How Much Fragile Hardware Can Be Jammed Into a Mailbox?

“The limit does not exist.”

Every USPS Carrier

Still no Inspiron today, the eBay says it’ll be here soon… but I did receive a few of the other goodies I ordered with it. Check it out:

So okay, admittedly, it doesn’t look like a whole lot. A power adapter, a hard drive, and some memory. But I thought it’d be a good chance to talk about each of these things in a bit more detail than my last post.

First up: memory!

Probably because of the time in which I grew up, I most strongly identify with Windows 98 as my vintage PC gaming platform of choice. From June of 1998 until February of 2000, it was officially Microsoft’s flagship OS. One could argue (and I would be one to argue) that its reign really lasted until October of 2001 when Windows XP arrived on the scene. One could continue to argue that Windows 98 was still king of PC gaming because of the crappy DOS compatibility Windows XP had at launch, but I won’t push it.

What does this have to do with memory?

Windows 98 had a maximum capacity of 512MB* of RAM (so did some versions of Windows XP, but that’s not important right now… just a fun bit of trivia). So! We’ll be yanking that single 128MB stick out of that laptop once it arrives and replacing it with these two 256MB sticks. But the differences don’t stop at capacity.

I think most people are aware RAM comes in various sizes, but I’d wager most are not aware that it also comes in different speeds. The faster your memory’s speed, the faster data can be stored, retrieved, or removed from it. In the old days, the maximum memory speed supported by an Intel-based computer depended on its FSB (Front Side Bus) which is the connection between the CPU and RAM on the motherboard. The FSB on the Inspiron 8100’s 815EP chipset operates at 133MHz, thus the fastest RAM that system can handle is capped at 133MHz. The SODIMMs (Small Outline Dual Inline Memory Modules – memory sticks) that come stock in the Inspiron 8100 operate at 100MHz (cheaper!), the replacements we’re going to install operate at 133MHz (faster!). It may not sound like much, but all told we’re looking at four times the capacity being accessed 33% faster than stock. Since I’m trying to coax the most speed possible out of this mobile gaming platform, every little bit helps.

You know what else can go faster? Hard drives.

Much like memory, hard drives were primarily advertised by their capacity but had an important speed rating that actually made a critical and noticeable difference in everyday performance. Let’s tackle capacity first, though.

Depending on who you ask and what math you’re willing to do, you’ll get several different answers for the maximum storage capacity in Windows 98. You’ll find that it’s somewhere between 127 and 140GB, so I typically like to go with a 120GB drive to avoid any possible dramatic complications. If we’re only looking for capacity, that’s easy enough to find.

But we want speed, too.

A traditional hard drive is essentially a stack of metal disks (platters) spinning on a spindle with a magnetic read/write head that floats just above their surface. The most important gauge of a hard drive’s speed is RPM (Revolutions Per Minute), which is the number of times those platters spin around fully in a minute. The faster they spin, the faster that drive can read and write data. Because most computers in big box stores were sold by processor speed and hard drive capacity, hard drive speed took a serious back seat and generally went unmentioned. Which is probably great, since most hard drives sold in pre-builds were 5400RPM or slower.

If you want a fast consumer hard drive, and it is the year of our lord two thousand and one, you want to go after one with a 7200RPM spindle speed. Easy for a desktop, a little harder for a laptop. While you can find a 120GB 7200RPM laptop hard drive, it’s invariably going to be a SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) interface. SATA is far newer than what you’d find in a laptop from the Win9x era, so we instead need to focus on drives with a PATA (Parallel Advanced Technology Attachment) or IDE (Intelligent Drive Electronics) interface. PATA and IDE were used pretty much interchangeably, as seen in the picture below, but PATA technically obsoleted IDE and is the correct terminology if you’re a pedant. That said, 99% of IT folk on the planet are going to call anything with 40 pins IDE.

Anyway, here’s a picture I did not take and do not own to show the difference between SATA (new!) and PATA (old and usually referred to as IDE!):

As you can see, there is no way a newer SATA drive is going to work in a laptop built to use PATA (or IDE) drives. So! We have to settle just a little bit. We can still get that 7200RPM speed boost, but 100GB is about the limit for capacity. Considering we’re coming from a 40GB 4200RPM drive that’s about a thousand years old? I’ll take it.

The last upgrade isn’t really even an upgrade. It’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, but a laptop is completely and utterly useless without it. You gotta have power, baby:

There are only two interesting things about this power adapter. One, it’s brand new OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), meaning it’s a genuine Dell PA-9 power adapter made for this laptop by Dell. That’s kinda neat considering it’s almost twenty years old and is still brand new in the bag. The other cool thing is the proprietary connector it uses. Look at this thing:

Right? What the hell is that? Why the hell is that? I don’t have answers for you, but if I have to be stuck pondering it, so do you. The seller of my new laptop could not locate their original power adapter and had only a cheap Chinese knock-off (as opposed to this more expensive Chinese original). You want to avoid the cheaper, usually brandless, power adapters commonly found on eBay and Amazon. And this goes for more than just vintage laptops, but really for any electronic you don’t want to damage or destroy. Pay the extra, buy OEM, even if it has a weird-ass proprietary connector on the end of it.

We still have a few more parts to go… CPU, GPU, battery, optical drives, floppy drive… and, of course, the laptop itself. I’ll try to give all these components the same treatment as the above as they arrive. Once the Inspiron arrives, I’ll tear it down, clean it up, and drag you along for every step of the way. Be sure to smash that like and sub- oh, right.

We don’t do that here.

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