My Old XP Boxes

The theme of our next DCTUG meeting will be “What to do with your old XP machine”. As one of the presenters, I will demonstrate the conversion of older Wintel boxes to Linux. As I gaze at my accumulation of digital relics, I can’t help but reminisce about how I, and the PC industry got to this point.

I was there at the beginning. As a Basic Computer Shop employee, I was one of the first to buy an IBM 5150, 256K of DRAM with dual floppies, and an Epson printer paying somewhere over $2000 with my discount. I already had a “CGA” monitor. A 5 meg hard drive was promised soon, though 3rd party drives were available for about $1500. I was quite mobile in the twenty years surrounding the millennium, so all those early boxes are long gone, though I fondly remember assembling a 286SX running Windows 1.0 with a 20 meg drive and a 3.5 inch floppy and color monitor, bought by phone through the mail from advertisements in Byte magazine.

The oldest box in my possession is a 15 year old DTC desktop. It has full ATX mobo, 7 EISA expansion slots, 8 MB of RAM, a 51/4 and 3.5 inch floppy, a 32 MB and 328 MB hard drives running XP. I remember buying this box with Windows 95 or 98. It featured an Intel 486SX 200 MHz processor. It was at this time that Intel attempted to trademark the 386 and 486 designations, which AMD and Cyrix ferociously fought against. Intel lost and gave the world the Pentium moniker. The original 8088 had no floating point hardware instructions. The 5150 had a socket for an FPU when it became available. The FPU was placed inside the processor with the 286 along with full 16 bit operations. During manufacture, if the processor tested OK but the FPU failed, a laser was used to short-out the FPU and the chip was sold as an “SX”. This particular mobo used socket 3 and could accept a full 486 and may have been a perfect candidate for this project except it used an expansion card for VGA, the supply was the early bayonet type, the floppies were the old two sided tongue connectors from a multi-I/O interface card, and now won’t fire-up. I have no room for museum pieces. The box was torn down and scrapped out.

The next advancement in the PC was quite forgettable, the Pentium I and Pentium II. Intel devised a proprietary connector for its flagship processor, rightly suspecting that the rapid evolution of the processor would outpace the need for new boxes. Unfortunately, this design did not disperse heat efficiently, and fan vibration and poor mechanical connections doomed the quick change connector. Some users migrated to AMD; I went to low-cost Cyrix.

I constantly watch the industry and buy at least one generation behind the cutting edge. That gives me the advantage of utilizing the used market and the existential knowledge of what worked well. The Jetway EMP800 was the most inexpensive imbedded Pentium class mobos running 800 MHz, had a super low heat profile, IDE, built in everything, and a 20 connector supply on a miniATX form. I built the box to run my first Windows 2000 system. Unfortunately, this mobo had a cold solder connection or cracked trace under the supply connector. I could get it to stay up by zip-tying the power cable gang just so—, but an errant vibration or inadvertent kick would force a re-boot, and was eventually shoved aside and cannibalized. Two weeks ago, I got out my trusty iron and re-soldered the connector, twice, to no avail. I haven’t given up on it yet, but until it’s fixed. I won’t use it on this project.

Intel took the lessons learned from the I and II fiascoes and produced a new class of chip dubbed the Celeron. It had a large on board memory cache, a fast front side bus for memory and graphics and soon broke the 1 GHz barrier.   An early winner was the socket 370. I am not sure how I acquired my Biostar M6VCI. The mobo is one of the most prolific of the socket 370s. It was a full ATX, one parallel, 2 serial, CGI video, onboard sound, USB, DIMM memory, 5 PCI slots, an EISA slot and an AGP slot, perfect for upgrading a system. I know it started with W2K, and when set aside was running XP. It too had been cannibalized over the years. It fires up, but I get no video from a PCI VGA video card. More ominous, although the KB lights flash, I get no error code beeps, and the system shuts down after a minute if a good hard drive is installed. The M6VCI has been put on a shelf with the Jetway awaiting such time when I feel like messing with broken hardware.

I am beginning to think that old XP machines have no place in an environment requiring reliability and maintainability. But I do want a Linux box to complement my Macs and Windows machines, so I began a search for replacements. First, I must find a mobo for the Linux project. The board should have been available in the XP era 2001-2008. Secondly, it’s about time for me to have a more robust screamer than my salvaged e-machines Celeron II that I have had for about four years.

I found a used Intel D945GTP mobo with a 32 bit 2.93 MHz processor, an Intel fan, and 2GB of DDR2 SDRAM for fifty bucks at TxMicro. The socket 775 has the pins reversed from the socket 370 perspective. The mobo has 775 pins and the chip has gold plates. Intel claims that this arrangement provides for better heat conductance. I think they put the bent pin issue on the mobo.

I want to get involved with Hyper-V, Microsoft’s virtual machine environment, but it requires a 64 bit multi core system. I found a Gigabyte H61M Intel Socket 1155 with a PCIEX-16 and 2 PCIEs slots, a retail box Intel i3-3240; a 3.4 Ghz 64 bit 2 core/4 thread chip with fan, and 4 GB of DDR3 SDRAM for 200 bucks and change at Amazon. The mobo is 100% SATA, so I may have to invest in a hard drive and DVD burner.



It is a good idea to clean an old box before upgrading. Heat is the second killer of electronics. Dirty power is the first. Dust makes for good thermal insulation and solder pin ends are great snow fences for dust. Fine brown dust has a good chance of causing arcing and shorting. Remove every component from the box and remove as much dirt and dust as possible from the box and the components.

Place the mobo on a static free surface, like pink foam or a pink shipping bag. I use an old tooth brush and make sure there is no dirt accumulation anywhere. Remove the heat sinks from the processor, VIA chip, and any other chip with a removable sink. Clean the dried thermal transfer grease off both surfaces with isopropyl alcohol and apply new grease.

Check that all screw thread standoffs are mated to screw holes on the existing or new mobo. Remove (if possible) or insulate any standoff not associated with a screw hole. Add standoffs where they are missing. Many boxes have every possible screw hole combination and there may be standoffs that may scratch through the trace protects from fan vibration and short a circuit.

If you are upgrading a mobo consider adding a system fan to the box. Many mobos have two or more system fan power connectors. Close any significant holes that are left over. Duck tape the holes if necessary. Ambient box heat requires positive turbulent air flow to vent heat to the outside. Large holes in the box could very well minimize this turbulence.

Finally, check the plug used by the supply. It must have the neutral grounded. Think about adding a UPS to your system if you have some money invested in your computer. Every office supply store has them for $60 to $80.Any wire with a ground lead or metal sitting up in the air can direct lightning through your system. Lightning can work both ways. It could hit the cable line, come in through the signal lead and then discover the easiest path to common ground, always through your expensive components. It can also come out of earth ground looking for the cloud charge. (The Cloud is BAD!) A properly installed UPS will minimize damage from the power leads and more expensive ones can filter phone, coax, and Ethernet cables.

If you are using cable for internet, install a lightning arrestor at the POP. Consider lightning arrestors on both tip and ring if you are using MA Bell. A lightning arrestor is a mechanical device that is electrically connected to a lead, typically the ground shield, as a metal triangle. A ground strap comes from earth ground to another metal triangle. An insignificantly small but electrically open air gap separates the point on each triangle. A million volt potential should find an easier path to earth through the air gap than through your equipment. At least that’s how the theory goes. Well over 75% of the components in my dead box, I can trace back to a lightning strike.

I also have a couple of Mac PowerPC laptops that are now boat anchors. There is some Linux support for these devices and may give them new life. You can find out how successful I was at the next DCTUG meeting.

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