My Own PCs

Regarding my personal computers, this part of the story has been left long overdue.
So the story goes like this…

My first PC

I was at the end of fourth grade and my father just came back from working abroad for about two and a half years or so – maybe I’m remembering it wrong, it’s possible, since he was also back home when we last redecorated the apartment, and I know for a fact that I was in second grade.

Anyway, when he came back home, my parents went ahead and bought a few things we needed, like a new fridge (which had been put out of commission for a few years now), a Philips mini hi-fi system, and a Panasonic TV set which today doesn’t work anymore – and it’s a shame, since it used to be quite a good TV set.

After that, since I’ve been asking for one for years, my parents finally decided that it was time to get me my own personal computer:

We went to what was back then a computer shop called “Best Computers” (they’ve been acquired and killed off by Diverta a few years ago), and we saw a PC that seemed OK to me. It had sound and probably even a 3D accelerator card, but my dad – being a cheapskate as usual… he thought they were asking too much for it and we didn’t buy it, so we went to the store next door instead.

There, in the very back of the store’s top shelf was a computer which was already powered on, and of of which configuration I didn’t know at the time but even if I did it wouldn’t have been of any use to me since I didn’t know anything about computers at the time. Some woman was demonstrating that it works, I guess, but she was basically just opening programs and moving windows around the screen without closing them. Well, it was cheaper and I’ll tell you later why, so we got this one instead.

Tell me something: do you know what firmware is and what it does? If not, do you know what a computer’s BIOS is? Well, I’m going to consider the scenario where you don’t, so would you know what to do with it when it hits you in the face?

When we bought the computer and took it back home (by taxi),
the first thing I had trouble with was the motherboard’s BIOS setup program.

I’m not sure what the problem was but I’ve tried everything, it was just going straight to the BIOS setup automatically at reboot. My father humiliated me for not knowing what that was, and after about half an hour of fiddling with it and panicking, I probably managed to load the defaults and save the settings by accident.

Now here’s the problem with this scenario: I knew a bit of English and I also knew what "setup" meant… but nobody had ever told me that hardware also had something called a "setup." I heard of the way you were supposed to install Windows 95 with a "setup program" if that was necessary, but the "BIOS Setup" thing really had nothing to do with that, so how was I supposed to know this?

Finally, Windows 95 started up and I was able to start learning how to use my computer.

Just in case you're wondering, my father never apologized to me for anything, by the way, not for this incident, not for past incidents or the ones yet to come. Mind you, I was just an innocent kid and back then I really did nothing wrong, and back then I was trying hard to be a good kid and not to upset my parents.

Anyway, back to my first PC, later on I’ve learned a bit about its configuration, and it’s as follows:

Motherboard:
The Socket 7 Ability MB-586VXU8 with a VXPRO-II chipset and apparently USB capabilities of which I never knew about until just now…

Motherboard: Ability MB-586VXU8
Motherboard: Ability MB-586VXU8 CPU Cache chips
Motherboard: Ability MB-586VXU8 Chip Set

CPU:
The infamous sort of self-destructing Cyrix 6x86 PR200, running at “200 MHz” – which the correct speed was actually 150 or 166 MHz and whoever assembled the computer had no idea about the PR rating system so they possibly overclocked it by mistake. Eh, well, to be honest, the fact they tend to "self-destruct" isn't that well known, but it can happen by burn out if they are overclocked and not properly cooled. Which of course happened to me. Apparently Intel or AMD chips of the time were less prone to this.

Update: Some time after I originally wrote this page, a retro computer collector made a YouTube video about Cyrix processors, specifically about his memories of it. I don't know if this is relevant or not, but some of my memories of gaming under a Cyrix powered PC are similar (only, like I said, I did NOT overclock the processor myself nor I would have ever wanted that). You can watch it below - and maybe pay a visit to his website, if you like his video.

RAM:
"16 MB" EDO RAM… Which of course we’re actually 24 MB, but for some reason the motherboard could only detect 16, and for that very specific reason the operating system blue screened quite often in certain situations, and I'll explain later on, or on another page dedicated to this.

VIDEO CARD:
I know for a fact that the video card was produced by SIS (Silicon Integrated Systems, Inc.), but I have no idea which model it was. I do know that it had a whopping 1 MB of video RAM… and of course no 3D accelerator. Oh, and it was a PCI card, because the motherboard had no AGP port. It was very similar to the one below, just that all of its EDO RAM chips were replaceable, not just two, and the integrated circuit board was green.

Update: I originally forgot to mention about the monitor, and I also never took a picture of it, but I found a very close one to what it originally looked like. It was a 14" monitor from SAMPO, and the only difference was that at the time the logo wasn't colored.

Of course, it had neither a sound card nor an optical drive… good thing it at least had a poor 3.5″ floppy drive that was most likely either a TEAC or a NEC. You can tell that by the way the front bezel looks, actually.

So this was my first ever computer. Later on my dad took it to service and got me a BTC 24x CD-ROM drive installed. It was one of those which had a little door on the front bezel, and it opened when the tray came out when you pressed the eject button. I really loved that CD-ROM drive. It had DOS drivers, by the way, but we’ll talk about that little misadventure a bit later on.

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Anyway, for the first time ever, I could see what was on those weird CDs which came with was soon to be my favorite magazine: "PC Gaming"

Oh, right. About that... you know, back then we didn't have much on the internet, in fact I got an internet connection only 7 years later, so we relied on magazines to get stuff and read about what was going on in the IT world.

Unfortunately, my favorite magazine went out of business one day because… Remember that BIOS thing? They unknowingly distributed CDs which contained the infamous Win95.CIH – also known as the Chernobyl – virus, which on specific dates like April 1st, 15th and 30th, it executes the BIOS update motherboard routines… But it only deletes the firmware, turning your motherboard into a brick. Yeah… I found out about it much later, when I almost got my new PC’s motherboard bricked. Luckily for me, my extreme paranoia paid off. On those days of the month I usually didn’t power on my PC.

Update: Later on after originally writing this page, I found out that they had changed their name, rebranding themselves as "XtremPC". They continued to publish for years after that, but I can't help but wonder if they did "specialized" in other things besides video games because they really messed up with that virus before... The Web Archive website still holds their web page as it looked back in 2006, and you can look at it by clicking here.

Anyway, out of all possible things, even if I didn’t yet have any sound capabilities (but I was able to listen to audio CDs if I plugged some headphones into the CD-ROM drive’s audio port), my favorite game was – what back then I thought it was the full version of – The Red Baron, a DOS game. It was a sort of airplane simulation game and I loved it and played it again and again.

Later on, when I went to those computer courses at New Systems I’ve talked about, my dad took my PC to service again to get me Microsoft Office installed. See, back then there wasn’t so much software piracy in Romania, or at least I wasn’t aware of it, so I paid to have Microsoft Office 97 installed – but I didn’t own the copy, so it’s more like lending it.

I also took advantage of the occasion and I also asked to get a sound card installed – or, to be more precise, I actually asked for “active speakers”, and it was necessary to install a sound card for it, thing of which I wasn’t aware of.

So, now I got my sound card and a pair of speakers to go with it. Those weird and probably cheap speakers were surprisingly good, though. If you’re wondering what sound card that was, have you ever heard of Avance Logic? I can guarantee you did but just don’t know it yet. Today they go by their new name, Realtek. I don’t remember which model it was, but it also had its own quirks. I don’t remember the exact model, but maybe it was the Avance Logic ALS120. Looking it up on Google Images, it does seem very familiar although I could be wrong. I haven’t seen that sound card in almost 15 years…

It was a 16-bit ISA card. That being said, do you know what an IRQ number is and what’s it for? Well, it turns out that card was conflicting with the IRQ of the motherboard’s floppy drive controller - it was somehow set to IRQ6. Maybe this was done in Windows in software mode, because the card didn't have any jumpers, in order to do this in hardware.

In practical terms it meant that whenever the computer was powered off and I would power it on (what’s called a "cold boot"), the floppy drive would work fine, but the sound card wouldn’t, and I had no sound, and if I pressed the RESET button on the PC case or rebooted the computer from Windows (what’s called a "warm boot"), it was the other way around.

Fun times… As a kid, I was never bothered by this, however, and I was just happy I had my very own computer. Thinking about it now, that day I came back home in that taxi, hugging my new keyboard tightly… That day really was the happiest day of my life, even with what happened to me at home. I wish I kept that keyboard as a memory but, unfortunately, the only thing I have left from that computer is the lifeless motherboard and the malfunction CPU.

My second PC

The story of my next computer explains why the motherboard and the CPU of my first one are the only things that’s left of it.

Like I said, I had an infamous Cyrix CPU. Why are they infamous? They self-destruct if they overheat – self-destruct internally, that is. Remember how I’ve mentioned that the guys who built the PC overclocked it by mistake? In the past there was this relative performance ratio (the PR system) scheme that some manufacturers were using to advertise that their product was relatively as fast as an Intel CPU which was running at that specific speed, but while the advertised product was running at a lower real speed.

If you want a more recent example, look at AMD processors from a generation ago, and how, let’s say, an Athlon 3200+ was actually running at a real speed of only 2000 MHz. I think nobody uses that system anymore because of the confusion and possibly false advertising.

That being said, the Cyrix PR200 CPU’s real speed was actually 150 MHz, not 200 MHz. Today those speeds might make you think “well, those low speeds meant that the processors weren’t generating much heat, right?” Wrong. In those days processors were using much higher voltages than today, like 5 to 6 V or more, so even 33 MHz would make quite a difference in temperature, and it was enough to make a CPU overheat… and that’s exactly what happened. In time, the excessive heat literally fried the small fan from the CPU’s cooler, and that contributed to even more overheating, which fried the CPU internally.

Well, because of that, I was left without a PC for quite a while – a few years, actually.

My family didn’t have any more money to buy new stuff and… that meant that the only way for me to have fun was to play games on my 8-bit knockoff consoles (I’ll talk about those some other time), and to go to cyber cafes where I could only spend one or two hours a day at most, for the price of the equivalent of about $10 per hour today. If you want to know what they look like, I found someone on deviantArt who owned one just like mine, only mine didn’t have colored keys. I will post a copy of the picture here, just in case the user ever disables their account. I just want to be able to show what the thing looked like.

image

About at the beginning of 8th grade my mother got me a temporary PC, the only desktop type I’ve ever owned. It had a 133 MHz Pentium 1 processor, possibly with the MMX instructions set. I’ve used my old 24 MB EDO RAM with it, which was actually when I found out the real amount of memory was 24 instead of 16. Believe it or not, in Windows 95 it can make a difference.

Mind you, this was happening in late 2001, but some time before the events of September 11. About that time my father came back from working abroad again, this time for good. In October 2001 my parents got me my first printer as a birthday gift. It was an HP DeskJet 960C, which I regret not owning anymore because, aside from its questionable cartridges, it was a pretty good printer.

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It was a tough part of my life and I had very little time for myself, but the thing I enjoyed the most during those days was playing the famous shareware version of Doom 1. Again… This was back in late 2001, 15 years ago.

Oh, and if you think acquiring the printer went well, you’re wrong, of course. I kept going back and forth through town, looking for the cheapest thing possible. What did you expect? I made the mistake of expecting something else, since it was my birthday… and I paid for that with a lot of tears shed, and humiliation similar to that I got the day I got my first computer. Well, at least this time we went to a better store than the last time. Thank God the store I got my first PC from never sold printers. Which store we got the printer from, you might ask? It was a branch of "Best Computers": the same exact store he refused to buy the better PC from, back in 1998, only now they were sharing space with some other random store.

My third PC

In the image blelow you can see me at my computer desk. On the desk there are the printer I got for my birthday, and also the computer I got in January 2002.

My own  Personal Computers

After I got that temporary Pentium running at 133 MHz desktop computer which, unfortunately, I never got around to take a picture of, I kept playing Doom and other older games on it for about 4 to 5 months. However, I really felt the need to play much better games which obviously required a 3D accelerator card, and my temporary computer just couldn’t keep up anymore. Don’t get me wrong, for anything else than gaming it was perfect at the time.

The final configuration of that computer was as following:

  • CPU: Intel Pentium 4 @ 1600 MHz, 400 MHz FSB, 256 KB L2 cache
  • RAM: PC133 SDRAM, 512 MB
  • Motherboard: Intel D845 chipset, manufactured by Intel
  • Video Card: Leadtek GeForce 2 MX400, 64 MB VRAM
  • Sony floppy disk drive
  • Hard disk drive: Seagate 60 GB
  • CD-ROM Drive: Sony 52x
  • CD-ReWriter Drive: Philips 16x10x32x
  • Philips 17″ Monitor

I had no new speakers because the old ones still worked… sort of. One of them didn’t really work anymore, so that’s why I would put the one that worked beneath the monitor, so it would be in the center to have some sound, and also it doubled as a keyboard cable holder.

The computer had trouble with its RAM, of course. It seems I had a little curse regarding computer RAM for a while, although I wasn’t aware of the problems at first, but I actually was a bit paranoid when the computer started acting strangely sometimes when I loaded more programs in memory than usual. That’s why I ran a RAM testing utility from Norton SystemWorks. As I understand, it wasn’t perfect, because it couldn’t recognize the whole RAM anyway, but it was right nonetheless, as the guys from the store replaced my RAM under the warranty anyway.

This was the PC that I had throughout the second part of the [first] hardest year of my life. I was finally able to play the games I wanted to play so much, like Quake 3 ArenaHALF-LIFE, and more.