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Getting that PC running...

A couple of months ago, I picked up an "old" PC for a nice low price - and let's totally gloss over the fact that this "old" machine is probably about as powerful as every other PC I own added together.

On the hardware side, I can now report that the specs of the HP dc7100SFF are as follows:

  • Processor: Intel Pentium 4 (Prescott), clocking 2.80GHz on a single core with two execution units, and the ALU clocking 5.6GHz. This is like the Atom in my EeePC, it is really a single core processor but it can do two things at once so it looks like a dual core. Intel call it "Hyper-Threading", I call it a hybrid. It's the most sedate of the options available for this model (options go up to 3.6GHz) but it doesn't seem to be a slouch.
    It supports MMX, SSE, SSE2, and SSE3 (ought to remember that for tweaking video codecs). The L1 cache is 16KiB 8 way set associative (64 byte line), the L2 cache is 1MiB (8 way, set-assoc, 64 byte). The bus speed is 200MHz with the FSB rated at 800MHz. The technical reference claims the L1 cache is 32KiB, CPU-Z claims 16KiB.
  • Chipset: Intel i915G; with Intel 82915G Northbridge (connects processor to memory, GPU, and Southbridge) and 82801FB Southbridge (controls hardware, mostly).
  • Memory: I was wrong. There is actually 1280MiB inside. Using dual channel PC3200 DDRs clocking at 200MHz, the memory configuration is:
    • Slot 1: 256MiB Samsung M3 68L3223ETM-CCC
    • Slot 2: 512MiB Kingston (reports generic part number 'K')
    • Slot 3: 256MiB Micron Technology 8VDDT3264AG-40BCB
    • Slot 4: 256MiB Micron Technology 8VDDT3264AG-40BGB
    All modules run at 200MHz, all run at 2.5V. The chipset can support up to 4GiB of memory running at up to 400MHz, so throwing this odd selection away and installing faster memory should give an immediate speed boost. It is slightly constricted by the fact that Intel chipsets are fussy about memory and want non-ECC with RAS/CAS stuff at 2.5 or 3 clock ticks.
  • GPU/video: Graphics provided by the i915GV clocked at 333MHz, with a 400MHz 24 bit RAMDAC, containing 8MiB of 128 bit memory (can go up to 224MiB, I guess it can share system memory?), and apparently managing 1.3 GPixels/sec. It looks to be a slightly later version of the video hardware in the EeePC. Output is analogue VGA (needs some sort of add-on for DVI). With 2D and 3D graphics support, the GPU can handle up to 2048×1536 at 85Hz (2D) and 1600×1200 at 85Hz (3D), 32 bit colour in both cases. DDC2 is supported (sort of like analogue EDID).
  • Networking: Integrated Broadcom BCM5751 NetXtreme Gigabit Ethernet. No WiFi. It seems odd to me that it has Gigabit but no WiFi, but there you go. I have a USB WiFi dongle, but can I find it? Pah.
  • PCI slots: There are two low-profile PCI slots. An optional adaptor board (expensive!) can switch things around to provide two full-size PCI slots.
    A low profile PCIe x16 slot and a low profile PCIe slot are also available.
  • Drives: A 37GiB (40GB) Samsung SP0411C SATA harddisc (seems to manage around 45MiB/sec; techspec claims 150MiB/s). Optical is a crappy 48X IDE CD-ROM drive. When I get around to it, I will swap in the DVD writer from the older PC. There is also a 3.5" floppy disc drive. Yup, an actual real floppy drive.
  • Audio: Via an AD1981B AC97 digital audio controller on the motherboard, there are connections for headphones and microphone at the front and line in, line out, and mic on the back. There is also a rather nice little (but surprisingly load) speaker in the middle of the front (between the fan grille and the CD-ROM). You can see this in the pictures on the page linked above. I didn't realise it was there until I installed the driver and it blasted out a rather nice startup sound. The driver thinks there should be SP/DIF but this isn't an option anywhere I can see. The audio capabilities are 16 bit stereo at up to 48kHz.
  • USB: USB2.0 throughout. Hardly any USB ports at all, only two on the front panel and six around back. ☺
  • Legacy: Well, what can I say? This thing has an SMSC 47B397 LPCIO chip to provide legacy I/O. So there's a serial port (actually two, but the second is a header on the motherboard - can run up to 460Kbps), a parallel port (EPP/ECP), a PS/2 keyboard, and a PS/2 mouse. Wow.
  • PSU: 240W autoranging.

Having obtained the "Dark Edition" of Windows XP (I don't think my XP installation discs support SATA, and besides I don't want something so old I need to download gigabytes of updates - been there, did that with the EeePC; and since XP is end-of-life, it isn't as if I can buy one), it was a pretty simple matter to install it. Just boot from CD-R, tell it to format the internal harddisc, and - no going back now - hope like hell it works.
It did. Mostly.
For some reason, DarkEd seems to default to Thai language. This is easily fixed, however.

  • Go to Control Panel (classic view) and choose "Regional and Language Options". In both of the option boxes in the window that greet you, select "English (United Kingdom)", or whatever is correct for your territory.
  • Click on the "Languages" tab and click the "Details" button.
  • Set the default input language to "English (United Kingdom)", and set the default keyboard to "English (United Kingdom)" (or whatever is applicable to you). If you are using English UK, click on "Add" and choose the "United Kingdom Extended" layout. OK it, then highlight the UK Extended keyboard and OK the Text Services and Input Languages window.
  • Click the "Details" button again, and you should be able to select the US and Thai keyboards and remove them. That done, OK it.
  • Click on the "Advanced" tab and select "English (United Kingdom)" (or whatever) as the default language for non-Unicode applications.
  • OK this. It might ask for the CD-R to be inserted.
  • Again, Control Panel then Regional and Language Options. Choose the Languages tab. If you can't read Thai (and don't need Indian, Arabic, or Hebrew), you might as well untick the option for complex script and right-to-left languages. If you have no interest in cute Japanese things, you can also choose to not have East-Asian language support (but some stuff on my site will not display correctly, like this: こんにちは). OK it.
  • Right, you're done. Windows will no longer speak strange squiggles.

If you wish to have a Japanese IME (means you can type in kana, or in roman characters like: kokoro -> こころ -> ), you can add this easily. In the Languages tab, Details button, simply add "Japanese" as a language and use the default "Microsoft IME Standard 2008 ver. 8.1" keyboard. When you add this, it will also automatically add "Microsoft Natural Input 2002 ver. 8.1".


A lot of the machine's functionality was missing. Video support was basic. Sound was non-existant. There was no networking. Thankfully, drivers for the chipset, the graphics, the sound, and ethernet were all available on HP's site. I downloaded them to a USB key and installed them. I also have a BIOS update, but I don't think it is necessary. It all went in without a problem.

Yesterday, attempting to play a DVD (Paprika) using the USB drive didn't work very well. Today, with the proper drivers (and latest SMPlayer to boot), it works fine. As an idea of speed, my current DVD ripping machine (so I can watch XviD on the iPad - I don't use my real TV any more) reads from an IDE DVD device and encodes at approximately 6-8 fps. I'm doing a test on this machine with similar settings, reading from a USB drive. 17fps. Nice. But surely IDE will be even nicer, no?


The hard part follows. All those little tweaks that I have come to depend upon, such as Explorer opening on "My Computer" instead of My Documents. "Open Command Window Here". Most used programs on Start menu instead of all the rubbish that is there right now. Small icons for shortcuts. There's a load of little things that will need to be tweaked, and it's been since forever since I did such a thing.

I think before I get much further, I'll need to look at expansion options. It looks like I can get a 1TB Barracuda drive for about fifty five euros from Amazon (product link). It is inexpensive and seems well liked. Perhaps I ought to get one of those before installing too much stuff on this machine? 37GiB isn't a lot these days...
I'd also like to replace the floppy drive with a reduced height one that has an integrated card reader. I can't seem to find such a thing in Amazon.fr, Amazon.co.uk, Grosbill.com, or Maplin.co.uk. Basically, it is a standard floppy drive (with ribbon connection) with a USB-connected card reader underneath. Must be capable of SDHC. Something like this. Any ideas? Don't suggest eBay - the one I found costs €22 plus about €10 for postage, and another amount (variable?) for import tax. That's more than twice what it would cost to buy from Amazon.com and ship it over. Somebody is taking the piddly listing it at that price!
DVD writer. This is easy. It's an ATAPI/IDE unit. Can pull it out of the older machine.
I'm wondering if I might enjoy a PCI digital satellite receiver? My system isn't quite up to HD reception (it says 3GHz CPU and a PCIe graphics card with silly amounts of RAM; I might squeak by with a 2.8GHz CPU, but is the GPU up to it?) but everything else is well within spec. Additionally, it comes with a half-height PCI end, so it looks like it'll do just fine and I can set up and watch TV directly on the PC, plus record stuff too. That would be nice. And at around €35, it isn't horribly expensive, either.


So, then. That's what I did this evening. Not much, huh?


One final thing that's nice. The PC supports Hibernate. So I press the power button and it dumps a copy of its state to disc and then switches off. When I come to use the machine again, it will reload that state and pick up where I left off. So much nicer than shutdown/reboot. I used to use it on Aiko (466MHz PC box) all the time, but have not on Azumi (EeePC) for there isn't space on the SSD for stuff like that, and with a battery onboard, it is just as easy to just close the lid and let it put itself into low power standby. Hibernate? I like!



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The IT Guy, 16th November 2014, 11:37
Just to warn you, many older motherboards and/or BIOSes will flake if you install more than 2GB RAM. Like, anything more than about 4-5 years old. The 915 graphics chip would suggest that it's older than this. 
Your best options for this machine are: 
1. Upgrade the RAM to 2GB, with a single 2GB DIMM (marginally slower than using a pair of 1GBs but no risk of timing errors). 
2. Buy a cheap PCI-E (or AGP if appropriate) graphics card that has a. a DVI output, and b. WDDM drivers. 
3. Install Windows 7 Ultimate Edition 32-bit. Don't worry about 64-bit. You only need 64-bit if you've got 4GB or more of RAM. 
And yes, you'll probably want to upgrade the hard disk. 1TB isn't that expensive these days. 
By the sound of those specs you'll then have quite a decent machine.
joe, 19th November 2014, 07:49
I have got nothing against Microsoft but installing XFCE4 would be the best option, I have got it on one of my old laptops and is running very fast, windows 7 needs 4GB of RAM at least. 
I have installed Ubuntu server and XFCE4 is the X-windows interface, you could also try Puppy-slacko, very minimal installation, doesn't need much disk space and gives you all the joy of fast working PC.
Rick, 20th November 2014, 22:18
IT Guy: There are four DIMM slots, each capable of accepting up to 1GiB per slot. The board can do up to 4GiB. I'd like at least 2GiB, but the DIMMs are pricey (need to be special non-ECC blah de blah for Intel, not the generic cheapo mass produced stuff). 
No point getting a DVI (etc) output, I have analogue display hardware. The Pi and its HDMI goes via a VGA adaptor. ;-) 
I'll stick with XP for now. Don't really need anything heavier weight. 
The current harddisc is about a quarter full and I've barely installed anything, so, yes, a TB would be nice. 
Joe: As I'm looking to transition from my EeePC (which must be years over its intended service life by now!), I would prefer to stick with something that I know. It might suck that its Windows, but I'm getting to the stage where I code "for fun" on RISC OS but the other computers are "tools". I see the PC, now, as being a full size version of the iPad, only with different quirks. ;-) 
I might play with one or more distros. It looks as if the PC can be coaxed into booting from a USB device which will make installing stuff easier than all the rubbish with burning CDs. 
Thanks for your comments.
Rick, 20th November 2014, 22:24
IT Guy: Technical reference guide this this box (2.4MiB, 212 pages): http://h10032.www1.hp.com/ctg/Manual/c00283274.pdf
The IT Guy, 23rd November 2014, 15:11
There's a reason I say don't try and upgrade a system of this age above 2GB. Even as recently as 2008 some chipsets and BIOSes had trouble with >2GB RAM. 
I had an older Acer Aspire laptop (2007 vintage) which came with 512MB (upgraded to 1GB). The hard disk had failed and I didn't see the point of installing XP as it was no longer supported. I picked up a matched pair of 2GB DIMMs from eBay (Kingston-branded) and installed them. The laptop wouldn't even POST. 
With one of the 2GB DIMMs in it worked perfectly. With a 2GB and one of the original 512MB DIMMs it booted but showed 2048MB in the BIOS. So I pulled out one of the DIMMs, left it at 2GB RAM and installed the 32-bit version of Windows 7 instead. I have to say, Win7 32-bit runs just fine on that system (it has an Intel 945 graphics chip so will support Aero Glass). 
Unfortunately with motherboards even from a couple of generations back there's no guarantee that it'll work with 4GB of RAM. For example, of some of the Socket AM2 motherboards I've tried fitting with 4GB, an ASRock showed 3072MB (and kept crashing), an MSI showed 2050MB, an ABit showed 4096MB but kept blue-screening in Windows until I pulled half the RAM out, and a Gigabyte worked perfectly. 
I suspect that some of the motherboard chipsets use a 32-bit signed register in the MMU, so there's physically no way to address >2GB. And others have a 32-bit unsigned, but there's references to a 32-bit signed int in the BIOS. 
I suspect the second case could be fixed with a BIOS update, but my solution was just to install 32-bit Windows 7 on all the motherboards that were only stable up to 2GB. What did I do with all the spare DIMMs? I stuck them in the Gigabyte motherboard (which had 4 slots and worked with any amount of RAM). This now has 8GB RAM, an AMD X2 dual-core and a 2TB hard disk. All built from "scrap" components. Makes a pretty decent second PC. Although it's nowhere near as quick as my main system (AMD A8 quad-core, 8GB RAM, 2TB disk). 
Hope that info is of some use to you anyway.
Andrew, 11th December 2014, 00:45
For USB booting, check the BIOS is not set to skip POST (might be called "fast boot" or the like). For some reason with some BIOSes, skipping POST also skips checking USB ports for bootable drives so the "boot device priority" settings (1 USB 2 CDROM, 3 HDD) are ignored.
Andrew, 11th December 2014, 00:47
Also, pretty easy to dual-boot XP and (say) Debian with XFCE desktop so XP is there for specific tasks - PC as a tool - and XFCE for tinkering to see if it could perform those tasks in a way you'd like better. That said, too much choice can be a problem!

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