After what must have been nearly two months of auction bidding and shipping parts around the globe, I’ve recently completed my retro gaming PC project. My goal was to build a high-end Windows 98/XP PC which would have been contemporary around the turn of the millennium. I plan to use this for natively playing some of my old games without emulation (specifically 3Dfx Glide games like Quake and Unreal) – and to preserve a little piece of computing history.
Read on to see my photos of the build, a heavy dose computing history and a few tips on putting together a vintage PC I learned along the way.
The main objective for this project was to build the PC I always wanted - but couldn’t afford - ‘back in the day’ and to have some fun messing around with forgotten tech like Windows 98, ZIP disks and IDE drives. I’ve also been watching a rise in the value of old PC parts, so if I can come away with something that will appreciate in value over the years, all the better. In a certain sense, this project is the geek analogy to classic car restoration.
Apart from aiming for something age-appropriate to around the year 2000, I had two constraints for the selection of parts – a collectible or future collectible motherboard, and 3Dfx Voodoo graphics. A classic beige box style chassis was also desirable but I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get hold of one.
In this section I’ll take you through each of the parts I gathered together for my retro PC build, a little background on them and where they came from. Let’s start with the core of the system, the motherboard.
Originally, I had been planning to build a system based around the Abit BP6 motherboard. The BP6 was remarkable because it was an affordable dual socket consumer motherboard which exploited the unintended ability of Intel Celeron CPUs to work in a dual CPU configuration. The BP6 was very popular at the time, with owners typically fitting the cheap 300MHz Celeron CPU and overclocking them to 500MHz. This yielded exceptional ‘bang for buck’ performance. Unfortunately, apart from being very rare, the BP6 was notoriously unstable, so I opted for its successor, the Abit VP6.
The Abit VP6 was a dual socket Intel Pentium 3 motherboard based around the VIA Apollo Pro 133A chipset. There’s some good information about the Abit VP6 motherboard on Soggi’s homepage here. Back in the day, Abit was a high-flying motherboard manufacturer similar to the Asus of today. Unfortunately, the company was effectively bankrupted by the capacitor plague of the late 1990s/early 2000s and resulting class action lawsuit. Nevertheless, the VP6 was a well-received motherboard, and being less popular than single socket boards at the time, has become quite rare. I think the VP6 meets my criteria of a ‘future classic’. I picked up my example of the VP6 via an eBay trader from Hungary for about £60.
The photo above shows the Intel Pentium III CPUs I found to pair with the VP6 - 1GHz ‘coppermine’ SL52R chips. These are the fastest CPUs the VP6 would support without any hardware mods to the motherboard. I believe these may have been the last CPU’s Intel manufactured which did not have an integrated heat spreader attached to the CPU die.
I picked up four Hynix 512MB PC133 RAM modules from a Chinese seller on eBay for about £2 each. I thought this was too good to be true, as these 133MHz 512MB modules are relatively expensive still, and I was proven right. During my ‘dry run’ build of the system I left Memtest86+ running for 24 hours and it determined two of the modules were faulty. Furthermore, the data supplied by CPU-Z implied that these were ‘fakes’ as the hardware strings contained odd Chinese text which I had never seen before on similar modules.
I ended up replacing the Chinese sourced SDRAM with more expensive ‘genuine’ modules, also from eBay. The “mini Windows XP” environment provided by Hiren’s boot CD was really useful during these early testing and troubleshooting sessions.
There wasn’t much to choose from when searching around for classic steel ‘beige box’ ATX cases, but I did find this gem sold by Evercase. It’s a new chassis in the style of those that were around in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The quality of the case is really good for £45 and includes ‘modern’ design concepts like quick release side panels and drive cages. The Akasa noise insulation foam and silver foam grills were not included with the case, but purchased separately.
The case also includes an optional 80mm extraction fan on the left side panel. This is quite unusual for a beige box case of the time and were more commonly added after purchase by DIY case modders.
Here is the 80mm extractor fan in its bracket which mounts behind the grating in the side panel.
I wanted to get an Enermax power supply as these were my brand of choice at the time this computer would have been new. Ideally I wanted to get the 460 watt version but had to settle for this 365 watt model. Finding a good brand PSU with the old 20-pin ATX connector, no SATA molex headers and a silver case was quite difficult. I got this new-old-stock PSU from Germany via eBay for a rather expensive £50.
Moving on to the PCI expansion cards, I went with the Creative SoundBlaster Audigy EX PCI soundcard which features the EMU10K2 sound processor. This card was the latest and greatest SoundBlaster card from when the VP6 motherboard was on the market. This version is the less common ‘EX’ version which has an IEEE1394 Firewire port and gold contacts throughout. The card has good support in Windows 98/XP and with many of the top game titles at the time. I managed to snag one of these via eBay for the princely sum of £14.
As Creative Labs were with soundcards at the time, Intel were the market leaders in desktop PC network cards. I went with the PRO/1000GT PCI adapter which was the premium desktop adapter card at the time. Another eBay bargain at £6.
This diminutive USB 2.0 PCI expansion card is something of a ‘fly in the ointment’ for this retro build as it is actually a modern part. I didn’t have much luck searching for contemporary USB expansion cards so decided to go with this. It came new from China via eBay for the absurd price of £2 including postage. The seller even insists it has full Windows 98 compatibility.
The jewel in the crown of this retro PC build is going to be a 3Dfx Voodoo 5 5500 graphics card. The Voodoo 5500 is remarkable not only in that it was the last card sold by 3Dfx, but also as the progenitor of modern NVidia SLI technology. I owned one of these when they were current, and then sold it, something which I now regret as these are rare and valuable collectors’ items today. As I haven’t been able to source a Voodoo 5500 yet, I am temporarily using this GeForce FX5600 card which I won in an eBay auction for £5.50.
I needed a SCSI card to support the Iomega Jaz drive I was planning to use, so went with the Adaptec 29160N PCI controller. The ‘N’ version of this card had a 32-bit PCI bus interface (the non-‘N’ ones used PCI-X connections found on server motherboards of the era). It would later transpire that the 29160N has compatibility issues with the HPT370 IDE RAID controller chip found on the VP6 motherboard, which were resolved via BIOS upgrades to both devices.
The card has an internal 50-pin Fast SCSI connector, usually used with optical drives, in addition to two 68-pin LVD Ultra160 SCSI connectors (one internal and one external). The external SCSI connector will be useful for troubleshooting and backing up my Amiga 1200’s external SCSI devices.
This example cost £8 from eBay with no packaging/manual/discs and one internal 68-pin SCSI ribbon cable.
This collection of rounded disk drive cables were sourced from various sellers on eBay. I wanted to use rounded cables rather than the standard ribbon cables due to the amount of stuff being crammed in to the midi-size PC case.
The IDE and FDD cables were unsurprisingly very cheap however the rounded 68-pin SCSI cable was difficult to find. Even though it wasn’t much more expensive than the IDE/FDD cables, it came from the USA so with shipping costs it came in it an eye watering £30.
Moving on to the mass storage, we’re eons before solid state disks for this build so I’ve gone with an IBM Ultrastar 36GB 10krpm SCSI drive and two Western Digital 80GB 10krpm SATA drives. Readers who are still awake at this point might notice that the Raptors didn’t hit the market until late 2005, but I’m bending my ‘turn of the millennium era parts’ rule for these. I wanted to see how two of them in RAID0 (striped) would perform with the Highpoint HPT370 controller. All three drives came from eBay at a rather acceptable total cost of £35.
The Raptor drives have SATA connectors so I will be using PATA/SATA converter boards to connect them to the motherboard. Ironically these original Raptor drives were actually internally PATA disks which had SATA bridge chips on the control board.
Here are the two SATA to PATA (IDE) adapter boards which I mentioned above for use with the WD Raptor drives. They were £2 each from China on eBay.
No uber PC from the early 2000s is complete without a 5.25” hard drive caddy (sometimes called a ‘removable drive rack’). This unbranded one is made from more plastic than I’d like but for £6 (new) from a computer forum I couldn’t pass it up. It accommodates 3.5” IDE HDDs and has two 40mm cooling fans.
Creative Labs made several different 5.25” ‘breakout bays’ for Soundblaster cards back in the day. I wanted to get one for the complete Soundblaster experience, but they can be hard to find. An ‘Audigy 1’ breakout box ended up being the last outstanding item on my shopping list. As I grew impatient waiting to find a good one I managed to pick up this earlier but compatible LiveIR breakout box for under £10 with the ribbon cable. As with the Voodoo 5500 GPU, the search will continue for a matching Audigy1 breakout box.
Maintaining the Creative Labs theme, I’m using one of these 52x IDE CDROM drives I picked up from eBay for £15. I was a bit disappointed with this purchase as the photo showed a nice bright white bezel but as you can see here the plastic is quite badly yellowed. This drive’s bezel and the LiveIR breakout bay above will both get the retr0brite experience in due course.
My original shopping list included an Iomega Zip drive, but not a Jaz drive as seen above. I came across this new old stock Jaz drive and disks at a reasonable price of £35 so decided to add the Jaz to the build too. This is the more common 1GB drive rather than the 2GB version. It has a 50-pin SCSI interface like most SCSI optical drives use.
As I mentioned above this could be useful for making backups of my Amiga 1200 system.
I added a Meritec Internal HD68F to 50-Pin Female SCSI adapter (part number
980211-1F1-3F0) to the drive so that I can connect the Jaz with the existing 68-pin rounded SCSI cable being used for the IBM HDD. The 50-way SCSI ribbon cables look like extra wide IDE cables and are bad news for airflow and cable management.
Like the Jaz drive, I picked up this ZIP 750 IDE drive as new-old-stock from the same supplier. The 750MB version of the ZIP drive did come out a little later than the rest of the system, but finding a good clean 250MB drive was proving rather difficult.
To round out the complement of disk drives, I bought this 3.5” floppy disk drive from eBay for a couple of pounds. Rarely seen these days, the floppy disk would have been an essential component of any PC build from nearly two decades ago. Surprisingly this one is made by ALPS Electric who are better known for the mechanical keyboard products.
For peripherals, all I have at the moment is this Microsoft Intellimouse from an office furniture liquidator on eBay. It’s second hand but in excellent condition. I’m still on the lookout for a half decent PS/2 UK layout keyboard from the era to go with the mouse.
Once I had gathered up all the various parts I put the system together in an afternoon. It’s a fairly textbook ATX PC build so was quite straightforward.
I started the build by fitting the two Pentium III CPUs to the motherboard, followed by the CoolerMaster heatsinks. The four sticks of 512MB SDRAM were then fitted. Even though it seemed to be operating okay, I replaced the old CR2032 coin-cell BIOS battery with a new one.
The fans on the old heatsinks were looking a bit rough, so they were replaced with these orange Akasa ball bearing fans.
I used Arctic Silver’s Céramique thermal paste for these CPUs, which is a bit cheaper than their aluminium or silver based pastes and has the added advantage of being electrically non-conductive.
After fitting the Akasa sound dampening foam to the case, the motherboard was installed, and various case header cables connected.
The case from Evercase included a pack of these rubber isolating screws for the hard disks. Between these and the Akasa noise foam the system shouldn’t be too noisy for an occasional use PC.
The hard disks were fitted to the quick release drive cages using the above screws. I placed the two Raptor HDDs in the lower cage as the 80mm intake cooling fan sits immediately in front of this area.
The power connector on the SATA to IDE converter boards protruded out the back of the PCB, which meant the PSU could short circuit against metal HDD cases. Wanting to avoid such a disaster, I put blobs of hot-glue on the back of each connector.
The SATA to IDE converter boards sit quite loosely in the SATA sockets and are easily moved. This photo shows how the glue insulates the power pins against the hard drive case.
Next the Enermax PSU was fitted. I applied spiral wrap to the PSU cables in attempt to keep things looking vaguely clean inside the case.
The lower drive cage was fitted, as were the 3.5” ZIP and floppy drives. Cable management in this small beige box case was difficult, but the rounded cables paired with some zip-ties seem to be keeping things under control so far.
After fitting the lower disk drives, the IDE HDD caddy, CD-ROM drive, Creative breakout bay and Jaz drive were fitted. The upper hard drive cage with the IBM SCSI disk was also fitted.
The expansion cards were then fitted. I had to rearrange the PCI cards several times to keep the BIOS’s automatic IRQ assignment process happy. I also found out at this point that the Adaptec SCSI card is not compatible with the Highpoint 370 RAID controller without firmware updates to both devices.
Fitting the two Raptor HDD drives in the lower cage allows enough space for the extra long Voodoo 5500 graphics card to be fitted later.
The rear of the case now has a pretty decent complement of I/O connectors for such an old PC. The Evercase ATX case did have ‘quick release’ expansion card bracket holders, but I didn’t get on with these so used normal screws instead.
The last step was to connect the power supply cables to the various devices inside the case. If I hadn’t gone with rounded data cables and spiral wrap for the PSU cables, this would have been a complete nightmare to do.
I’m quite pleased with how the interior ended up considering how much stuff is crammed in to the case. Note the 4-pin Molex power cable floating near the graphics card, this is for the Voodoo 5500 which has its own power connector.
Before the side panel goes back on, the 80mm side fan is mounted in its bracket attached to the back of the case.
Here’s the finished article looking pretty good I think (except for that yellowed CDROM bezel). Before calling it a day I did some diagnostics using various boot CDs to check everything was working as expected.
The final specification of my early 2000s retro gaming PC wound up as follows:
- Abit VP6 dual socket 370 motherboard
- Two Intel Pentium III 1GHz ‘coppermine’ CPUs
- 2GB PC133 RAM
- Nvidia 5600FX AGP graphics (to be replaced with 3Dfx Voodoo 5500!)
- Iomega internal 3.5” 1GB Jaz and 750MB Zip drives
- Two Western Digital 80GB Raptor HDDs in RAID-0 (Highpoint 370)
- Adaptec Ultra 160 SCSI adapter with IBM Ultrastar 36GB HDD
- Creative Labs Audigy Platinum PCI soundcard with 5.25” Live! Drive
- Creative Labs 52x IDE CD-ROM drive
- Intel PRO/1000 GT PCI network card
I’m pleased with how the final result turned out after weeks of amassing parts from all over the world. Now I just need to get my hands on a decent keyboard from the early 2000s and the elusive 3Dfx Voodoo 5500 graphics card.
Here’s a couple of close up photos of the front drive bays with all the gear installed:
So, this project is not quite finished just yet, but thought I’d post my progress this far. I still need to lay my hands on an unmolested 3Dfx Voodoo 5 5500 graphics card for a start.
It’s also since transpired that the capacitors on the motherboard need to be replaced. This didn’t really surprise me given the history of the Abit VP6 and it’s bad capacitors. I’ve got some good quality Panasonic capacitors in the post so this will be the next task. The VP6 uses a six-layer PCB and silver solder so this will be a bit of a challenge but I think I’m up to it.
Applying retrobrite to the faceplates of the CDROM and Live! Drive are also high on the to-do list. I think I’ll go with the ‘hair creme’ method rather than mixing my own peroxide solution.
After these jobs are out of the way, I need to do a ‘proper’ dual boot Windows 98 / XP installation and get all those essential classic applications installed like WinZip and Netscape Navigator. Then I can dig out my old games and relive classics like Unreal Tournament and the original Deus Ex in full 3Dfx glory. I might even push the boat out and fill that last PCI slot with a 56k dial up modem.
If you’ve read down all this way, thanks for reading and I hope you found some inspiration for your own projects. I’ll be posting updates on my retro PC here on the blog and YouTube in the future.
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