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Building an Athlon Windows 98 Retro PC

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After the previous months' reviving of a 80486 PC, including upgrade 1 and upgrade 2, it is time to revisit the last decent DOS-based Windows operating system: Windows 98 Second Edition. Earlier, I admitted the 66MHz DX2 processor just wasn’t good enough for Duke3D and Quake. I do have a Windows XP box (meat for another blog post), so I wanted to build something in-between. And yes, I will happily ignore the existence of Windows Me(h).

The 486 PC is able to run games from the early eighties to 1995. My Windows XP machine is a late WinXP era PC that is able to play games up to 2011. I needed something that sits comfortably in between these two timelines. The original Pentium CPU wasn’t on my mind since a fast 486 (DX4) is able to beat it. As a kid, in the year 2000 I was a proud owner of a newly released AMD Athlon Thunderbird 1GHz, upgrading from a Pentium II. It was the year of the Gigahertz barrier breach:

Stock CPU clock speed history. Source:

As clearly visible in the graph, 2000 was a big turning point for CPU speed. The Thunderbird was one of the first, that was also easily overclockable. AMD’s K7 Athlon XP breached 2GHz only two years later. So, the quest became clear and my mind was set: chasing nostalgic values again. I even managed to find my original AOpen HQ45 mid tower again!

So… Which specs?

I had no intentions to build a ridiculously overpowered “ultimate win98 gaming PC”, as many other bloggers like to call it, I wanted something with subjective nostalgic value that is able to run any game from 1996 till 2003. More than 500MHz certainly is overkill if you only want Win98 to run smoothly. At work, I managed to salvage an 1.4GHz Thunderbird that might still work. Alas, it turned out to be dead1 - but at least the motherboard was okay.

Which motherboard to pick, which slots to prefer?

Another old and very much yellowed PC tucked away in a storage area brought salvation: it held an Athlon XP 2200+. That was not really what I was looking for, but the socket matched, and in the end I simply underclocked the newer CPU to 1.35GHz by setting the FSB speed to 100 and switching out motherboards. It came with an AGPx8 board with DDR memory, and I was looking for a more authentic SD-based one.

It is important to take a moment to look at various motherboard features, such as the interfacing support. I found another old board with one ISA-slot, but it only supports socket-A CPUs up to 1.0GHz. Do I really need an ISA-based Sound Blaster in this PC? The 486 will more than suffice for OPL3/WaveTable music. In the end, I chose a board that supports both DDR and SD (but not both), and went with the latter. This is what I managed to scrape together:

Although some of the cards aren’t exactly something to write home about (A GeForce 3 Ti200 I once owned would also be authentic), they will do just fine until I come across something better. Ebay is sometimes too depressing: instant gratification at the cost of steep shipping prices.

This is what the assembled motherboard looks like:

Inside the belly of the Win98 PC - plenty of space left!

One of the things I did order as soon as I powered on the machine was a silent cooler. The stock Thermaltake socket A cooler pictured above sounds like a jet taking off! I might also drill some holes and install another Nexus 120mm system fan running at 7V to get rid of the heat. The AOpen case isn’t the best regarding air flow. Also, if anyone has suggestions on which cool/fun PCI/AMR cards to install, feel free leave a comment below.

The (un)stableness of Windows 98 S.E.

After downloading Windows 98 and burning the ISO (Burning a CD! The last time I did this was about 15 years ago. Exciting!), I was ready to FAT32-format the HDD with plenty of space for bigger games. The installation process blazed through in about 15 minutes (the specs are a bit high for a Win9x OS), but after the third reboot, blue screens started to appear. Here we go again…

Fortunately, a second clean reinstall fixed that. I must have missed something. Next up were the nVidia drivers, but how to transfer data from other PCs onto this one? Removable USB media was not recognized - neither was the first Ethernet card I installed. Internet Explorer 5 managed to open after swapping cards, allowing me to browse to proper Win9x USB drivers. A reboot or 20 later, my USB stick was finally working in Windows Explorer.

I decided to also install the Unofficial Win98SE Service Pack 3.64, maintained by the community - that’s why the screenshot below shows ‘Windows ME’ in the System Settings. It contains a lot of upgraded system files from later operating systems. It’s also possible to install a modern fork of Mozilla using something called ‘KernelEx’, a layer of Win2000/XP drivers that make it possible to run more Win programs on DOS-based Win systems. Ultimately, I decided against using that, as I have another WinXP machine and Opera 10 works with (some) HTTPS websites.

Win98 SE with an active Plus! theme. Wizardry 8 rearing to go!

The Pinnacle PCTV Rave PCI tuner card I once had installed in a case such as this one refused to work on Win98, while it works flawlessly on the WinXP machine. I do have to admit that back in the day I quickly switched from Win98/Me to NT4/2000 after being fed up with the frequent crashes, odd error messages on bootup/shutdown and general unstableness of the operating system. Even simply uninstalling stuff like the Pinnacle software and drivers caused problems after rebooting. The hardware specs certainly can handle Win2000/XP but solely for nostalgic reasons, I wanted one PC with Win9x.

The MS Plus! themes still make me smile. Who doesn’t like wiggling his mouse pointer all day if it’s an animated bee, or hearing the startup/shutdown jungle noise? The first thing I did after the video/audio drivers was of course installing Wizardry 8, my all-time favorite PC RPG, released in 2001. Now, on to gaming rack to fetch Unreal Tournament/Diablo II/GTA2/Baldur’s Gate/Might and Magic VIII and others!

Looking for more pictures of retro setups? Browse through Reddits' Retro Battle Stations page.

  1. We might have blown up that one. The old thermal paste and layers of dust on one of the motherboards started to smoke… ↩︎

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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