Hackaday Retro Edition: A 286 On The Internet

While not an issue now with our 64 bit (more accurately 48- or 52-bit) processors, there was a time when 32 bits of addressing space was impossibly large. For several decades, 4 Gigabytes of memory would be the absolute ceiling, and something only madmen or the protagonist of Pi would have to deal with. This convention began, at least for the Intel/PC world, with the 386. Earlier processors like the 8086 and the 286 were quite capable for their time, but doing anything modern with them, especially getting on the Internet, is a quixotic endeavor beyond comparison.

[Caulser] over on the Vintage Computer Forums has done just that. He recently acquired a Zenith Data Systems 286 system and loaded up what is quickly becoming the litmus test for old computers on the Internet: the Hackaday retro edition

When he first received the system, it was loaded up with a rather generous (for the time) 4MB of RAM. The 20MB hard drive was dead, but with a little fiddling about with the BIOS, [Caulser] was able to get the system working with an old Quantum IDE hard drive.

There’s no Windows or even Linux for this machine, so the system is just running MS DOS 5a, mTCP, Arachne, and the relevant drivers for the NIC (that has RJ45 and BNC connectors). After upgrading the RAM to 8MB, the box performs reasonably well without any pesky ads, and given the websites he visited, he’s not dealing with any overwrought Javascript or CSS, either.

Pics of the system below.


If you have an old computer sitting around, try to load our retro site with it. Take a few pictures, and we’ll put it up in one of our Retro Roundups

70 thoughts on “Hackaday Retro Edition: A 286 On The Internet

        1. No way to automatically pull plain text, links and images from the main site articles and post it on the retro one?
          It would be cool to have a “real” website to browse with this old hardware

          1. We could, but we kind of like money. Those ads you’re probably blocking? That’s what’s keeping this ship afloat. If we just copy everything over to something like the retro edition, we can kiss that revenue stream goodbye.

          2. Replying about the Successes: I did that for about a year before I realized it a bunch of annoying work. Now the successes redirect to anything on hackaday with the ‘retro edition’ tag. Same content, and now I don’t have to post something in two places.

            If anyone can figure out improvements I can make to the retro edition respecting that we can’t just mirror the whole blog because money, I’m all ears.

    1. Current CPUs are 64 bit, but the max address space on currently available CPUs is 52 bits because the extra pins and other hardware required to access it has not been added to save on cost and the logistics of the gigantic pages it would require. On the base level the instruction set is capable of it, but the hardware isn’t there to use it.

      1. Having N bits of external address space doesn’t not make a processor an N bit processor.
        There are 8 bit processors with 16 bit address buses and 16 bit processors with 24 bit address buses.

        1. Back in the day, the “width” of a processor was determined by the data bus width. The 68000 had a 16 bit data bus, but it could do 32 bit operations internally. IBM introduced “phantom technology” with the PC, running an 8088, which used an 8-bit data bus but was 16 -bits internally. IBM simply changed the definition of the “bitness” of the processor as being determined by the internal reister size instead of the data bus size.

          Of course this only applies to von Neumann architecture designs. Harvard architecture processors
          that separate the instruction and data address spaces can be even more difficult to classify.

          I guess I’ll need to get some of my old hardware in on the challenge

    2. A simple Google fixed that, from stackoverflow.

      Question:
      In a book I read the following:
      The 32-bit processors have 2^32 possible addresses, while curent 64-bit processors have a 48-bit address space
      My expectation was that if its a 64-bit processor the address space should also be 2^64.
      So I was wondering what is the reason for that limitation?

      Answer:
      Because that’s all that’s needed. 48 bits give you an address space of 256 terabyte. That’s a lot. You’re not going to see a system which needs more than that any time soon.

      So CPU manufacturers took a shortcut. They use an instruction set which allows a full 64-bit address space, but current CPUs just only use the lower 48 bits. The alternative was wasting transistors on handling a bigger address space which wasn’t going to be needed for many years.

      So once we get near the 48-bit limit, it’s just a matter of releasing CPUs that handle the full address space, but it won’t require any changes to the instruction set, and it won’t break compatibility.

      1. Netscape or Internet Explorer won’t run on a 286 due to the use of 32-bit instructions on the 386 and above. There are early versions of Mosaic which you can successfully run under Windows 3.1 on a 286 however. I have a 10mhz 286 with 7meg of ram setup to go online. It works but it is quite slow.

        1. Just tried various early versions of Mosaic on the Zenith under Windows 3.1 using the Version 1.1 of Trumpnet Winsock. The results are terrible compared to using Arcahne. Sites which Arachne easily cope with crash Mosaic or it just kicks out a 404 error and doesn’t load anything. Total waste of effort really.

    1. No linux but you can run SCO Xenix on it and have a full System V Unix experience. I had a 286 on UUNet back in 1989. You could request documents on the UUNet via email, it rocked! And Usenet was King.

      1. That is something to look in to. I’m open to suggestions of trying out other OSs. What type of hard drive was on the your set up? I ‘ve done a bit of research in that regard and 286 Xenix. it appears, is very picky about the hardware ran on. Even VGA cards could be quite problematic.

        1. Ok the Manual says ST506, OMTI8620 or OMTi86 27(for ESDI support) and scsi are supported and those are the only 3 options in it’s setup routine. That pretty much rules it out using the inbuilt IDE controller on my Zenith box.

          1. SCSI sounds like your best bet. ISO pre-loaded (aka floppies copied to install folder). DSL or Puppy may work. Beats my L400 and its PXE loading hunger ;) Best of luck.

          2. Found 360k disk images but unfortunately no luck finding a suitable hdd/controller amongst my stash of old kit. Seems the installation routine is quite fussy about the installation media. ISO re-loaded would be more suitable for emulators I’d suspect. Here’s a link of it running on VirtualBox http://www.os2museum.com/wp/xenix-286-in-a-vm/ for those who want a bit of nostalgia. There’s a small tweak needed. It might be useful to someone.

            Something I can have a shot at on this Linux box at some point. Although it’s not quite the same as using real hardware.

    2. HaD sometimes uses hyperbole in place of googling or pure life experience. This article was all about a turkey sandwich that played for the Mets as part of a point-shaving scandal.

        1. Thanks, chief :) I like to think of it as a cat o’ nine-tails covered in twinkies, where HaD is taken to task and covered with delicious filling afterwards :) We all go into a diabetic coma forgetting what we were even fighting about.

      1. This machine was bundled with Windows 3.0 along with Zenith branded MS Dos 4.01 when new. Sadly the original hard drive on the machine bit the dust. I’ve got a sealed copy of Windows 3.0 (“For distribution in the United States of America ONLY” the box proclaims, so has a few added extras us colonials weren’t ment to get our grubby mits on). It’s sitting on the shelf next to the Compaq all-in-one.

  1. No Windows for that machine? If you happen to have a copy of Windows 3.x, it will run fine on that machine (I had an old IBM PS/2 286 with 1 meg RAM, and Windows 3.11 was running just fine on that computer).

    1. Try to do anything useful with it though and it’s it’s pretty much useless. Better off in plain Dos. I had Windows 3.1 on my original 286. The first thing I did was boost the ram up to 4 megs.

      1. I did play some Windows games on that computer but being Win 3.x games they were not much of a eye candy. Don’t remember if I ever did anything serious with it. Most of the stuff I did was done on the Dos.

        I wanted to update the amount of the memory for that computer (don’t remember whether it was to 2 or 4 megs) but unfortunately the extra memory was priced quite steep so I never bothered updating it.

        I did run several different operating system over the course of using it: MS-DOS 5 & 6, Windows 3.0 & 3.11, DR-DOS 7.x, Geode(I’m not sure about the name of the OS but I think it was named this). I’m not sure if I did run FreeDos on it or was it later (after parting with that computer).

        And because the harddrive was only 20 megs I only could keep the most used programs and games on the harddrive and the rest had to be zipped on floppies. If I wanted to use one of the games on floppies I had to find it from a big pile of floppies.

        1. Hardware certainly was pricey 1 meg sticks of 30 pin simms were around $100 a pop here in New Zealand. I’d upgraded the hard hard drive as well to a 240meg one to compliment the original 40meg offering..Getting the ram and bigger hdd was still cheaper than getting a 386DX machine at the time and all the software I had ran well on it. Wasn’t really a gamer though, but in saying that there where a few Dos games I did like to while away the winter evenings.

          DR Dos 6 was my dos of choice at the time. The first Gui that I ran on my original 286 was GeoWorks Ensemble Pro 1.2. About a year later I came across a discounted copy of Windows 3.1. Funny thing is Windows 3.1 on a 286, at times, could run better in standard mode with plenty of ram than a 386SX at the same clock speed. Never liked FreeDos on legacy hardware, still don’t. The older legacy dos offerings seem to be lot more stable, It’s good that the project is still going though.

          Over the last few years I have gathered up a few older x86 systems and various OSs-various Dos variants, OS/2 1.2 EE up through V4 server, old Linux ditros etc. The reason I gave the Zenith 286 a shot at getting online was there seemed to be very few current posts of folk actually doing that, not that I have to justify my reasoning ;) And yes, no Windows or Linux was required……………

  2. Yup, I remember using Windows 3.0 on a 286 at 16MHz with 1Mo RAM too … haaaaa, the old times. But ! I think the meaning of the sentence, who put Windows and Linux on the same level, is that there was no “stand alone” Windows OS at this time.

    1. Heh, you beat me to the comment. I remember running Minix on a discarded 286 (and on a 386 with only 2MB of RAM, since 4MB was the minimum for Linux and Minix/386) which worked surprisingly well. While I didn’t get them on the Internet™, I was able to connect them to a LAN via the ISA ARCNET cards and star-hubs. I think I’ve still got a pile of T-connectors and terminators in a box somewhere. I also remember the pain of getting them on the internet as described here (lots of TSR network drivers eating RAM, and using Lynx or Arachne to browse). Good times!

          1. The 286 has an MMU and supervisory modes, the reasons for it not being able to run Linux are that it is a 16-bit architecture and has a segmented address space. The 80286 has a 24-bit physical address space with a 30-bit virtual address space but this can only be addressed in 64k chunks which complicates memory addressing significantly for larger programs.

        1. Yeah, I remember a custom compiled kernel around that time which could function in 2-3MB of ram as Mark(Caluser2000) says, but the userland was mostly non-functional. Using Minix on that humongo 30MB hard-drive actually made it usable. And even there, I had to use the 286 version of Minix since both Minix/386 and Linux required 4MB of RAM for anything useful. I should resurrect an old machine from the closet and revisit Minix—I remember it being fairly fun.

      1. I was running Minix from 1988-1990 on a salvaged PX/XT with 640 KB RAM and a 10 MB hard disk. I didn’t have a home network at that point and just used SLIP/PPP to connect to the internet via dialup. I had a 286 PC for DOS apps. I ditched both circa 1990 for an used AT&T 3b1 I picked up for cheap.

      2. It was a rather trivial exercise in Dos. Nic packet drivers are readily available and don’t take up much memory at all. They also can be enable or disabled as and when required so don’t need stay permanently in memory if you disconnect from the network. I’m actually making this post from the Zenith 286.

    2. You can do an awful lot with 256 KB of RAM if you don’t include any libraries and are coding bare metal on a 16-bit x86. For many such programs, even the 64kB segment limit is more often an inconvenience when accessing different areas of memory than a limitation for how much code space you have.

    3. I once installed Linux on a 25MHz 486 DX, (4Mb RAM?) but I decided to recompile the kernel with fewer packages to streamline it. The compile took about 40 hours to complete and the PC crashed while trying to boot with the new kernel.
      (insert tongue sticking out emoji here)

  3. Speaking of retro, anyone have a spare expansion box for a Compaq Portable III? I dusted mine off the other day and found it still working perfectly, but I don’t have the expansion for it, so no networking.

    1. There is a huge misconception that x86 Windows versions can’t support more than 4GB of RAM (or more often ~3.5GB due to peripherals taking up some of the address space). Windows 7 32-bit does use PAE, the memory limit is via Windows license – same way Windows Starter Edition is limited to 2GB. There are kernel hacks to disable the limitation, but they have some compatibility problems, mostly with apps trying to detect amount of Video RAM available

  4. I’ed like to see someone put a 186 online, not because it would be any more difficult then some things people have put online before but because its such a relatively rare chip.

  5. I’m quite well aware Windows 3.1 will run on this system. Find me a graphical browser that will run on Wins 3.1 on my 286 and I’ll have a crack at it.

    Regards mark(Caluser2000)

    1. A couple of notes/observations with this setup so far:
      JS hasn’t been disabled in the set up area at all and is processed.
      Bing does a better job as a search engine on the 286 than google does.
      Arachne on the Zenith seems to do a better job at loading pages than some of the Windows 3.x browsers I’ve tried on my 486s, which will hang or kick me out of the browser more often than not.

    2. Right here. http://www.hpcfactor.com/downloads/msie/ie50/ Get it with the TCP/IP stack. If on dialup, get the dialer too.

      There were two different versions of Windows with the 3.11 number. Windows For Workgroups 3.11 only worked in 386 Enhanced mode, thus required at least an 80386CPU.

      Windows 3.11 was typically an OEM only offering, though it could be bought on its own from some resellers. This 3.11 still had Standard Mode so it would run on an 80286. 3.11 had a few updates for stability and speed VS 3.1 and IIRC it had (on a 386 or 486) either 32bit disk or file access. I’m fairly certain it had only one, not both.

      That made the feature useless because without the ability to enable both (like WFWG 3.11 on compatible hardware) it provided no speedup because it would still use BIOS calls for storage access. Couldn’t read files any faster while still shunting through the BIOS to command the drive’s movements, nor could faster drive command processing gain any real speed while file access was going through BIOS.

      Standard procedure with WFWG was to try enabling both 32bit features then seeing if it’d crash. If not, yay! Slightly faster hard drive performance. If it crashed, leave them both off.

      I had a 12Mhz 286 with 512K onboard in DIPs and some 16 bit ISA RAM cards, a total of 12 meg RAM. I configured 128K of one card to fill out main RAM to 640K then split the rest between XMS and EMS. I setup DOS to boot from hard drive with the RAM configuration I used with Windows 3.11, while some DOS programs (mostly games) required special boot floppies to reconfigure the RAM settings and load different sets of drivers and TSR programs.

      Before that computer I had a “turbo” XT clone running Windows 3.0, the last version to support the 8088/8086 with Real Mode.

  6. IE 5.0 will not run on a 286 oin Windows 3.1 full stop so not quite sure why you posted that link. Did you bother to read the system specs down the bottem at all? The difference between Win 3.1 and 3.11 is just a few core files to make it more stable.

    1. Sorry forgot add I’m very familiar with Windows for Workgroups3.11. I was actually installing that on the Compaq next to the 286. In the time it took to install it I had the network, nic and Arachne up n running.

      Actually was using wfw into the early 2000s running VCalmira as it’s default shell.

    1. You’re a bit late to the party. Brian should’ve posted there was no Windows or Linux ON to machine. Well, there wasn’t at the time of those shots where taken. Now it has has Windows 3.1 on it.

  7. That’s awesome! it was fun having access to a ‘computer’ in the 90’s. They were expensive pieces of temperamental hardware but I guess Intel had to start somewhere. Having a 286 when my friends had 386s playing doom was like being born with a retarded kid. Take a look at the 80286 schematics and you’d think its the most futuristic thing you’d ever seen but its really a caveman’s clubbing stick. These days people throw out their ‘old’ computers all the time its dead easy to find a pc with sata ports, any verge collector would probably spit in your face for putting a 286 on the front lawn. I know this high tech electronic company with 10 or so 80286’s running their ordering system to this day – in 2015. Why? It never broke so they never had to fix it. There’s this misconception in society about having the latest. When it comes to selecting an operating for my 2.8 ghz quad core I am forced to choose between Windows 7 or Windows 8. I can’t use Windows 3.1, if I could dual boot to it I would appreciate its nostalgia as opposed to the irritating over sophistication of Win7. I actually want XP but I can’t cos the bootloader installer can’t handle the quad core, but XP was killer because it had
    EAX which was the most powerful sound platform for my sound lab. As it stands I have got this lovely dual core Dell machine I found by the side of the road and I’m downgrading it to Windows XP. Operating systems are released in an incremental sequential numbering system so this implies that the previous number failed in its attempt to provide you with a functioning operating system. Sure I can handle service packs no-ones perfect but why don’t they call it Windows 3.1 with service pack #25864368 instead of windows 8?

  8. Hi … I’m Adolfo Patino (Colombia) and I have a Zenith Eazy Pc … This machine starts and boot but I don’t have the specific DOS for to work with this Zenith…Can you help me? … Do you have the specific version of DOS for this Zenith? Please … I am a high school teacher and I’d like to show this personal computer to my students … Thanks a lot for your help … My email: adolf.patino@gmail.com

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