The First Gaming PC?

(Note: I know, I know. This kind of blurs the PC gaming Epoch argument. Should this be the first Epoch? No…consider this our pre-history, if you will.)

If you were to go back and define when PC gaming started, when would you choose? I’m not talking about clones or ports from other platforms: real-life, bonafide made-for-PC goodness.

Would it be 1989 with the release of SimCity? Not a bad choice, I suppose. SimCity was an awesome game that took advantage of the power and flexibility of a PC. Perhaps Civilization in 1991? Or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis in ’92?

All of those would be interesting ways to start, but I contend that the true dawn of PC gaming happened several years earlier. And it didn’t start with the games themselves: no, those came later. What we needed first was an enabler. We needed a company to turn a boring business PC into something that would leave Commodore or Apple in the dust. A machine that would finally prove the versatility–and establish the staying power–of the DOS PC.

And it didn’t come from IBM.

She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts. Pictured is a 1000HX.

Behold, the glorious Tandy 1000. Okay, sure…I know what you’re thinking. It looks…boring. There surely can be nothing special about such a basic looking device, right?

Oh, nay nay. Let me regale you with the tale of the Tandy.

In the Beginning…

At the tail end of the 1970’s, hobbyists and fledgling entrepreneurs came together to begin the microcomputer revolution. Most people my age generally associate that with two machines, in particular (state-side, anyway): the Apple II and the Commodore 64. Both were 8-bit machines that sold incredibly well. And why shouldn’t they have? They were great machines in their own right and I have no particular bones to pick with them. However, another company outsold Apple and battled with Commodore throughout the early 80’s for market share. Enter Tandy, the computer line being peddled by RadioShack, with their TRS-80.

The TRS-80 was a rather typical, if boring, 8-bit computer. It ran on an x80 chip, like various others, but it had a couple of nifty features that made it superior to some of its erstwhile competitors. Features like 4K of RAM (versus many machines with only 1K), a Zilog chip instead of Intel to reduce price, and an absolutely massive software library.

Still, it was just an 8-bit micro. Tandy needed a share of the lucrative business PC market that IBM was cornering throughout the mid-80’s. Further, they needed to get on board with the DOS/x86 train that was to dominate from the late 80’s on. And they needed it fast: by 1983, IBM was really starting to cut into Tandy’s market share.

Their first attempt was the ill-fated model 2000, which was nominally supposed to be compatible with the IBM PC-XT. Rather than play “me too”, Tandy sought to build a better mousetrap. The 2000 used an 80186 (compared to the XT’s 8088) at almost double the speed. They didn’t skimp on the floppies or expansion, either, delivering what should have been an awesome machine to upend the XT. So, what happened?

At the time, DOS software didn’t have to conform to the standards we think of today. If your software could behave, chances are it would run (and run faster) on the Tandy 2000. If, however, your software gave the proverbial finger to the BIOS and instead needed real access to the hardware, it most likely would crash and burn in Tandyland. Thus also to the 2000.

And now for something completely different…

Left in a lurch, Tandy was forced to try to eke out some market share with the lowly 1000. The 1000 was a fully IBM-compatible design, perhaps an admission that the days of proprietary tech weren’t working for Tandy any longer. Further, rather than targeting the XT, the Tandy 1000 was built as a competitor for the new PCjr. What the hell is a PCjr? I’m glad you asked, well-timed question man.

In 1984, IBM was making a play for the consumer market. They needed a machine that was superior to the 8-bit leaders, while also allowing home users to use some of the DOS-based programs they regularly saw at the office. Unfortunately for IBM, they had no idea what the hell they were doing in the home market. It was too expensive for most home users and too incompatible for use in businesses. They quickly killed it off.

Tandy, however, had already based the 1000’s sound and video chips off of the PCjr, expecting it to become a standard. When it went away, Tandy not only had the best PCjr on the market, but perhaps the best PC on the market period. It had a great keyboard, excellent sound and video, DOS compatibility, and a reasonable price. And, unlike Apple, Tandy was not ashamed to unabashedly go after the home consumer. I know it’s hard to imagine these days, but RadioShack was a trusted authority for electronics in the 1980’s. Their marketing of the product helped to catapult it to a high market share, and the 1000’s sound and video became the de facto standard for PC gaming until the uptake of VGA some years later.

While I’m going to put the machine pictured above, a 1000HX, through its paces and gather some video and screenshots, I wanted you to have a good understanding of WHY the 1000 was such an important machine. It’s easy to argue back and forth, but I’m hopeful that once you see what the Tandy could do compared to its competitors, you’ll agree that it really was the dawn of PC gaming as we know it.

This is Why We Upgrade (Part 2)

In the previous post, I talked about the First (Wolf 3D) and Second (Doom) epochs of PC gaming. To reiterate (or make clear for the first time), these are arbitrary. These aren’t official epochs or eras. These are just the world as we see it. Which means that it’s completely correct.

We ended the last post talking about the 486. Depending on your age, you may have very fond memories of that processor. So many people in my age group really cut their teeth on the 486/66. It was a great CPU and is great nostalgia.  However, it wasn’t good enough for the Third Epoch.

The Third Epoch (Quake)

Quake Nightmare 2
A difficulty so brutal it was hidden.
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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.

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This is Why We Upgrade (Part 1)

One of the most wonderful things about gaming on a PC is that, unlike consoles, you’re not locked into static hardware. You can upgrade to your heart’s content, swapping in new processors, video cards, hard drives…all sorts of stuff.  However, this strength also means that the system requirements for new games are always a moving target.  I would argue that this is less of a problem in modern gaming, as we’ve reached a point where monumental improvements in hardware don’t happen at a fast pace anymore.

There was a time, though, when processors and video cards seemed to double in speeds every year or two.  The shiny new computer you got for Christmas in 1987 was no longer adequate for the games of 1989. Sure, businesses upgraded because of spreadsheets and number crunching, but for gamers, each little epoch of hardware seemed to be dominated by one or two games that needed a higher performing system or a new operating system to run correctly.

Let’s go on a journey through these epochs, focusing on the requirements and, more importantly, the games.

The First Epoch (1987 – Wolfenstein 3D)

I’m going to arbitrarily start the clock in 1987.  The fastest x86 CPU of the day was the 80386.  4MB of RAM was a lot.  And the PC game you had to have was Wolfenstein 3D.

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 5.20.05 PM
On a 386/16, I tended to run the screen smaller to improve frame rates.
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Turn of the Century: Linux vs Windows


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The Year of the Linux Desktop?

I’ve been a Linux user since 1998.  I’ve also been a Linux sysadmin by trade for most of my career. So naturally, I’ve always been one to avidly track the inroads that Linux has made into the consumer market.

At the turn of the century, the whole “Year of Desktop Linux” thing was beginning to pick up steam.  Read any PC publication around that time and you’ll notice a stunning amount of vitriol towards Microsoft (Micro$oft) by readers and commenters.  Heck, even the writers of the articles themselves had a decidedly anti-Microsoft attitude.  There are a lot of reasons that this attitude existed, but the core of it was the Microsoft controlled the desktop PC market.  If you were using a computer, you were using Windows.  The hardware vendors were locked in.  The software vendors were locked in.  So, by extension, the users were locked in.

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Retro Review: IBM PS/ValuePoint 433DX/Si

Having recently acquired quite a few old IBM machines, I’ve been working at getting them all restored and tested.  There was quite a variety of machines, from 286’s to Pentiums.  However, the ones that interested me the most were the various different 486’s.  These weren’t IBM MicroChannel, instead opting for industry standard ISA ports.  That means it’s quite a bit easier to swap parts in and out of them

This particular beast is the PS/ValuePoint 433DX/Si.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  The ValuePoint series was IBM’s answer to the “IBM-Compatible” market.  It’d be an article in and of itself to explain what was happening, but the short answer is that other manufacturers were beating IBM at its own game.  The PS/2, while a hit with businesses, was very expensive and contained what was essentially a proprietary bus interface (the aforementioned MicroChannel).  In the home and small business market, consumers couldn’t afford the PS/2.  Companies like Compaq and Packard Bell swooped in and serviced that clientele.  IBM wanted back in.

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Building a new (old) PC – Part 2


Note:  This is a continuation of Building a new (old) PC – Part 1

This process brought back a lot of memories.  Not all of them were good.  I was expecting some warm and fuzzies.  The “Getting Ready to Start Windows for the First Time!” kind of warm and fuzzies.  What I got were lots of cuts on my hands, a few hours worth of research, incompatibilities, hardware failures…and the satisfaction of a job well done.

I built the board/CPU/RAM and video on my test bench first.  To begin, I inserted the processor into the slot, tightening the retaining screws.  Then came RAM (it was exactly like modern RAM).  Finally, I plugged in the RIVA TNT and hooked up power and keyboard/mouse.  A quick short of the jumpers and everything came alive.  So far, so good?


For whatever reason, the system didn’t like the PS/2 keyboard I had plugged in.  It didn’t throw a keyboard error, but I couldn’t use it to get into the BIOS.  It wouldn’t even light up.  I tried another and I had the same results.  I finally switched to a USB keyboard (thankfully the 440BX has USB ports) and had no further issues.  The mouse worked fine in the PS/2 port, so I guess it’s probably just a bad keyboard port.

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