My First PC – Getting Windows 3.11 Online

My Favourite PC, Ever

I’ve used computers my entire life.  I got my first one at the age of 7 and started to write code.  For years I wanted a PC and by the age of 10 my parents relented and I had my first modern computer – an IBM PS/1 with a 486 SX25 CPU, 4MB RAM and a 170MB hard disk.  It had no sound card, no optical drive and definitely no network card or modem.  Over the years I added all of those to it and it served me from in Windows 3.0, 3.1, 3.11, 3.51 and 95 before it got relegated to second computer duties.

 

That machine was where I cut my teeth on PC development, it’s the first machine I built a Linux kernel on (that took a long time even with just 4MB of sources for the 2.0.34 kernel if you’re wondering) and it ran as my home network’s trusty DNS server until after a fateful power cut in 2002 it never turned back on again.  It was designed beautifully – a slimline desktop with screwless access to the inside, a riser card to save on space and every centimetre used inside it.  I didn’t see cases that well designed for many more years.  Yet despite all that I didn’t even plug a monitor into it when it wouldn’t turn back on, I just threw it out as it was almost a decade old and why would I care?

 

I really regretted that decision in later life.  I’ve built up a collection of my early computers but that illustrious IBM PS/1 was unlikely to ever be tracked down.  It wasn’t a particular common model and didn’t sell in huge volume compared to some more popular models.  Every now and then I’d trawl eBay until one day in early 2015 I found that very same specced machine in Canada.  Not just that but it had never been used – having been sat in a box in a warehouse for most of its life.

 

What ensued over the next few weeks was the best eBay seller I’ve ever encountered carefully preparing the machine for me, portioning the disks and installing both Windows 95 and Windows 3.11, upgrading the hardware whilst keeping original parts and shipping it over to the UK.  I think by the time I’d bough it, shipped it and paid import taxes this thing cost me over £500.  I was so excited but then everything hit the fan last year and I had to put my life on hold.

 

It was a year later when I decided to unbox it as a celebration of the last year having passed without further major incident and life finally becoming stabilised.  As I was doing it my wife commented how happy I looked and suggested I should video it and that’s where Guy, Robot came from.  I felt this computer needed special treatment so waited a little longer to get my office setup before picking it up again.

 

Windows 3.11 Goes Online… Really and How?

After a quick poke around in Windows 3.11 and Windows 95 I got a sudden urge to do something I’d never done before – get Windows 3.11 online. I had a network running with this PC by 1995, but TCP/IP was not the preserve of the home network at that time.  It was NetBEUI all the way or proprietary internet access through the likes of AOL and Compuserve.  The final reason I started using 1995, which felt much slower than Windows 3.11 at the time was primarily for better network support when I started using the internet.

 

At the time of Windows 3.11’s release TCP/IP was not included.  Microsoft actually worked on the TCP/IP stack in early 2014 and it was available as a separate release.  How you would get it at the time I have no idea but thankfully today you get download it from https://support.microsoft.com/en-gb/kb/99891.  The readme file seems to suggest it came on the Windows NT 3.51 CD.  Run the executable – it is a self-extracting ZIP file so make sure it’s in a folder you want the output in – and remember the path for later.

 

The first step to getting networking online in Windows 3.11 is to run Windows Setup, select Options -> Change Network Settings and wait quite a long time.  Once the “Networks” screen has appeared select “Install Microsoft Windows Network” and hit OK and select the network adapter when prompted.

 

I’d completely forgotten at this point that Plug and Play didn’t used to be a thing.  For those of you who also don’t remember we used to live in a world before Windows 95 where we’d have to take out the network card (or sound card, or graphics card – anything really) and set a series of jumpers to define where the operating system could find it.  The board I had was dual Plug and Play and traditional but thankfully the network card had all the jumper settings written on the circuit board (I likely would have never found a manual for it otherwise).  I setup the IRQ and IO settings to a free set of values (which I determined by booting to Windows 95 to see what was in use from the Plug and Play world) and then used these for the values when prompted when selecting my NE2000 Compatible network card in Windows 3.11.  It’s probably worth stating here that it’s now more than 20 years since I first setup networking in Windows and to this date I’ve only ever used an NE2000 card with Windows 3.11.

 

You will next be prompted with a computer name, workgroup and username – at this point there’s not much difference to later versions of Windows for their purpose (other than a limit on characters).

 

You now have networking but without TCP/IP to add that go back in to Options -> Change Network Settings and this time at the bottom where it says “Network Drivers” click “Drivers…” and on the following screen select “Unlisted Protocol”, click “OK” and select the path you extracted the TCP/IP stack to earlier then select “Microsoft TCP/IP-32 3.11b” and hit OK.  After much more copying you’ll be back at the network drivers screen where you can select the TCP/IP option and press “Setup…” from here you can enter your IP and router settings although it’s worth noting that DNS is hidden away in another screen accessed via the “DNS” button on the right hand side since WINS was considered preferable back in 1994.

 

You can now hit OK on everything, reboot when prompted (no getting around this one) open up a command prompt and you should be able to ping.  My machine didn’t reboot and after spending ages trying to diagnose IRQ/IO conflicts I realised the network cable was unplugged and with TCP/IP enabled that was enough to prevent the machine booting.  I didn’t say this would be stable.

 

Thankfully the TCP/IP stack comes with a few applications – ping is one of them – including FTP.  This allowed me to quickly grab the Netscape Navigator 3 Gold installer from my desktop.  I say quickly but what I mean is 1.5Mbps despite the 10Mbps card.  In reality this is still a lot quicker than the floppy disk could have managed.

 

Open up Netscape, type in Google.com and how did it work?  Terribly!  After much tweaking it was possible to disable Javascript and increase network buffers for speed but unsurprisingly the internet of 2016 is just not designed to play well with 16-bit browsers of 1994.  It took minutes just to crash loading the Google home page initially and when I did get it working I remembered how slow anything was back then even if you take away the internet connection as being the bottleneck.

 

This is why I stopped using Windows 3.11 in the first place – a 16-bit graphical overlay on top of DOS was never designed to do any of this and it shows.  I’m glad I could get it online but I won’t be using this as my daily PC!

 

For a fair comparison I also did some testing on Windows 95 out of the box using Internet Explorer 5 which proved better at loading pages out of the box and more response overall – but was much, much slower to load applications or boot in the first place.  I cannot believe how much time I have wasted waiting for applications to start in my younger life.

 

Conclusion

I had a lot of fun but the outcome was pretty much what I expected – a really slow machine that wasn’t much use.  I was trying to use the operating to do something it was never designed to do.  To be fair to this machine I should try and run Doom on it in DOS and maybe play it over a LAN – that was what it was good at back then.

 

I will be definitely using this machine again – even if it’s the slowest thing in the world it still fills me with joy and I am over the moon to have this immaculate example to add to my collection.  I plan on doing a video series in a few months where I get a full Windows NT network up and running including some 1990s beasty servers.  I’m going to use Windows NT 3.51 on this machine as my recollection is that it was phenomenally stable and usable compared to either 9x or 3.11.  To be honest, my memory of how useable this thing was even without the internet has been tainted (and this has a faster hard disk) – so let’s see in a few months how good NT 3.51 was on it.

 

One very happy Guy.  One very slow web browsing experience.

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