Building a Win95 box

Building a Windows 95 box? Why? You nuts?
Why not? You’ve got old hardware, you’ve got a ton of licenses to run an obsolete operating system… It’s a good match. Remember, a Pentium-120 was a titan of a PC in 1995. You couldn’t get anything faster. Running Windows 95 on a Pentium-120 with 24 MB RAM, 1.2 GB HD, and 8X CD-ROM in 1995 seemed like running Windows 2000 on a decked-out 1.4 GHz Athlon today. Maybe it seemed even more extreme than that; I remember selling a good number of 486DX2/66s and DX4/100s in the summer of 1995. They were low-end, yes, but they were at that $1,000 sweet spot. You’d pick up a DX2/66 for $800 and a 14″ monitor for $200, and sometimes as a weekend special we’d bundle the two together with a printer for $1,099 or something.

We had a Pentium-120 to rebuild at work, and we had its Win95 license, so it made sense to just rebuild it with the stuff it had. I know Jerry Pournelle had a really hard time building a Win95 box a few months back. I didn’t have much trouble at all, so I might as well document the pitfalls.

First of all, I used vintage hardware. That helps. Win95 was designed for 1995-era hardware. This PC probably dates from 1996 or so; it has the strange pairing of an Intel 430HX chipset and a Pentium-120. The 120 was more frequently bundled with the earlier 430FX chipset; by the time of the HX, the 133 was considered low-end, the 200 high-end, and the 166 was mainstream. The video card was a plain old Cirrus Logic-based PCI card; no issues there. AGP sometimes threw Win95 for a loop. None of that here. While DMA drivers certainly improved the 430HX, they weren’t necessary for stable performance. In other words, a 430HX-based board with a Cirrus video card works acceptably straight out of the box, with no additional drivers.

Other hardware: A Mitsumi 8X CD-ROM. I don’t remember exactly when 8X came out, but for the most part an IDE CD-ROM is an IDE CD-ROM, from a driver standpoint. A Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16. That was a very common, very well-supported sound card. A DEC 450 network card. Those DEC cards can be a real pain to get working sometimes, but Win95 surprised me and detected it straight up.

But Setup wouldn’t run initially. It took some figuring, but I solved that problem. My colleague had booted with a Win98 boot disk I made over a year ago. He did an FDISK and format to wipe the drive, but he formatted the drive FAT32. The original Win95 didn’t know about FAT32, so Setup was throwing a hissy fit when it saw it. I did another FDISK and format, switched to plain old FAT16, and Setup installed very happily.

Once I got Setup to run, it installed, and quickly at that. And with absolutely no issues. Remember, Win95’s footprint was only about 35 megs. It doesn’t take long for an 8X drive to deliver 35 megs. And the system booted quickly. I didn’t sit down and time it, but I’m used to calling a minute a reasonably fast boot time, and this thing didn’t seem slow to me at all. A little optimization would help, of course. A little logo=0 in c:msdos.sys goes a long way.

Running Win95 on newer hardware is possible, but remember, it’s been nearly four years since it was the mainstream OS. And you can have a lot of headaches trying to do it. Windows 3.1 is in the same boat–it’s downright hard to find device drivers for modern video cards. Then again, I can think of circumstances under which I’d want to run Win95. I can’t think of any compelling reason whatsoever to run Win3.1 at this point in time. (And there wasn’t any compelling reason to run it in 1994 either.)

If I had to build up a Win95 box today and could have whatever components I wanted, I’d probably look for an Asus P55T2P4, easily the best Socket 7 motherboard ever manufactured. (In 1997 when I was in the market, I opted for an Abit IT5H instead and I’m still kicking myself.) That board is most naturally paired with a Pentium-MMX/233, but with unsupported–but widely-documented online–voltage settings, you can run more recent K6-2 CPUs on it. The P55T2P4 allows an FSB of up to 83 MHz, but for stability’s sake, I’d keep it at 66 MHz, or possibly 68 MHz if the board supports it (I don’t remember anymore). You can run a K6-2/400 with a 6x multiplier at either of those settings and be very close to its rated speed. Then I’d use an ATI Xpert 98 video card. Yes, it’s a bit old, but it’s probably the best all-around PCI card that’s still reasonably easy to find. Win95 won’t recognize it without manufacturer-supplied drivers, of course, but that’s not so bad. This combination would give you surprisingly good performance, stability, and minimal difficulty of installation.

Anyway, that adventure reminded me that a Pentium-120 can still be a viable computer. Vintage software like Win95 runs well on it. Office 95 has more features than most of us use, and it’s faster and more stable than the recent incarnations. It also has fewer strings attached. IE 5.01, although recent, would run decently on a P120, as long as you left out Active Desktop. Acrobat Reader 3.0 will still read the majority of PDF files on the Web, and it’s smaller and faster-loading than more recent versions. Do a Web search; you can still find it online.

Don’t get carried away with what you install, and a P120 can certainly surprise you.

7 thoughts on “Building a Win95 box

  • June 14, 2001 at 3:04 am
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    I got a P100 machine (overclocked to 133 MHz) at home with 96 megs of memory running the version of Win95 that came out before they released Win98. My wife uses it to surf the web, write e-mail, listen to music and so on. It is a good computer and we rarely have problems with it. The motherboard is a QDI board that supports processors up to 200MHz so if I ever run into a P200 processor on sale somewhere then I will probably buy it and upgrade but since the computer works well then I don’t have any reason to actively look for it.

    This computer would also make a great Linux box! Don’t throw away your old boxes. Once home networks become more popular then those old boxes will certainly find new tasks to take care of.

    Dave T.

  • June 14, 2001 at 9:38 am
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    Sure. I ran this site on a P120 for a while, and except for my obnoxious CGI scripts, it was up to the task. Older Pentiums are fabulous as file and print servers, and they’re overkill for firewall/gateway applications.

    And they’re fine as a spare box for the kids to do their homework on or for running educational software too.

  • June 14, 2001 at 10:56 am
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    Hmmmm…

    (looks at 486 with overclock chip (Kingston chip to 133mhz AMD chip) and 32 MB RAM collecting dust in corner of bedroom. Looks at OLD Gateway monitor that is also collecting dust. Looks at copy of "Optimizing Windows for GG&M" he got for Christmas.

    Strokes chin.)

    That’s it. I’ll strip this beastie down to Windows 95 (got to find my copy first, juggle some licences)… see if I can get a copy of New Deal Office (web site seems to be down, though. Bleah.

    Else, I’ll install this old copy of Claris Works for Windows I have. Can you say "speed"?

    Or WPSuite 8 OEM (picked up for pennies at a PC liquidation sale last year)

    Hmmm.

  • June 14, 2001 at 11:29 am
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    Old computers are up to the task as Dave points out. With Windows 95 and perhaps Windows 98 and judicious optimization as suggested in Dave’s book, you can have a perfectly usable all purpose PC with a P100.

    I am running Win98 on a 486-33 with 32 Mb RAM running Netbeui only as a file server for my home LAN. The machine is able to fully keep up to the transfer speed of a 10 Mb ethernet link.

    In fact, here’s a challenge for someone: Get a 286 and a large hard drive installed using the bios translation software. Install DOS 6.22 and the "Workgroups for DOS" software MS sold back in the WFW days and use that as a file server using netbeui and 10 Mb ethernet! It works, I used to do it. The drawback these days would be the lack of support for long file names – can anyone see a way around that issue? For example, do the newer version of windows stil come with complete command line network services that can be run from DOS only? Perhaps that could be made to work from DOS on a 286 and then we would have long file name support?

    Looking forward to more comments,

    Bruce
    http://www.BruceEdwards.com

  • June 14, 2001 at 11:56 am
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    I just timed it. That P120, with the msdos.sys settings from my book, boots in 15 seconds. And remember, this is with a creaky old Western Digital Caviar 1.2 gig drive.

    New Deal Office is actually a GUI plus apps that runs on top of DOS, in the same vein as Win3.1 was. It would smoke on that level of machine though. But ClarisWorks and a clean, optimized Win95 would run really nicely too, and probably give you a little more punch than New Deal.

    Windows’ command-line networking utilities are 32-bit apps; they won’t run from DOS mode. I’m not sure if the DOS-mode MS networking client will allow you to create shares. As cheap as 486s are these days (I’ve seen lots of 10 go for $25, and onesies and twosies go for five bucks), it’d be a whole lot less trouble if you had a 286 to just rip out the 286 board and drop in a 486 board so you could run Win95.

    And of course, if you want to do a make-it-easy-on-yourself fileserver right, you’d hack out Internet Explorer and the MSN client first, since you won’t be using them. Then Win95 would install into about 17 megs and run faster still.

  • June 14, 2001 at 3:49 pm
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    That’s impressive performance alright and goes to show how this hardware is neglected for no good reason.

    With the old "WorkGroups for DOS" software from MS you can create shares from the command line since that is all there is! (Well, there is a text-mode interface you can call up).

    That’s a good idea to find some cheapie 486s and pop them in the 286 case… and would solve the long file name problem by using Win95.

    I do sort of like the idea of being able to have some big old hard drive shared out on the home internet and be able to tell the other geeks (note I include myself there) something like "Oh, by the way, those files your are browsing, they are on a 286 in the basement". That would freak them out!

    I am basically doing what you suggested right now with my 486-33, but I do need to strip out IE and the MSN client.

    Thanks for the additional info.

    – Bruce
    http://www.BruceEdwards.com

  • June 15, 2001 at 9:43 am
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    I’m not sure that the old MS client was anything but a client. There was a time when clients were clients, period, and servers were servers. Back in the MS client’s heyday, you used OS/2 or NT 3.1 as your server.

    My only widespread experience with that client was in just that kind of environment–OS/2 servers and clients running DOS and OS/2.

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