Building a computer in the 90s was different than it is today. It wasn’t just harder or more expensive. It seemed like every new build was an adventure. I probably built a few hundred systems before the decade ended, but the first few were definitely the most memorable. One in particular stands out above the rest.
It was 1996. My friend Tom wanted a modern computer that was capable of handling photography work. He was in his early 20s at the time, so he had some money to work with, but computers were expensive, so it wasn’t something he could just do on a whim. So as he saved up for the project, we picked up some items along the way as opportunities presented themselves.
Our first purchase was a case. The case came from Laclede Computer Trading Company, a long-running used computer store in St. Louis. It’s moved around a lot over the years, but at the time it was on Macklind in the city itself. I haven’t been there in nearly 10 years now, but at the time, it was one of my favorite places to buy and sell gear. I certainly kept more parts than I sold, but when I got my hands on things I knew I’d never use, like a working Packard Bell power supply or a 387 math coprocessor, I’d sell it.
One weekend I spied a pair of lonesome IBM 5170 cases at Laclede, priced at $10 each. These cases weren’t hard to find in the 90s, because IBM sold tons of PC/ATs, and by 1996, most of those systems had outlived their usefulness. Being IBM, and high-priced IBM at that, they were rugged and professional looking. But they only had two external drive bays in spite of their huge size. Still, a rugged, well-built case with a functioning 200-watt power supply was a bargain at $10, so I bought them. A new case would have cost $40, and those $40 cases of the mid 90s weren’t much to look at. They also tended to have a lot of sharp edges.
One of the cases still had the original motherboard in it. A screwdriver and a Bic pen made quick work of that. No, I didn’t think to save the board, unfortunately.
In those days, the way most people in the know bought motherboards was to pick up a copy of Computer Shopper, then order a board from an ad in its back pages. I bought a lot of boards from a long-gone outfit called TC Computers, who actually advertised in Computer Shopper under at least three different names, including Motherboards 4 Less and Treasure Chest Computers. TC was the outfit that introduced me to Asus motherboards, so I’ll always remember them fondly. When I had time to wait for shipping, I bought from them.
What I did when I didn’t have the luxury of time
But for this build, I had a secret weapon. Years ago, there was a local magazine called St. Louis Computer User. It was printed on newsprint and you could pick it up almost anywhere that sold computers, including the big-box office supply stores. In its back pages, we had some local dealers who advertised, and while they wouldn’t quite match Computer Shopper prices, they came close. St. Louis at one time had more than 60 different independent computer stores, which provided more than enough competition to find some deals.
So we picked up an Asus P55T2P4 from a shop called Computer Concepts. Yes, in this case I did the reverse of showrooming. I learned about a product from an advertiser in a magazine, then bought one locally. (To be fair, I bought one from TC the time they told me about Asus.)
And yes, in those days you bought a motherboard either in person or over the phone. Ordering things over the Internet was still a new idea then. Tom’s Hardware Guide was still very new, and if it had any of that kind of advertising yet, it was minimal. And while you might be able to browse, you still had to pay over the phone.
Finding out what motherboard to use
It was extremely difficult to get good information in the mid 90s about what parts to use and what parts to avoid. Then when you did find out about a good board, buying it was difficult. Some stores flat out wouldn’t tell you who built the parts they sold. I’d call 12 stores and 10 of them would tell me they sell Triton motherboards (that’s a chipset, not a brand) and PCI video cards (that’s a bus, not a brand). You just had to take it on faith that their board was somehow better than the ones the shops with bad reputations used. But there wasn’t much way to know. Neither the motherboard nor the box it came in had any kind of brand name on it, usually.
The PC hardware sites really did a lot to help change that situation, by helping to elevate the companies whose hardware really was better. Before long, motherboards had brand names on them and stores started carrying the higher-tier boards because there was demand for something other than the cheapest board they could find.
We picked up other parts opportunistically along the way. A mutual friend worked at Software Etc., which at that point was a store-within-a-store at Barnes and Noble. He picked up a CD-ROM drive and a keyboard, stacking his employee discount with clearance pricing. He may very well have come up with some other items.
Tons of nickel-and-dime things went into building a functioning computer then. You needed a 3.5-inch floppy drive, a mouse, sound card, video card, modem, and lots of other things that could be easy to forget. With several friends looking over the course of a few weeks, we were able to pick up a few of those things at a discount. The difference between spending $100 each on those items or $10 came down to having the right combination of knowledge, timing, and luck.
Stores we avoided
For the most part, we stayed away from big-box consumer electronics or office supply stores, unless we knew someone who worked at one and could use an employee discount. While lots of those stores sold some selection of parts, they were high-markup items and you could get better prices elsewhere, even if buying used wasn’t an option.
We avoided certain clone shops too. There was a notorious store on Shenandoah in the city called Better Business World. I’m sure they sold some good stuff, but I had bad luck with buying stuff from them that didn’t work. That was a frequent problem building a computer in the 90s. Plus the owner, a guy named Bob, was obnoxious. Rather than price an item, he would get in your face and say, “I paid $50 for this. How much profit are you going to let me have?” The thing is, in most cases, we knew he didn’t pay $50 for that item because even the retail stores sold that item, in a box with a warranty card, for about that price.
I understand now that if you asked for the right things, you could do well at that store. But I didn’t know the magic words in 1996.
There was another store in Maryland Heights that I avoided. It was an odd store because only about half of it was dedicated to selling computer equipment. But the problem I had with it was that when they didn’t have an item in stock, they would badmouth it, saying it wasn’t reliable. But then they’d run a sale on that same item a month later. I like stores that talk straight with you.
The adventure begins
One week, Tom announced he had enough money to finish the project. So we planned to make a day of it one Saturday. Tom had to work, but I got together with some mutual friends and we built a game plan. I picked up the current issue of St. Louis Computer User and the current sales fliers for CompUSA and Computer City. We inventoried the parts we had. Then we made a list of what we didn’t have and where to get it at the best price. Micro Center didn’t have a presence in St. Louis yet, and Fry’s never had one, so those two weren’t an option for us.
This meant we did a ton of driving around on Saturday. But gas was cheap and we had more time than money. Once Tom was off work, we had a plan. We met up at his place, then hit the road.
The unexpected side-adventure
For as long as I can remember, St. Louis computer stores were concentrated in the northwestern part of the metro area. I think this was because companies like McDonnell Douglas, Monsanto, and Edward Jones are/were clustered up there, and the kind of people who worked for companies like that tended to be early adopters of computers.
Tom lived in the city, so the most direct route to those stores was I-70. Traffic was heavy that afternoon for some reason, and we encountered a lot of stop-and-go in the northern part of the city. Near the Union exit, we came to a dead stop, and so did the car ahead of us. We could see that car was being towed by the car ahead of it. The guy in the car ahead of us opened his door suddenly, jumped out, and ran up to the car ahead of him and started arguing with the driver in an animated fashion. Then we saw the driver turn his head, then without warning he veered off onto the long exit ramp to Union with the car still in tow, leaving the guy who started the argument stranded.
Of course, we pulled ahead two car lengths. The stranded pedestrian stuck his thumb out at us. We shook our heads. So he stomped onto the exit ramp, waving his thumb at any other car who pulled off the highway onto the ramp to avoid traffic. Of course none of them gave him a ride either.
Eventually traffic broke and we made it to our computer store Mecca. We bought up parts, compared what was in each store to our list, and when we found a deal we didn’t know about, we took it. We got our parts in fewer trips than we planned, and a bit under budget too. Life was good. Well, for a while.
Of course, no home improvement project gets finished without 2-3 unexpected trips to the hardware store, and computer projects in the 90s were no different.
Most of the issues were around the case. When you buy a new case, you get an assortment of screws and standoffs and other hardware to meet 99% of all possibilities. Since we were using a used case designed by IBM for IBM’s motherboard from 1985, not everything lined up quite right with an Asus motherboard from a decade later. I improvised around what I could, but at the very least, we ended up sending a party out in search of some drive rails and standoffs.
Almost foiled by a keyboard
But the bigger problem was that it was nearly 8 PM by the time I realized we had the wrong connector on the keyboard. We had a PS/2 keyboard, and the motherboard had the larger AT connector on it. Some keyboards came with an adapter, but this one didn’t. There was no way for me to install an operating system without a keyboard, so off we went again.
There was a Radio Shack 10 minutes away, so I hoped we could find an adapter there. No luck. So we made our way to Crestwood, the nearest suburb with several options that might have what we needed and still be open by the time we could get there. We struck out at Crestwood’s Radio Shack and also at Circuit City. That left Best Buy and Officemax. Best Buy was closer. We made it through their doors about five minutes before they closed. That was just enough time to find the adapter so we could get on with things. It was a lot of trouble for a $5 adapter.
Did it work?
By the time we got back, we’d been working on the computer more than six hours. Much of it drive time. That’s how it goes with projects sometimes. With the adapter, I plugged in the keyboard, powered up, and checked the system out. Configuring the BIOS went smoothly, and installing the operating system took about 35 minutes. It was probably getting close to 10 pm when we had a functioning system. So we decided to try out a game. Tom pulled out a floppy containing a shareware game called Tank Wars. And we immediately found it ran too fast on a Pentium-grade machine. Even launching every program we could in the background didn’t slow the system down enough for the game to run right. The game loaded, but you couldn’t aim.
Aside from running out of parts, it all worked. Maybe a little too well in the case of Tank Wars, but it all worked. Today it’s easier because we almost always have stashes of spare parts, and one or more unused computers in the basement we can steal random stuff from. Not to mention these days all the essentials are right on the motherboard, so building a computer can consist of just bolting a board and a storage device into a case and running one data cable and two power cables.