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.

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