In between our much-loved and sought after retro 8 bit computers and the multiple-gigabyte flat screen wonders we use today are the cast-offs of our culture. The PC's of the late 80's to early 90's; the '386's and '486's that won so many people over from other platforms are now seen as misfits; technically being retro due to their age. Some hard-core gamers keep them around to play some of those great classic PC games that made the PC a serious contender in the video game market for the first time; but by and large, these machines are overlooked.
I wondered, could one of these computers still be relevant today? That is to say, could one use one of these old computers and still connect directly to the modern high speed internet? One would need to be able to access web forums, chat, and e-mail directly. I wanted to see.
I selected an NCR System 3230, a typical '486 system from '91 that, due to its limited expansion possibilities, would have been an early candidate for replacing, and so they should be easy enough to find in good working order these days. That, and the low profile means it could live easily with a modern system. I fully populated the RAM to what was then a whopping 8 Megabytes, installed a 300MB hard disk drive, and installed a DX '486 processor in the processor upgrade slot, allowing it to run at 50 Mhz. I also added an AT-1500 ethernet card, a Soundblaster 16 card, a 56k fax/voice modem, and a CD-ROM drive. In the early 90's, this system would have rocked.
I started off with the latest DR-DOS, and ran the Arachne browser for DOS. This worked as expected; however, Arachne tended to be slow, and was cumbersome. I concluded it was ideal for systems below the '386 that are incapable of running Windows, and DR-DOS, so feature-rich and very modern was really a little too complicated for what I was after. I decided it was time to get down to basics.
I wiped the system clean and installed DOS 6.22 with Windows 3.11. I then installed all the updates and drivers, and proceeded to install Netscape 4.6. After that, I learned I had to install Microsoft's TCP/IP stack. After spending over an hour trying to get it to work, I realized I had left the ethernet cable unplugged from the PC. I plugged it in, loaded the retro-link.com main page, clicked to enter the forums, and watched as the computer was brought to its knees and crashed. I then discovered that Netscape 4.6 really needed at least twice as much memory to work properly.
I decided to go for a lighter browser; opting for Internet Explorer 3, which recommends 8 megabytes of RAM. When I did, it clobbered the TCP/IP I had installed, and installed its own dialer-based TCP/IP. I uninstalled the dialer, but the old files didn't get restored. After manually copying in the TCP/IP stack and getting it working, IE wouldn't start. I tried uninstalling it, but was greeted with a General Protection Fault. I removed the TCP/IP stack I manually copied in, ran the uninstaller, and it still crashed. It then occurred to me just how fragile and vulnerable Windows 3.11 really was.
I'm going to give it one more shot; wiping Windows clean, reinstalling everything, being careful not to install the dialer part of IE. One thing this experiment has taught me has been a renewed appreciation for modern operating systems. Still, I am determined. After I've achieved success, I will document those steps necessary, and move on with the alternative operating systems, such as QNX and OpenGEM. I'll keep going until I find something that's satisfactory, and welcome ideas and suggestions.