If you want a Windows XP retro gaming PC, you have a lot of options. The dizzying number of options may make it more confusing. But it’s also part of the appeal. Let’s talk about how to select components and build one.
What’s the point of a Windows XP retro gaming PC?
Windows XP is in a bit of a weird spot at the time I write this. It is still very similar in many ways to current versions of Windows, but it’s just incompatible enough that there are titles that run on XP and will not run on current Windows versions. And emulation isn’t really practical yet, at least not for gaming. So if you like titles from that era that won’t play on a current machine, running the real thing on physical hardware is about your only option.
And part of the appeal is you can spend as much or as little on an XP gaming rig as you would like. The hardware that people are throwing away right now may or may not be ideal, but chances are it will work. If your budget is $50, you can probably do something. If you’re willing to spend $500, you can still do something. Depending on what you want, XP can be the cheapest option for a retro gaming PC or the most expensive one, eclipsing a Tandy 1000 or IBM PC 5150 setup.
If you aren’t nostalgic for the XP era, that’s okay too. But different people are nostalgic for different things. For some people, the pinnacle of retro gaming is someplace else in history. For others, it’s all junk. I’m not here to tell you what to like. Whether you think of it as retro or merely obsolete, it’s old enough that some people are nostalgic for it, and if that’s you, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The newest hardware that can run Windows XP
Windows XP can run on a surprising range of hardware that spans more than two decades. That doesn’t mean everything over that long span is ideal, but means you have more options than you may be aware of, and that’s not a bad thing.
I don’t know if I would call what Windows XP does on first generation Pentium hardware from the early 1990s running, but it will install, it will boot, and it will interact with you. And when it first came out and hardware was scarce and expensive, people certainly did test XP on those types of systems. XP has been installed successfully on as little as a 20 MHz Pentium Overdrive.
On the other extreme, Windows XP isn’t exactly happy running on a 4th generation i5 or i7 CPU, but you can make it work. A fair number of businesses were still using XP when those machines were new, so hardware makers did provide drivers. And these types of systems are fairly plentiful. A lot of people like me kept those systems around after businesses started dumping them because of their age. They ran Windows 10 rather well, and were useful as secondary or test machines. They would outperform much newer entry level CPUs, while costing less because they had already depreciated.
Now that these systems do not officially support windows 11, expect prices on them to start coming down. As Windows 11 becomes mainstream, to people who don’t know how to hack Windows 11 to install, these systems are e-waste. That means they will be inexpensive options for running XP.
How much memory?
This may surprise you, but unless you use 64-bit Windows XP, which you won’t because of its bad compatibility, there is no reason to put more than 4 GB of RAM in a Windows XP retro gaming PC. A 32-bit operating system can address a maximum of 4 GB of RAM. Don’t be surprised if you get somewhere between 3 and 3 and 1/2 gigabytes of usable RAM. Most systems reserved some of that space at the upper end for their own use, and that amount varied.
That sounds limiting, but keep in mind that by the time 4 GB of RAM was considered the useful minimum, the mainstream had moved on to Windows 7. When Windows XP was current, I frequently ran it on systems with 2 GB of RAM, because that was all they could take.
The newest video card that was officially supported by Windows XP was an Nvidia GTX 900 series, such as a GTX 960, or the AMD equivalent, something from the 200 series. AMD dropped XP support in 2013.
There is unofficial support for slightly better cards, but it will be even more work to get those working. Also cards of this generation are still expensive, because they still work with current titles and GPUs are scarce. A GTX 960 probably isn’t anyone’s idea of an ideal GPU, but it’s still fast enough for a lot of titles, and fast enough for cryptocurrency, it’s just not very power efficient. When you go to buy one, the prices should tell you everything. They aren’t much less expensive than a GTX 1000 series card.
The good news is, that means pretty much any video card released before 2015 will work with Windows XP. I recommend you look at the titles you want to run, and get the recommended card for the newest and most demanding title. A GTX 960 may seem like the safe choice, but it will also cost more than the rest of the computer. But if you were going for a high budget option, that may be the card you want. Then again, the video card in your spare parts box, or someone else’s spare parts box, that isn’t useful anymore may be the one you want.
AGP vs PCIe
Also make sure the motherboard in your system has the right connector for the graphics card you want to use. At the beginning of XP’s lifespan, AGP was the standard for high-end graphics cards. By the end, PCIe was the standard. You can’t put a PCIe card in a system that has an AGP slot, and the opposite is also true.
For AGP, high-end cards are the Radeon HD 3850 or 4670, with the 3850 being faster. The Nvidia GeForce 7950 GT was Nvidia’s fastest AGP card, but the radeons were faster.
Also keep in mind your CPU and GPU should be from comparable eras. There is no point in putting a high-end GPU and a system that does not have a Core2 CPU.
Windows XP is not SSD aware and is not optimized for SSDs. That said, it still works with an SSD and will be much faster. I definitely recommend you align your SSD, because XP will not automatically do that, or boot the system up with a Windows 7 or Windows 10 disk and partition and format the drive, then reboot with your Windows XP media and install on those existing partitions.
You can use a mechanical hard drive if you wish, and in that case, the newer the better, but I preferred SSDs with Windows XP. Yes, I bought my first SSD during the XP era and I was hooked.
Of course Windows XP doesn’t care much about the power supply, but the hardware does. So you will need to make sure that the power supply you use is compatible with your motherboard, and if you use a high-end video card that needs its own power connector, that the power supply also has enough wattage and the appropriate connector for that video card. The ATX specs changed a fair bit over the years, so if your hardware gives you trouble, it may be that your power supply is mismatched.
Make sure the power supply has the connectors that your motherboard and video card are expecting, and you won’t go too far wrong. But this does mean you will need to track down a manual and study the specifications. This frequently is a key part of building up a retro gaming PC, Windows XP or otherwise.
AMD had its ups and downs during the XP era. The Athlon XP CPU sounds like it was made for Windows XP. That was deliberate. But it was a single core CPU, and not necessarily the ideal. The best AMD CPUs for Windows XP came during the Athlon 64 era. Yes, the best AMD CPUs for Windows XP had capability that Windows XP couldn’t use.
Then again, the same goes for Intel. Windows XP was the first consumer operating system from Microsoft to support multiple CPU cores, and most multi-core CPUs from both AMD and Intel were 64 bit, but completely backward compatible with 32-bit software. This was where AMD snookered Intel. When the time came to design a 64-bit CPU, Intel decided to start over so they could design a high performance processor, unencumbered by the need for backward compatibility. AMD gambled and took another approach, guessing that 64-bit adoption was going to take some time, and the performance hit that backward compatibility gave would be more than worth it. AMD was correct and until ended up cloning AMD.
My general rule when it came to Windows XP was that you wanted a CPU with at least two cores, and if the CPU ran at 2 GHz or more, that was very much a plus. You will need a processor from 2014 or earlier to ensure that drivers are available for the chipset on the motherboard. That means a 4th generation Intel i5 or i7 is the newest you will want to go. That type of system will be an absolute beast. But for that matter, so will a first generation or second generation i5 or i7.
Brand name or clone?
The ideal XP gaming rig was probably a clone system, so from an authenticity standpoint, that may be the way you want to go. The problem with those types of systems is they tend to go extinct. Someone who buys or builds a PC using off-the-shelf parts frequently upgrades a few parts at a time, slowly turning that PC into something else. You can build something up from people’s spare parts boxes, but that may or may not be cost effective.
Buying a brand name PC and building it out the way you like is likely to be the most cost effective option. If you have an eye on future value and collectibility, see about finding a brand name enthusiast grade PC like Alienware. But if other generations of PCs are any indication, any recognizable brand is likely to have collectible value. And then you have reasonable assurance that you are starting out with parts that work together.
Yes, the result looks like a boring office PC, but previous eras of boring office PCs are worth enough that I regret the 386 and 486 PCs I scrapped over the years.
And you can get pretty much any brand you want, because of that long span of hardware compatibility, though I think the later era machines represent the best value and the best usability.
The toughest thing to get working tends to be the motherboards built in sound. It’s frequently not a problem for motherboards from XP’s golden era, but when you’re talking systems from 2011 or newer, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. You may save yourself some headaches by disabling the onboard audio and plugging in a PCI sound card. A PCI sound blaster is ideal.
The part that gives people trouble most frequently with newer hardware is installation. If you are installing on a system that has SATA, I can pretty much guarantee Windows XP will have problems recognizing it. Sometimes there is an option to enable legacy IDE compatibility in the BIOS and that may help, and disabling raid may also help, but you may want raid for performance.
I recommend slip streaming service pack 3 and drivers to your XP media, and I also recommend installing from USB rather than optical media. Installation will be slower than newer versions of Windows, but will be better than installing off optical media, and it will save you from having to provide floppy disks with drivers. That is assuming the system has a floppy drive and you have working floppies to load the drivers onto, and can locate the appropriate drivers. None of those things is necessarily a given.
Part of the appeal of a Windows XP retro PC is the low barrier to entry. That’s why people my age started collecting Atari game consoles in the mid-1990s. It was cheap, so it was something we could pursue even if we didn’t have a lot of money. If you don’t have any other options, go to an estate sale on the last day, not long before they close, and look for a computer in the basement. There is a reasonable chance you will find some XP era hardware languishing on a table in the basement but no one wants. You may be able to buy a complete setup for $20 to get started. They would rather take $20 than throw the system out. Be nice about it and don’t argue. Be ready to go to a few sales and see what’s out there.
Also, if you have a Goodwill by the Pound, I see XP compatible PCs, usually dells, at those stores all the time. Someone may or may not have pillaged them for parts, but with a little luck, you may be able to find something there for a few dollars.
Point is, you can get started cheaply, and upgrade the system over time, and potentially even replace the system with something better and pass the initial rig along as the opportunity presents itself.