Classic gaming laptops

For the past couple months I’ve been on the search for a great laptop to play some classic games. Partly because it seems like a fun project to tinker around with, and partly because I know my wife will kill me if I try to set up any more computer/gaming equipment around the house. :disappointed:

My initial thought was to make it a 486 or early Pentium machine and run DOS. Ideally it would have a 640x480 TFT display in order to minimize any scaling issues. It would also have a built-in sound chip because I wanted to avoid the expense of getting a parallel port Ad-lib adapter. Specs for laptops from the early 1990s are not that easy to find, but I narrowed it down to the following make/models:

Compaq LTE 5000. Seems to be the ideal laptop for what I’m looking to do.
Texas Instruments 4000M
Toshiba Satellite 400CDT or 405CS
IBM Thinkpad 750C or 755C

After weeks of searching eBay, Craigslist, Bookoo, Letgo, OfferUp, and various local thrift stores, I sorely underestimated how hard it would be find a source for any of these, or anything even remotely close. I think we may be reaching a point where this hardware is going to be gone for good. :cry: There have been a couple eBay auctions that I’ve considered rolling the dice on, but at $100 + shipping, that’s not exactly what I had in mind. I’m still going to keep looking (because I’ll be honest, the search for these items is half the fun), but I’m not holding my breath.

My recent luck with finding some mint boxed PC games from the late 90s got me thinking that maybe I should try to track down a great Win98 laptop. I’m assuming availability will be a lot better, but I haven’t done much research yet into the best options there.

Anyone have tips when it comes to vintage laptops? Or any success stories with finding/building/repairing great laptop hardware?

Crazy, I never thought laptops from the 90s could make for a good retro gaming device. I don’t see why not though. I think my sister had one that ran windows 98. I wonder if my folks still have it…

If they do, I’ll send it off to you. (No guarantees it’s still there though).

Thanks! I was actually inspired by this 8-bit guy video from a couple years ago:

I think things have changed quite a bit over the last couple years, though, it’s not as cheap/easy now as the video mentions.

I have a tip: don’t get an old laptop.

I don’t mean to threadshit and I really hope that after reading this if you’re still deadset on getting a laptop that you do find one you like.

However, there are a lot of issues big and small you’ll run into with a laptop.

Let’s start with display.

  1. Old laptop screens aren’t very good. You seem to want to run on the built in display but most laptops from that era, even the really good ones, ran really awful TN panels by today’s standards.
  2. Scaling – you say that 640x480 avoids scaling issues but DOS games often ran at 320x200 linedoubled to 640x400 which sounds like a good fit for your screen until you get to the part where this image was intended to be displayed at 4:3 with a skinny pixel-aspect-ratio. So everything will look very squat and unnatural unless you stretch vertically, which will look awful going to a 480p LCD.
  3. Because of the above you’re probably going to end up outputting to a monitor anyway, which defeats 90% of the space setup savings you had and introduces problems of its own.

Look so maybe none of that bugs you. Then you get into sound.

  1. Sound in DOS games mostly fits into OPL sound (adlib, soundblaster), MT-32 midi, or General MIDI with some minor other options required for some games. On a laptop you’ll get OPL if you’re lucky and General MIDI emulation in windows running DOS games but not in raw DOS.
  2. If you don’t have OPL sound on your laptop, there are now options out there but they require using a TSR driver which often has a lot of issues mostly around memory use. Higher end DOS games use a lot of the conventional 1MB RAM and a TSR will use some of that too, but they can’t coexist.
  3. Odds are MT-32, Roland SoundCanvas, and other external MIDI will just be impossible, along with internal options like the Dreamblaster. These are some of the best options for sound in 90s DOS and it’s a real shame to not even have it available.

But maybe you get lucky and all that just works well enough for you? How are you going to deal with hardware from that era? In a desktop if you have something that needs floppies you can instead use a GOTEK floppy emulator to do a lot of really neat stuff from the basics like installing MS-DOS to using/installing games that just don’t want to run direct off a hard drive. You can’t really get a GOTEK going in a laptop, and making your own floppies from a modern system is a real pain. I’ve even set up my desktop to run off an externally accessible SD card instead of a hard drive which makes copying files a breeze; you could do something internal for a laptop but transfering files is going to be much harder with that.

Desktops really are a better option for DOS gaming. I have my DOS/Win98 machine set up to run off the same monitor/speakers as my normal PC, with a USB keyboard/mouse on a hub I can switch out very quickly (I am switching to a serial mouse, but if you’re careful get a mobo that supports PS/2 mouse + keyboard emulation for USB).

It doesn’t have to take a ton of space even for an ATX mid-tower near your current PC but even if space is very limited there are some really good options in the small desktop category. There’s stuff like the Dell Optiplex GX260 with a Pentium 4 which is not much bigger than an Xbox 360, and yeah you won’t be able to do everything in terms of expandability but you’ll get a more reliable system for very cheap that can do very well with DOS gaming.

Anyway like I said if you’re still not convinced find the best laptop you can but please consider other options because otherwise you could end up chasing something that just doesn’t do very well for DOS.

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Hey, no worries, your comments are good and not threadshitting. :slight_smile:

I probably wasn’t too explicit in my original post, but I was already on the fence regarding a DOS gaming laptop and all of the limitations you listed are 100% correct. Video display was a concern I shared, but for sound I was just going to live with SB-compatible OPL found in one of the models I listed. I should have probably also mentioned that I already have a kick-ass DOS desktop (Pentium 120 clocked to 75, SB16+Roland SCC-1, Diamond Stealth 3D 2000, NEC 19" CRT) so if anything the laptop was going to be a fun distraction, not a primary gaming machine.

The more I think about it, though, the more I’m leaning toward a PIII/P4/P-M laptop for Windows 98. They are way cheaper/easier to find right now, plus it would fill a gap I have between my DOS machine and my modern gaming rig. I have a good chunk of free-time this weekend and have started poking around options.

If I do stumble on a great DOS-era laptop, I’ll share the results - but you’re right, it’s never going to be as good as the desktop setup.

Looking for specific models might be an impossible search. Popular models like the Thinkpads may be highly desirable due to the brand history and expensive, and the few specific models that were subjects to an internet review may simply be impossible to find. Instead I would suggest to broaden your search to any laptop from that era, and look at their specs when you find one for sale. You may very well find a perfectly suitable machine that you didn’t know about, simply because there were myriads of brands and models and most of them haven’t been subject to modern retro scrutiny.

If you already have a CRT monitor, you could use a desktop case to fit under it. No additional footprint!

I know @BeerMonkey have been on a similar search. He may be able to share some tips?

omg this thread brought back memories of me drooling and almost caving into buying a Toshiba Libretto back in the day…

Looking back I still have no idea how they hold up being a gaming device though or whether they were reliable…

I’m going to try installing Windows 98SE on my Gateway Solo 9550.

P3 1.0 Ghz
512 MB
Geforce 2 Go 32MB

I have a Gateway Profile 1.5 and it’s a laptop/desktop hybrid with an AMD K6-2 400Mhz that is my primary Windows 98 machine right now. Sound works well in DOS games as well but good luck finding one these days.

Cool, I’ll be interested to hear how things go with that Geforce 2 Go. I’ve been looking at some laptop models with that GPU and read there may be challenges getting Win98 to play nicely with it.

I really want a desktop windows 98 machine to play dos and older windows-games as well. Any tips on where to look for what specs would be ideal?

What kind of budget are you looking to stick to? I think one of the easiest ways to start would be to find a major brand desktop (Dell, Compaq, etc.) that has officially released Win98 drivers and use that as a base. From there you can customize the video and sound as needed. You’d be looking at a PIII or P4 system and would just need to make sure it has the necessary AGP/PCI expansion slots.

Certainly possible to build one from the ground up, but that was a pain in the ass back in the day when parts were plentiful, I can only imagine the hassle now. But could be fun if that’s your sort of thing. :slight_smile:

There is no good answer I’m afraid. Dos and 9x cover a very big period, from 1981 to 2001. Even cutting out the pre-VGA, 8088 period, that still leaves you from 1987 to 2001, 14 years of computers. Some games will only play at specific CPU speed that can be very difficult to achieve with a processor from the late 90s, and of course later games have high demands in processing power. Later video cards may also not be fully respectful of the standards and not play well with some software, audio cards are a struggle whatever you’ll be planning.

What would be the most demanding game you would want to play on the computer? What would be the earliest? Depending on the answers, you may have to get more than one computer unfortunately.

Maybe make a new thread as well?

In laptop news, I decided to try my luck with the IBM Thinkpad T42 series: Pentium M processor, 64MB ATI Radeon 9600 video, 15" IPS panel, and Win98 drivers readily available. I wasn’t able to find a unit on eBay with the exact specs I wanted in a complete package, however, so I’m trying the next best thing: combining parts from a pair of laptops that have different issues. I got the laptops for $15/each, so if it doesn’t work out it’s no big loss. Should be a fun project regardless. More to come once they arrive in the mail…

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Quick update on this project. I’ve had some success with these T42 laptops. One of them booted just fine after I added a hard drive, the other looks to be dead but had some parts in better condition.

Off to a good start:

Cheapest/easiest fix ever, a new CMOS battery:

Houston, we have lift off:

Games are running nicely on it:

Looks great!

Nice, what game is this?

That’s Wizardry 8.

I love the nubs on the thinkpads. I always prefered that over trackpads.

Reminds me of the C-Stick on the N3DS.

Ohh this thread is making me unexpectedly nostalgic for Windows 98 now :heart: