Compaq Deskpro 386

Compaq Deskpro 386

The Compaq Deskpro 386, announced in September 1986, was a landmark IBM PC compatible computer. The first fully 32-bit PC based on the Intel 386, its release took the leadership of the PC ecosystem away from IBM, and Compaq became the leader.

Compaq was no upstart by 1986. Its Compaq Portable was a runaway success earlier in the decade, and Compaq was a darling of the industry. The Deskpro 386 solidified Compaq’s position as an industry innovator.

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Tradeoffs at the low end: Cores or Cache?

I’m looking at building myself a new PC for the first time in years. That’s a little bit of a misnomer though. Today, building a PC can mean bolting as few as two components into a case and connecting four cables. Building PCs in the 1990s was a lot more difficult. I remember in 1994, during one of my first builds, someone walking past in the hall, looking at the mess of cards and cables, and asking, “How do you know which one goes where?”

Today, the assembly is pretty easy. Figuring out what to buy is harder. In 1994, the differences between the various flavors of 386 and 486 chips available was confusing, but it all fit on an index card. Mainly the difference came down to the amount of memory the chip could address (386) and whether it had a math coprocessor (486). Beyond that all you really had to worry about was clock speed. Back then the research took 30 minutes and the system took hours to build.

Today there are two chip manufacturers (down from four) but they both have half a dozen product lines. And nobody really talks about clock speed anymore. That’s fine because clock speed was a crude measure of performance, but is throwing numbers like 560 or 840 or 965 on the chips really any better? Today the research takes hours (if not days) and the system goes together in about 5 minutes. Shake the bag right and it could just come out of the bag fully assembled.
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How CPU multipliers came to be locked

It was 1996. I was a senior in college, and I went to the computer store in the student commons to get a cable or something. I ran into an old classmate working in the store, who went on to work as an engineer for Boeing. We talked for a few minutes, and he told me about a web site that I just had to visit. I still remember the URL for some reason. He grabbed a piece of paper and scrawled “” on it.

It was my introduction to the world of PC hardware enthusiast sites. That mysterious URL was the early address of Tom’s Hardware Guide. The front page mostly consisted of links to articles telling you how to overclock Pentium CPUs using undocumented jumper settings on Asus motherboards, and the ads were largely mail-order houses offering specials on Asus motherboards and low-end Pentium CPUs.
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Recovery time.

Taxes. I think I’ve actually filed my taxes on time twice in my adult life. This year isn’t one of them. I filed Form 4868, so Tax Day for me is actually Aug. 15, 2002.
In theory Uncle Sam owes me money this year, so I shouldn’t owe any interest. I’ll have a professional accountant test that theory soon. Make that fairly soon, because it’d be nice to have that money, seeing as I expect to make the biggest purchase of my still-fairly-short life this year.

Some people believe filing a 4868 is advantageous. The thinking is this: Let the IRS meet its quota for audits, then file. That way, the only way you’re going to get audited is if you truly raise red flags, which I shouldn’t because I’m having a professional (and an awfully conservative one at that) figure the forms. That’s good. I’d rather not have to send a big care package off to the IRS to prove I’m not stealing from them.

Adventure. Steve DeLassus and I dove headlong into an adventure on Sunday, an adventure consisting of barbecue and Linux. I think at one point both of us were about ready to put a computer on that barbie.

We’ll talk about the barbecue first. Here’s a trick I learned from Steve: Pound your boneless chicken flat, then throw it in a bag containing 1 quart of water and 1 cup each of sugar and salt. Stick the whole shebang in the fridge while the fire’s getting ready. When the fire’s ready, take the chicken out of the bag and dry thoroughly. Since Steve’s not a Kansas Citian, he doesn’t believe in dousing the chicken in BBQ sauce before throwing it on the grill. But it was good anyway. Really good in fact.

Oh, I forgot. He did spray some olive oil on the chicken first. Whether that helps it brown or locks in moisture or both, I’m not quite sure. But olive oil contains good fats, so it’s not a health concern.

Now, Linux on cantankerous 486s may be a health concern. I replaced the motherboard in Steve’s router Sunday night, because it was a cranky 486SX/20. I was tired of dealing with the lack of a math coprocessor, and the system was just plain slow. I replaced it with a very late model 486DX2/66 board. I know a DX2/66 doesn’t have three times the performance of an SX/20, but the system sure seemed three times faster. Its math coprocessor, L2 cache, faster chipset, and much better BIOS helped. It took the new board slightly longer to boot Linux than it took the old one to finish counting and testing 8 MB of RAM.

But Debian wasn’t too impressed with Steve’s Creative 2X CD-ROM and its proprietary Panasonic interface. So we kludged in Steve’s DVD-ROM drive for the installation, and laughed at the irony. Debian installed, but the lack of memory (I scraped up 8 megs; Steve’s old memory wouldn’t work) slowed down the install considerably. But once Debian was up and running, it was fine, and in text mode, it was surprisingly peppy. We didn’t install XFree86.

It was fine until we tried to get it to act as a dialup router, that is. We never really did figure out how to get it to work reliably. It worked once or twice, then quit entirely.

This machine was once a broadband router based on Red Hat 6.1, but Red Hat installed way too much bloat so it was slow whenever we did have to log into it. And Steve moved into the boonies, where broadband isn’t available yet, so it was back to 56K dialup for him. Now we know that dialup routers seem to be much trickier to set up than dual-NIC routers.

After fighting it for nearly 8 hours, we gave up and booted it back into Freesco, which works reliably. It has the occasional glitch, but it’s certainly livable. Of course we want (or at least Steve wants) more features than Freesco can give you easily. But it looks like he’ll be living with Freesco for a while, since neither of us is looking forward to another marathon Debian session.

Nostalgia. A couple of articles on Slashdot got me thinking about the good old days, so I downloaded VICE, a program that can emulate almost every computer Commodore ever built. Then I played around with a few Commodore disk images. It’s odd what I do and don’t remember. I kind of remember the keyboard layout. I remembered LOAD “*”,8,1 loads most games (and I know why that works too, and why the harder-to-type LOAD “0:*”,8,1 is safer), but I couldn’t remember where the Commodore keyboard layout put the *.

I sure wish I could remember people’s names half as well as I remember this mesozoic computer information.

It stands on shaky legal ground, but you can go to and grab images for just about any Commodore game ever created. The stuff there is still covered by copyright law, but in many cases the copyright holder has gone out of business and/or been bought out several times over, so there’s a good possibility the true copyright holder doesn’t even realize it anymore. Some copyright holders may care. Others don’t. Others have probably placed the work in the public domain. Of course, if you own the original disks for any of the software there, there’s no problem in downloading it. There’s a good possibility you can’t read your originals anyway.

I downloaded M.U.L.E., one of the greatest games of all time. I have friends who swear I was once an ace M.U.L.E. player, something of an addict. I have absolutely no recollection of that. I started figuring out the controls after I loaded it, but nothing seemed familiar, that’s for sure. I took to it pretty quickly. The strategy is simple to learn, but difficult to master. The user interface isn’t intuitive, but in those days they rarely were. And in those days, not many people cared.


The presidency again. The story that won’t die. I thought it was over! When will it end? This is the most ridiculous recount story I’ve heard yet.

New adventures in Linux. I was trying last night to make a Linux gateway out of a single-floppy distribution for the first time. I looked at a number of distributions and finally settled on floppyfw. Why that one in particular, I never decided completely.

Gatermann and I put a minimalist system together: a vintage 1994 Socket 5 Pentium mobo, a P75, 24 MB of 72-pin SIMMs, a floppy drive, a 2 MB PCI Trident video card, and two Bay Netgear 310TX NICs in a beat-up case. Neither of us normally names our computers, but looking at it, we decided this computer’s name was most definitely going to be Mir.

It booted up and seemed to detect the two cards, most of the time. Once it told me eth0 was sitting at IRQ 149 and had a MAC address of FF FF FF FF FF FF, which disturbed me greatly for obvious reasons. Fortunately, this board’s AMI BIOS allows you to manually assign resources to the PCI slots, so I went in and did that: PCI slot #1 got IRQ 9, up through PCI slot #4, which got IRQ 12. That gave me some consistency, but I never did get it to successfully ping any address except, the loopback address.

We may be dealing with a hardware problem. We’ll tackle it again soon, possibly with a more complete distribution. I have no shortage of small hard drives. I also have no shortage of other parts.

These projects never go smoothly but I always get them running eventually.

Picking a single-floppy distribution. The big thing is finding one that supports the hardware you have. There’s not enough room on a floppy disk to support every kitchen sink and hairdryer that you might want to use in a Linux box, so any old distribution might not work with your hardware. When Steve DeLassus and I were making a gateway out of his 486SX, we couldn’t find any distribution that didn’t require a math coprocessor, for instance. (There are some now.) If you’re using NICs based on the DEC Tulip chipset or NE2000 clones, you shouldn’t have any trouble, but if you’ve got exotic NICs, not every distribution will support them.

Plus, some of these projects have to be built under Linux. Gatermann doesn’t have a working Linux box at the moment. Others build on any old PC running DOS or Windows. Each distro has its own specialty, so you just have to find one that matches your hardware.

This search over at Freshmeat can give you a headstart if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

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