Building an AMD K6-based system nowadays is easy and hard at the same time. It’s easy because about any component can be found on eBay for cheap, although this tends to be less and less true with the years passing, but at the same time it’s hard to know which components to buy.
In 1999 there were lots of reviews about which motherboard to chose, which chipset to get, what graphic card to combine it with to avoid incompatibilities and so on…lots of these reviews and knowledge now point to 404 errors.
On this page I’m referencing some nice and working hardware one can buy to build a hobbyist K6 computer without too much trouble. For the sake of simplicity I’m going to stay with standard ATX hardware which fits in current PC cases.
Motherboard and Chipset
The first thing to chose when considering a Super Socket 7 system is the chipset. Back then there were numerous chipset vendors with very different characteristics and qualities…In the end the 2 most known and best chipsets were the VIA Apollo MVP3 or ALI Aladdin V.
The ALI Aladdin V is probably the best “all-rouder” chip which was used by many good motherboard manufacturers like Asus on the P5A or Gigabyte on the GA-5AX. It was known to have the best AGP performance but a major complaint from the over-clocker community was the inability to desynchronise the FSB from the PCI/ISA/AGP bus which lead to instabilities if you went above 100MHz.
The VIA Apollo MVP3 was the “opposite”, it was loved by over-clockers for its ability to desynchronise the FSB from the PCI/ISA/AGP bus but had slightly less good AGP performance. I have to say that I never used a motherboard with this chipset.
There were also the VIA Apollo MVP4 and ALI Aladdin 7 which existed but they were not very widespread and are globally uninteresting nowadays. The VIA Apollo MVP4 had an integrate graphics chip we don’t care about and the ALI Aladdin 7 found its way on very few motherboards, had bugged AGP support and didn’t have any good BIOS support.
So, let’s talk about motherboards…as I’m not really interested in over-clocking my CPUs and only want a good retro-gaming PC I’m going to stay with the ALI Aladdin V based boards.
In 1998 I had the Asus P5A PCB rev 1.04 and it was just fine and stable with my K6-2 450 MHz. Later on I tried to run a K6-2 550 MHz on it and it was just unstable as hell…searching the web nowadays it seems like there is a fundamental design flaw with the P5A as soon as you exceed the 500 MHz barrier, probably some signal starting to leak where it shouldn’t. If you intend to build a PC running at 500 MHz maximum it’s still a very fine and widely available motherboard. Before buying one just take care to check the PCB revision, it should be a 1.04 or more. This is written between the PCI slots.
The other motherboard people are widely using is the Gigabyte GA-5AX with a PCB revision 4.1 or higher; again this is written between the PCI slots. It’s virtually the same as the Asus P5A from a features standpoint and it doesn’t seem to have the stability issues past 500 MHz. It’s a bit less available on eBay but still findable within a couple of weeks. I would recommend this board.
Both motherboards have an AGP 1x or 2x slot, 2 USB 1 slots, 2 Ultra-DMA 33 IDE connectors and support 768 MB RAM.
Power Supply Unit
The Super Socket 7 motherboards are ATX 1.x boards with a 20-pin power connector. Nowadays there are still low-end Chinese power supplies sold in this format for around 20€; take care to chose an ATX 1.3 version so it delivers enough power on the 3.3V rail.
You can also use any recent ATX 2.x PSU if you want, the K6 systems don’t use that much power anyway compared to modern computers. The 24-pin power connector is backwards compatible with the ATX 1.x 20-pin power connector, the 4 remaining pins will just sit there doing nothing.
The K6 CPU choice is pretty much up to you, there are tons of them on eBay and it will depend on what you want to build…if you are cheap a good choice is the K6-2 450 MHz which was widely available.
K6-III 450 MHz chips are a little bit more expensive but sill quite available; remember that they often overheat quite quickly if you don’t have a good heat-spreader.
If you want the maximal performance I suggest a 0.18 micron K6-2+ or K6-3+ depending on the speed and money you want to throw at it. If the CPU requires a 6x multiplier and your motherboard doesn’t provide that in the manual remember that you can set your motherboard to 2.0x and the CPU will act as it is 6.0x; this is available with the K6-2 CTX cores and later.
Have a look at the specifications page and chose what fits your needs. Just don’t forget the power consumption as it is directly proportional to heat and CPU stability!
The VIA Apollo MVP3 or ALI Aladdin V chipsets could officially handle up to 768 MB of RAM and the high-end motherboards usually had 3 SDRAM DIMM slots; this gives us the opportunity to build systems with 256MB RAM modules.
On Super Socket 7 platforms you need PC100 memory if you want to run your CPU at the designed speed and PC133 if you want to overclock it via the FSB. This RAM is very cheap now so take PC133 modules anyway.
Also try to take Dual-Sided modules (DS), these RAM sticks have low-density memory chips which usually work better on older chipsets. If you buy Single-Sided (SS) high density modules you might end up with your motherboard only recognising half the memory, if at all.
256MB PC133 DS modules usually have 16x32MB memory chips, 8 on each side while 256MB PC133 SS modules usually have 8x64MB memory chips all on the same side. Chipsets from this period could only use 32MB memory chips.
At the time of the 400-500 MHz chips 3dfx was already dead and drivers unavailable for Windows XP so I don’t recommend going that way if you are not a bit adventurous. Matrox, S3 and SiS graphic cards are the same story…on the other hand, ATI (which is now owned by AMD) and nVidia are still around and have downloadable drivers for their cards of that time which is great.
So, what was available in 1999 from ATI or nVidia? nVidia hat the TNT 2 or GeForce 256 and ATI the Rage 128 GL or Rage 128 Pro (also named Rage Fury). Please, just don’t buy the Rage 128 or Rage Fury as the drivers were very very bad…the 2 nVidia cards are just fine if you are in the “keep all the components in the same period” trend. These graphic chips could still be the bottleneck of your K6 system.
In 2000 there was the GeForce 2 GTS/Pro/Ultra/Ti from nVidia and they were fabulously fast cards for their time. ATI had the first Radeon card at that time and it’s very nice too. These cards are pretty much the best a K6 can handle without becoming the bottleneck itself, in my opinion everything over that is nice but optional.
If you want the “best card that can go on a K6” you are looking at the 2001 cards which are about the last ones to support the AGP 2x connector. The ultimate ATI card is the Radeon 8500 but I found that it’s not easy to run in Windows XP due to driver problems. On nVidia’s side the GeForce 3 Ti200 and Ti500 cards are the way to go, this is what I recommend.
There were also some GeForce 4 Ti and Radeon 9250 cards still supporting AGP 2x, but they are hard to find and don’t bring anything better in terms of performance as the CPU is the clear bottleneck at this point.
Hard Disk Drive and CD-ROM
The ALI Aladdin V and VIA Apollo MVP3 chipsets and motherboards provide Ultra-DMA 33 IDE connectivity which means you can connect about any IDE CD-ROM or Hard Drive up to 128 GB after a BIOS upgrade, otherwise they only see drives up to 32 GB.
The problem on these old chipsets is that a HDD connected in Ultra-DMA 33 is still very slow and gives the whole system a sluggish feel. If you are cheap that’s ok though…on the other side there is a much sexier solution: SATA.
Yes SATA like Serial-ATA, modern drives you can actually buy in stores right now with 10x the performance of drives from 15 years ago. To support booting from a SATA HDD you need a compatible PCI card that supports booting. The Promise SATA2 TX2 Plus works very well on the Gigabyte GA-5AX or Asus P5A and provides a significant performance boost for the applications!
So as you see years gave us the opportunity to chose good quality components to build a vintage system. The only problem you may face is ageing electronic components. Capacitors are notoriously bad at this and “swell”, so if you have an unstable system it may well be that you need to change them in a local electronics shop.