Brooks (brooksmoses) wrote,

Clearly I need to post a LiveJournal post now.

Simply on the grounds that it's been ages, and if I'm going to have such a thing, it's silly to let it sit unused.

Let's see ... how does one do a cut-tag again? It's got to be in the FAQ somewhere....

So. What should I talk about?

I could talk about the random computer bits that have been littering the space around my desk for a while; someone might find that interesting.

Some background: at the start of this episode, I owned approximately three and a half computers. The first is a Dell 200MHz Pentium Pro box that's my "real computer"; it's the one I'm typing this on, and read email on, and so forth and so on. The other two are somewhat older -- a 486 and a P90, both of which used to belong to my wife. Both of them off-brand, the P90 particularly so. The remaining half is a Pentium-II motherboard and 300MHz CPU out of another Dell, along with the Dell-specific power supply that goes with it.

At the start of this episode, I also had a general idea of some things I'd like to have computers to do that this one won't. Specifically, I've got a really nice CAD program from my freshman year of college some frightening number of years ago (frightening to me, anyhow), which is DOS-only; they did a Windows port of it a couple of years later, and completely ruined it in the process, but that's a different story. Also, it would be nice to have a Linux box around the house, for those times when I want to run xxdiff or latex or any of the various useful things like that that I get used to on my office machine.

It should further be noted that I live within five minutes of a couple of nice computer surplus places. HSC is particularly nice for useful small surplus bits, while WeirdStuff is good for wandering around in and finding strange things. A significant distinction is that the stuff at HSC usually works and has a reasonable guarantee of such, while the stuff at WeirdStuff is almost all as-is and carries a tongue-in-cheek "Guaranteed not to work. If it works, bring it back and we'll exchange it for one that doesn't!"


Oh, a third thing: I dislike beige-white tower cases. They look like cheap appliances and look completely out of place in the aesthetics of anything that approximates a space in which I would wish to work. Except, of course, for the space in which I am currently working in, where they actually fit rather well on the grounds that they blend in with the rest of the piles of clutter quite nicely. They are also large, both visually and spatially, and so either take up too much desk space or are on the floor where the floppy drives are hard to reach.

I also have intentions of figuring out things to do about this. And Stanford's excellent student shop in which to do something about it. (It's a wonderful service; modest quarterly fee, access to all sorts of professional machine-shop and wood-shop equipment, and encouragement to use it for personal projects all we want.)

From all this, I developed a plan.

Step 1 in the plan was to build a minimal cheap box on which to run my CAD program. Preferably using bits of the 486 -- it's plenty fast enough to run the program with no trouble, and the 486 board is smaller than the P90 board.

This was sort of a bootstrapping thing; part A is getting the computer running with the CAD program, and part B is using the CAD program to design the case. No, I have no prejudices against running computers with the boards and drives in a loose stack with random papers as insulation underneath; why do you ask?

Step 2 is to then take the experience from that, and build a Linux machine with the P90. This was a plan with a couple of options -- one was building a freestanding Linux box; the other was to build a somewhat larger box containing both this and the Pentium-II board, and have a dual-OS machine that would run Windows on one half and Linux on the other, and display the Linux windows via an X-emulator on the Windows side. With a bit of tweaking, that should allow one to pretty much simultaneously run Windows and Linux apps in their native OSes on something that's effectively one computer. I'm still not certain whether it's worth the effort, though.

Steps 3 and beyond were, at this point, even more indeterminate. At some point I think I'd like to build a nice computer desk that has room for a standard ATX board hidden inside it, and the drive bays in a handy reachable spot, but that's not something I'm doing all that soon.

Things didn't really go according to plan. The 486 board had intermittent problems with the hard disk, so I replaced that with a spare, and discovered that the intermittent problems were with the disk-controller on the motherboard. Specifically, it ran fine for two hours and then decided to fail in such a way that chewed up the directory-table so badly that I couldn't even delete the directory under DOS and had to reformat. (Luckily, I had what amounted to backups of the two hours of CAD work, though.)

This seemed a momentary setback; HSC actually has a decent selection of 486 motherboards.

So, I went to get one. The decent selection amounts to three options, actually, all available in quantity. One's actually new stock, rather than surplus, but it's got a VESA bus for the video cards, and all I had were PCI. One of the other two had PCI slots, but oddly enough didn't have such niceties as a floppy disk connector or serial ports for my mouse. The remaining one had all sorts of built-in things like PS/2 mouse ports and video controller, but all the expansion card slots were on a riser -- the manual claimed one could use a riser with both PCI and ISA slots, but the only ones they had were ISA-only.

After much pondering, I decided to go with the last of the three -- risers shouldn't be that hard to find, I thought.

I got it home, and discovered that the manual that came with it didn't at all match up. This being rather an annoyance, since 486 motherboards tend to have small libraries of jumpers which much be set in the proper arcane combinations to tell it that one has an Intex DX/2 at 66MHz (for instance) rather than the dozen or so other 486s and clones that it could have.

Beyond this, the motherboard had no manufacturer or model-number identifying info on it. Nor, for that matter, did the manual have a manufacturer's name on it. It did have a model number, which after much Googling led to an online copy of the manual, and online copies of the manuals for every other motherboard that manufacturer made, none of which matched this one.

After staring at it for a while, I figured out which jumper was the one to turn the onboard video on and off, and it did at least have printed on it which jumper controlled the CPU clock speed and core voltage (that being rather important, as one doesn't want to put 5V into a 3V CPU!), and decided to see if the rest of the ones happened to be set right from the factory.

To make a long story short, it beeped as if it was having a happy boot, but never showed anything on screen, and didn't do more than check the disk drive. Without a separate video card to put in it, I couldn't tell whether the problem was in the jumper setup or a dead onboard video chip. And, at the time I didn't know if HSC had an exchange policy or not, so I was rather stuck.

Enter yet another computer -- this time, one from the Palo Alto library-benefit booksale, which I picked up for a dollar without much info about it other than that it appeared to have an ISA-bus video card, and that I ran across it less than a day after musing that I really needed such a card to test out this motherboard.

I brought it home, pulled it apart, and discovered that not only did it have the ISA video card, it also had a separate card with floppy-drive controller, serial ports, and other goodies on it -- just what I would have needed for the other 486 motherboard, had I bought it instead. The irony amused me.

As it turned out, the video card showed that the board was actually booting, and the jumpers were all in the right places, but the onboard video was clearly dead.

So I brought it back, discovered that they did in fact have an exchange policy, and got another one. Brought it home, tried it out, discovered that it didn't boot at all. After another long bit of peering, and checking my notes on jumper positions (yes, I did write them all down before turning in the first one), discovered that one was set wrong. Oddly enough, I overlooked it when I was actually comparing to the notes directly, and then noticed it when I was looking over the board for anything else visibly wrong.

Once that was set, it worked fine. At a maximum of 800x600 resolution, which is not at all reasonable for a CAD computer. The ISA-bus video card was pretty much a separate-card version of the same thing (although a slightly older version), and no better.

So I went looking for a riser card, to use a PCI video card on this, since I have some decent PCI video cards.

After much poking and such, I finally discovered that the slot on the motherboard for the riser card wasn't the sort of slot the manual said it was, and more significantly it wasn't the sort that one could put a riser in with PCI slots on. Not that I should have been too surprised, as it was already established that the manual was the wrong one, but still it had seemed otherwise close.

So. Still, it seemed likely to be useful for a router or something, or maybe a cute little embedded PC in something, if I came up with a use for it. And it was only $9.95, so no big loss; I put it in an antistatic bubblewrap bag, and stashed it away, and went off to HSC for one of the motherboards with actual PCI slots.

This one has so far turned out to be even less successful. Sure, it comes with the correct manual. Sure, it actually boots, and the floppy-controller card works nicely with it. Sure, it's happy with my PCI video cards.

But it's got one annoying little problem. The BIOS battery is stone-dead.

And it's a lovely little treat to replace, too. See, it's not a coin-battery in a case, or something nice like that. It's in a combination clock, BIOS-memory, and battery chip that's soldered directly on the motherboard. A non-Y2K-compatible click, BIOS-memory, and battery chip, to be completely specific. And I don't think that I can count on any of the other boards having live batteries, either.

For what it's worth, replacements are available. One place wanted $29.95 for them. Luckily, they're much much cheaper from the manufacturer (but still more than the board, when you consider shipping), and even cheaper if they'll send me free samples (which the website indicates they will, although there may be manual overrides if I tell them I don't plan to buy any, and I won't lie.) Actually installing the replacement may be rather more entertaining than obtaining it, though.

Beyond that, it looks like it's got another problem; it seg-faults on running the CAD program from a pre-existing install, and installing it leads to a really bizarre glitch in the install routine. I'm guessing that one of the chips on the motherboard has something wrong deep inside it, but it could be that I've damaged my CPU in the process of all this; I haven't checked that out yet. So this one's probably going to have to go back for another one anyway, and I wonder if they're going to be annoyed at me returning so much stuff as non-functional.

Ah, well. At least meanwhile the CAD program is running fine on the P90 machine, so I can play with it, and I am pretty close to deciding to just live with the unnecessary extra three inches of motherboard on it (as compared to the 486 ones) and build my CAD computer out of it.

So. I seem to have rambled, anyhow. Hopefully someone finds this remarkably long tome entertaining, or something. *grin*

Meanwhile, I go to bed now.

- Brooks

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