Compaq CDS 524 Profile

Compaq CDS 524 3/4 view

Compaq CDS524 at rest

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Table of Contents:

Preamble
Specs
Chassis
    Front/Side
    Monitor
    Back
    Inside
    Motherboard bay
    Front drive bays
Firmware
Software
    OS
    Modem suite
    Bundled apps
Wrap-Up

Preamble

I bought a Compaq CDS 524 from a friend recently, in very good condition and fully functioning, and I just want to document its design, preloaded software, and so on because it's a nice computer and a somewhat unusual design from 1995.

This is a relatively uncommon (I wouldn't quite say rare) PC form factor, in that it uses the AIO ("All In One") approach - PC and monitor in the same chassis - that was largely the domain of Apple at the time, in e.g. the Performas and various "classroom Macs." Of course, there were AIO machines throughout the history of computing for every platform; even in the PC market there has almost always been one available at any given time, but they're few and far between compared to all other designs.

Like most AIO machines, this is little more than a typical-of-the-time CRT monitor built into the same plastic chassis as a low-to-midrange system of the time. By 1995 the 486DX2 was definitely the lower tier option for CPUs - a clockdoubled version of 1989's 486, it had been replaced by the Pentium in '93 as the Thing To Have, though it wasn't totally out of the question as a day to day machine. The rest of the hardware is similarly unexciting, and in a couple places kind of a bummer.

While the design is generally very sensible, it has limited expandability to say the least, and the inbuilt hardware choices were far from the best available even at the time. It's what I call a Kitchen Computer - it sits on a little wooden table on the living room side of the kitchen breakfast bar and Mom and Dad use it to dial up to get email, maybe you type some homework on it, maybe you play a mediocre DOS game or two on it. You are not computing anywhere near the edge and this machine doesn't attempt to go there.

Specs

As I received it, the specs are as follows:

CPU 486DX2 @ 66MHz  
RAM 20MB (two full slots + onboard)  
HDD ~400MB Quantum ProDrive LPS  
Optical Something-speed MATSUSHITA CR-571-C that can't read CD-Rs  
Floppy 3.5"  
Audio ESS Audiodrive 688-something  
Speakers Yep  
Graphics Atrocious Cirrus Disappointment (CL-GD5424)  
Display 14" (?) shadow-mask CRT  
Modem 14.4 fax/voice/data  
Ports Serial, parallel, gameport  

Chassis

Front / Side

Overview of the machine Side view of the machineUnknown text on bezel

The machine is entirely self contained. The side view makes it clear how close this is to simply being "a small PC that comes with a monitor", though such a machine would actually take up a little more space, since this combines the power supply into the monitor case, freeing up space in the PC chassis.

The monitor controls on the side are a little strange; brightness, contrast, and then horizontal position - no others, like H/V size. I wonder about opening it to see if it would expose more controls, because the picture (as you'll see) fills up only about 90% of the screen.

I'm not quite sure what the sharpie marks mean. I would imagine something about NetWare, but this machine probably never saw a serious business environment; nothing on it suggests it did.

 

Closeup of lower half of front of machine Image Power switch closeup Volume controls and LEDs

In the front you can see the built in CDROM and floppy, and then underneath you can see the two screws that allow removal of the front trim in order to remove those devices and the HDD. Notice that the screws are a Compaq favorite that persisted well into the HP era, and which all technicians hate - a combination flathead/Torx T15. If you work on one of these, get yourself the Torx bit even if it takes some time to dig out. The flathead is the worst I have ever attempted to drive and you will slip and score the chassis in between cusses.

The power switch is a latching pushbutton, a typical AT-era toggle that simply cuts off line current to the machine. It kills the monitor and PC at the same time. I don't think any 486-class machine has ACPI, so you have to manually switch it off.

The volume controls are intriguing. They don't control a hardware amplifier, rather they tell Windows to turn the volume up and down, which is not an unusual feature for keyboard volume controls, because they can just send a special keyboard scancode to do it, but these actually have a hardware device driver in Windows to make this possible.

I can't say offhand that I've seen hardware buttons like this anywhere but in laptops. Mind you, Compaq made plenty of those.

Monitor

Closeup on CRT Extreme closeup on CRT

The CRT is... not an incredible example of the species. Shadow mask (not aperture grille), extremely spherical and very, very blurry. The picture is bright enough but looks mushy as hell at all times.

It honestly would almost be worth a tube swap except that a decent tube would be aperture grille, and it probably wouldn't fit against the plastic trim in the front because they're only curved in one direction.

Back

Back view of the machine Back view showing power input Closeup of audio port labels

The back of the machine is pretty minimalist. The entire lower half can be unscrewed with the two fat thumbscrews at either end and removed, as you'll see.

On the right is a two-slot backplane. On the left is a handle that I think is to help pull the machine out of the chassis. Then you have the ports.

Notice that the power input goes up into the monitor. This is not strictly necessary - they could have put the input on the back of the monitor itself, but in this position it acts as an interlock to prevent you from removing the logic board while the machine is powered up. Clever.

I can never quite remember what the "music" jacks on a sound card of this era are for. (I've since been informed those are line in / line out; the music note is because, if you were recording from or to a tape, you would use these because they aren't amplified like the mic and headphone jacks, so you'd get cleaner audio.) There is, notably, a gameport, so you could play mediocre DOS games on here, or possibly hook up a MIDI adapter.

The presence of a serial port never fails to make me wonder if anyone ever used this as a dialup server stuffed in a closet in some mom and pop ISP that sat running continuously for 13 years.

Inside

Logic board sled removed from machine Logic board sled completely out of machine Bottom of logic board sled

After unscrewing the two captive thumbscrews, the entire PC pops out. The board is mounted on a sled that fully covers it on the bottom, so it's safe to set it on any surface while working on it.

I didn't clean the MLB before shooting these because I had no safe way to do it handy. You aren't missing much. The dust level is actually reasonable for a machine of this age and environment - what dust I can see looks like it's full of cigarette tar, so it's a good thing this was lightly used or it'd be ruined.

 

Motherboard - right side Who This Man

There's not much going on on the board. There's some soldered on RAM, two SIMM slots, a soldered coin cell which luckily has not yet died, the CPU itself, and a lot of basic computer sludge chips.

I do wish to bring your attention to this man I found on the bottom edge of the board. Who Is He. why is he a Vulcan

 

Motherboard - left side ISA expansion slots

The other side of the board has the modem parts, other miscellaneous PC sludge, and the ISA riser.

The ISA slots are not surprising but they are a bummer. A PCI slot would have allowed a graphics upgrade - the graphics card in this is ostensibly VESA Local Bus, but I think it's probably one of the worst VLB cards if so, maxing out at 800x600@256 colors - not so bad, except that going down to 640x480 does not enable 16-bit or 24-bit color.

Since the monitor has no external connector (and the internal one is proprietary) there is no way to ever upgrade the graphics without using an external monitor, a pointless proposition. The sound is already an ESS Audiodrive 688-something, which is perfectly adequate, so no real reason to upgrade that. I guess you could put in a Sound Blaster 16 for better FM audio.

The one thing I can imagine adding to this machine to improve its functionality in a real way would be a v.90 modem card, because the inbuilt modem is a pathetic 14.4k (which can't seem to sync at anything above 2400 in my testing anyway.) 14.4 was still relatively current in 1995 - V.34, which provided 28.8, had only been published in mid-'94, and would still have been top of the line.

I'm not really sure how you could come up with something to fill the other slot, given the limitations of the machine.

Motherboard bay

Motherboard-side main connector Logic board bay Chassis-side main connector Video cable connection to monitor

The motherboard connects to a second board in the front half of the machine where the power, hard drive connectors and miscellaneous other cables attach. Sorry for the dirty fan, again, I did not have the right cleaning tools handy.

I don't think it's possible to really "crossthread" this connection, and so far I haven't missed while plugging in the MLB sled, but I did have one occasion where it wouldn't recognize the HDD after being reinserted, and a reseat fixed it.

I can't get a really close look at the power supply connector, but I suspect it is not standard AT and replacing it would be difficult. You can see here also the VGA cable for the monitor. It would certainly be conceivable to wire this to a DE15 connector and plug it into an upgraded video card, but probably tedious and not worth it.

Front drive bays

Front of machine with drive bay trim removed HDD/CD sled partially removed HD/CD sled pulled out Weird tape on side of CDROM

The hard drive and CDROM are on a single sled which comes out with the removal of two screws. The hard drive is held in by four metal tabs with T15/flat screws, the CDROM with slightly smaller torx/flat screws that are even worse to work with.

An odd element I wasn't sure how to process is that the CDROM has die-cut adhesive-backed plastic over the side mounting holes. At a glance I can't think what this accomplishes.

Various connections on front distribution board

Next to where the hard drive and floppy plug into the "distribution" board in the front of the chassis are the power input, video out to monitor (not visible here), power connectors for the drives, and various other connections for front panel buttons, etc. Here are some of them. I don't know what the chip there might be for. It's hard to see anything in there.

Firmware

This machine is well into the era when computers typically had built-in CMOS configuration and a sophisticated POST process, but Compaq did things their way, and so the boot process is an incredibly minimalist one. It checks RAM, and unless a hard drive has been removed or added, that is it. You see a black screen with the memory test in the upper left, then it beeps and goes to "Windows 95 is starting..."

While there is a CMOS configuration utility, this machine is of the sort where it is not built into ROM. Instead, you are expected to run a configuration utility from a floppy disk booted into DOS. Compaq would have provided one of these.

If the hard drive has not been too terribly distressed since it left the factory (secure-wiped for instance) then you can press F10 on startup, which will cause boot to detour onto a second, hidden partition on the HDD which contains these utilities. From there you can produce your own bootable disk with the tools in case the HDD does die. I have an image of this partition, as well as the normal Windows partition, and the entire HDD, which I will add to this article once I sanitize them of any user data. I will also add an image of the utility floppy once I make one.

The utilities are typical of this sort of setup.

 

Compaq BIOS config main menu  Compaq BIOS config menu Compaq BIOS audio settings Compaq BIOS HDD config

The first thing you get is this main menu, where you can launch other utilities. The first one is what you'd typically expect from a CMOS setup - HDDs, CPU asset ID, IRQ settings, etc.

The Security and Power options go to similar windows to these.

 

Compaq BIOS information menu Compaq BIOS system info Compaq BIOS storage info Compaq BIOS BOM

The info menu provides subwindows with basic hardware information. There is also a dialog which reads what I think is a hidden folder on C: called SYSTEM.SAV that contains a listing of software the machine shipped with; see that here.

 

 Compaq BIOS diagnostics Compaq BIOS diagnostic options

The Computer Checkup utility is a hardware tester of the sort that was common at this time. It runs tests on the basic functionality of video, audio, keyboard, RAM etc.

Compaq BIOS video diagnostic menu Compaq BIOS basic color test Compaq BIOS 256 color test Compaq BIOS highres text

The video test is also very typical for the era, with the addition of a "132 column mode" test that I've never seen before to my knowledge.

 

Compaq BIOS minimized icon

Although this whole interface resembles Windows, I'm certain it's not, and I feel like I've seen this particular set of not-quite-windows UI elements somewhere else, maybe in some Norton product.

Software

As far as I can tell the software on this machine is bone stock. This is not surprising.

I used to work at an ecycle shop where we refurbished and sold literally tens of thousands of computers a year. Both there, and in the machines I've found in other ways, something like 30% of the privately-owned machines I've seen were clearly purchased, used maybe for internet access or to write a few letters, and thrown away in a state basically identical to how they were purchased.

The older the machine, the more likely this is. A 2006 Pentium 4 could have an absolutely stock Windows XP on it, and if you check the IE history you find a few poker sites and nothing else. A 1995 Pentium machine though? Almost every single one I've ever seen was clearly owned by someone who had absolutely no idea what to do with it. It's possible they just all cleared their systems off before getting rid of them, but personally I think maybe 5% of computer users would think to do that, especially with a 15 year old machine.

This one had a handful of extremely poorly crafted invoices in the Windows directory and a single resume saved in the Microsoft Works directory that didn't look like it possibly could have come from the same individual. So, who knows what its history was, but I'd guess nobody ever erased it or really installed much of anything.

Every program on here appears to be a pack-in app if the BOM is to be believed.

OS

Windows 95 on the Compaq Windows 95 device manager Volume control device

The OS is Windows 95 RTM (a retrospective term for "the very first one they released") which makes sense for 1995.

This is the first time I've run 95 on a 486 that wasn't a laptop, which is significant for a few reasons. On a laptop of this era, performance is kind of hard to ascertain due to the universally terrible LCDs; everything feels floaty and mushy no matter how well it's running. More importantly though, the laptops I've used probably weren't DX2s, and almost certainly were low-voltage variants that ran slower than their desktop counterparts.

I find it fairly spritely for what I've tried so far. I haven't timed the boot but it doesn't feel particularly slow. Basic folder navigation is quick, opening apps takes a second or two. Everything I've tried seems pretty reasonably usable.

I knew the 486 was a target for Windows 95, but personally I feel pretty impressed at how it performs. It may sound silly to say "windows 95 ran well on computers from 1995" but, well, computers used to be a lot slower than people generally remember, so I still find this impressive.

To put it a little in perspective: I installed a screenshot app that can save PNGs, and I found that encoding an 800x600, 256-color PNG takes upwards of 30 seconds. That's how slow this computer is, and there's a full-fledged Windows with the whole Win32 API running on it just fine. By the way, the same file in GIF format takes two seconds.

In the third image above, you can see the special hardware device Compaq had to include to enable the front panel volume buttons.

 

Graphics options displaying 256 color limit

As I mentioned earlier, the graphics absolutely will not go above 256 colors. Here's a screenshot to demonstrate that. 800x600 is the top resolution.

Modem suite

Of all the bundled software, I feel the modem suite is the most unique and most interesting.

If you were not There For All Of This, as I wasn't, you might not quite be aware of what "Fax/Voice Modem" means. I mean, you can probably infer, but to me, it's hard to really accept that people made phone calls and sent faxes over their PC modems. Perhaps because, if it WAS ever popular, it fell out of popularity really fast and hard. I have known virtually nobody who has ever sent a fax from their PC (except myself); I have never had anyone tell me they made a phone call with their modem.

Nonetheless, this machine is set up for all of that. The 14.4 modem is a Fax/Voice/Data modem, and while Windows had some built-in support for this kind of thing at the time, Compaq decided (as, I believe, several OEMs did) to write and bundle their own custom software to make this work well.

Compaq's is called Compaq Operator

Compaq Operator

When you launch the machine, this app launches and lives in the taskbar. This predates the discovery by software vendors that apps can be "super minimized" into the system tray if they're expected to run at all times in the background.

Compaq Operator can perform the following functions:

This is honestly quite an impressive set of features. It was probably common on PCs, but I'm not sure that you could get a multi-mailbox answering machine in 1995 at any price unless you bought a full fledged PBX. I also don't think you could get one with a comparably convenient UI. Unfortunately, I suspect that almost everyone who had the tech-savviness to utilize these features probably had a PBX for other reasons anyway, but if you were a particularly capable small business owner at this time, I think this would have been a pretty cool set of capabilities.

Compaq Operator receiving a call Compaq Operator taking a message

Notice that Operator supports caller ID; "103, 103" is the first and last name of my VoIP user that I was calling in from, but this was over an analog line, so, if I had called from my cellphone I would have seen my name on the screen. It's unfortunate that this doesn't work on the "someone is leaving a message" dialog.

 

Compaq Operator phone interface Compaq Operator memo interface Compaq Operator voicemail interface Compaq Operator visual voicemail

This is the phone interface. Typical for the time, it uses a highly skeumorphic interface that's awkward to quite figure out. You'd think, for instance, that to place a call you'd click the handset first, but no joy, you have to click Dial.

Placing calls is straightforward, you just dial and hit Dial. The voicemail interface is at the top, shows you how many messages are waiting and provides playback controls as well as an option to step to the next mailbox if you have several.

The Memo feature has been in voicemail for eons and I don't know if anyone has ever used it. It simply lets you leave a voicemail for yourself, quickly. A neat feature if one could remember to use it; I feel like I never could have.

By clicking Mailboxes you can see all mailboxes you have set up, and after selecting one you get a list of all messages that are waiting. I know it seems obvious that a computer voicemail program would have what we now call Visual Voicemail on cellphones, but it's just shocking to me that this has been available for three decades, yet almost all office workers in the world are suffering through voicemail they have to dial into and interact with using touch tone buttons.

 

Send a fax template Fax interface Fax checklist

If you select "Send a Fax", it just opens a Wordpad template and tells you to write out your fax, then hit Print and select the fax device, which will dump it into the Fax Center and open the Print to Fax Checklist.

 

Address book Fax editor Fax cover sheet Resetting the modem

The address book is a reasonable rolodex. The fax editor looks like an awkward (due to the low resolution) but highly capable vector editor. There's of course a selection of very 90s cover sheets. I haven't tried actually sending a fax because I figure it will look pretty much like I expect.

The last screen is actually common to all actions in Compaq Operator. Virtually anything you do results in Resetting The Modem.

Compaq Operator Settings Compaq Operator Settings

Here are some settings pages.

 

Here's a video demonstrating the answering machine feature:

Bundled apps

The list of bundled apps is a little eclectic, but I suppose that's not unusual for the time. I'll restate that as far as I can tell these are all stock - like, they show up in the BOM, which appears to be a Compaq list of included software, but who knows, sometimes I make weird assumptions.

 

Prodigy logon screen Prodigy logon Compuserve AOL

Several online services - AOL, Prodigy, Compuserve, ImagiNation

I'm not the person to document these since they're all dead and it's impossible to ever see them as they were intended, but: I don't think that any of these were "the internet" as we know it. That's the only way I can quite put it.

ImagiNation folder

ImagiNation (folder pictured above) is the most extreme example. It's a network Sierra put together exclusively for multiplayer gaming, and while I wouldn't be able to show you much of it beyond the login (and billing!) screens, it turns out it's been resurrected, and you can find a video of it functioning here on Youtube.

In the folder you can see subfolders for several games, which makes sense; it wouldn't have been practical to download them like e.g. Steam, so everything it can play must be included. Needless to say none of them are functional as far as I can tell.

 Quicken Quicken

A copy of Quicken, which I'm pretty sure was installed by the owner, and either they never used it, they erased their files, or they stored them on floppy.

QuickBooks evaluation QuickBooks tutorial QuickBooks windows

A copy of QuickBooks, which I think was included, and was either never used or they cleaned up really well.

 

TabWorks

TabWorks is a Win16 app that was included, yet throws a warning on startup saying it "works with windows 95, but..." It is an atrocious hellshow of a GUI. I cannot fathom how a human pair of eyes could use this to accomplish anything.

 

Adorable trackball driver Adorable mouse

There's a mouse / trackball driver that I think is not stock. It has this cute mouse icon, and changes the control panel mouse icon to this adorable one.

 

Audio applications Stopwatch Stopwatch large

This is an odd item. There's a pack of apps intended for use with the sound card - not surprising for an early multimedia system, but what's odd is none of them work. They function, but everywhere they're supposed to make sound, they don't.

There's a stopwatch, alarm clock, timer, some kind of speaking calculator, and a few other things, but nothing seems to really work except the couple apps that exist *only* to play sounds.

Another peculiar thing is the font on the stopwatch buttons, which seems to be getting scaled incorrectly at small sizes despite this being, basically, the overwhelming target platform for basically anything made at this time for Windows 95. Strange.

 

Windows Backup Microsoft Anti-Virus

In the (surprisingly stuffed) C:\DOS folder there are several Microsoft utilities I've never heard of, including an antivirus app and a backup system.

 

The Even More Incredible Machine

Finally, there are a couple games included. The Even More Incredible Machine is the only one I'm positive is supposed to be packed in, but there's also a copy of Privateer I can't get to run because it wants the CD. Did I mention this machine's CD-ROM can't read burned CDs?

Wrap-Up

Altogether this is a perfectly functional family or small business computer for 1995. I think it's a touch underspecced even for basic use, but that's only because I've been a full-contact computer user my entire life. Realistically for most of its intended purposes this machine was perfectly adequate at worst, and probably includes a reasonably impressive amount of pack-in functionality for the time.

Without doing in-depth research, I'll say that I'm pretty sure you could get substantially better value for money at the time, yet, somehow it seems to me that there is this atmosphere of simplicity around AIO machines that probably spoke to a few people. I know it's only one peripheral less to worry about compared to a normal machine, but it's also a peripheral that represents 2/3 the volume and weight of the entire system. I think the idea that the entire computer is one Object was appealing to some people - but who knows, this form factor always did struggle in the market, with the exception of the iMac.

If you were looking to get a computer yourself for some kind of purpose that a 486 would be appropriate for, I feel like it's a reasonable option. We could talk about what it can't do, but - it's a 486. What can it do? That list is shorter than what it can't, and there's no fighting that.

With a NIC to make getting files on and off easier, this would probably be an adequate system for any kind of 486-ing you want to do. It should run basically any non-3D DOS game, though I haven't been able to test any yet. The inbuilt audio sounds excellent as far as I've heard - the tiny internal speakers are actually very clear and deafeningly loud, so you won't have to come up with a separate pair of speakers, which is always a frustrating thing with old computers IMO.

I guess the biggest problem would be that, if your intent is to get one of these machines to record or stream anything from, you're basically SOL. As discussed above, there's virtually no way to conveniently get a VGA signal out of this machine, or install a graphics card without making the internal monitor dead weight, and if that's your intent, I'd ask that you get a different machine and leave this one to someone who will appreciate it for what it is. However, a mod to add a normal VGA plug to the inbuilt monitor would actually be very cool.


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