1999 on a Budget

Every. Frame. Counts.

So, it was rapidly approaching Christmas. This year, we had been doing a lot of homemade stuff because last year we were stupid and spent far too much. As I pondered what to make for my cohort (and brother), it occurred to me that he doesn’t own any vintage PC hardware. Well, perhaps his 780 Ti qualifies as vintage now.

But he doesn’t have a classic DOS/Windows machine of his very own. Then, I thought making it a “budget” build was a neat play on the idea of saving money in the here and now.  So, I picked an arbitrary year and sorted through my parts bins in an effort to build the most badass budget rig that the end of the 90’s could offer.

Hardware Choices

CPU: Intel Celeron 400 (Slot 1)
Motherboard: Intel 440LX
RAM: 128MB PC66 SDRAM
HDD: 40GB 7200RPM IDE
Video Card: Nvidia TNT2 M64
Sound Card:  ESS 1371

By 1999, AMD had become a relatively clear threat to Intel. Sure, they’d been building 486 chips for years, but the K6/K6-2 lines were cheap and relatively fast. Cyrix was also a player in 99, though admittedly Quake was doing a good job of keeping them out of the battle for hearts and minds.

That said, if I were building a machine from the ground up in 1999, I don’t think I would have chosen the K6-2 series. Why? Because Socket 7 (even the Super 7 stuff that AMD had put together) was a dying platform. There was no future in it.  I’m also somewhat biased against it: in 1999, I had a K6-2 300 system with “integrated Rage IIc AGP” graphics.  It sucked. I had friends with Celerons and Pentium MMXs that used to laugh and call me names. 

No, the best board/CPU combo for my lean wallet would have to be a 440LX with a Celeron 400.  True, you don’t get the 100Mhz front side bus.  And you’re kind of locked in to Celerons and low-end Pentium II CPUs. However, you get AGP, 3 RAM slots, and both PCI and ISA.  Plus, as a nice added bonus, two USB 1.1 ports for keyboard/mouse (more on that later).

I’ve kitted it out with 128MB of RAM, a respectable amount for 99. I got an upgrade from 32MB to 64MB in 2000, so I would have been pretty happy with 128MB. We’re also rocking a 40GB 7200RPM hard drive, which…wasn’t available in 1999. I know, I know. But all the smaller drives I have are sub-4GB.  While I COULD have saddled him with something that small, I didn’t feel that was the right thing to do (authenticity be damned). I also could have used a SCSI card and given him one of my 18.2GB Fujitsu drives, but that would have been WAY outside the budget in 1999.  Let’s just pretend it’s a 10GB drive, okay?

Finally, the graphics card.  There were numerous entries in the market by 1999.  One could have bought a cheap Voodoo Banshee, but Quake II wouldn’t much care for that. Or the aforementioned ATI Rage series of cards.  However, ATI still hadn’t really hit its stride by then.

No, for budget gaming there was only one card that was really worth the money: the Nvidia TNT2 M64 (sometimes called the Vanta). It’s a stripped down version of the TNT2, with half the memory bandwidth but otherwise largely similar. In some games, it was neck and neck with its more expensive brother. In others, it struggled a bit. Still, an excellent middle of the road card for the budget gamer.  Rounding it all out was a cheap little ESS 1371 sound card, which fit the budget but was largely unremarkable.

So, not counting the hard drive/case/power supply/CD and other little sundries, this system would have cost around $500-$600 in 1999. Not too bad.  Note I’m basing those prices off of various trade magazines/reviews from the time period.  I apologize if the price isn’t precisely what some of you paid back when you bought this system yourselves.  

About the USB ports
You’ll recall I mentioned there were two USB 1.1 ports on the board. I thought this would be great…he could use his existing USB keyboard and mouse. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case. When we hooked it up at his apartment, Windows wouldn’t let us advance past the “Found New Hardware” page. I had to loan him an IBM Model M to get him through this little hiccup. Doh!

 Performance

So, how does she handle?

I was actually pretty impressed.  Before I even started running games/benchmarks, the system just FELT fast.  I’ve been working on K6-2 machines and the odd 486/Pentium MMX board for the past few months, so the speed difference was more than noticeable.  I CERTAINLY would have noticed it in 1999.  And it makes me jealous even now, knowing I had but a lowly K6-2.

I set the system with Windows 98SE, using MS-DOS 7.0 (which shipped with it).  For DOS, I used a customized PIF file to exit with various options (XMS, etc.).  For Windows, I tested using Nvidia’s 2.08 Detonator drivers and the most recent VXD drivers for the ESS card.  I tried the Forceware drivers for the TNT2, but there were numerous regressions and the 2.08 drivers just performed better.  YMMV.

For the most part, these are all very playable numbers.  I don’t often like to post actual frame rates, as I feel it’s kind of misleading.  Most people can’t “feel” how many FPS they’re getting, but they know when a game feels sluggish versus a game that’s plenty playable.

Now, I also realize that 26.3 FPS in Quake II might not be great for online gaming.  However, I should point out that I tested in 1024×768 with most of the options turned up.  If you want higher FPS for frag fests, turn down the resolution or the details.  Realistically, the TNT2 M64 was a “good enough” card for most people at the time and was a far sight better than the integrated crap a lot of us had to endure.

The only low outlier in that graph is Jedi Knight II.  Admittedly, this game came out after 1999.  However, I thought it was prudent to include a game that’s a couple of years newer to see whether the system would stand the test of time.  It didn’t:  Jedi Outcast was a choppy mess.  True, I could probably turn down all the settings and get a slightly more playable frame rate, but I still wouldn’t call it fun.

I also ran a handful of other, non-FPS games.  Just to get a feel for them.  SimCity 2000 Special Edition ran beautifully.  SimCity 3000 Unlimited was surprisingly somewhat slow.  RTS games like Total Annihilation and Command and Conquer: Red Alert played splendidly.  

Now with more noise!

The ESS1371 actually worked okay in DOS, but it would occasionally hang notes and once or twice the machine locked up.  Deciding I couldn’t do this to the poor bastard, and having the luxury of an ISA slot, I went ahead and installed a SB16 Value card.  A few changes to the PIF and voila…melodious DOS music and sound effects.

I honestly think this is a must have if you’re building a dual-purpose rig.  If it’s going to be Windows and DOS, do yourself a favour and put in a decent DOS sound card.  Admittedly, the SB16 is nothing special but at least it’s a starting point.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with this build and I’m hoping he enjoys his Christmas present.  Since he’s also a writer here, I’ll let him answer for himself!

Also, if you’re wondering what dropping some serious coinage in 1999 would have netted you in 1999, I’m putting together another article about the high-end of pre-Millenial computing.  Stay tuned!  

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