Discovered this channel which has some really interesting videos about repurposing thin client mini PCs as DOS retro gaming machines: youtube.com/watch?v=eQ8GgJfyms

These machines are low spec (by modern standards) and used ones can be picked up for $30 or less on eBay. The main thing missing for DOS gaming is sound, but some of them have PCI slots which means it's possible to fit a Soundblaster-compatible card in them.

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A follow-up: I bought myself a thin client on eBay yesterday. Has a PCI slot and I also ordered a $5 SoundBlaster-compatible card from China to go with it. Add in a used 4GB CF card for storage and it came to around $30 total

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A cool thing I discovered is that there are a bunch of Chinese sellers selling these dirt-cheap PCI sound cards based on the ESS Solo-1, which should be SoundBlaster-compatible and perfect for a cheap retro DOS rig.

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The seller I bought my thin client from has one more left in case someone else wants to pick one up and join me in this retro gaming experiment:
ebay.com/itm/NLynx-Technologie

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Thin client arrived and I spent some time yesterday installing DOS 6.22 on a CompactFlash card and getting some games running. Quake runs really nicely - I haven't done any benchmarks but it seems comparable to a high-end Pentium

My searches before buying suggested this was going to be a Via Nano CPU but it's actually a SiS 550 - an obscure Pentium clone that's a derivative of the Rise mP6. Hardware is identical to this machine: parkytowers.me.uk/thin/relisys

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Overall this seems like the perfect hardware for a mini retro PC. I've tried a bunch of games and the only ones I've had trouble with are the Commander Keen series - the monitor just shows "Out of Range" and no picture. I suspect the monitor is to blame rather than the machine though.

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One minor potential gotcha - the PCI slot probably can't accommodate a full-sized PCI card because the CPU heatsink intrudes too much into the space. Fortunately the sound card I've ordered has a triangular shape that should avoid this problem

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laser cut myself a couple of case badges for my retro machine

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Got the DOS thin client bridging to my DOSbox dedicated server successfully. "ipxnet connect ipx.soulsphere.org 10000" if you want to try some Quake

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Related: did you know that there are four different incompatible ways of framing IPX over Ethernet?

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an update on the $5 sound card I got: it doesn't work. card detects but I get nothing but very quiet noise out of the speaker socket. that's the problem with buying cheap on ebay: often it's cheap for a reason

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My favourite part of this card is the joystick port, which is not actually connected to anything. I was a bit suspicious about the unsoldered pads next to it on the PCB but it's even better: the entire connector is literally not electrically connected whatsoever

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There are other ebay sellers selling cards based on the same chipset but without a MIDI port. I'm guessing this particular seller decided to one-up them by including the MIDI port but betting nobody would notice it's just a dummy port

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New sound card: Soundblaster Live! CT4780. I had some problems fitting it in because of the CPU heatsink, and this necessitated removing the CD SPDIF connector. I also added a bit of electrical tape to prevent any unwanted shorts.

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Everything works with the new card ... except there's no sound output. This isn't completely a joke like it sounds, because it took some work to get the DOS drivers working right. For a while every game using DOS/4GW was locking up on startup. I got past that with the right EMM386 settings but it took some research. Now everything works fine, except no actual sound. Frustrating.

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I don't think the problem is in the output circuitry because I can hear a pop on the headphone out when the drivers get loaded. Rather, these SB Live cards have so many inputs, outputs, bells and whistles, and I suspect that somewhere in there, something's muted or set to the wrong output channel. The DOS drivers only expose a handful of settings knobs.

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@fraggle Ooof, now that's really old school. Fun fact, Centaur is still around and they're focusing on low-power x86 servers now.

And yes, I remember SiS because I had a PC-CHIPS motherboard that used that chipset for my Celeron 300a whitebox. 😬

@fraggle Oh, it's sideways! It took me a moment to even spot the thing and work out how that could be.

@LionsPhil PCI slot is on a riser board. it's a teensy little compact machine

@fraggle Now you just need a massive old CRT to go with it. :blobcatmlem:

@fraggle i thought they were earrings for a moment

@fraggle
Getting the real DOS experience of spending days getting sound working, then.

@LionsPhil since I use Linux at least it's a familiar experience

@fraggle how did you get it set up with DOS? I have this card too and tried to get it working in FreeDOS with the drivers from Phil's Computer Lab. I haven't messed with hardware and DOS since the 90s, so I kind of forgot everything about IRQ-fu and what not :blobderpy:

philscomputerlab.com/sound-bla

@katnjia three things:
1. it's important to choose a non-conflicting IRQ. I used MSDOS's MSD (diagnostic) program to find an unused one
2. I had to add a line for EMM386 in CONFIG.SYS to get the SBEINIT driver to load
3. The EMM386 line needs extra options (otherwise all DOS/4GW games hang) and looks like this:

DEVICE=C:\WINDOWS\EMM386.EXE I=B000-B7FF RAM D=256 AUTO

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