@Retrochallenge – Getting Started

Windows 95 98

I have one definite project that I want to complete this year, building a multi-boot bridge machine.  This is more of an enabler than a full on retro project and will likely prove far from taxing, hopefully taking only a few hours.

Once achieved however it will allow me to seriously de-clutter my workspace and this in turn will hopefully allow me to get on with some other retro goodness without the continual hindrance of being surrounded in junk.


Choice Of Cases

Due to the ubiquitous nature of MS-DOS and the various subsequent flavours of Windows most of the retro computers in my collection rely on connecting to Wintel machines to facilitate file transfers.  Some of the software provided is very specific about which version of DOS/Windows it will play ball with.  I therefore have a collection of machines running early versions of DOS through to Windows XP.  My aim is to narrow this down to one machine.

Helpfully Microsoft still provide minimum specifications for Windows For Workgroups and XP.

Windows For Workgroups:-

  • 80286 microprocessor or better for version 3.1
  • 80386sx microprocessor or better for version 3.11
  • 2048 kilobytes (K) total memory for version 3.1
  • 3 megabytes (MB) total memory for version 3.1 (2 MB with no network installed)
  • 3 megabytes (MB) total memory for version 3.11 (4 MB is recommended)
  • 6.2 MB of hard drive space (14.5 MB recommended)

Windows XP:-

  • Pentium 233-megahertz (MHz) processor or faster (300 MHz is recommended)
  • At least 64 megabytes (MB) of RAM (128 MB is recommended)
  • At least 1.5 gigabytes (GB) of available space on the hard disk
  • CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive
  • Keyboard and a Microsoft Mouse or some other compatible pointing device
  • Video adapter and monitor with Super VGA (800 x 600)or higher resolution
Choosing A Motherboard

Choosing A Motherboard

I delved in to my collection of motherboards and cases and decided to pair an Abit BH6 motherboard with a 300 MHz Pentium 2 ripped from a dead Dell Dimension.  The BH6 has a good combination of ISA and PCI slots, USB, standard serial and parallel ports.  It’s had an interesting few years, some of them spent hanging on the wall as decoration (regularly vacuumed in a non sympathetic manner) and the last 2 or 3 in a pile of other MBs in a damp, non heated shed.  I was therefore a little sceptical as to whether it would still work.

I also found an Nvidia TNT 2 graphics card, two 128MB sticks of PC100 RAM, a 3.5″ FDD and a CD-ROM drive.  I assembled all of the components into a suitable case and was somewhat surprised when greeted by a successful POST.


Compact Flash Cards

I decided in advance that the easiest way to boot into various OS’s would be to use Compact Flash cards.  I have a number of them lying around in various sizes from 32MB up to 16GB and have had great success with them in the past.

I had therefore ordered an IDE to CF adapter with a back plate fitting so that the card could be swapped out easily. In retrospect a 5.25 Bay model would have been even more convenient so I may yet get one of those.

CF Adapter

CF Adapter

Once fitted and hooked up with a suitable cable I set about installing Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95 and 98 onto separate cards.  The installations went pretty smoothly, I put DOS 6.22 and WFW on a 32 MB card, Windows 95 on a 1 GB card and 98SE on a 4 GB card.  One other useful aspect of this method is that the cards can be easily removed and inserted into a card reader on another machine allowing easy transfer of files.


Installing Windows For Workgroups

Having discovered some old floppy disks whilst rooting around for components for this machine it wasn’t long before it was called in to action.  I installed a 5.25″ FDD into a spare bay and inserted the Windows 95 CF card.  Once booted into Windows 95 I set about attempting to recover some old files as detailed here.

The build has therefore been successful,  I’ll also do an XP installation and then I’ll be able to simply swap cards and boot into whichever OS I need.  I shall also add an internal CF adapter with a 4 GB CF card onto which I will install all of the retro software that I need so that it’s always available to each OS.


Pentium II & Heatsink

The machine is reasonably quiet as the Pentium is passively cooled although the graphics card has a small fan, I may therefore root around for a fan-less model.

A sound card would be nice but not essential and I may see if I can hook up the two Voodoo 2 3D cards that I used to run in SLI mode.

@Retrochallenge – Recovering The Past

BBC Microcomputer

Some of you will no doubt be familiar with last year’s story surrounding Jordan Mechner’s discovery and recovery of the Prince of Persia source code, you can read about it on Mechner’s blog here.

I suspect many of us have on occasion stumbled upon old floppy disks stored away in the back of cupboards or in our lofts.  Over the years I have found several stashes of both the 3.5″ and 5.25″ variety.  It certainly seems to be pot luck as to whether they are still viable and whether any recoverable data remains, although I have noticed that certain brands seem more resilient, 3M, Dysan, Verbatim for example.

In the process of searching for components for my bridge machine I stumbled across another such stash in my loft.  I found my original Amiga game disks, titles such as Defender of the Crown, Monkey Island, Frontier and so on, some Amiga joysticks, a Philips CM 8833 monitor and most interestingly for me a box of 5.25″ disks.

Verbatim Datalife Minidisk Pink

28 Year Old Floppy Disks

On closer inspection of the box I found two disks that I had used back in 1985 for my computer studies class at school.  What chance I wondered if any data could be recovered?

The computers that we used at school at the time were BBC Model B’s.  I don’t currently have any BBC machines in my collection although I now feel a strong urge to acquire one along with the Microvitec Cub monitors that were ubiquitous at the time.  I therefore had a look around to see if there was any software that might allow me to read the disks in a PC.

I quickly found the superb OmniDisk by Jason Watton and nervously inserted the first disk.  After working my way through all the options it became clear there was nothing to be found on the disk.  Of course there may not have been anything on the disk in the first place so undeterred I turned to the second disk, barely legible on the label, mine and Urbancamo’s form group – 5C4.

Recovering Files With OmniDisk

Recovering Files With OmniDisk

Immediately it became obvious there was some data there.  I ran through the various options in OmniDisk (did I mention how superb it is) and eventually managed to extract an image from the disk and from this I was able to pull out the individual files.

Loading these into a text editor revealed that they were BBC BASIC programs, namely my game ‘Yahtzee!’ and Urbancamo’s ‘Airman’.  Not exactly Prince of Persia but nevertheless pretty exciting on a personal level to recover such data from a disk that is the best part of 30 years old and has spent most of its life suffering the extreme temperatures of life in the loft.

The files are stored in tokenised binary format which results in a lot of garbage when viewing them in a standard text editor.  I had a hunt around and found the BAS2TXT DOS program here which converts the files into readable text.

BAS2TXT Conversion

BAS2TXT Conversion

It worked very well although I still had to jump in and make a few manual corrections, but then that was ever the case when it came to my laughable attempts at coding. That’s why Urbancamo did the coding and I did the pretty things.

I’ve also recovered Urbancamo’s ‘Airman’ program and sent it to him, I think he may be incorporating it into his Retrochallenge which would be cool.  Perhaps if he can finally finish that, he could move on to his PhD, snork.

Anyway, the next challenge was to see if I could run the code.  Nostromo BBS user Stuart Johns pointed me in the direction of BeebEm, and I found a Mac version courtesy of Jon Welch.

I fired it up on my Mac Mini, copied my newly cleaned up code and pasted it straight into the emulator window, typed RUN and slap my thighs it worked!

Yahztee Running On BeebEm

Yahztee Running On BeebEm

There on the screen my hopelessly inept attempts at coding in full view for the first time in 28 years.  Yahtzee!

There was even sound.

Subsequent attempts to access the original floppy disk have failed, it seems this really was last chance saloon stuff.  Of course in the grand scheme of things it’s largely irrelevant, but on a personal level recovering those files has been a real ride and has brought back some fond memories.

Colour Graphics

Roll The Dice

If I can find a Beeb at a sensible price I think it may well be my next purchase.