The PC from The Wimmera

wimmera-pcintroOne weekend I went for a drive up Horsham way, a good two hour drive from home along the main highway between Adelaide and Melbourne. It’s a sizeable regional centre popular for stopovers. Usually when I’m there the only things I might pick up is fuel or a burger from McDonald’s on the way to somewhere else, so picking up a PC was a rare occurrence.

Stored in a dusty old tin shed, the person I bought from had several identical PCs stacked away, presumably scored from a local e-waste depot. Originally these had been used by what was known as the Wimmera Institute of TAFE in the mid 1990s, later merging to what became the University of Ballarat (now known as Federation University since 2014). For those overseas, TAFE meant Technical and Further Education, and operate in a similar nature to colleges in Canada and the United States.

Due to this the PCs were fairly unremarkable. I was offered one for $50 AUD with a Honeywell AT keyboard, so no complaints from me. Apart from noticing it was a Pentium PC, I didn’t really bother looking closely but was told it worked and the hard disk had been wiped.

wimmerapc-1

The PC as it was received.

Bringing it home I gave the PC a clean up both inside and out. Not perfect, but sufficient. Subsequently a quick power on test indicated all was well and no obvious issues. Reviewing the hardware more closely indicated it had the following specifications:

  • Intel Pentium 133 MHz
  • 32 MB EDO RAM
  • A-Trend ATC-1020 430VX Socket 7 Motherboard
  • 1 MB S3 Trio64V+ PCI video card
  • 1.2 GB Samsung IDE hard disk drive
  • Intel 82595 ISA LAN card supporting both 10Base2 and 10Base-T

It’s pretty standard hardware circa 1996 albeit there’s some indication of cost cutting. Unexpected the RAM was a pleasant surprise, not 8 or 16 MB as first thought. Lacking in what was then known as multimedia capabilities, it led me to walk down to my backyard shed, and pull out a spare sound card and CD-ROM drive. The sound card, a Aztech Sound Galaxy Pro16 II offering excellent SoundBlaster Pro 2.0 compatibility. The CD-ROM drive was a new Sony CDU5211 rated at 52x speed.

The drive was a little fiddly to install, primarily from pulling away the front plastic cover of the case with the cables intact, in order to remove the disposable steel plate that covers the drive bay. I didn’t have a spare 40-pin IDE cable, only the newer 39-pin variety which was a little irritating. To work around this, I rearranged the IDE cable from the PC to allow both the hard disk and CD-ROM drive to share the same cable, using the master and slave jumper arrangement.

wimmerapc-6With the benefit of now being able to use CDs, it was time to install Windows 95. I personally like to refrain from using Windows 98 unless the PC is at least a Pentium 166 with 64 MB of RAM for the benefit of performance. The only thing needed were the sound card drivers.

Connected to the home network, I transferred some DOS games – Ultimate DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D Atomic Edition, Heretic, and Quake. Quake would have appreciated a better video card to achieve beyond 360 x 480 resolution. The Aztech sound card turned out to be a solid performer. I’d still lean towards the Sound Blaster AWE 64 Gold that I have for MIDI playback, though still rate this better than some of the ESS sound cards of the time. In 1996, I had an ESS sound card and whilst I forget which chipset it had, it was a budget card that had a tendency to struggle with sound effects from DOS games.

The last little piece I attended to was the LED lights and LCD display on the front of the case. At first glance, the LED light for power wasn’t working at all and it seemed it was merely just a matter of connecting to the motherboard. However as the front panel connector combined the power LED and key lock as one it caused another issue. Ultimately the result was the power light would come on, but the key lock pins caused to lock out the keyboard upon booting up the PC as a security measure. Without having keys to the case, stripping and replacing with a smaller 2 pin connector would be the only workaround.

The LCD display was showing up as 9 MHz initially. I was expecting jumpers to set to the display though there was none to be found. A small battery had been located on the back of the PCB, so pulled this out as it was beginning to corrode. Presumably this is to store the value when the PC has no power. I discovered by accident the value could be changed pressing the PC’s reset button excessively. It’s purely aesthetics though, there’s no connection to the motherboard telling it what to display.

Ideally this PC is best left for DOS games for what it is, and it does that with flying colours. A larger capacity hard disk would be of benefit, as Windows 95 and the aforementioned games already took about a third of the drive. It was a time when games could easily chew up towards 100 MB each. For now, time to play some Heretic!

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