It’s fair to say that Moore’s Law is not delivering on its promise of advancing semiconductor capabilities as fast as it used to, as the limits of current fabrication techniques are being met. Where this is being written for example there are two laptops, one from the last year and one that is 11 years old, and while the new one is undeniably faster it has not overtaken the other by as much as a ten year gap between 1990s machines would have revealed.
So with older laptops being still so relatively quick, what possible attraction could there be for working on a machine from the 1990s, when the Moore’s Law curve was steeper? It’s something [Jim W] is doing, with his HP Internet Advisor (J2522B), and when you see the machine in question perhaps you’ll understand why. The J2522B is a laptop, but it’s no ordinary ’90s road warrior’s status symbol. This 486-powered beast is a piece of test equipment, specifically one for examining Ethernet ports, thus it’s built like a tank and is mains powered only. It boasts a 486DX4, 16 MB of memory, a then-colossal 1.3 GB hard drive, and an ISA Fast Ethernet card. Oh, and WIndows 95, which with a couple of decades’ hindsight seems an amusing choice to power a piece of security test equipment. Impressive specs for the day, but the $20,000 price tag would still have been steep compared to a comparable laptop.
[Jim]’s machine is destined for classic gaming, though with only the little HP pop-out mouse you saw on their Omnibook range at the time, he needed a PS/2 port. Some chipset hunting found that, but at the cost of accidentally frying a MOSFET when a screen connector was incorrectly re-inserted. We’re then treated to a guide to substituting older MOSFETs with modern parts, useful in itself, but followed by a marvelous piece of bodge work as an SOIC-8 part is placed on a DPAK footprint.
This is an interesting series of posts, partly from a retro angle as they deal with an interesting machine, but also from a hacking angle as he’s getting closer to the vintage PC hardware than most of us to. Keep an eye on it, there is sure to be more in the pipeline.
[Yeo Kheng Meng] had a question: what is the oldest x86 processor that is still supported by a modern Linux kernel? Furthermore, is it actually possible to use modern software with this processor? It’s a question that surely involves experimentation, staring into the bluescreen abyss of BIOS configurations, and compiling your own kernel. Considering Linux dropped support for the 386 in 2012, the obvious answer is a 486. This supposition was tested, and the results are fantastic. You can, indeed, install a modern Linux on an ancient desktop.
This project got its start last month at a Super Silly Hackathon where [Yeo] and [Hui Jing] installed Damn Small Linux on an ancient IBM PS/1 desktop of 1993 vintage. The hardware consists of an AMD 486 clone running at 133MHz, 64 MB of RAM, a 48x IDE CDROM drive (wow!), a floppy emulator, a Sound Blaster, 10Mbps Ethernet card, and a CompactFlash to IDE adapter. By any account, this is a pimped-out rig for 1993 that would have cost more than a car at the time. The hardware works, but can you run a modern Linux kernel on it?
[Yeo] decided to install the Gentoo x86 minimal installation, but sanity and time constraints meant compiling a kernel on a 486 wasn’t happening. That was done on a modern Thinkpad after partitioning all the drives, verifying all the compilation parameters, and configuring the kernel itself. The bootloader is LILO (Grub2 didn’t work), but for the most part, this is entirely modern software running on a 25-year-old machine. The step-by-step instructions for becoming a /g/entooman on a 486 are available on GitHub.
The entire (boring) boot process can be seen in the video below. One interesting application of this build is that the 486 does not support out-of-order execution, making this completely safe from Meltdown and Spectre attacks. It’s an impressive retrocomputing achievement that right now could not be more timely.
Continue reading “Go Retro To Build A Spectre And Meltdown-Proof X86 Desktop”
In a hacker version of Jumanji, when [fiberbundle]’s parents divorced, his thrice-fugitive new stepfather took him to a remote location in Australia without any access to technology or the outside world. With him he brought an old 486, a gift from his real dad. Lest the police discover them, [fiberbundle] was forbidden contact from most of society and even restricted in the books he was allowed to read.
The boy spent years trying to get the most he could out of his two-generations-old PC. Using only two textbooks from a decade and a half earlier, DOS 6.0, and QBasic he managed to write his own shell dubbed OSCI (pronounced “Aussie”), a ray-caster 3d engine and lots more. No mentors, no Internet. The computers at school were even more outdated Power Macs.
Eventually life returned him to civilization to be mindblown by modern technology 1000x as powerful. He went from playing text-based adventures he had to write for himself, to seeing Crysis. From QBasic to C++. From ASCII art “shooters” to Half-Life 2. From a 486 to a 4-core CPU. From a rural library to Wikipedia.
Follow the link above to see screens of his projects over the years. As of yet no one has verified the story, but, even if only that it is worth a read.
Thanks [Gustavo] for the tip.