How I tune up my vintage Macs

At first I was tempted to title this post How to tune up your vintage Mac, but that sounded too presumptuous on my part. I believe that people are free to choose the approach they want, so I’ll just talk about mine, and maybe you’ll find some useful advice here and there.

User experience over all

There are people who like to push their vintage Macs to their limits. I don’t mean you should ditch your trusty PowerBook G3 or G4 and stick to your newest Mac. I mean that some people get, say, a Macintosh Classic, look up Mactracker, see that the maximum OS supported by the Classic is System 7.5.5 and proceed to install it no matter what. Sure, you can install System 7.5.5 on a Classic — provided, of course, you increase its RAM to the maximum as well — but I bet that the general performance and user experience won’t be optimal.

My approach is slightly different. I give precedence to user experience: whatever the vintage, the Mac I acquire must be smooth to use. In vintage Macs with a Motorola 68K processor, the amount of RAM installed makes a huge difference when it comes to installing the ‘right’ OS version. A Macintosh SE with 2 MB RAM is much more capable than a SE with just 1 MB. And a SE with 4 MB RAM will be remarkably more capable than a SE with just 2 MB. This sounds quite obvious, but you have no idea of the amount of misconfigured compact Macs I have encountered as a Mac consultant.

There are always tradeoffs. Often a newer OS version means more features and capabilities, and also more third-party software to choose from, so one could be tempted to upgrade, but unless you want some specific capability (given by the newer OS or by a piece of software only the newer OS can run), my advice is to be conservative and refrain from installing the latest OS version your vintage Mac is theoretically able to run. For instance, if the convenience of having a Control Strip at the bottom of the screen is paramount, then by all means install System 7.5 and do all the necessary things, hardware-wise, to help smooth the user experience: install the maximum RAM your Mac can handle and also a bigger hard drive (it never hurts). Otherwise, it’s just not worthwhile.

My Macintosh SE has 2 MB RAM and an 80 MB hard drive. If it had 4 MB RAM, I could install System 7.5.x on it, but the performance wouldn’t be smooth or satisfactory. So I first installed System 7.1, and things were generally fine. When I was given a SE/30, I took the SE and did a little experiment: I downgraded it to System 6.0.8 just to see how it would fare. All the (few) programs I was using on the SE were backward-compatible, so I wasn’t worried. After installation, I rebooted the SE and everything was noticeably faster and snappier (as I suspected). Now I have too much stuff and so little time to look for RAM sticks and perform RAM upgrades on my compact Macs, but even if I maxed the RAM on the SE and brought it to 4 MB, I probably wouldn’t upgrade the OS anyway.

All my beige Macs have enough RAM to support a newer OS version, but I keep every one of them with the previous Mac OS version installed. So, my PowerBook Duo 280c could run Mac OS 8.1, but it would be too sluggish, so it runs Mac OS 7.6.1, boots faster and is generally more responsive. My PowerBook 5300 could run Mac OS 9.1, but I keep it with Mac OS 8.1 and it’s really, really usable (in fact, it’s the most used vintage Mac in my small collection). Once I tried upgrading it to 8.6 just for kicks, but I was generally dissatisfied with that ‘improvement’, so I returned to 8.1. (I don’t even want to think about how things would go if I installed Mac OS 9.1.). The recently-acquired PowerBook G3/400 “Lombard” has currently installed Mac OS X 10.3.9. I could upgrade it to Mac OS X 10.4 (not directly, though, but by using XPostFacto) and I could look for a G4 card to speed it up, but I won’t, for a number of reasons I’ll explain below.

My approach: puristic & minimalist

Here I enter the realm of personal preferences even more deeply. By puristic, I mean that basically none of my vintage Macs has undergone any processor or speed-related hardware upgrade. My Power Macintosh 9500/132 could be made into a faster machine via a G3 processor upgrade card, and my PowerBook G3 could become a G4 machine via a similar upgrade. There is a sweet hardware upgrade for my Power Mac G4 Cube that could transform it into a G4/1.8 GHz beast with a 128 MB graphics card (instead of the stock G4/450 MHz processor and 16 MB graphics card).

The fact is, I like the challenge of putting a vintage Mac to good use without ‘cheating’. The point, for me, is What can be done today with a vintage Mac’s original processing power? A number of things, and you don’t even have to overstuff your vintage Mac if you start by choosing the main task that Mac has to perform and then the right set of tools for the task. Here comes the minimalist part of my approach. It’s hard to talk about these things in an abstract manner, so I’ll proceed by examples. (Feel free to skip to the last section if you’re not interested.)

1. My Colour Classic serves two main purposes at the moment: as a creative writing environment free from distractions, and as an instrument for cataloguing my books and the books I borrow from the Library of the Polytechnic University of Valencia. The Colour Classic supports a maximum of 10 MB RAM and can run System 7.1 to Mac OS 7.6.1. The only software I have installed on it is the software I need to carry out the aforementioned tasks, so my Colour Classic has Microsoft Word 5.1a (the best Word version ever), WriteNow, BBEdit 3.5 (for when I want/need to write bits of text with HTML code), and FileMaker Pro 3 for my book database. To run these applications I don’t need the latest OS, so I have kept System 7.1 on the Colour Classic.

2. My PowerBook Duo 280c has a great strength: it’s the most compact and lightweight vintage portable Mac I own (it’s even a bit lighter than the PowerBook 100). Its battery still holds a little charge, too. So I carry it around with my Newton MessagePads when I’m on the go, and it stores various Newton backups and essential Newton software in case I have to reinstall applications on the MessagePad. Therefore, the only software I have installed on it is WriteNow (a light word processor is always handy), the Newton Connection Utilities (NCU) (when I need to connect NewtonOS 2.x devices such as my MP2100 or the eMate), and the Newton Connection Kit (NCK) (when I need to connect my Original MessagePad, which is a NewtonOS 1.x device).

3. My Power Macintosh 9500/132 is the most powerful vintage Mac tower I have. Since it has enough CPU power, a rather generous amount of RAM (272 MB), and two internal hard drives (2 GB and 8.5 GB), I’ve been using this Mac for every kind of experiment, to the point that some time ago it was a triple-boot machine, with Mac OS 9.1, Mac OS X 10.1.5 (installed via XPostFacto) and Rhapsody Developer Release 2 running on an external 4 GB hard drive. After both the internal drives failed almost simultaneously, I reconfigured the 9500 as a Mac OS 9.1-only machine, and I use it for browsing the Web and testing Classilla, for email, and for the occasional vintage game. On this machine I also run older versions of QuarkXPress and Photoshop, and I use it to access all kinds of old backups stored in old but reliable supports such as SyQuest cartridges and Magneto-Optical disks. Thanks to its built-in floppy drive and CD-ROM drive, plus the external SyQuest 5200 and MaxOptix MO drive, this machine is a true bridge between the vintage and the more modern Macs in my home network. Despite all this, the software installation on the Power Macintosh 9500 is kept to a minimum: a browser, a couple of email clients, some utilities to verify and repair disks (such as Hard Disk Toolkit), Photoshop 4, Adobe Reader 4, QuarkXPress 3.x, and GraphicConverter. The only reason I decided to install Mac OS 9.1 was to be able to use Classilla without problems, and the hardware configuration is powerful enough to run OS 9.1 rather smoothly.

4. Regarding my Power Mac G4 Cube, as I wrote on my main website:

With the vintage but still beautiful acrylic 22-inch Cinema Display attached to it, the Cube is perfect for displaying information I want to glance at while I work. I also use it to check a couple of low-traffic email accounts; to open additional browser windows in Safari when the browsers I have open on my main MacBook Pro get too crowded; to listen to music (I have a separate iTunes library on the Cube entirely dedicated to classical music); and of course to check my Twitter stream and the RSS feeds.

For this kind of use, it’s not necessary to perform hardware upgrades on the Cube. Plus, any hardware acceleration card (processor and/or graphics) would force me to install additional fans inside the Cube, and I would lose one of the features I love most about this Mac: its silent operation. I could also install Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard with some tricks, but I see no real reason to make this hardware configuration struggle just because I want the convenience of Quick Look, for instance.

To summarise

Tuning up your vintage Mac largely depends on what you plan to do with it, along with other essential factors:

  • The form factor: is it a compact Mac like the original Macintosh, Mac Plus, Mac SE, Mac Classic, Colour Classic, etc.? These Macs have all 9-inch, black & white screens (apart from the Colour Classic). They’re perfect for writing, file exchange, handling databases, acting as fax/print servers, and if you’re adventurous enough you can even try a web server project. Their expandability is rather limited. Is it a portable Mac? PowerBooks are handy because they don’t take up much space and you can easily put them away when not in use. PowerBooks with PCMCIA slots (like the PowerBook 190, the 5300, the 1400, the 3400, up to the PowerBook G4) are more expandable and you can add Wi-Fi and Ethernet cards, for example. Is it a tower or mini-tower? They’re usually powerful and expandable. The Power Macintosh 8600/9600, the beige Power Macintosh G3, the Blue & White Power Mac G3, and all Power Mac G4s are the easiest to open and add drives and additional expansions.
  • Technical specs: How much RAM has it got? How much can it take? How easy is to find it? Has it got enough hard drive space? If it’s a PowerBook, does its battery still hold a charge or you have to use it always plugged in? Remember, tech specs play an important role when it comes to choose which version of Mac OS to install. My advice is to be conservative, especially when there isn’t much RAM available. See if you can sacrifice a bit of software functionality for a better performance and user experience overall.
  • Software requirements: If you plan to absolutely have a particular application running on your vintage Mac, and that application has system requirements your Mac barely meets or can’t meet in its current state, see if you still can do the same task with an earlier version of that application.

When I acquire a vintage Mac I can put to good use, first I focus on the task. What do I want to do with it? Once I decide the task, I see whether the hardware is suitable for said task and I look for the necessary software to do it. Once I have the software, I see which Mac OS version I have to install on the Mac, if I need to upgrade or even downgrade the current configuration. Then my puristic and minimalist approach kicks in: keep things simple, install only what’s really necessary for the task. Consider a processor or graphics card upgrade only if it’s really needed. Keeping things balanced (e.g. refraining from installing a Mac OS version or other software that is too memory- or resource-hungry) will ensure a pleasant user experience overall with any vintage Mac.


7 thoughts on “How I tune up my vintage Macs

  1. I have Tiger on my old iBook Clamshell. Sure, its slow as heck, but at least I can web browse on a up to date web browser.

  2. I find it sluggish to try and split tasks over multiple computers when a single machine will accomplish multiple tasks. Now multiple MONITORS, that is a huge productivity boost.

    Mac or PC, I agree completely with your approach to OS and software, which is to say the minimum required to get the job done. That said, if you want to do modern tasks, chances are that at some point you will need modern hardware.

  3. Really enjoying your site, which I just discovered. My oldest running mac right now is a G3/300 with OS 8.6. It’s not as old as most of your machines but it seriously runs that OS faster and snappier than 10.5 on my dual G5. I will need to record a video to prove. It opens windows, apps, everything so much faster.

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