Category Archives: Hardware

Victory over a cantankerous Pentium-75

Yes, the cantankerous Pentium-75 finally realized that resistance is futile, because I have more stamina than most computers. The problems when we started: sound was flaky, CD audio didn’t work, the modem didn’t work, and the system didn’t always boot properly. Once I got my mitts on it, things quickly got worse and the system wouldn’t boot at all except in safe mode, and of course nothing works in safe mode.
After borrowing some hardware from Gatermann (I don’t know where all my AT stuff went but I sure can’t find it) and spending some serious time with it (writing about NFS and flipping back and forth between my writing station and the P75), it works. Very nicely, in fact. It blows away most Pentium-233s I’ve seen. Seriously. It boots in 30 seconds. Word loads in 10-12. That’s hardly a cause for celebration when a system with a K6-2/500 and a modern hard drive boots Windows in 20 seconds and Word 97 in 4, but consider this: This is a 75 MHz Pentium with 256K L2 cache, a SiS 5500 chipset, a mere 32 megs of RAM, a #9 Vision 330 video card (with an S3 764 chipset), an ISA ESS688-based sound card, and a very old 850 MB Maxtor hard disk. Vintage 1995 all around. Cast in that light, this machine kicks some serious butt.

I suspect some of the problems were hardware-related. After reinstalling Windows, I went and grabbed an audio CD (the always-cheerful Still, by Joy Division), dropped it in, and it indicated it was playing. But I didn’t hear anything. So I stopped the CD and checked the hardware. The CD-ROM drive was set up alone on the secondary channel (good), as a slave device (not good). The audio cable looked like it was seated properly but I wasn’t sure. I took the drive out, gave it a once-over, triple-checked all cable connections, and let it go. I powered up, grabbed another CD (Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes this time), and by the time I got the speakers plugged into the right jack, Tori Amos was asking why we always crucify ourselves. I didn’t have an answer to that question, but I had sound. Good. Either this computer doesn’t like Joy Division, or what I did fixed it.

I did a few more tweaks (OK, a lot more tweaks, because I’m a bloody perfectionist) and soon I had an overachieving P75 sitting atop the now-infamous Tower of Power. I think I’m going to keep an eye on it for one more day, then deliver it.

There are a large number of P233s at work that won’t launch Word in 10 seconds, and they certainly won’t boot Windows in 30.

So, the owner should be happy with it. I’m pretty happy with it. And I’m very glad to have some tangible numbers about what’s possible with the tricks in my book.

If this Pentium-75 is putting your system to shame, you can put an end to that.

Finishing touches: I let RAM Stress Test, by Ultra-X (trust me, you want to go to www.ultra-x.com, not any of the similar addresses–BIG mistake) run for about 20 hours straight. After 100 cycles without a failure, I restarted, booted into Windows, installed Juno (yuck), cleaned up the network settings, then installed Netscape and defragged the drive. The system is still pretty darn fast for what it is.

And, having run RAM Stress Test on the memory (it has commodity memory in it), I have reasonable confidence in the memory, and thanks to SpinRite, I have the utmost confidence in the drive (a Maxtor).

Refurbishing a Pentium-75

Remember that Pentium-75 I worked on a couple weeks ago? It’s back. I love problem-child PCs. Not. But its owner couldn’t be nicer about it, so that makes it better to deal with. This time I’m doing what I should have done in the first place: clean reinstalling Win95 with a minimalist setup. It works so much better that way.
She’s really funny about it. I guess she’s been driving around with it in the trunk of her car since Friday, so it’s been a few places, like the park. Taking the computer to the park for some fresh air… I guess it couldn’t hurt, though I can’t say I’ve ever tried that. “Not the way I drive,” she said. I see…

I’d better see if I can get some stuff written, and maybe put the computer up on the bench and see what I can get it to tell me.

Later:

Whooee! Talk about one sick puppy! I dredged up the motivation to pop that computer up on the bench (so to speak–I’ve got a real Tower of Power going here now, with three minitowers stacked on top of one another, cascading off a KVM switch–I do wish I had a digital camera right about now so you could see). Well, I fire up, and Windows takes a week to load (warning sign #1: this computer may be old, but it’s not a 486SX/25). When that annoying Windows screen finally goes away, I get a Windows protection error while initializing device VAUDRV. Obviously some kind of audio driver. Veree strenge, as Chief Inspector Clouseau would say. (I find myself wanting to type grep -r vaudrv * to hunt down that file, which just indicates I’ve been getting way too much Linux time lately.) I boot in safe mode, nuke the audio drivers, reboot, and…. same error. Let’s look around a bit more. The root directory is littered with stuff that doesn’t need to be there, but nothing causing problems. I see multiple installations of the sound drivers, which isn’t helping but shouldn’t hurt–they’re in separate directories. I see a directory with a weird name, but that turns out to be DOS-mode CD-ROM drivers. A quick scan of autoexec.bat/config.sys reveals they’re not active, so they’re out of mind, if not totally out of sight. Then I notice the disk space: 390 megs free. What’s she been doing? A quick dir /w /s reveals 406 MB used. No way. Scandisk. No problems. Huh? So I run FDISK and… learn that this computer thinks it has an 813 MB drive. What? I reboot, go into the BIOS, and autodetect the drive. No, it’s a 1.6 gig. OK. Reboot, go into DOS, and… 813 MB.

I’m starting to wonder how many problems that’s causing.

A dir /s *.doc turns up very little, so it doesn’t look like she has any data on the machine. I’m thinking visit Maxtor’s site, get a low-level format utility for the drive to wipe out whatever Windows decided to do to that poor drive’s partition table, and start over. But I’ll have to ask before I do that, just in case.

Hey, I wonder if SpinRite would have anything to say about all this? So I run SpinRite. The model number it retrieves from the drive suggests it’s an 850-meg drive. Hmm. Maybe I misread the BIOS? Might as well let SpinRite finish at this point. It thinks it’ll only take a couple of hours on a drive this size. I can go read, or switch over to one of my other PCs and write for a while.

I still think I want to low-level format and start over from scratch. We’ll see if I can get this P75 to outrun the P233s at work. I’m betting I can. (Part of it is that I’m good, yes, but a big part of it is the sorry state of those P233s.) I’m gonna whip this underachieving heap of silicon into shape.

Still later:

I was misreading the drive parameters last night. I’m not used to working with machines with the AMI BIOS. It was reporting the number of sectors where I expected to see the drive size, hence the 850 MB/1.6 GB confusion. So I haven’t found something totally out of the ordinary after all.