May 2020. The Earth is hungry and desires nourishment. Medical supplies, gasoline, and ammunition are so thin on the ground, many find themselves forced to wipe with cheese balls. People walk the streets of Manhattan in Hazmat suits and Tyvek underpants to prevent flesh-eating bacteria from rendering them sterile. Great civil unrest unfolds as crowds demand Mikhail Gorbachev stop giving government kickbacks to his buddies at Pizza Hut. It is a bleak time in the nation's history.
And also, I got an old Windows XP computer to play with. The one I'm typing this on right now, in fact! I have my friend Nicole to thank for it. This machine has quite the history attached to it—don't mistake its plasticky exterior, obsolete branding, and low specs for being boring. And if you still think it's boring, that's okay! Likely, you are too. Boring people make the world go 'round, and so do boring computers. Doesn't mean I don't love it though.
(Click on the screenshots for
full-sized ones. Some are fairly big. They use PNG, so make sure your
browser supports that if you click.)
The eMachines Box is an eMachines W3507 tower from roughly 2004 or so. Have some specs:
As I alluded to, this machine came from Somnolescent's screecher-in-chief borb, who's a real-life friend of mine. Seriously, went to school together and everything. How this machine came into my life is its own story, and this page is gonna be a long one, so I hope you like reading...
Initially, the eMachines Box was borb's family's computer. She used
it for a bit later on and I think her sisters used it for a bit earlier
on (poor thing). At least on borb's end (and where this became my thing
to fix), a whole ton of her very early (talking 10-years-old, maybe?)
art was drawn on this computer. Despite all the wear, grime, and abuse
(especially on the software end of things), it kept on working until
the USB ports stopped working (for a very dumb reason I'll get to in a
moment), and naturally, every keyboard and mouse you find these days
being USB, it stopped being usable. The computer got replaced,
naturally, but deep in the bowels of that household, the eMachines Box
borb's made mention of this machine a whole bunch of times over the years. Like I said, her early art was drawn on this thing, and thanks to the USB issues, no one could quite get into the machine to retrieve any of it. Given that the computer did turn on and made it to the login screen, I knew it was salvageable—I just had to get at it myself. An agreement was struck; provided I could retrieve the borb art, I got to keep the computer. Since we never kept any of our old computers (gotta love very selective hoarders!), and since many of my first computing experiences were on a machine not too far off from this (I had a custom-built Celeron machine with very weak integrated graphics before I got my first Mac), I was eager to have some old hardware of my own to play with.
borb and her dad showed up a few days later with the computer, a CRT (a Compaq 7600, which fun fact, is in the same range as the prop monitor used on the Lightning Fast VCR Repair set on Half in the Bag), a flash drive for if we got the USB ports working again, and a very nasty PS/2 keyboard. (I'd known the problem was the nonfunctioning USB ports, as that keyboard was able to get the computer into the Windows boot menu—and I provided my own PS/2 mouse to complete the job.) In fact, the entire set was rather grimy, but it was workable. We got set up on the floor of my room and called Caby while we worked.
The first thing that struck me about the computer was how agonizingly slow it was. Like most tech-illiterate families of the 2000s, they'd loaded this machine up with AVG, Windows Defender, Norton, and maybe one other, and the hard drive was getting hammered constantly. An assload of games from various now-defunct game download sites like FunHouse and Nick Arcade littered the Start Menu. Amusingly, borb (who gives the least fucks about Neopets out of the whole group) had, at some point, even installed Neopets: Codestone Quest, a Zuma knockoff that I had never heard of until we went digging. (Naturally, that stayed on there, even after it got wiped.)
If you're curious, I do
have this low-res little screenshot of what the computer's desktop
looked like on a call prior to fixing it:
As far as fixing it went, the USB thing was actually far simpler than I was expecting. I
thought a USB controller in the computer itself was fried or broken,
but turns out, someone simply disabled the driver in Device Manager.
Surprise, it worked just fine after that, and indeed, her art was
stashed away in the My Pictures folder as it had always been. I loaded
them onto her flash drive, along with some old Movie Maker slideshows
like everyone our age made at that point, and we went outside to dick
around my house while it was warm out. After she left, I got to work
cleaning up my new computer.
The eMachines Box was very, very unloved, unfortunately. I can't necessarily blame borb, given her age when she was using this thing, but it sat in a filthy house—of course it too would be in an absolute state. Worse yet, having all those good antiviruses meant this thing would take minutes to do very simple tasks. These days, the eMachines Box runs zero antivirus, not even Windows Defender, and regularly goes online—and surprise, nothing's happened to it.
As far as cleaning up the physical machine itself, I ransacked the house for disinfectant wipes and q-tips and got at least the case scrubbed down. Believe me, the wipes were coming away brown afterwards. What was nice was that it not only looked infinitely better, but felt nicer to the touch too. While I haven't gotten inside the case, owing to my lack of ideal tools, the entire outside got a wipedown and I did what I could with the PS/2 keyboard that borb brought over with it.
Software was where things got a little more discombobulated.
Apparently, the computer originally came with XP Media Center Edition
2005, but apparently, it required a reinstall at some point, so it came
to me with Home Edition SP2. Given my early jitters with
it, I wasn't sure if I wanted it to stick with it, return
to RTM, or upgrade it to SP3. Ultimately, I went with SP3, but in my
tinkering, my curiosity got the better of me and I also installed the
SP4 afterwards. While it worked,, it also upgraded a lot of the
components (like Windows Media Player) to far newer than I really
wanted them, and I couldn't revert back as the SP4 uninstaller was
apparently never tested and didn't work.
So I wiped it and reinstalled from an SP3 disc I got off the Internet Archive. (Regrettably, a Professional disc, which is hardly accurate—if it ever needs another reinstall, it'll be Home Edition. I just wasn't paying attention when I was trying to get back into it.) While that meant getting rid of a lot of the games that were still installed on it, no big loss there, really. I kept the important stuff. What was more of a loss were the necessary drivers. While the eMachines Box does have a restore function, it wouldn't talk to a factory Windows install, and I didn't get the manual or any installation media with the computer. dcb pointed me towards a program called Snappy Driver Installer Origin that detected what exactly the machine needed and got everything reinstalled. That's how it exists today.
I like to think the eMachines Box is proof-positive that you can do
a whole lot with a little. The low RAM might be a bit of a bottleneck,
and sure, it's not doing XP gaming (...just yet), but that doesn't mean
I'm not super busy while I use it—even when I'm not busy at all!
This one's the obvious one and also the easiest. Given that it's just using my good keyboard and mouse through a USB switcher, it's incredibly comfortable to type on. For word processors, I've never particularly liked Word, and while I used to write stories in Mini vMac using Mac Word 5.1 (which is still a damn good word processor, even today), it was kind of a pain in the ass getting files out of it and in a format that'll play nice with, say, WordPad. And while I would just use WordPad itself, no spell check kinda limits its usefulness, given that I don't have a dedicated story proofreader.
As a result, I currently use Works 6.0. Frankly, Works is
underrated. A lot of people consider it this underpowered bloatware
office suite that even Microsoft didn't care about much, but Works'
word processor and spreadsheet program are all I need 95% of the time. It's
not desktop publishing—but then, it's not meant for that. It's not a
dedicated writer's program—but it's also not meant for that. It gets me
through stories with spell checking, decent formatting options, an
uncluttered UI, and speedy performance. It's exactly what I want when I
want to open up a word processor and transfer a draft off notebook
paper. Word, even Office XP or 98 or 2003, wouldn't suit me as nicely.
Not quite as much as on my main computer, but I do build pages for cammy.somnol on the eMachines Box. (As a point, this entire page was written on it!) I actually started the initial draft for the site on this machine using FrontPage Express—which I gave up on as its markup is just too ridiculously messy to even bother with. I switched to RetroZilla Composer (which is the same as the Composer component of the Mozilla Application Suite, which is the ancestor of the modern SeaMonkey) and never looked back. The markup it generates is tolerably clean, the UI is nice to use, and the publishing function (after you set it up right) is ace.
Aside from that, I have WinSCP for uploading files
(which is damn
good, not quite as set it and forget it as FileZilla but just as
capable) and Notepad++ (4.9, circa 2008 for period appropriateness) as
my text editor of choice.
Speaking of RetroZilla! You'd be right if you thought 512MB and Windows XP weren't the most ideal choice for browsing the web, but honestly? I manage really nicely. RetroZilla is decently snappy, and it doesn't completely shit itself if I accidentally hit a newer site (though if you embed YouTube videos on your site, it will freeze for a bit—and I probably hate you for it). wiby.me is my go-to search engine, as nearly any page you'll find through it will work absolutely fine. Even reading Wikipedia (for stories and whatnot), handles it as well as you can hope. No complaints at all. I even have way too many bookmarks, that's how much of a champ this thing is out on the open web. (And no antivirus to speak of, as said!)
On the off occasion I do need to visit a newer site that RetroZilla
doesn't handle properly, I keep around Firefox ESR 10, which was the
last version to officially support XP. One notable site I use it for is
the Yerf Historical Archive—RetroZilla
doesn't render gallery pages correctly. It's a bit heavier, but I can
still use it with decent snappiness.
As I was working on this page, I got myself a good pair of desktop speakers to hook up to the eMachines Box again (Creative Pebbles, if you're curious—cheap, but very clear and loud and nice looking for the price), so I'm able to partake in a formerly-favorite pastime once more: music! Yeah, if you're not completely reliant on Spotify for your music? An old beastie like this machine will do just fine at playing your music library. The last few editions of Windows Media Player (I'd say 9 and up) are all incredibly capable library hubs and media players, so much so that I use 12 on my main machine and 9 here. Aside from a minor display bug where it recognizes VBR files as having absurdly high bitrates, it plays everything I care to throw at it. It's also good for burning CDs (and yes, I do that fairly often).
Surprisingly too, this thing can play videos real nicely! I use a funky setup for my YouTube subscriptions involving youtube-dl and an RSS reader, and out of curiosity, I took the videos for today (the day I write this, I mean) and watched them on the eMachines Box, and it worked great. Silky smooth playback, no loading issues whatsoever. I'm thinking of investigating further and duplicating my setup on this machine, meaning I can watch YouTube in a futureproof manner, offline, using any media player I want, on a computer from 15 years ago. That's what power looks like.
You'd be surprised how much time I waste just talking to friends on MSN, even to this day. Of course we have our Discord server, of course that feels nice and modern and speedy—but when it comes time to get on something and focus? When it comes time to have those late-night, one-on-one discussions on people's music listening habits and CDs and Walkmans? You want MSN Messenger.
Of course, the official servers for Messenger shut down ages ago, but I have a patched client with Escargot going and it's utterly transparent, like nothing ever happened. I'm not gonna say it isn't without its quirks (group chats have an increasing likelihood of crapping out the longer one goes on, and sometimes it takes me a few tries to sign in), but when it works? It 100% completes the feeling of being back in the not-so-distant past and chatting with internet people around the country. It's even more fun if you have a version of WMP installed, as Messenger has a plugin to report what you're listening to as your status! Works on WMP9 and Messenger 7.5 on the eMachines Box, and WMP12 and Messenger 8.5 on my main machine. Works, works, works, absolutely ace.
(If you'd like—you can add me on Escargot at
firstname.lastname@example.org. If this kinda page interests you, you might
already have an account! If not, you should make one. On a modern PC
with one of the later versions of Messenger, a lot of the issues I face
with logging in are nonexistent. It's just a solid chat network.)
It's not gonna do much more than PopCap games at the moment, but I do have a ton of those on here and I still play them occasionally. I'd love to start building up a library of early to mid-2000s PC stuff (SimCity 3000 to Oblivion roughly, I'd say) and turn this machine into something that can run it all with aplomb, but for now, Rocket Mania and Dynomite! will have to do. (Not that those wouldn't be front and center on that kinda build anyway. PopCap were the kings of 2000s casual gaming, how could you not?)
Something especially nice about it running with a CRT (and it is a very nice display) is that games,
no matter the resolution, fill the display and look sharp. None of this scaling
nonsense, no blurring, no black bars, just crystal clear.
And really, that brings me to the elephant in the room. I haven't upgraded this computer any. This is a lower-end prebuilt machine from 2004 or so. It's not doing laps in the UT2004 pool, let alone anything heavier. That doesn't mean I don't want it to, though. I already went over this in a blog post from ages ago, but for posterity, here's my upgrade plans for this thing when money for hobbies permits:
Beyond the technical specifications, I'd also really like to give
this computer its own setup. Currently, it's a strange leech on the
side of my desk, using the same keyboard and mouse (again, with a cheap
USB switcher device which works fine enough), but its own monitor
sitting oddly sideways along my desk. One thing we always pass around
in the group are photos of dorks from 20, 25 years ago at their big
desks, their chunky monitors surrounded by CD racks, and that sorta
thing would just plain complete the effect.
But of course, why put this much effort into a computer this old?
Surely, it's not still that useful, it can't even go on
Reddit/Discord/Google Docs/your favorite shiny new site here! Everyone
tells me all these old computers are good for is playing old games and
Why are you even using it?
And that's where I diverge from the retrocomputing community. I like old computers because they still work. They're still useful. If you consider what someone in the 2000s was doing with their PC, it's not really that far off from what we do with them now! Games, chatting, maintaining a media library, perhaps a bit of file sharing, idle browsing, productivity, perhaps. We still do these things, and a well-kept older computer can still do it too.
Thing is, people have made great concessions to the internet out of convenience, and now, basic tasks like "listening to music offline" or "writing in a word processor" are done in slow, mediocre web apps that'll probably leak your data at some point. Nowadays, it's the norm to just arbitrarily replace your perfectly working phone every 2-3 years. E-waste? Keeping perfectly good technology in working order? Yeah, but this one has a better camera! And it's shiny and new and has a fingerprint reader! And the rapid pace of technology makes people look at 2004 like the Copper Age for no good goddamn reason.
To be clear, if you bought a new computer or upgraded your parts because it didn't do what you needed it to, that's perfectly fine, but if we all did that, I think there'd be fewer newer computers sold every year. I'm convinced consumer tech is mostly a feedback loop of marketing and increasingly unnecessary excess computing power, where people who are a little lost by all this shiny shit around them get taken advantage of. Rather than teaching people how to repair their own computers (as you saw, the eMachines Box needed a ridiculously simple fix that I did in 10 minutes), they just convince them to buy another.
Problem is, my computers are where all my stuff is. They're set up
exactly how I like them. I don't want to migrate my stuff. I
want to use them into the ground, because that's what they deserve.
While the retrocomputing community is in a brilliant place to fight
against the problem of e-waste, most of the big names in it aren't too
keen on doing so, and it's part of the reason why these computers get
reputations as just being boxes to play DOS games on. At the especially
bourgeois extreme of the spectrum, some people see old computers,
particularly the trendier machines like classic Macs, as fashion
accessories and buy them to show off. "Time to take photos of all them
and put them on my cool rainbow web 1.0 site!" And you wonder if they
even get turned on when the cameras are off...
There's a thought of "preservation", but what they preserve isn't thought about. Are we just making sure someone can boot up an old Gateway and see it running Windows 95? Are we preserving the software? Uploading the discs is one thing, but what good is having it if people consider it pointless to use? If you look at literary preservation, people preserve those books so people can read them. If you look at film preservation, we find the lowest-gen reels for movies in known existence, clean them up, and reissue them so people can continue to enjoy Buster Keaton or Lillian Gish films. Why are we preserving software? To show it off in a YouTube video? So we have it for the future when someone's bored?
The group I really respect the most are the digital minimalists, the folks that use only what suits them and limit their exposure to the unstable world of the internet, where your favorite sites get shut down and everyone around you is constantly miserable. To that end, this computer is a fucking fantastic focusing tool. It's not an exciting, high-end retro computer with a sleek, monstrous case and a Model M keyboard that plays games from the time maxed out. It's just a window back to a point in time where people weren't constantly competing with each other for internet points. It does what I need it to, when I'm in the mood for it. Is that all the time? Not necessarily. Modernity isn't necessarily a scourge. It just often is.
When I do get around to upgrading it, I'm sure you can expect another page of rambles and trying stuff out. For now, we vibe.
This page last updated May 30, 2021.
Not that I don't occasionally play 3D Pinball on it, I mean. A copy of Full Tilt! proper would be a lovely addition to its eventual game library.