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Wanting to have my 386DX @ 20MHz play a video (any video), just as a demo. I'd prefer it to be watchable (eg 10fps and not a tiny 10x10 pixel) as opposed to a slideshow.

What player software could I use? I have MS-DOS/Win3.1 installed.

Would be interested in knowing the max/best video quality format and settings available for say 286, 386, 486! Then I could make my own videos.

EDIT: Ideally I'm after "real" video and not animation.

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    Probably it would be Autodesk Animator's .FLI/.FLC
    – Vlad
    Sep 16 at 6:59
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    I also remember using fli,gif,mpg on 386. The best MS-DOS viewer I know of was qv.exe quick view (knows also Divx and sound but not sure if it runs on 386 as I used it later...) on 386 there was QPV for images (GIF included not sure if also mpg) and cant remember the old mpg and fli viewer names (it wasnt QV nor PV) however IIRC it was only 256 color and low resolutions without sound and only for small videos... it took ages to decompress mp3 to wav on 386 DX40 (like 30min for song)... IIRC games used bik format but not sure if also on386 or latter on
    – Spektre
    Sep 16 at 11:26
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    I stand corrected, it must have been a FLI viewer Sep 16 at 12:02
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    @Justme: Not all MP3 decoders are created equal, some are better optimized than others. But also, some use floating point, so could be extremely slow if emulating x87 instructions by trapping on a machine without a hardware FPU. Unlike 486DX, 386DX doesn't imply hardware FPU, so it's easy to imagine a factor of 10 or more in performance not only to trap but to do software FP to emulate 80-bit x87. (30 mins to decode a 3 min song.) Some MP3 decoders use fixed-point integer and wouldn't have this problem, but Spektre didn't say... Sep 16 at 19:37
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    @Spektre S3 had YUV overlays, which did not exist on ISA video cards. This feature allows to skip the final step of YUV-RGB color space transformation. The conversion alone would kill the performance on 386, regardless of the video card throughput.
    – Vlad
    Sep 17 at 6:44

4 Answers 4

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On a 20MHz 386 (or really, any 386), the main animation format was Autodesk Animator (.fli or .flc files). A number of players are available, e.g. FLIC! (which was written specifically to be usable on a 20MHz 386) or Autodesk’s own AAPlay (this is the Windows version; there was a DOS player too).

You shouldn’t expect anything better than 320×200 in 256 colours on a 386; while SVGA cards common in (later) 386 computers support higher resolutions and colour depths, the CPU is just too slow for anything more. You can see examples of FLIC animations to get an idea of what to expect.

Quite a few games also used Animator for their animated sequences, e.g. Microprose’s Formula One Grand Prix. Some games store these sequences as separate files, so they can be played back using any Animator player.

Animator Pro, the software used to create Animator animations, was released as open source software a few years ago; the GitHub repository is still available, but the download page is gone, as is the project web site.

Video (with audio) really became viable with 486 computers; some video-heavy games (notably, Myst and The 7th Guest) claim to work on 386s, but playing them on a 386 isn’t a fun experience in practice. Video formats used in games include QuickTime (Myst), Indeo (Civilization II), and Smacker (WarCraft II). In most cases, even if the game supported resolutions such as 640×480, the videos were played at lower resolutions (either using only part of the screen for video, or with a video mode switch). The first Indeo codec was specifically designed to provide adequate decoding performance on a 386 but I don’t know off-hand of a 386-playable game using it.

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    Myst was designed so that scenes would contain video within them, while the surrounding area was static. This was sometimes subtle (e.g. an outdoor scene with a turning windmill on an otherwise-static background) and sometimes not (e.g. each elevator's door will be opaque except for a rather small window, and moving the elevator will only involve animating the part of the scene visible through the window).
    – supercat
    Sep 16 at 15:39
  • Not sure OP is so interested in animation software for "boardroom" creatives. I read the question to be about video codecs that might work on a '386. Anyway, Deluxe Paint and the Animation add-on for MS-DOS seemed to be much more popular among game developers.
    – Brian H
    Sep 17 at 0:28
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    @BrianH Autodesk Animator was quite popular even with non-“boardroom” creatives. When I had my 386 I had loads of .fli files downloaded from BBSes. And I read the question somewhat literally, “Wanting to have my 386DX @ 20MHz play a video (any video), just as a demo.” — FLIC does the trick (albeit with no sound). I realise the OP may be after actual video codecs, but on 386s people watched animations, not videos. Sep 17 at 3:26
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    Thanks, these animations work well and look impressive, and I found a demo player with files here: archive.org/details/3d_flics_2 Was really hoping for actual video though, if that's at all possible.
    – KERR
    Sep 17 at 12:31
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Are hardware-accelerated videos allowed for the purposes of this question?

MPEG-1 decoding ISA cards exist, and as far as I can tell they are meant to work on a 386 running DOS. The "Xing MPEG Player" has a Windows 3.1 version that I have to imagine is intended to be used with one. https://archive.org/details/xingmpegplayer

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  • Thanks, I don't have a decoder board but this will help others!
    – KERR
    Sep 19 at 4:47
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    I know there are posts here to the contrary, but I never saw anything below a 486 playing an MPG, and then, the 486 would require a hardware decoder. I have a Panasonic CF-41 notebook (486) that took a hardware decoder pack when the floppy drive was removed, and a few full size ISA PC Motion cards (I think from Optibase?) - anyway, I would venture to say MPEG on a 386 was extraordinarily uncommon. But then, I'm going from personal experience, so YMMV.
    – Geo...
    Sep 22 at 16:31
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There were MPEG-1 software encoders (e.g. CMPEG) & decoders/players (DMPEG, VMPEG) for MS-DOS that would run on a 386.

Bear in mind that frame sizes were tiny (e.g. 160x120), the display might have to be palettised for a 256-colour VGA display, and just because it runs on a 386 doesn't mean the frame-rate is anywhere near real-time! And the downloable MPEGs of the time were often video channel only.

I think mirrors of the SIMTEL archive still exist, so just go look.

Update 1: A quick search turned up an ancient FAQ describing VMPEG 1.2 for DOS as "high speed: e.g. 21 frames/s on a 386DX/33 for a 160x120 I frame sequence" so that would be your broad target.

I'm pretty sure Win3.11 already had Media Player, so again you should be able to view .avi on a 386 that way.

Basically, the trick is to downscale the video until your machine can manage it...

Update 2 (based on the comments): The issue with the .avi route is that it opens the can of worms that is codecs and compatibility. I had a rummage in some old backups and found my old Win 3.11 SYSTEM.INI, excerpt is:

[mci]
WaveAudio=mciwave.drv 7
Sequencer=mciseq.drv
Mixer=mcimixer.drv
AVIVideo=mciavi.drv
MpegVideo=mcivmpeg.drv
QTWVideo=C:\WIN311\SYSTEM\MCIQTW.DRV
Animation1=mciaap.drv
CDAudio=mcicda.drv 1

[drivers]
midimapper=midimap.drv
Wave=mvproaud.drv
MIDI=opl3.drv
Mixer=mvmixer.drv
VIDC.MSVC=msvidc.drv
VIDC.RT21=indeo.drv
VIDC.CVID=iccvid.drv
VIDC.IV32=ir32.dll
VIDC.IV31=IR32.dll
VIDC.MRLE=MSRLE.drv
VIDC.YVU9=ir21_r.dll
WaveMapper=msacm.drv
MSACM.msadpcm=msadpcm.acm
MSACM.imaadpcm=imaadpcm.acm

My system had collected a few extra toys over the years, but you can see there's an AVIVideo driver defined and a list of codecs - VIDC.*. In the meantime, @DmytroL had a look on his laptop and (in a comment) reported:

I happened to have a codec management tool from K-Lite codec pack installed on my Windows 10 laptop ... The Microsoft Video 1 and Microsoft RLE ones are also present and enabled...

So, it should be possible to check SYSTEM.INI to confirm that the Microsoft Video 1 and Microsoft RLE codecs are installed in Win 3.x, and then create a suitable video on a current Windows laptop.

The difficulty will be that the OP has very slow hardware and so will need to keep both frame rate and size right down: even 160x120@10fps looks way too optimistic. I can't comment on which codec would be a better choice - try both and see. In particular, such an old machine is likely to have a very primitive graphics card - there will also be the overhead of quantising the output display down to a palette of 256 or even just 16 colors (for a stock VGA card).

But it does indeed look as though one can still create a video on Win 10 today that will be viewable on a stock Win3.11 system.

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  • Thanks, FYI there's an ISO of SIMTEL MS-DOS archive here: archive.org/details/Simtel20_Sept92
    – KERR
    Sep 17 at 12:39
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    @KERR you can find more Simtel archives on cd.textfiles.com. I had my DOS hat on too firmly, Windows 3.11 with its Media Player is a good idea! Sep 17 at 12:53
  • @Stephen Kitt The trouble with .avi is that it opens the whole can of worms of differing codecs. E.g. the Indeo mentioned above had to be got separately, from Intel. One might think that a modern ffmpeg or VLC would be able to create a suitably primitive video file viewable with the original Video for Windows codecs but I've not checked (they were proprietary, after all). Going through Windows will also naturally be slower; OP might want to start with 96x72 and work up, for a machine that old.
    – Lou Knee
    Sep 18 at 17:26
  • @LouKnee indeed. I’ve been looking into converting current videos to .fli/.flc, which isn’t straightforward either, but at least it wouldn’t involve finding an old Indeo codec... Sep 18 at 17:33
  • @Stephen Kitt Though to be fair Microsoft have always been quite good on backwards compatibility, so it may well be that the old V4W codecs are still buried in the Accessories applets in modern Windows (I don't know, never used them myself).
    – Lou Knee
    Sep 18 at 17:42
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RAD Game Tools "Smacker" supports the 386 as the oldest supported hardware for playback. Glorious 256 color video. It dates from 1994 and was used by games in the mid 90's.

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