Wednesday, April 12, 2017

I Decided to (re)build a PC running Windows 98 SE

Why?

I don’t think I need to provide much motivation here, you’re likely either thinking “that’s a cool idea”, or you’re going to stop reading very soon.

There were a few factors for me personally:
  1. I stumbled across an article talking about how tough it was to build a Windows 98 PC in 2017
  2. I have an old PC (that was waiting to be recycled)
  3. I have a an old stack of PC games that work on Windows 98 (nostalgia)
  4. It’s been raining here for about 2 months straight

Why am I writing this?

This was a lot of fun and I thought others might be interested. I also wanted to document the process so I don’t need to do the research again if (when) the hard drive fails.

The PC

  • An ANTEC Aria micro-ATX case
  • A Shuttle 6in1 Card Reader
  • An ASRock K7S41GX motherboard with built in LAN, audio and video
  • An AMD Athlon XP 1600+ (1400Mhz)
  • A Sapphire branded ATI Radeon 9600XT video card
  • 1.5GB of 400Mhz DDR memory
  • An IDE DVD writer (I never removed it to check the brand or specs)
  • An 80 gig Maxtor IDE hard drive


Windows 98 SE Hardware Compatibility

The good news is, everything I had was Windows 98 compatible and drivers were (mostly) easy to find.

I learned and re-discovered a few things when checking compatibility. My best advice is to poke around Vogons.org if you have questions about hardware support. Below are a few notes I made along the way:

Processors

Windows 98 doesn’t make use of multicore CPUs. Apparently Core2Duo era CPUs will work but Windows will only use one of the cores. It appears that higher clocked Pentium IIIs, Pentium 4s and Athlon XPs are solid choices as long as you can find Windows 98 drivers for the motherboard.


RAM

Windows 98 SE technically supports up to 2 gigabytes of RAM (some claim 4) but many report it doesn’t work well above 512 megabytes. My system works with 1 gigabyte but not with 1.5. The internet suggests that if you’re running more than 512mb, you need to limit the Windows file cache by setting MaxFileCache in system.ini to less than 512mb.  


Video Cards

According to the internet, Windows 98 doesn’t work with video cards with more than 256mb of video memory.

NVidia supported Windows 98 until 2005 and the drivers are still available. Support goes as high as the GeForce 6000 series.


ATI also updated their Win98 drivers until 2005. The last compatible driver package supports the Radeon 9000 series of cards and has beta support for cards as high as the X850.


Hard drives

Windows 98 has a size limit of 128 gigabytes per partition when formatted to FAT32. The motherboard may have lower limits and/or require a bios update to support larger drives.

Sound Cards

Windows 98 supports a large range of ISA and PCI cards and I’m not going to try and list them all.
If you want to use a PCI Sound Blaster, the newest version with Windows 98 support is the Audigy 2 ZS.

For dos games, many of the Sound Blaster PCI cards up to the Audigy 1 provide Sound Blaster 16 emulation drivers that “should” under Windows 98. Apparently, millage may vary.

The Audigy 2 ZS does not come with DOS drivers or Sound Blaster 16 emulation.

If you’re looking for drivers for Creative Labs Sound Blasters, you’ll likely need the original installation CD. http://www.vogonsdrivers.com has a great collection of legacy drivers.

If you want to play DOS games, your best bet is to use an ISA sound card.

Installing Windows 98 SE

I have a handful of Windows 98 keys from old PC purchases but I didn’t have an installation disk. I was able to find and download a Windows 98 SE OEM image and burn it to a DVD (I knew I kept those for a reason).

Then I collected drivers for all of the components listed above.

Next, I checked the bios to ensure it would boot from the DVD drive and then dropped in the burned Windows 98 install disk.


The installation failed right away with an insufficient memory error. I reduced the installed memory from 1.5 to 1 gig and it seemed happy.

The installation then went pretty smoothly. The installer asked me if I wanted to replace the OS currently on the drive, and after about 20 minutes and a couple of reboots I was looking at the Windows 98 desktop.

It was time to install drivers, and I was quickly reminded that Windows 98 does not have USB mass storage support out of the box. After contemplating a few approaches I decided the easiest thing to do was burn the drivers to a DVD.

All of the drivers installed without issue. I was careful to reboot after each installation as prompted.

Time to install some games. After installing 2 or 3 I hit an out of disk space error - huh? I checked and yes, the drive was full and Windows was reporting my 80 gigabyte drive as 2.

The internet suggested repartitioning and reformatting. Fortunately, the Windows 98 install CD has an option to boot into DOS. From the dos prompt I used fdisk to delete and re-create the primary partition, and then used format to, well, reformat the drive. Note, that the version of format included with Windows 98 SE will not report the correct drive size when formatting but will work correctly.

And of course, I then needed to re-install Windows.

Once I was back up and running I checked the drive size, it somehow ended up at 47 gigabytes (should have been 80). I’m assuming it’s a bios setting but I wasn’t interested in trying to fix it and installing Windows a 3rd time.

I realized there were a few other Apps and utilities I needed to transfer to the PC. With poor judgement, I tried using Internet Explorer 6, which it turns out is basically useless today (and I’m sure incredibly unsafe to use).

I did install the USB drivers for my motherboard but it wouldn’t read my 8 gig USB drive. Rather than spend time diagnosing, I created a shared folder within Windows 98 so I could copy files over from my Windows 10 machine – it works like a charm. My security plan is to only connect the network cable to the Win98 PC when I’m actively transferring files.

Setting the BIOS on the K7S41GX

Arguably I should have done this before installing Windows. I noticed the bios was misreporting the clock speed of the Athlon 1600+. I opened the bios settings and discovered the front-side bus was set to 100Mhz instead of 133Mhz; easy fix. I also needed to bump up the memory speed from 266Mhz to 400. And I disabled any onboard components I wasn’t using including the parallel port and the on-board sound.


Soundcard Upgrade

My goal was to not spend money on this PC since I was very likely not going use it much. However, I was in the neighbourhood of Free Geek and they had a Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS for $10 - sold!

Free Geek Vancouver a fantastic non-profit organization that provides hands on training, technical support and low-cost refurbished computers to the local community. www.freegeekvancouver.org
Installing the drivers was pretty painless after downloading an image of the original installation CD from www.vogondrivers.com.


Useful Windows 98 Apps

Auto-Patcher for Windows 98se  

This app applies all available patches, updates and fixes for Windows 98 SE and includes a copy of the very useful 7-Zip.


PowerISO

Very useful for opening disk images. Version 6 dropped Win98 support so the latest version that works is 5.9. I couldn’t find the old version on the official website so I downloaded it from www.oldapps.com.


MagicDisc

If you need to mount an ISO image, Magic Disk 2.7 works great in Windows 98 and it’s still available: http://www.magiciso.com/tutorials/miso-magicdisc-history.htm


Notepad++

I was able to download and run the ANSI version of Notepad++ 5.9.2. Newer versions may work but you’ll need to download the zip package and run the version in the ANSI folder.

Deficiencies and Final Thoughts

The Antec case came with a Shuttle 6in1 card reader. I wasn’t able to find drivers so it’s not working.

The Audigy 2 ZS soundcard doesn’t provide any support for DOS which means I don’t get sound in
DOS games. Fortunately, I personally don’t have any cravings for these games and I can always use DosBox on a modern system if that changes.  

This project was really fun. There’s the obvious sense of nostalgia, the fun of re-using old hardware, and there was just enough challenge that it provided a sense of accomplishment.

Windows 98 SE has been stable so far; and with no background apps running, it’s quick.

This computer will likely only sit on my desk for a couple of weeks but I’m sure I’ll find a couple of friends willing to do some retro gaming before I put it away.