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June 2001

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Resurrecting an AT Case

By: Chris Ayers ©May 2001

Need another computer for a file dump? Internet gateway? A different operating system you want to try on a separate machine before you put it with your "real" data? Kids need another computer for their schoolwork? Let's face it. One computer is not always enough for a home. There are just too many demands on it and contention for computer time can be aggravating. Instead of buying new computer(s), why not upgrade an old machine that is now relegated to the role of paperweight?

When it comes time to upgrade a computer, there is really a lot left of the original that is quite useful for many purposes. That old 386 or 486 processor may not run very fast or have a lot of memory available, but the rest of the computer may be useful. For instance, a 56K modem is so much slower than even the slowest of the 386's that it can move right up to a new machine. Also, the cost of the older memory is so high now that it quickly eats up a substantial part of the upgrade cost. If, like me, you invest in a top quality case, there is no reason to discard that perfectly good case and power supply along with some of the other internals and buy a new PC.

This is the story of a computer I brought back to life again. It started life as a 486DX-33 when that was hot. I went and found a motherboard, the GigaByte GA- 6VA7+, that would fit into the AT case and support a modern processor. There are others out there, but this was the first one that I was able to actually find the hardware. A Pentium III-733 FCPGA processor with heat sink and fan and 256 MB of SDRAM completed the basic upgrade. This was obtained for about $325.00 for all three items, shopping on eBay and different vendors. This board will also support a Celeron processor. It has a 1X AGP slot, 4 PCI slots, and 2 ISA slots, with one PCI/ISA being shared. It will support up to 768 MB of RAM in 3 DIMMs. For the complete specifications, please go to the Gigabyte web page that is listed later.

For operating systems, I have both Windows ME and OS/2 Warp 4 fixpack 15 on it. I used Indelible Blue's WarpUp CD to install fixpack 15, device driver pack 2, MPTS 16 bit updates, peer networking update, USB drivers, etc. The USB drivers on the WarpUp CD install without a problem so the chipset is recognized. . At first, it would not recognize more than 64 MB of my RAM. Daniela Engert to the rescue again!. Her PATCHLDR.ZIP, available on Hobbes, let OS/2 see my entire 256 MB. OS/2 seems to be running fine now.

Since I did not have a video card, I purchased a card on eBay. While the card did meet the specifications, I must admit I was caught by one thing. The card was a Matrox Millennium G400 16 MB made by Compaq. Under Windows ME, I have not been able to get this card working properly in anything but as a VGA card. The problem is not in the operation, but when I go to shut the system down with the Matrox drivers installed, I would get a blue screen and the computer would lock up. Under OS/2, the first time I attempted using the Matrox drivers, I thought I was getting the same thing, so I aborted the shutdown and reinstalled VGA. I later found out I was in error. Using the Matrox 2.54 drivers for OS/2, the card is working perfectly at 1200 X 1024 and 16 bit color, which is the highest resolution and color depth I have attempted. (Since I am controlling three computers through a KVM, I have each set to a different resolution so I can get full screen on all without having to tweak the video.) If I had it to do over again, though, I would be sure it was a genuine Matrox card instead of the Compaq-made item. I am not sure if that is the entire reason for the freeze in Windows ME, but I strongly suspect there is some difference between the Matrox-produced and the Compaq-produced cards.

I had an 18GB UltraWide SCSI hard drive available from a conversion I had done on another PC, so I just needed to add an Adaptec 2940UW controller. I also bought this on eBay, and it was a true Adaptec card. Since I was planning on using this as part of my home LAN, I also bought a 3COM 3C905C-TX NIC, also on eBay. My reason for choosing the cards I did in all the cases was simple. I already had working examples under OS/2. I had the drivers. I knew how they behaved and their quirks. If you have a particular set of cards you are using now and like them, my suggestion is to stay with what you know. My total cost so far was about $425.00, which is a lot less than it would have been had I started from scratch.

I use a Belkin OmniView SE 4 port KVM switch to switch my monitor, keyboard, and mouse between my desktop, this file and print machine, and, when I have it connected to the network, my laptop. That sure cuts down on desktop clutter. When booting OS/2, I leave it connected to the booting computer until it has finished. At some times, when I have not left it connected until boot is completed, it would not recognize the mouse and keyboard on that computer.

I have installed my software on it and it is up and running on my network. I did use installation disks generated to install the Adaptec 2940UW SCSI drivers for my OS/2 installation. I still have a few bugs to work out in the networking, but the computer is up and usable. I tried sharing the printer today and it is working fine. Does just what it is supposed to and it does take up less time on my workstation for printing now. It also gets rid of two extra printer cables and an A-B switch.

For anybody who wishes to follow my path, the following items were purchased recently for another soon-to-be upgraded AT chassis at PC Progress

with the total cost being less than $325.00 including shipping and handling. The USB Adapter Kit is the plate with two USB connectors on it that replaces a slot cover and has the cable to connect to the header on the motherboard. The components have been received as ordered and on time. I have no special connections or arrangements made with the vendor. This order was right off their website, but made over the phone.

With even the least expensive computers costing a couple of hundred dollars more than this, it makes sense to do the upgrade and save some money. It's fun, too.

Article References:
Adaptec: http://www.adaptec.com
GigaByte: http://www.gigabyte.cole
Hobbes http://hobbes.nmsu.edu/cgi-bin/h-browse?sh=1&dir=//pub/os2
Indelible http://www.indelible-blue.com
PC Progress http://www.pcprogress.com

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