A SSF (Small Form Factor) desktop class PC powered by the Pentium 2 processor.
Internal view of the GX1 showing the replacement PSU with adaptor
Power Supply replacement
The power supply in this desktop was well over 20 years old, and was in dire need for replacement, since the system had issues remaining stable after adding two PCI cards. Unfortunately with these old Dell Optiplex machines, changing or upgrading the PSU is not an easy task since Dell opted to use a different pinout for their ATX connector, alongside a proprietary connector than provided 3V to the mainboard. Using a regular AT power supply will damage the mainboard since the wiring is completely different, therefore an adaptor is required for a PSU replacement.
One downside to this adaptor is that it adds additional slack to the ATX main power cable, which was already long to begin with, this means I had to tie up the excess cable and shove it under the CD drive.
There are various other Dell models which use this type of power supply wiring, generally models from the Pentium 2 and 3 era. The website linked has a list of affected models that use this type of power supply.
Seriously! Don’t use a regular ATX power supply without this adaptor!
The Optiplex GX1 had a range of officially supported operating systems to use;
The go to operating system for PC retro gaming. Whilst its not the most stable operating system in the world, its widespread support and popularity and to an extent charm means it deserves an install. The GX1 has native support for 98, and most likely came preloaded on most shipped systems for this model.
Windows NT 4.0
The GX1 had full driver support for NT4, since it was designed as a business class system to be used in offices, however with limited DirectX support, the games we can run on NT4 is a lot more limited comparted to 98.
The GX1 has official drivers for OS/2 Warp 4, I’ve not tried installing on this system, however I am interesting in getting it running on the system since I have only used OS/2 on virtual machines or PCem.
Red Hat 6.2
One of the officially supported GNU/Linux distro, at least going by the Dell driver support page, which offered official downloads for the GX1. I’ve not tried installing Red Hat on this system (yet)
This system has 2 PCI slots and 2 ISA slots, a maximum of three cards can be installed because the middle slot is shared between the PCI and ISA
A must have upgrade since the USB bus on this system is limited to the 1.1 standard, and maxes out as 12Mbps. VIA still provide Windows 98 drivers for their cards. Plus the 4 extra USB connectors are useful.
Some older motherboards can be picky in regards to the USB chipset used, apparently VIA chipsets are considered more problematic compared to NEC ones, due to the way IRQ’s are handled and reserved with different chipsets.
Surprisingly Windows 98 supported 1394 Firewire/iLink cards, and drivers for 98 exist for this card. By adding a 1394 card, this become one of the faster interfaces on the PC, the other being the USB 2.0 PCi card. The onboard ethernet maxes out as 100Mbps.
Spare ISA Slot
Not sure what to put here, a modem? Gameport card? (useful since I have a Microsoft Sidewinder that has a Gameport)
Compact Flash Card
Could be used in the slave IDE channel with the correct adaptor, in order to add additional storage, or to install another operating system like one of the many supported OS.
ATI Rage II – This is the main graphics adaptor built onto the mainboard. Internally it uses the AGP bus and has 4MB of VRAM with the ability to upgrade to 8MB via onboard memory upgrade.
The graphics processor, with the VRAM to the right along with the VRAM expansion slot. The white IDE looking connector to the top right is the ATI video connector and is meant to connect to an ATI MPEG2 decoder.
This graphics card support the ATI CIF 3D API, which was ATI’s graphics library used with some early 3D titles before the widespread adoption of DirectX. Games such as Wipeout, Tomb Raider used this API. This API was only supported on Windows 95 and 98, it had no support for Windows NT, also later ATI drivers versions remove the CIF support.
There are 3 SDRAM slots available, with one slot populated with a 64MB module, and an extra 64MB module was added to the GX1 to bring the memory up to 128MB. According to the Dell documentation, the system can handle a maximum of 768MB of memory.
ATi RAGE utility, showing information about the onboard graphics
Oh my… lets try a different resolution
Ah that’s better, Wipeout running at 640×480
South Park had a PC port, in addition to the console PSone and N64 releases, running in a higher resolutions with Anti-Aliasing
I plan on looking at further ATI CIF powered games, in addition to Wipeout listed above (Driver/South Park are DirectX games)
A full list of CIF supporting games is available here
So I’ve been trying to install and use old Linux distros, mainly to look at the possibility to get older Linux games to work, like Simcity 3000 and Unreal Tournament 2004, all of which run into issues when attempting to play on modern Linux operating systems. First thing I tried was to use a virtual machine to run install the OS into.
Not sure if this is an error or if it’s just because the hard disk just uninitialised
Why would I enable hard drive optimisations when it could cause data corruption?
So far so good, were at the login screen
Might be because we don’t have any graphics drivers for the virtual graphics card. At least you would expect a failsafe graphics driver
Like on Virtualbox we are able to install as normal, but when it comes to booting the OS,
It seems to have issues detecting the hard disk. Since by default VMWare uses an IDE drive for these old Linux operating systems I though we could try SCSI instead. Unfortunately I was unable to get the installer to detect the SCSI controller.
I had better luck using Pcem v17, which actually emulates older PC hardware, rather than using a virtual environment. This has its benefits regarding compatibility but at the expense of performance. Not only must you emulate a slower x86 CPU (In our case an AMD K6 or Pentium, but your host CPU must be able to emulate that older CPU in addition to the video card, chipset and any other peripherals Pcem is emulating. Since Pcem is a single threaded application, having a CPU with a high IPC is beneficial, which is something my AMD FX processor is not well known for. Also depending on the motherboard you emulate in Pcem you may not be able to boot off the CD-ROM directly. Thankfully there was a Linux boot floppy that could be used instead.
The first install went by without a hitch, but when it came to booting the OS it would immediately reboot and would continue to reboot by getting stuck in a boot loop. I fixed this by changing the CPU from a Cyrix to an AMD K6.
The next issue I ran into was with this screen, where it would get stuck at a terminal looking screen with that penguin, where the screen would blink every second. I wasn’t sure what was causing this initially however after changing graphics card in PCem (from a Cirrus Logic 5432? to an ATI Mach, this triggered the Kudzu utility which is used to install system drivers, kind of like the add new hardware wizard in Windows.
Once I selected the correct graphics card, the system rebooted and loaded up the login screen. This helped me understand what was going on previously, either Mandrake did not have the correct driver support for the cirrus logic or PCem is not able to emulate the VGA card properly in Linux. Either way Mandrake was trying to load the X Window system but was failing each time, hence why it was ‘blinking’, the X window system was loading and then crashing.
Unfortunately the speed issues caused a problem with this approach, since PCem would frequently go under 100%, which is the percentage of the speed being emulated by it. Anytime it goes under 100% means the emulator has to slow down in order to catch up. I ended up changing the CPU from an AMD K6 166Mhz to a Pentium 75Mhz, which is below the specification needed for Simcity 3000 and way below what’s needed for Unreal Tournament 2004.
Still at least I was able to boot into a desktop, I guess it’s time for a host CPU upgrade.
Neptune was the supposed successor to Windows 98 and was to be the introduction of the NT kernel for home users.
It’s mostly the same as the Windows 2000 install, makes sense considering both were being developed at the same time, and have a lot in common in terms of visual elements.
When you first login you are presented with this dialog box. You can enter your name or just close it. It does not seem to make a difference.
One issue with this build the the Still Image Service which is faulty in this build and causes a minute hang at startup. This can be disabled without any consequence though the Service management panel (Start, Run, Services.msc)
Once disabled the system will startup and login without any delays or freezing.
Windows Media Player 7, very identical to the Windows ME version
Windows Explorer has had a slightly new design bringing it closer to the 2000 interface.
Viewing the activity zones in Internet Explorer
Setting the Activity Zones as an Active Desktop background. This may have been the intended use. A lot of the items listed on the activity zone were integrated onto the Windows XP start menu. Shortcuts to the Documents, Music and photos appear here also appears on the XP start menu. E-Mail and Internet shortcuts also appears on the XP start menu where they would show the default respective applications at the top of the stat menu. So one could assume the activity centres made their way somewhat by being embedded in the Start menu.
Customising the desktop activity centre
Alternative background theme
The login screen, the Ctrl+Alt+Del style screen still exists and can be re-enabled.
Unreal Tournament runs somewhat, the mouse aiming is broken partially due to the way Virtual-box captures the mouse, might see if this works better in PCem or 86box instead.
Sadly Neptune did not have a bright future and was scrapped in favour of Windows ME, which was identical to 98 with a few refinements and bringing Windows explorer design inline with 2000. It wouldn’t be until the release of Windows XP (Whistler) when home users would get to take advantage of Windows NT.
Dell’s XPS line of systems had always caught my attention, that and the Alienware Area51s/Auroras of the time had eye catching designs that stood out from the rest. I wanted an older gaming system purely for the games that were released in the era of Windows XP, from 2001 – 2006. Whilst most of these games can be maxed out on many modern systems, sadly compatibility issues are starting to occur when playing these old titles, and as Microsoft continue to update Windows 10, these issue’s are starting to become more apparent.
So I figured why not buy an older high end system and modernize it. By modernize I meant installing additions like an SSD and a USB3 card to make the system ore convenient to use whilst still keeping the original core hardware.
The Operating System
Windows XP Professional
The default choice for a machine of this era and type, for the best compatibility
Windows XP Professional 64bit Edition
Yep, there was a 64bit version of Windows XP, two in fact. The system is capable of running 64bit code thanks to the Pentium 4, and the system can detect all 4GB of its ram. I did install this to use as the main operating system, but found out some games ran into compatibility issues with the 64 bit kernel.
I have considered this, for a dual booting purpose only. Reason being this is one of the last machines to support Windows 98, or at least have native drivers for it. In theory you could create the ultimate Windows 98 gaming PC with these specifications without breaking compatibility.
In reality, Windows 98 was on its deathbed at this time, whilst software does support it, its only basic support that the game actually starts up so that it ‘runs’, there are numerous performance issues just from the operating system itself, and many games are missing certain graphical effects. And the fact 98 was notoriously unstable compared to XP.
The drivers also have the same story, with the NVidia drivers being notoriously unoptimized. The NVidia card for example has the latest XP driver being released in 2012, compared to the Windows 98 driver being released in 2005, that 7 years of driver optimizations and progress being missed out on.
In reality if you are buying a high end pc in 2005, its incredibly unlikely you would be running Windows 98 in it, and manufactures knew that.
Or GNU/Linux if that’s more your thing, I’ve also contemplated dual booting a Linux based operating system on it from that era. Something like Ubuntu 8.04 or Red Hat purely to see what it’s like. And maybe get some old GNU/Linux games going…
Processor –Intel Pentium 4
Pentium 4’s weren’t my first choice of CPU back then. Truth be told they were very hot boys and had a tendency to overheat if they were not properly cooled. Dell made sure that wouldn’t happen with this monster of a heatsink with two 120mm fans.
For some reason Dell are allergic to AMD, something that still rings true today. Most of their systems use Intel chips with only a small amount of models supporting AMD chips. This is despite the fact that AMD chips of the era ran cooler and consumed less power, Dell insisted on using Pentium 4’s on small form factor PC’s like the OptiPlex SX270.
Graphics – NVidia GT 6800 Ultra
GPU’s were very competitive around this era, what with the Xbox 360 and PS3 being due to launch. Whilst the 6800 is a generation behind the RSX used in the PS3, it’s ideal for maxing out games from the 2001-2006 era
Memory – 4GB DDR2
4GB seems a bit overkill for a system like this. Considering Dell would have shipped a 32bit operating system on it, limiting it to only 3.2GB. I guess the previous owner must had upgraded it to 64bit Vista at some point.
Looking at the SPD data in CPU-Z it seems the system left the factory with 2Gb of RAM, with the remainder being added later. I’ll probably take the excess RAM out at some point and install it in another machine, since it’s never going to be needed with Windows XP, unless I decide to run some 15 year old CAD programs on it
Sound Card: Creative Audigy
Dedicated soundcards are uncommon today, with most motherboard having onboard Realtek or Conexant audio. Still Dell shipped the system with the Creative Audigy as the sole sound card on the system, no onboard audio here. This was the last era that supported EAX effects in games that this soundcard supported.
Maxing out: Upgrades
USB3 PCI Express Card
USB3 didn’t exist when Windows XP was released, and even USB2 was still in its draft stage before it started appearing on motherboard in late 2002, however many manufacturers have provided drivers for Windows XP for both 32 and 64bit editions. Having a USB3 interface will come useful when it comes to connecting external hard disks. This card also has a front panel connector which I will use with the Akasa Front panel USB3 bay.
A must for any modern PC, and although there were not common back when this system was released, I had no problems installing it (a 2.5 to 3.5 adaptor is recommended) and it was detected by the BIOS and Windows XP setup. One issue is that dell insist you use these green drive brackets to mount the drive, the idea is that it’s supposed to be a tooless design so that the drive can be pulled out of the slot.
In practice the clips ended up breaking since they had become brittle, and I was unable to screw in the SSD bracket since Dell designed the drive bay for it to be used with the clips so for now the drive is just resting on top of the hard drive.
This is a SATA 3 capable PCI Express card which would have been necessary for the SSD upgrade, since the onboard SATA can only support up to SATA. Whilst SATA standards are backwards compatible, it would have meant the SSD would have been bottlenecked by the onboard interface. A bonus is this card provides an eSATA port
Wifi – Broadcom
This was already installed by the previous user, or it may have been a optional factory upgrade installed by Dell. This is quite old and only support 802.11g protocol, which was standard in 2005. It also supports WPA2 and it capable of connecting to my BT Smart Hub. However I will be using the onboard Ethernet for when I connect it to the network, because Windows XP is no longer supported its not a good idea to have it connected to the internet.
Akasa Front panel USB3
Adds two front panel USB ports and also serves as a 2.5 inch bracket to mount floppy drives or memory card readers. I might add a memory card bay to it at a later date.
Pulled from an old HP machine. The system has a spare drive bay and I had this drive laying around so why not?
One of the main disadvantages of pre built Dell Systems is they tend to deviate from ATX standards, and the power supply unit used here is one example. First issue is the design, a standard ATX power supply cannot be used as a replacement unless the case is modified
Windows XP predates mainstream SSD support, and as a result does not implement TRIM. Windows did not support this until Windows 7. One advised workaround was to under partition the SSD, say to about 90%. Whilst you do loose storage capacity, since our games are stored on the hard drive this is not so much an issue.
This system came out during the capacitor plague, where many substandard capacitors were used that had a tendency to leak much earlier than usual. Also given that this system was on the extreme end of the power draw spectrum,
Plenty of games from this era were released on Stream, and up until 2019 you could install the client on Windows XP. However Steam dropped support for the operating system due to the Chromium Embedded Framework no longer offering support for XP either. This meant that future steam update’s would no longer be provided to Windows XP users, and sooner or later they would no longer be able to access their accounts via Steam, preventing the ability for them to play games. There are workaround’s to this that allow the client to run, but you are unable to access the Steam Store or the community features. Also I can’t imagine Valve’s being happy that modified clients are being used to access the Steam service.
Really you are better off sticking with the retail DVD or CD releases, or with GOG where games do not come with DRM and can be played without the reliance of a client.
I have to admit, the main thing fuelling this was nostalgia. having memories of booting into Windows XP brought back moments when we would sign into MSN messenger and MySpace using Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox with several toolbars installed. Sadly these service are no longer available as they was, with MSN Messenger being discontinued in favour of Skype. From a gaming standpoint, whilst it has no issues maxing out games from 2001- 2004, stuff released from 2005 (eg Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, Driver Parallel Lines) onwards has a tendency to stress the hardware out, and I found myself having to downgrade the resolution in order to boost the framerate, which had me considering why not just play these games on a modern rig that can max these game out easily.
I suppose the main saving grace is compatibility, with these Pentium 4 (and Athlon) systems being the epitome of backwards compatibility. For this one in particular Dell provides drivers for Windows 98/ME, XP, and Vista, allowing you to theoretically triple boot the system for maximum compatibility without any concern with drivers. Any newer and drivers and compatibility with 98/ME becomes an issue, and anything older will have issue with Vista or 7 support
Whilst I haven’t played any game on it from 2007 onwards, I suppose you could get away with it providing you play at a lower resolution, although you might as well get a Core 2 Duo system with a GeForce 8 series or a Radeon HD200 series GPU