Working XTIDE on a LAN

XTide…WTH?

What is XTIDE? I am a new user to XTIDE so I won’t go into the history or in depth about its capabilities, but basically it is a BIOS boot extension that allows your ancient PC to use larger hard drives or CF cards.  XT part of the XTIDE name is from the IBM XT computer, though it now works on a variety of PC hardware.

There’s a few  ways to implement it. You can build your own ISA Boot Rom cards from parts, with different versions offering IDE or CF on the card itself.  (there used to be a KIT…where’s the KIT guys???) or you can use a NIC that has a boot option ROM socket like THIS GUY did.

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DDO (Disk Drive Overlay software)…

DDO software used to come with a variety of hard disks to help older systems recoginize the larger drives.  A few I remember was EZ-Drive and Disk Manager, but there were a few others. I only used EZ-Drive a few times a long time ago and it seemed to work okay except for a few disk utilities causing havoc with the drives.  For the most part it was a quick and easy solution.  However, without having BIOS support I thought a software fix for hard drive capacity just wasn’t good enough. Each system I have restored I’ve tried to find an updated BIOS to allow more than the old limits.  For most 386 and some 486 motherboards that BIOS limitation remains and it is impossible to find an updated BIOS to allow the larger IDE drives.

DDO software works most of the time, is easy to implement and basically free.  However, I like having options other than software-only.  I love having that BIOS that fixes the issue so I don’t have to use software.

Why even do DDO or XTIDE if you can buy low-capacity drives?

There are numerous reasons. The main one for me is reliability.   I have a lot of 210MB, 340MB, 420MB, 540MB hard drives for old 386 systems that can’t do any larger.  However, out of those MOST have at least one bad sector and each time you turn on an ancient hard drive you risk the head flying out of control and killing the drive.  Also, the components on the PCB controller board are getting old…VERY old…and sometimes spectacularly fail killing the drive.

Now, I love myself the sound of a good CLICK-CLICK hard drive. Its nostalgia like hearing the sound of Cheezwiz being squirted on a ritz cracker, or the theme to Ducktales.  But each time I hear that is akin to listening to the same vinyl records over and over….one day that thing is just going to die.   That’s where compact flash (CF) come into play. Not only are they much more reliable than ancient hard drives (but not perfect!) they are also much faster at accessing the data.  Also, you can pull the CF card and put it in a USB CF reader for your Windows 10 machine and transfer things on and off.

So XTIDE allows you use larger capacity hard drives, but also larger capacity CF memory cards that are not only larger, but faster and more reliable (depending upon OS…more later on that!)

CF, Microdrives, Adapters oh my! 

Compact flash memory cards are dirt cheap these days comparatively speaking to old vintage hard drives.  You can get a 512MB CF card for $4 shipped on ebay while a 540MB hard drive, if in pristine condition with no bad sectors,  goes anywhere from $30 to $60! And its an old hard drive that will probably die in the next few years anyways.

Microdrives came on the scene in the mid 90’s when compact flash was extremely expensive for anything beyond 32mb. Seagate and few other drive manufactures shrunk drives down to the size of a CF Type-II card.  They did a few sizes but the only ones I have used are 340MB and 4GB microdrives.

I usually do a 4GB microdrive, or an 8GB CF card for DOS. Those are typically big enough to never run out of storage space for your DOS games and software.  I remember my first 386 computer having a “massive” 80 MB (and yes, I did type GB on accident when I typed this sentence out!) hard drive.  So even a 512MB flash drive for an old system might be more than adequate.

adidecf_detail

Adapters for CF cards are plenty on ebay. The all seem very similar, but some work very well and some don’t.  I haven’t had any problems with Addonics, and they come in a variety of mounting options, but they are much more expensive than the ones you can buy from China for $4 shipped.

These CF adapters allow you to use a CF card or Microdrive as an IDE hard drive.  Using very inexpensive CF or Microdrives as replacements work fine if the BIOS or controller don’t have drive limitations.  Some CF cards you’ll need to know their CHS (Cylinder-Head-Sector) address as the BIOS or controller won’t automatically figure it out.

 

XTIDE implementation

Ok, enough of the CF and CF-IDE adapters.  How did I implement XTIDE into my 386 systems? I used BOOT OPTIONS ROM socket on my Kingston KNE2013+ ethernet card.  It was easy enough, though you might need to read a tutorial or two on EEPROM programming or find someone who can program an EEPROM for you.

Once the EEPROM is programmed I stuck it in the socket and turned on the PC.  The first few times didn’t work. I had to go back redo the BIN file for the XTIDE. But once I got it done correctly to work my setup XTIDE saw every drive I have tried.

 

Issues and incompatibilities

I have noticed some disk utilities do not like CF used as hard drives.  I have tried Norton Disk Doctor 8 for DOS and it spits out a bunch of errors, while Scandisk part of DOS 6.22 didn’t find any errors.

So far over the past month of using XTIDE I have found it usually finds the flash drives and there are no issues.

The CF-IDE adapters are the usual culprit when issues come up with system incompatibilities.  Some adapters work just fine, other’s don’t.  I have a cheap-o CF-IDE adapter I bought from Hong Kong for $3 shipped.  It works fine, until you try to use it in SLAVE-MASTER mode.  XTIDE finds the drive just fine, but when you boot up another drive as MASTER-SLAVE or a real hard drive designated as MASTER, once you go to access the drive there aren’t any partitions.  Even FDISK can’t find partitions, even though it sees the drive.

Other options and conclusion

I have been a big fan of Promise EIDE MAX and EIDE PRO series of ISA cards that allow EIDE capacity on older systems.  I’ve never ran into any issues running those cards, but they are getting hard to find and much more expensive than the $10/card I bought my current lot.

When I first heard about XTIDE and saw all of the ways to implement it, I thought to myself “Why can’t we just put on the Promise EIDE BIOS on my current cards and boot it off a LAN card like I did with my XTIDE?”  Well…you can!  In fact, that’ll be my next blog post is going through XTIDE performance and configuration options and comparing it to a simple Promise EIDE BIOS on the same LAN CARD.  I do know that XTIDE’s new versions can restrict performance, so using Promise EIDE BIOS on a LAN card seems like a good way to keep the option of bigger, faster drives on older systems without the XTIDE performance hit.

XTIDE seems to be a great enthusiast platform to keep old systems running, and I am all for any project that keeps history alive.   I will run XTIDE on a few different systems and compare it to the Promise EIDE BIOS and see how both measure up.

Until the next post….you’ve been BYTED!

 

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