Recently I’ve been having a lot of 90s nostalgia, especially related to technology. I fully blame YouTube channels like LGR, 8-Bit Guy, Phil’s Computer Lab, Adrian Black, and a dozen others I’ve spent countless hours watching. Plus it’s part of getting older; you romanticise the past.
I started thinking about what hardware from the past I felt the most affinity towards. It took me no time at all: I wanted a Dell Dimension XPS from the 90s. This is my history with Dell.
Way back in the 90s…
For as long as I can remember, every few years my father would bring home his old PC from work to be our new family PC. In the 90s, tech changed so quickly so each one was a big upgrade. The one that blew me away was the Dell Dimension XPS D266. This thing had a Pentium II 266, 128 MB of RAM, a 9 GB SCSI hard drive, 100 Mbit ethernet, 32x CD-ROM, 3D accelerator, Windows NT 4.0. For 1998, this thing was a powerhouse. This is a photo of the actual box, because of course I took photos of it in 2000 with my mum’s digital camera.
A few years later I wanted a PC of my own, so I got a job. As I was saving up for it, my friend dropped some news: he ordered a Dell Dimension XPS T450. Pentium III, DVD drive, CD burner. Needless to say I was green with envy. I was also so excited for him that I checked the order status every day. Back then it took Dell days or even weeks to build and ship your system. I checked the order status so many times that to this day I still remember the 7-digit order number.
I kept saving and decided I’d get that too! But as it went in the 90s and early 2000s, in only a few months things changed in big ways. By the time I saved up, Coppermine Pentium IIIs were out, a whole bunch of new graphics card with “GPUs”, and some really nice options if you built it yourself. So that’s what I did. I loved that PC. Pentium III 733EB, 256 MB PC-133 SDRAM, and an ELSA Erazor X2 graphics card…which was a GeForce 256 DDR. You can imagine how much I wish I hadn’t chucked that out.
As much as I loved the PC I built, I still really loved the look, feel, and even the sound of the XPS T series. I had one at work, so I could enjoy it there. After the XPS T series, the Dimension series became so offensively ugly that I couldn’t imagine buying one. The Precision Workstations were ok, but hugely expensive. So I kept building my own. I always liked building systems and tinkering anyway.
A Pentium 4 with Windows XP was the last PC I owned. After that, I switched to Mac. When the Intel MacBook came out I got one immediately and that was that.
Fast-foward to today
I’ve been a MacBook-only person now for going on 10 years. They’re fine. But not exciting. There’s something boring about a system that just works and you can’t replace any of the parts.
So I needed some nostalgic excitement in my life. I hunted around on eBay for an XPS DXXX…but they’re hard to find, in rough shape, expensive. And I don’t know what I’d do on a Pentium II anyway; they’re too new for DOS gaming and too slow for 98/NT/2K gaming. So I decided to take the road not taken back nearly 20 years ago: Get an XPS T. This would have been pretty straight forward except for one wrinkle: I live in Germany now and as far as I can tell, these were barely sold in Europe. Looking at the Wayback Machine for dell.de, they did sell them, (and the prices are in Deutsche Mark; how’s that for nostalgia), but I found none on ebay.de for months. So I turned to eBay US. Usually a few dozen on offer, but some were in rough shape, were heavily upgraded, had outrageously high shipping rates to Europe, or other things that put me off. I finally found one in Canada that looked good and I pulled the trigger.
Almost like simulating the Dell build and ship schedule of the 90s, it took over a month to get here. In the meantime, I went a bit nuts on eBay buying bits and pieces for it for upgrades. I had the seller take out the hard drive to save on weight, and I didn’t want it anyway since I’d be installing a SCSI drive. I bought an Adaptec AHA-2940UW PCI SCSI controller and a Fujitsu 73GB 10K RPM hard drive. Beautiful combo. The controller is the same one we had in the XPS D266. I also picked up an IDE Zip Drive 250MB, Sound Blaster Live! 5.1 sound card, and an nVidia GeForce 4 Ti 4200 128MB AGP graphics card. I assumed the system would come with a nearly useless card so I went with something decent looking, and DVI. I also bought an Eizo S1721 17" LCD, VGA and DVI at 1280x1024, which is a period-appropriate resolution. A CRT may have been fun but I draw the nostalgia line at CRTs. They’re way too heavy, power hungry, and difficult/expensive to dispose of.
After over a month, it finally arrived! Kind of. I got a notification that I had to go to the customs office and wade through the muck of German bureaucracy and taxes.
I was totally deflated when I saw the packing job. The seller just stuck it in a carboard box that was barely big enough for it. Zero padding. And he put an ancient dirty AT keyboard in there. The result was loads of scuff marks and several broken pieces of plastic. I spent hours cleaning the thing inside and out, supergluing the bits back together, and now it looks acceptable.
In Part 2 I’ll be covering the setup and current state of this glorious machine!