragging" or defragmentation fixes this by finding all the bits of files, and putting them in the most convenient spots for the disk to access the fastest, this maks e a REAL difference on older hard drives especially that have slow read/write times.
- Replacing the CMOS Battery - Periodically you may have to replace the battery on the motherboard called the CMOS battery - which is what keeps the date, time, and various settings. PC/XT class computers don't normally have this, but anything 286 and later does.
- Tuning Focus/Voltage on old CRT monitors - If you choose to use a vintage CRT monitor, like I Do, you do have some maintenance on those. On some older, or high "mileage" monitors, you will need to learn eventually to modify the Focus and Voltage settings on the flyback transformer inside the monitor to prevent eyestrain and have the best image possible as the tube wears out over the next several decades.
- Backing Up Your Data From the Old Machine - YOu also will want to keep backups somewhere safe, like the Cloud, an External USB, maybe even a second hard disk ready and built out, so you don't drive your S.O. nuts with an entire day file-copy operation.
You might come upon problems with older hardware as well. A lot of the time, these issues can be pretty easy, other times, they can be quite tricky. This is also a good guide to figure out whether to buy an untested system or not, because if any of these feel out of your realm of capability, even with a good FAQ, then you probably are not ready to be owning vintage hardware. This is sort of the "Vice Grip Garage" method of getting an old PC going. A PC needs three things to run, all hardware present and counted up at boot time, no problems with that hardware, and an operating system disk to boot off of, without one of those, it will fail at some point.
- System Does not Power On - The first thing I usually do is unplug the CPU "box" and then plug it back in while staring at the fan, if it's an IBM PC, XT, or clone with the fan inside, I open the case, as I plug it back in, I watch the fan, if the fan moves a small bit when you plug the system in, the Power Supply most likely is not at fault. On one hand, it could be plugged in backwards (there's a pair of connectors on ALL pre-ATX PC's that have the black ground wires in the middle of the connector on the motherboard, marked P8/P9 usually). If it's not the power connector, it could be you have a shorted capacitor on the motherboard, if it's visible, and one of the ones near the power supply connector, you could remove it, and the PC might actually power on after that.
- System Powers on but Does Not POST (Power On Self Test) - The first thing to check is that the HDD Connector is not on backward, I've found this to be a problem, or not hanging off the hard disk partially. The next step - remove all Add-in cards except the VGA card, and disconnect ALL drives. It should then POST, you could have a bad processor chip, bad memory somewhere, or a bad motherboard. I would start with MEmory first and work my way up from there. It could also be a jumper or dip-switch is set wrong in rare cases.
- System POwers on but beeps in patterns (beep error codes) - If you hear something like 1 beep, then 2 beeps, then 1 beep - you are witnessing a POST error code. I would note down the beep pattern, then look inside the case for a chip marked "AWard" "Phoenix" "American MEgatrends" or even with the brand name of the PC (IBM & Compaq especially) - then look it up on the internet. The problem could be everything from a certain expected card not being installed. The #1 culprits in this case are usually memory, or the video card (Bad or not installed). I would pull all the cards from the system, and install one at a time, until the problem re-occurs. If it's still occuring, it could be a motherboard configuration issue, or it could be the motherboard is truly bad. I would look up the POST codes first to see what the problem likely is.
- System Powers on and POSTS but gives a CMOS Checksum, System Date/Time error - This means most likely your CMOS Battery is bad. The CMOS battery is a battery inside the computer that stores the date, time, hard drive geometry, and various system performance and security settings. If this fails, or the voltage off the battery is very low, you will need to replace the battery, and put the dat,e time, and disk settings back into the BIOS on boot time.
- System POwers on and POSTS but throws up an error saying something like..Hard Disk Not Found - You might also get this with above, which means the Hard Disk Geometry is not in the BIOS anymore as a result of a drained CMOS Battery. You might be able to coax the machine to boot by opening the case, and either Googling the HArd Disk model# for the Cylinders, Heads, and Sectors information, or even finding that information on the drive itself. YOu may also be able to auto-detect the drive in later era 486 systems and newer either by selecting "Auto" int he BIOS, or using an "Auto Detection" utility in the CMOS Setup. If the gemoetry settings are in the BIOS, make sure the Hard Disk is in the case, and plugged in to a card or the motherboard, and if that's all correct, then likely the hard disk is dead and you will need to replace it.
- System POwers on and drops to "Insert System Diskette" or "No Operating System Found" error - This means the CMOS battery is good, the Hard Drive may very well be found and working, and your problem is, someone "wiped" the machine before sending it off (don't worry, it's a GOOD Thing, you have a clean slate, which means things will most likely work correctly the first time). What you need to do is install an Operating System. Hope you have a CD or installer Floppies around. Or at least a basic DOS Boot Disk.
- System Powers on and Hangs at some kind of boot screen with no on-screen movement - This usually means something is corrupted, or a driver is accessing a faulty piece of hardware inside the computer at boot time, causing it to hang, or in rare cases, a virus has destroyed things. One thing to try is to press F8 as soon as you see the screen blank before booting the operating system (ie the Memory Count and System Serial and all that dissappear from the screen) - just hammer on the F8 Key until you get some kind of boot menu, and then use SHIFT+F9 or whatever it says on screen, to do a Step By Step Boot (DOS) or boot into Safe Mode (Windows) - Step By Step is best because you can find the offending item, and sometimes, it may even work if you bypass it in the boot process, allowing you to fix whatever is wrong as long as the machien is on.
- System Powers on and boots but the HDD is noisy and it's very very slow - This most likely means a hard disk replacement. If a drive is very loud, clicking a lot, or making awful noises, it means it could be on the verge of failure or "Crashing" as a lot of people call it. You will need to reload the O/S onto a new hard disk and start over.
- System POwers on and Boots, but it's taking a really, really long time Don't fret! Just be paitient, I've given systems as long as 30-60 minutes to boot at times because some people have done some really stupid pairings of system with an O/S. I've seen 386es running Windows 98 SE, XT's running Windows 3.0, people managing to hack XP onto a 486, it's amazing the things people can get running on some of these old computers (heck, just look at some of my diatribes on PC forums about running FIfefox 12 on a 486 DX4-100 in Windows 2000 Professional), and it could be that. Or it could be they are one of the stereotypical "end lusers/abusers" of the 90's who installed every toolbar, every webmonkey Bonzai Buddy, looked at lots of porn, downloaded lots of free software, and
Past that point, you should have a system that works well enough to at least be loaded with some version of DOS and be somewhat usable. Anything beyond that is beyond the scope of this document as this is meant ot be for beginners.