Weird Al’s Monster Battlestation Is Now Just A Reasonably Fast PC

Wanna be hackers? Code crackers? Slackers. If the vintage computing community ever chooses an official anthem, count my vote for It’s All About The Pentiums by “Weird Al” Yankovic. More than twenty years after its release, this track and its music video (with Drew Carey!) are still just as enjoyable as they ever were, with the track’s stinging barbs and computing references somehow only improving over time.

In the track, Weird Al takes on the role of ‘king of the nerds’ with his rock star-esque portrayal of a nameless personal computing legend, someone who de-fragments their hard drive “for thrills” and upgrades their system “at least twice a day”. The lyrics are a real goldmine for anyone that is a fan of 1990s computing, but what stands out to me is the absurd hardware that Weird Al’s character claims to own.

Absurd by 1990s standards, maybe. Not so much anymore. Even with the ongoing chip shortage and other logistic shortfalls, everyone now has the opportunity to start cruising cyberspace like Weird Al and truly become the “king of the spreadsheets”. However, would it have even been possible to reach these lofty computing goals at the time of the parody’s release? Let’s check out both of these threads.

Processor and Memory

At the time of recording It’s All About The Pentiums, the Intel Pentium III was dominating the home computer market, specifically the ‘Katmai’ variant, advertised with clock speeds ranging from 450 MHz to 600 MHz. At the same time, the Pentium III Xeon was also available with the ‘Tanner’ core. Even with roughly the same clock speeds, the Xeon Pentium III variants would have pipped the home-oriented Pentium III, and it’s safe to assume that Weird Al’s PC-obsessed doppelganger would have opted for the server-class CPU. After all, two megabytes of L2 cache doesn’t come cheap! Money is clearly no obstacle when he’s calling Bill ‘Money’ Gates for tech support.

A Pentium CPU
The Pentium III Processor (Coppermine, 1 GHz)

Intel still markets Pentium-branded processors, and their existence can be tentatively traced back through to the original Pentium cores and P6 microarchitecture from the 90s, including the Pentium III. These are budget x86-64 processors branded with the Pentium label, so they count. The new breed of Pentiums are obviously going to eclipse its 90s ancestors due to clock speed and architecture improvements, as is clear in these benchmarks.

More importantly, these new Pentium-branded processors are able to realize Weird Al’s still hefty requirement for one-hundred gigabytes of RAM. The original Pentium processors were based on 32-bit computing standards, and therefore only supported a maximum of four gigabytes of RAM. The new breed of ‘Pentium’ processors support 64-bit instructions, and each processor can easily address up to 128 GB of physical memory.

Physical Address Extension (PAE) was available on Windows 2000 Datacentre Server, which increased the amount of addressable RAM for a 32-bit processor to a gargantuan 32 GB, but this is still a far cry from the 100 GB requirement — not to mention that Datacentre Server wasn’t released until 2000, and was only sold to large businesses. PAE was introduced to the Linux kernel in 1999, but still wouldn’t have been able to support 100 GB of RAM. Dang.

If Weird Al really wanted more than 4 GB of RAM and needed to use Pentium processors, he could have built his own supercomputer. At the time, Cornell’s Wintel-based AC3 Velocity Cluster technically supported hundreds of gigabytes of RAM across its dozens of nodes. I feel like Weird Al’s character would absolutely be the type to build his own Pentium-powered computing cluster, so we’ll call this plausible.

As mentioned, putting together such a system today is relatively simple, even by ‘home’ standards. There are dozens of possible configurations using a Pentium-class processor, 128 GB of RAM and a compatible motherboard. While pairing such an underwhelming CPU with a (still) very large amount of RAM would be ridiculous, it’s absolutely possible. It’s even reasonably affordable.

Input/Output

Weird Al mentions he “installed a T1 line” to his house. With data rates at a blazing 1.554 megabits per second, this was one of the fastest ways to connect to the Internet in the late 90s, and was available over twisted-pair copper or fiber optic cabling. Weird Al wasn’t the only one that understood the virtues of a T1 line – even Comic

Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons with caption
When I first saw this episode of The Simpsons, I didn’t know what a T1 line even was, but I knew I wanted one

Book Guy on the Simpsons knew he had to have it, despite the eye-watering costs.

While T1 connections have been largely displaced by modern, and far cheaper, fixed broadband and wireless, some businesses still opt for the T1 standard due to its famed reliability. So while it’s definitely, probably, maybe still possible to hook up a T1 line at home, you would be far better to use literally any modern alternative, including cellular.

The lyrics also speak of a monitor “forty inches wide”, which would have been absurdly large for the time. Most CRT-based monitors of the time period were available in sizes up to 21” or thereabouts. One of the largest CRTs ever produced was the Sony PVM-4300, which boasted an incredible 43” of screen real estate. However, this immense screen size required a similarly immense table, or indeed floor. Even the service manual warns “make sure the floor is strong enough”, as the 4300 weighs in at over 440 lb (over 200 kg).

Released in 1990, it’s entirely possible that Weird Al imported one of these floor-shattering CRTs from Japan for his PC battlestation , however its utility as a computer monitor was probably questionable, given it was a video monitor built around the television standards. It goes without saying that LED and LCD technology has brought such large computer monitors well within the realm of possibility, and many examples are presently available. As an added bonus, you don’t need a forklift to move it around.

Finally for this section, I think we all know what a ‘mizouse’ is. Let’s all agree to call it a ‘mizouse’ from now on. No? Just me?

The Savage Computing Burns

To wrap up this rambling retrospective, I’ll briefly touch on some of the jokes that Weird Al cracks about inferior computing setups during Pentiums.

Waxing your modem?

A man rubbing wax over a modem
This is how to wax your modem, in case anyone was wondering

What, you’ve never waxed your modem before? As previously mentioned, Weird Al is set with his T1 line, which leaves the “dumbest newbies” desperately applying wax to their modems to try “make it go faster”. I’m almost certain that wax has no effect on modem speeds. Almost. Make sure to let Hackaday know via the tip line if you have heard differently.

You’re using a 286? Don’t make me laugh. Windows boots up in what, a day and a half?

‘Well, actually,’ this burn doesn’t really translate. The 80286 processor was more than suitable for running Windows 3.1, however Windows 95 and later versions were not compatible with the 286 due to limitations of the processor architecture. If it had been compatible, it may well have taken an unreasonably long time to boot.

Windows 95 was best paired with Pentium-class processors, however it was compatible with the 386SX CPU and faster. It was also possible to install Windows 98 on a 386 processor using an undocumented switch during installation, which forced the installer to ignore the minimum processor requirements.

So maybe Weird Al just misspoke, and he should have referred to the more compatible, but still frighteningly out-of-date, 386 processor, just so the punchline landed more firmly. Or, is it possible that I’m just looking at all this too closely?

Back up your whole hard drive on a floppy diskette?

This one can be unpacked quite a bit. The burn was probably referring to the ubiquitous 3.5″ 1.44 MB floppy diskette, so we’ll base our assumptions there for now. In the 1980s, hard disk drive sizes were typically in the order of 10 MB to 20 MB, with capacities steadily increasing into the 1990s and beyond. By 1999, most hard disk drives would have stored multiple gigabytes, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario where anyone would be backing up their entire hard drive to a floppy diskette at any point in time.

Or, is it? Fans of MS-DOS were still hanging on throughout the 90s and even beyond, so it’s not unreasonable to think that some luddite was still getting by with a bare-bones installation of DOS with a few mission-critical applications on their AT or XT-class computer. Without the bloat of Windows, this burn actually makes a lot of sense — after all, DOS was originally designed to be installed and booted from a floppy disk, with user applications usually stored and run from the second floppy drive. Even Windows 3.1 can be hacked to boot and run entirely from a floppy diskette.

Then there is the LS-120 SuperDisk, which for a time looked like it would be the ultimate replacement for the traditional floppy disk format. With a capacity of 120 MB, you’re still not going to fit a Windows 95 installation plus applications onto a diskette, but earlier versions of Windows plus applications, documents and games could absolutely fit onto one of these disks.

There’s also LS-240 drives and Zip Disk technology. But, let’s not go there, otherwise this article is going to go on forever.

You’re the biggest joke on the Internet

Not much to say here, just that this hurts way more in 2021 than it did in 1999. Leave your friendly comments below!

89 thoughts on “Weird Al’s Monster Battlestation Is Now Just A Reasonably Fast PC

    1. Yikes dude. That and White and Nerdy are THE songs to sing a karaoke bars to get free drinks. You don’t even have to be good at it, just having the kahonas to get up and sing those with pride is all you need.

    1. “Book Guy on the Simpsons knew he had to have it, despite the eye-watering costs.”
      IIRC, each one was about $1K/month.

      (I’m doubling up my comments, I think that will make them easier to ignore. B^)

        1. Spent a day at a master burner factory once. Stuck my head in one of those machines a little too often, went home rather ill. Worked for a start-up that was working on an encoder at the time. Apparently encoding CDs is deeply annoying because you need to handle 17 bits at once, not 16. And back then, doing that plus the bit-balancing as fast as the master burner could take it was a bit of a challenge.

          I do remember those tapes. The guys had written a gimmick that could play the music right from the master on the data tape. Of course, they didn’t have the best music lying around for testing.

    1. I don’t think so. There was a “blond” joke running around at about the same time about said blond using white out on her screen to correct her mistakes (like you would on a typewriter). The idea, of course, being that they didn’t understand the power of a WYSIWYG editor on a computer…

  1. Back in school we learned about the original telco framing and how bonded connections made up a t-1 line as well as various other trunks.

    I think that T1 links were always copper twisted pair unless you used a media converter to make it run over fiber. This was not uncommon, at my first job we made regular use of muxes that were able to take in all forms of analog and digital protocols and spit it out on the opposite end. (RAD Muxes were both awesome and migraine-inducing boxes of voodoo)

    1. Of course if you were still using Geoworks, you had the whole OS, WYSIWYG office suite, Drawing program, solataire, tetris, etc. on only 10 MEGABYTES. Yup, that was Megabytes. and it remembered where you were, so if you had a power outage, when you rebooted, you lost at most a couple key presses. It was an object oriented OS too, and cost all of $50. (Now available FREE)

      1. Or GEOS. As a kid living around the poverty line in the 90s, I started with computers with a hand-me-down Commodore 64 & random sampling of tapes & later 5.25″ floppies (whatever I could get my hands on without money, one way or another – balancing between that & food). I taught myself to program on that C64, but GEOS was my first magical introduction to a full GUI OS & WYSIWYG office interface. Only just got within the cutoff for the 90s with that – it would have been 1999 – GEOS was 13 years old & only a year younger than me.

  2. That’s a new Weird Al on me. I thought I had seen them all. Thanks.
    The riff reminds me in places of the old anti-piracy “It’s a Crime” warning on early DVDs (Which I suffered through only last night whilst watching John Carpenter’s The Thing)

  3. It’s a joke referring to people correcting errors viewed on the CRT display using white out.
    The latter was a paint / varnish material that had paper like reflective properties. One would paint over an error on a piece of paper wait for it to dry then type what one originally wanted to. This was 1980’s technology, and of the IBM selectric era.

  4. “Defraggin’ my hard drive for thrills” – SSD has made this obsolete.

    “I beta tested every operating system,
    Gave props to some, and others? I dissed ’em”

    I always interpreted this as saying he gave props to Linux and dissed Windows. :)

    “While your computer’s crashin’, mine’s multitaskin’,
    It does all my work without me even askin'”

    Obviously Weird Al is a scripting expert.

    “Your motherboard melts when you try to send a fax” – Who sends faxes anymore? Especially ones that don’t involve imaging an existing paper document, with a signature on it? I can count the number of times I’ve needed to actually fax something in the past five years on the fingers of one hand. I go to FedEx Office if I need to do that.

    Stay demented.

    1. The latest shingle-write HDDs defrag in their idle time. Faxing? Have you seen the latest Borat movie, faxing is apparently still standard telecommunications protocol in some countries.

  5. For more introverted people, Kate Bush’s Deeper Understanding is a pretty good king of the hackers song from a little earlier than Weird Al’s. As typical with her, it’s more weird and creepy than Al’s blatant brag.

  6. Weird Al turned 62 on Oct 23, just two years younger than Martin Luther King III. I share the exact same birth date as Weird Al.

    This reminds me of Hackers, they are drooling over Angelina Jolie’s new laptop, some outrageous amounts of RAM and a blazing 28.8K modem. And she stops making out with someone, to come over and boast about that laptop.

    This is the future, though now it’s the past.

  7. Knowing of Weird Al’s obsessive complusion, I suspect he used all the latest and greatest people of the time, so what he speak of is probably trye of the day.

    I remember asking HP if they could install 1meg of ram on their new 3000, and they didn’t know…

  8. Ironically, it’s only the Comet Lake architecture released this year that would support up to 128GB of RAM on a Pentium. All previous generations were limited to lower densities.

  9. Oh man, I’m so glad someone wrote this. I’ve been laughing at this song since the 90’s and I agree it’s aged well. You missed out on picking apart some of the 90’s-only puns though such as “You’ve got your own news group – all total losers!” and “I’m strictly plug-and-play, I ain’t afraid of y2k”. All in all, perfect observations and I am not surprised to see many not recognize this very under-appreciated gem.

  10. I’m %100 sure waxing the modem is a reference to waxing a surfboard to make it go faster. Why a surfboard? Back in the 90s we called it surfing the web. So the modem is the surfboard you use to ride the waves of information on the internet. If you really wanted faster internet you shotgunned 2 or more modems together. That was really fun to do back in the day.

    1. “Now with X2 technology!!” Hayes vs Winmodem and then woohoo ISDN lol. Good times :)
      I guess also having a Dorito powered computer would be pretty sweet. Pretty sure Musky does molly off one haha. That guy has everything.

      1. Man I wanted an ISDN line so bad back then. I had satellite for a short time which was nice but too expensive and restrictive. At best if I remember right my dialup connection speed was 26.4kbps but most of the time it was 24.6kbps. Had to keep redialing to get those extra kbps. I ended up working for my local ISP so I would download stuff at work until I got cable. I think we had an OC48 connection. I think we had only 1 or 2 people with ISDN connections back in 1998-1999. Back then I would be happy downloading 1 floppy per second. 1.44MB per second. I still would be happy with that mostly. Now I would like to have at least 100MB upload. Dont really care about download speed much these days. Faster is always better though.

        1. I had a couple of friends whose dads had ISDN and it was pretty much all that and a bag of chips. I used to do the same thing wait till the gateway node was dribbling at 8k and then sign back in for the hopes of good ol node 2 opening up lol. Can’t have my postage stamp sized realplayer pr0n gettin all chuggy lol. The ISDNs were not usually under heavy load at least in that geography, so it was amazing coming from pure dial up. I still have the setup discs from a couple of ISPs in my binder “just in case” ;) Good times and fun memories, my friend :)

    2. Motorola Surfboard. That series has been around for a long time and was the butt of many waxing jokes. Very popular modem series when DSL was the best you could hope for as a consumer.

  11. after decades of reluctant, infrequent, and frugal upgrades, i finally have a machine more powerful than i could ever have dreamed of. it has 16GB of ram! and two bad bits! so i wrote a memtest program that eats up and tests 4GB at a time to find and isolate the bad bits.

    even simply wasting 4GB of it, i still have 8GB free. i don’t even know what people do with ram these days

    1. “I don’t even know what people do with ram these days”

      We have Microsoft Teams installed…

      16GB of ram on my work computer, and its currently at 65-66% usage, top culprit? Teams, the next 3 are edge, chrome, and FF (and despite having only 1 tab open its currently at 20-25% cpu usage WTF?), then McAfee scanning taking up far more than it should be.

      Oh yeah, I use a program that is written in Java, that will come and go as the highest culprit from time to time.

      1. “(and despite having only 1 tab open its currently at 20-25% cpu usage WTF?)”

        I recall SunView (windowing software for Sun workstations; circa 1992) used ~25% CPU when running.

    2. I recently built a new desktop and got 32 gigs of DDR4. No more out of memory crashes, not even with ‘leaky’ software that tends to not let go of memory after it’s done using it. Motherboard is an Asrock B450-Pro4 which will take up to 128 gig RAM.

  12. I may yet change the subforum that it’s in, but I’ve launched the VOGONS.org discussion of this article here:
    https://www.vogons.org/viewtopic.php?f=46&t=84487

    I think the VOGONS crew can take this analysis… and go deeper! And maybe even build it :)

    As for my part, the author here missed some obvious musings based on the “100GB of RAM” – this might be across multiple systems that Al’s character owns. Or, more likely for its time… it might be a “Beowulf cluster”! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf_cluster

  13. I used to want an ISDN line, a T1 was just a dream. Now I have T-Mobile internet at over 100 megabit per second (for $50 a month) which is far far faster than ISDN or T1.

  14. Well, I do love Weird Al (and Dr. Demento where he got his start). But I feel I would be remiss without mentioning the Nerd Core movement and, in particular, Monsy’s Kill Dash Nine which is probably a lot more on the mark for most of us. Warning, if you look it up, though. It has a few NSFW words in it.

    I like that the recorded version starts with him saying (to another Nerd Core rapper, MC++): “Yo! MC++. If you’re such a hardcore computer scientist, how come your track numbers don’t start with zero? B****h!”

  15. I’ve had hard drives as small as 2MB so yeah, backing one up to floppy disc(s) doesn’t sound too far out there. You don’t even need to evoke superdisks, LS120 or any of that stuff.

  16. I still have my PCBoard and Spitfire BBS software, and remember running my BBS with a bonded ISDN line, and I thought I was on top of the world, running all of it on my PII 450, which actually stayed at the top of the CPU lists for almost a YEAR.

  17. Weird Al said he installed a T1 line. One could argue he never says that he only had a single T1 line. Afterall there were T1 inverse multiplexers in the early to mid 90’s that combined up to 8x T1’s at ~11.5Mbps total, e.g. the Digital Link DL3800 (8xT1) and the Larscom Mega-T (4xT1) were pretty popular in business circles.

    Also, he only claimed to have a flat screen monitor 40 inches wide. He never said it was a CRT. I know that’s nitpicking to suit my own purposes, but is it possible that he had a RGB projector that produced a flat, 40-inch image? Given the largest and best monitors of that era had the same individual RGB hookups, it seems reasonable to me that a man of unlimited means might have had one…if for no other reason than watching the latest Star Wars release on VHS.

    1. It has to be said, with all this talk of T1s and ISDNs, that half the time it didn’t matter. The internet then was a different beast. If your comp was capable of DLing at 52k, the server the website was on might only allow you to DL at 28.8k. When I first got cable I was so excited only to find that most of the stuff I downloaded was limited to 50k anyway. By like 2002, though, almost everything was caught up. Speaking of, does anyone remember “cable spikes”? The bane of online gaming for a while.

  18. For much of 1990, I ran Windows 3.0 on an 8088-10 (10 MHz 16-bit processor) with 8087 math coprocessor.

    My Laser XT (not the classic plastic model; mine was a metal box that looked almost identical to an original IBM PC) maxed out with 640k base RAM, 4.5 MB EMS, dual 20 MB hard disk converted to RLL to give ~30 MB capacity (as long as backed up and repeated the low level formatting every month or so) and two 40 MB drives (one on a bracket/controller mount in a slot, because the original RLL controller I had installed had only two ports); I had upgraded one of the original 360k floppies to a 720k 5 1/4 out of a DEC Rainbow, and then installed a 1.44 MB floppy controller to get 1.2 MB (1.44 wouldn’t hold format) on cheap, used floppy media.

    I had 512 kB SVGA on a 12″ 1024×768 monitor, and just before I replaced the machine with a Laser 286 in 1991 I was running a 2 Mbps peer-to-peer network and had a 14.4k POTS modem. And remember, all of this ran on an 8088 processor — and that ran Windows (poorly; attracted by AOL’s PC interface, I switched to PC-GEOS as soon as it became available as a complete product for PC and stuck with it through my 386 and even into my 486 days).

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