Building DOS gaming PCs

Building DOS gaming PCs

The ultimate DOS gaming PC is a topic that I’ve seen come up in forums frequently, and that I’ve been asked directly a number of times. I guess since I published advice on running DOS games on Windows PCs on two continents, people figured I knew something about that. I guess I fooled them!

The trouble is that no single PC can really be the “ultimate” DOS game machine. Well, not if your goal is to be able to optimally run everything from early 1980s titles designed for the original IBM PC up to the last DOS version of Quake. I learned that the hard way in 1995 or 1996, even before Quake existed. Read more

DOS nostalgia?

I’ve been getting nostalgic for DOS lately. Well, certain DOS games *cough* Railroad Tycoon *cough*.

One of my coworkers’ wives is nostalgic for ’80s boy bands whose name I refuse to mention, so there certainly are worse things for me to be nostalgic about. Sure, DOS is terrible, but not that terrible.I’m using an old 128MB compact flash card in a cheap CF-IDE adapter. While 128 megs isn’t a lot, it’s adequate if you’re not going to have Windows and Windows apps loaded. After all, you can get all the DOS you’ll ever need for game playing in less than 1.5 megs. Even still, I’ll probably pick up a bigger card the next time I order stuff from Newegg. A 4 gig card is cheap, and to DOS, 4 gigs is huge.

DOS boots to a C prompt in about five seconds off the CF card, and a good chunk of that is the CD-ROM driver scanning the IDE channels for drives. The system takes a lot longer to POST than it does to boot.

The system itself is an old Micron Pentium II-266. Severe overkill, but I hear Railroad Tycoon Deluxe really wants a fast CPU. Plus, my 486 is missing in action right now anyway.

Now that I have the system running, I need to hunt down drivers for the system’s Sound Blaster card. Then I’ll get Railroad Tycoon Deluxe loaded, and then all I’ll have to do is find a little time to play it. That last step will probably be the hardest part.

If the games I want to play don’t like the P2 (unlikely but possible), I’ll just dig out a Pentium 75 or a 486 from somewhere. That won’t be a huge setback, since I’ll have everything I need gathered up to build the system at that point.

Need to squeeze a little more on that floppy?

I’ve been experimenting again with bootdisks and the FreeDOS project came to mind.

Boot floppies are getting rarer but they’re still hard to avoid completely. I think FreeDOS is worth a look for a variety of reasons.Its system files take up half the space of Win9x’s DOS. That extra 100K on the disk can make the difference between your tools fitting on a floppy or not.

FreeDOS supports FAT32. There’s an unofficial DR-DOS fork that does as well, but the licensing terms of FreeDOS are a whole lot more clear.

The FreeDOS FORMAT.EXE can overformat disks. If you use more than 80 tracks, the disks have problems in some machines, but a 1.68 megabyte disk using extra sectors per track should be OK. Concerned about overformatting disks? The Amiga’s default high-density disk format was 1.76 megabytes. That extra 240K can make a big difference, especially when coupled with that 100K you’ve already saved. The syntax to make a bootable 1.68 meg disk: FORMAT A: /F:1680 /S

The syntax for a 1.74 meg disk: FORMAT A: /F:1743 /S

The FreeDOS command interpreter includes command history, so you don’t need to make space on the disk or in low memory for DOSKEY.

Using FreeDOS and its 1.68 meg floppy, I was able to squeeze Ghost 8.1 (a 1.3 meg monster) onto a boot floppy and still have 197,632 bytes free to play with. With that kind of space left, if need be, one could format the disk with FreeDOS, then SYS it under Win9x and run MS-DOS 7 on it.

If you still need to squeeze a little more space, get the freeware FDFormat, which can also format oversized floppies and lets you reduce the root directory down to 16 entries from the default 224, which gives you a few more kilobytes of usable space. If you need to put more than 16 files on the disk, create a subdirectory and put your files in the subdirectory. The syntax would be FDFORMAT /D16 /F168 /S. Substitute /F172 for a bigger disk. To increase the performance of the floppy (who doesn’t want the slowpoke floppy to be a bit faster?) add the /X:2 /Y:3 options. A boot disk formatted this way yields 1,595,904 free bytes with the FreeDOS boot files installed.

That’s enough space to be almost useful for something again. You’ll at least be able to fit more on Bart’s modular disks or Brad’s network boot disk.

Running ancient DOS games on modern Windows

So today I was one of at least two people trying to help Jerry Pournelle get the original Railroad Tycoon running under Windows XP. The secret is DOSBox, a cross-platform DOS emulator.DOSBox emulates a 386-class PC, with VGA and a SoundBlaster, under multiple operating systems–most notably, Linux and Win32. It’s pretty slick in a number of ways. Boot it up, and you’ve instantly got sound configured and 637K of conventional memory available, along with enough extended memory to round out 16 megs. All without messing around with arcane and archaic memory manager commands in config.sys. (Remember that?)

When Jerry last e-mailed me, the game was running but he was having difficulty getting the mouse to work, even when hitting ctrl-f10 to lock the mouse. I suspect it’s easier to get PS/2 mice to work with the emulator than USB mice, as under Windows USB is a different driver. But I’m not certain. I’m still trying to find my box of old DOS games so I can even test the emulator properly. Based on his site, it looks like he got it working, but didn’t elaborate on what it took. I don’t blame him–if I’d just gotten the original Railroad Tycoon running again, I think I’d have better things to do than write back a dozen people to say, “It works.”

Because DOSBox actually emulates everything and doesn’t rely on the hardware, you need a GHz-plus machine to get 486 speed out of it. That’s the price you pay for higher compatibility. The cardinal rule of emulation has always been that any machine can perfectly emulate any other machine as long as speed is not a factor. Fortunately, those aren’t especially rare or expensive these days.

I’m definitely going to keep looking for that box of old floppies. My 1.3 GHz Athlon ought to run that old DOS stuff pretty well, I would think. I’ve been wishing for about six or seven years that something like this would come along. Long enough that I wasn’t even ready for it when it appeared in a reasonably mature state…

The ultimate DOS boot disk

A little over a year ago, someone issued me a challenge: Make a boot disk containing the Microsoft network client and CD-ROM drivers. The problem is that the network client, plus the DOS boot files, plus a CD-ROM driver and MSCDEX almost always takes up more than 1.44 megs.
So I zipped up as much of the junk as I could and made a boot disk that extracted the Zip file to a ramdisk and connected to the network. I had tons of space left over. So I added some niceties like doskey and a mouse driver. I still had space left over. So then I started hunting down every network driver I could find so that one disk could service the mismash of NICs we’ve bought over the years.

It worked, but adding new drivers was beyond the ability of a lot of my coworkers. And I wanted to add a Windows-style network logon and TCP/IP configuration. I started coding it and some of it worked, but eventually I ran out of time so I abandoned it.

Meanwhile, someone else was doing the same thing, and his results were a lot better.

From the guy who brought you Bart’s Way to Create Bootable CD-ROMs, there’s Bart’s Modular Boot Disk.

To get a disk like mine, all you do is make a bootable floppy on a Windows 9x box, then download Bart’s network packages, including whatever NICs you want to support. Then pop back over to the modboot page and grab all the CD-ROM stuff. I made a disk that supports all of the CD-ROM drives Bart had drivers for, plus a half-dozen or so NICs from 3Com, Intel, and SMC, along with mouse support and doskey. I still had over 100K to spare.

If you find yourself just a little bit short of space, you can use the freeware fdformat to format a disk with just 16 root-directory entries and a large cluster size. Use the commmand fdformat a: /d:16 /c:2. The space that would normally go to the bigger root directory and FAT ends up going to storage capacity instead. But don’t try to run fdformat in Windows–find a Win98 box and boot it in DOS mode.

To make life easier on yourself, you might make the disk, then image a blank and keep the image around for when you want to format a maximum-capacity 1.44-meg disk.

Rare DOS disk utilities

Mailbag:

RAM disk; Your book; Mobos; Monitors; Net folders

I’ve been doing a bunch of work in DOS the past few days, and I’ve found some useful disk tools. A lot of people use the shareware WinImage or GRDUW to create images of floppy disks. That’s with good reason, seeing as floppies are so unreliable–this way, you’ve got a backup on a hard drive or CD-ROM drive, and it’s so much more convenient when you need a particular disk to just grab a blank, make a fresh copy from an image, and go do your thing. But I found some DOS utilities, some recent and others oldies but goodies, that give you the functionality of these shareware utilities but with the advantage of being free, smaller, faster, and in most cases running on a wider variety of operating systems–all good things. So they don’t have a nice clicky mousey interface… I don’t like using a mouse anyway. Maybe you’re like me, or maybe you like powerful utilities and don’t mind giving up the mouse to be able to use them.

So here goes.

Creating disk images. My favorite is  Diskwarez DF — of course I like this utility, seeing as it bears my initials. DF is a short and sweet utility for creating and writing disk images compatible with Rawrite and the Unix dd utility. Runs under DOS and under Windows 9x and NT in a command window. There are dozens of DOS disk imaging utilities out there, but this one has the advantage of being compatible with a very common cross-platform standard. Check out the Diskwarez site, as it’s got tons of info on disk programming, as well as some other utilities like free disk editors. Despite the name, it’s not a pirate site–Diskwarez software is distributed under a free license somewhat similar to the GPL.

If you prefer self-extracting images, you can use the similarly named DOSDF to create them.

Bigger, faster, better floppies. The other feature of GRDUW is to format high-capacity floppy disks and floppies that give faster access than disks formatted with Windows Explorer or the DOS format utility. Enter FDFORMAT . You can do that and plenty of other cool things with this utility. You can gain more usable space on a 1.44-meg floppy without resorting to weird disk formats just by reserving fewer root directory entries. For example, FDFORMAT A: /D:16 gives you the maximum available space on a 1.44-meg floppy by reserving just 16 root directory entries (if you’re storing large files you don’t need more than 16 anyway, probably).

For extra speed, use Sector Sliding: FDFORMAT A: /X:2 /Y:3 speeds up the disk by 50-100 percent by arranging the tracks in a more optimal order. Supposedly you can gain even more speed by playing around with the gap length, but the author says disks are less reliable when you do this. If you’re more interested in speed than in reliability, add the /G:32 switch to the command listed above.

And by default, the boot sector on disks formatted by FDFORMAT automatically try to boot to the hard drive rather than giving you the dreaded “Non-system disk or disk error” message. Why couldn’t Microsoft think of that?

And of course you can also format high-capacity disks. Use the /F168 option to format a 1.68-MB floppy, and the /F172 option to format a 1.72-meg floppy. These switches can be combined with the others as well. Keep in mind that extra-capacity disks aren’t bootable.

FDFORMAT’s downside is it won’t run from inside Windows NT or Windows 9x. The best thing to do with it is to format a disk with it on a PC booted into DOS (DOS mode from Windows 9x’s boot menu is sufficient), then take that disk and use the aforementioned DF or DOSDF utilities to make an image of that disk, then when you need to format a new high-speed disk or a new disk that won’t give you errors when you leave it in the drive, use the image.

Formatting bad disks. And finally, for those dreaded Track 0 Bad errors that render a disk unusable, there’s FR , which uses workarounds to try to make the disk usable again. Typically I get rid of floppies with bad sectors pretty quickly, but if it’s an emergency, this program might bail you out. I used to get around Track 0 errors by formatting the disk in my Amiga–for some reason the disk always worked after that–but seeing as I usually don’t have my Amiga set up, this is an alternative.

And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I wrote that I found a better way. SmartFormat also does Track 0 workarounds, uses the date and time to create unique disk serial numbers (instead of Microsoft’s license-plate method), provides a fast format that’s up to 60% faster than Microsoft’s method, and can optionally format 1.72-meg disks. SmartFormat runs within Windows, usually.

Mailbag:

RAM disk; Your book; Mobos; Monitors; Net folders

Optimizing BIOSes and optimizing DOS

Optimizing the BIOS. Dustin Cook sent in a link to Adrian’s Rojak Pot, at www.adriansrojakpot.com , which includes a BIOS tweaking guide. It’s an absolute must-read. I have a few minor quibbles with a couple of the things he says, particularly about shadowing and caching your ROMs with Windows 9x. He says you shouldn’t do it. He’s right. He says you shouldn’t do it because Microsoft says not to do it with Windows NT, and Windows 9x “shares the same Win32 architecture.” It does and it doesn’t, but that’s flawed logic. Shadowing ROMs isn’t always a bad thing; on some systems that eats up some usable memory and on others it doesn’t, depending on the chipset and BIOS it uses. But it’s pointless because Windows doesn’t use the BIOS for anything, unless you’re in safe mode. Caching ROMs makes very little sense; there’s only so much caching bandwidth to go around so you should spend it on caching memory that’s actually being used for something productive. So who cares about architecture, you shouldn’t cache and shadow your ROMs because Windows will ignore it one way or the other, so those facilities are better spent elsewhere. The same thing is true of Linux.

Still, in spite of this minor flaw I found in a couple of different spots, this is an invaluable guide. Perfect BIOS settings won’t make a Pentium-90 run like a Pentium III, but poor BIOS settings certainly can make a Pentium III run more like a 386DX-40. Chances are your BIOS settings aren’t that bad, but they can probably use some improvement. So if you want the best possible performance from your modern PC, visit Adrian’s. If you want to optimize your 386 or 486 or low-end Pentium, visit the site I mentioned yesterday.

Actually, it wouldn’t be a half-bad idea to take the downloadable versions of both guides, print them, and stick them in a binder for future reference. You’ll never know when you might want to take them with you.

Optimizing DOS again. An awful lot of system speed is psychological. I’d say maybe 75% of it is pure psychology. It doesn’t matter so much whether the system really is fast, just as long as it feels fast. I mentioned yesterday keyboard and screen accelerators. Keyboard accelerators are great for people like me who spend a lot of time in long text files, because you can scroll through them so much faster. A keyboard accelerator makes a big difference in how an old DOS system feels, and it can improve the responsiveness of some DOS games. (Now I got your attention I’m sure.)

Screen accelerators are a bit more of a stretch. Screen accelerators intercept the BIOS calls that write to the screen and replace them with faster, more efficient code. I’d estimate the speedup is anywhere from 10 to 50 percent, depending on how inefficient the PC’s BIOS is and whether it’s shadowing the BIOS into RAM. They don’t speed up graphics at all, just text mode, and then, only those programs that are using the BIOS–some programs already have their own high-speed text routines they use instead. Software compatibility is potentially an issue, but PC power users have been using these things since at least 1985, if not longer, so most of the compatibility issues have long since been fixed.

They only take a couple of kilobytes of memory, and they provide enough of a boost for programs that use the BIOS that they’re more than worth it. With keyboard and screen accelerators loaded in autoexec.bat, that old DEC 386SX/20 feels an awful lot faster. If I had a copy of a DOS version of Microsoft Word, I could use it for writing and it wouldn’t cramp my style much.

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