2016 in review

Overall I’m glad to be leaving 2016 behind, as it wasn’t a particularly great year. However, as far as vintage computing goes, I can’t complain at all.

State of the vintage Macs

My smallish collection of vintage Macs had a good year. Touching wood, the older group of beige Macs — SE, SE/30, Classic, Colour Classic, LCII, Performa 630CD, Power Macintosh 9500 — hasn’t manifested any faults or new issues after the latest check-up. Sadly, yet another power supply in the DuoDock II has failed, and I still haven’t had the time to take care of the problems afflicting the Quadra 950. A minor problem has just occurred with the Power Mac G4 — its internal hard drive is on its way out, only managing to complete the boot occasionally and with effort. Repetitive mechanical noises during the boot process are a certain sign that it’s failing. (If you have a spare IDE drive in good health, of at least 60 GB capacity, please let me know.)

As for the older Mac laptops, the PowerBook 1400 with upgraded G3/333 processor remains my most used portable Mac of the pre-PowerBook G3 era. It has a bright display, a fantastic keyboard, and it’s the quickest machine to take out when I have to check old media (it has a floppy module, a ZIP 100 module, and a CD-ROM module, so it’s easy to just insert the one I need and get going), or when I have to pass files from one vintage media to another when I need to perform some kind of data retrieval.

The PowerBook 5300 still works fine, but opening and closing the lid has become really problematic due to cracks in the hard plastic of the display assembly near the hinges, so I’m using this Mac only occasionally. One day maybe I’ll get a better display assembly on eBay and fix this issue, but as you can imagine, it’s not exactly one of my top priorities.

The ‘new’ PowerBook Duo 280c (generously donated to me in February 2015) is working fine and I’m using it mainly as a font database server and as a very portable solution to download and manage the photos taken with the QuickTake 100.

Speaking of Macs of more recent vintages, my four most used PowerPC Macs in 2016 have been:

  • The 12-inch 1 GHz PowerBook G4 — still my lightest, most dependable machine when out and about. I’ve used it for writing, email, Web, some image editing and even for watching videos and movies when I was on holiday last August.
  • The 17-inch 1.33 GHz PowerBook G4 — It’s the fastest, most capable G4 I have, and I use it for pretty much the same things I use the 12-inch for, but when I either need a bigger screen or power is more important than portability. It also has a reliable CD-DVD burner, and it’s a great Mac for exchanging files with various different sources, since it’s equipped with two USB 2 ports, a FireWire 400 and a FireWire 800 port, and a PCMCIA card slot (I use a PCMCIA CompactFlash adapter to quickly exchange files between this PowerBook and the PowerBook 1400, for example).
  • The Power Mac G4 Cube — Always a trusty sidekick, it remains on the left of my main MacBook Pro desktop setup, and its big 22-inch Cinema Display is great for checking additional pages on the Web and my RSS feeds, for performing the occasional image editing, running older applications in the Classic Environment (including games), and it’s also been my scanning workstation for almost 10 years now (I own a 15-year old Canon USB flatbed scanner that has always worked reliably, and its Mac OS 9 drivers and management software are still a tried-and-trusted solution, so why fix what’s not broken?)
  • The 17-inch iMac G4 — Donated to me almost a year ago, it has proved to be another workhorse. It’s a bit of an all-purpose machine (again, I use it for writing, checking RSS feeds, email, browsing the Web, burning CDs and DVDs for archival purposes (its SuperDrive is quite reliable), and it’s also a great Mac for listening to music (local audio files in iTunes, audio CDs, Spotify) thanks to the Apple Pro Speakers delivering a surprisingly rich and powerful sound.

Other Mac laptops (the two clamshell iBooks, the PowerBook G3/400 ‘Lombard’, the two Titanium PowerBook G4) have been used more sporadically, but they still work just fine considering they’re 16/17-year-old machines. I’ll say, the blueberry iBook G3/300 still manages to make heads turn when I use it in some coffee shop or in a library. The battery of one of the Titanium PowerBooks still lasts approximately 2 hours and a half, and I know it’s not much in the era of MacBook Airs that last more than 12 hours on a single charge, but I find it impressive nonetheless, given that that battery is at least ten years old. I still use the TiBook(s) when I want a fast Mac OS 9 machine on the go, or to use some OS 9 and OS X applications and dictionaries whose licences are tied to a specific computer.

iOS devices

Okay, normally this wouldn’t be the place to talk about iOS devices, but considering the fast pace at which both iOS hardware and software are moving, all iOS devices in my collection are vintage tech now, so they’re worth mentioning. I have:

  • A 32 GB iPhone 5 (current main device), a 16 GB iPhone 4, a 16 GB iPhone 3GS and a 16 GB iPhone 3G. All working except the 3GS.
  • A 64 GB fourth-generation iPod touch, a 32 GB third-generation iPod touch, and a 16 GB first-generation iPod touch. All working.
  • A 32 GB third-generation iPad (Wi-Fi only), working very well, with a battery that still manages to last almost 2 days on a charge.

The iPhone 5 and the iPad 3 are my main devices, and the reason I’ve been accumulating other vintage iOS devices is that I’m working on a small book on iOS and I need to have working devices with different iOS versions installed. So far, I have iOS 3 to iOS 10 covered, except for iOS 8. On a practical level, these older devices still retain a degree of usefulness. They’re all still great for listening to music, or even podcasts; or for playing old games or using old apps that still serve a purpose. The iPhone 3G is still in use as my secondary phone, and the iPhone 4 is perfect as a personal hotspot when I visit my parents in Italy and need to use yet another SIM with a great data plan to connect to the Internet.

Newton devices

My Original MessagePad, MessagePad 2100, and eMate 300 are all still in use, but I’ll admit I’ve been only using the MessagePad 2100 on a regular basis in 2016. And sadly I’m in the process of cleaning this unit after discovering that the last batch of alkaline cells I put into it leaked, and leaked badly. The MessagePad 2100 is my true digital notebook, it’s always by my desk when I need to take some notes that a) I know won’t get lost, and b) I can just naturally write down in longhand instead of typing on the relatively small iPhone virtual keyboard. I know it may sound quirky or quaint, or perhaps even cumbersome, but bear in mind I’ve been using a Newton MessagePad since mid-2001 — that’s a lot of time, fine-tuning, and muscle memory; note taking on a Newton is very easy and handy for me.

Conclusion

Not long ago, I received an email out of the blue from someone who plainly asked me: How do you manage all that, all those machines and devices? It must be exhausting. Two or three years ago, for a brief period, I experienced a sort of crisis due to ‘vintage tech saturation’, for lack of a better expression. A few of my vintage Macs had developed a series of issues at the same time, and I felt overwhelmed, because I wanted to fix everything but had no time to do so. I started thinking that the fun of tinkering with vintage technology kind of vanishes when it all become a maintenance game. I was weary and stressed and for a moment I even considered the idea of selling or throwing all away and embrace tech minimalism. Of course I didn’t go through with it. When you have a collection of aging vintage machines and devices, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t take care of everything all the time, especially if, like me, you have a family, a job (translating/localising), a vocation (writing fiction), and other things you’re equally passionate about (photography).

So you just take it easy. You maintain these machines and devices the best you can, focussing on those you feel you rely on the most, and addressing issues one at a time when they surface. Thankfully, Macs are especially long-lasting, dependable computers, and in the end the real problems a G3 or G4 laptop may present, for instance, all revolve around hard drives, optical drives and batteries. I always try to look for spares when I have some time because I know these are the weakest spots for aging laptops. It’s a bit like having always fresh backups in case of emergency. Still, sometimes I’m caught by surprise — like with the Power Mac G4’s hard drive failure — and I have to wait a bit before I can take care of it.

As a final note, I continue to be amazed at what these 13-to-17 year old Macs can still do (provided you have a clear idea of their limits today and adjust your expectations accordingly). Given the current lukewarm interest Apple seems to display towards the Mac, it feels oddly reassuring to be surrounded by older yet reliable Macs and Mac OS software with which I still can carry out a certain amount of tasks rather effortlessly.

Added to the collection: Power Mac G4 and other accessories

PowerMac and iMac

These past years, my vintage collection has expanded mostly thanks to generous — sometimes very generous — donors. These last additions, instead, came from a ‘rescue mission.’ It’s been a while since I did my last, and I had missed the fun. Thanks to a valuable tip from my brother-in-law, I learnt that a local design studio was getting rid of a few vintage Macs and assorted accessories and peripherals, and they were basically telling people on social media to come and get them.

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll probably understand how I felt. I couldn’t pass up such an opportunity. From the photos the design studio put online, I knew I couldn’t take much with me (there were bulky printers, several beige desktop Macintosh G3 machines, a couple of older Power Macintosh 7300, an 8600, and a few graphite Power Mac G4s, plus three boxes of miscellaneous things covered by an intricate web of Apple ADB mice and SCSI cables), so I resolved to look for useful peripherals for my data retrieval service, and to rescue at least one of those Macs. I wish I could have taken more stuff away with me, but unfortunately I just don’t have the space.

As much as I love older machines, my interest was piqued by those graphite Power Macs. When I got there, I noticed that one of them had already gone. The remaining two were very similar, but one had an internal ZIP drive, the other did not. I have several ZIP disks, plus my PowerBook 5300 and PowerBook 1400 both have ZIP modules, then I have two other external ZIP drives — one SCSI, one USB — so ZIP disks are often a quick way to pass files among my vintage Macs. So, this Power Mac G4 with an internal ZIP drive was already drawing my attention. Still, I wanted to check the specifications of both Macs to see which was the better machine. Thankfully, Apple has this nice habit of indicating a Mac’s base configuration either on a label or by printing it on the computer itself. I wasn’t in a comfortable position, crouched behind the Power Macs, trying to read the tiny labels, but I managed to catch a 400 MHz on the label of the ZIP-less Power Mac, and a 500 MHz on the ZIP-equipped one, so I chose the latter.

Then my attention turned to the various accessories scattered nearby. There were a couple of Apple Extended Keyboard II keyboards, so of course I picked up one:

AEKII

I already have one, but it has the older QZERTY Italian layout, which I find particularly difficult to adjust to. This has the equally older Spanish layout, but it’s QWERTY, and shares more keys in the same position as the US/UK/ITA Pro layout I’m more accustomed with. (I still haven’t cleaned the keyboard thoroughly, but it’s not bad after a first pass, and believe me, you didn’t want to see a photo of its original condition!)

Next up, another very interesting peripheral:

Fujitsu MO drive

It’s not a bulky floppy drive, but a 3.5″ Fujitsu 230 MB SCSI Magneto-optical drive. There was a SCSI cable in good condition attached to it, plus that SCSI passthrough terminator you see in the photo. I took the whole package.

Last month I thought to myself, It’s a pity I don’t have a USB floppy drive, it could be useful for quick data retrieval without having to take out a floppy-equipped Mac every time I need to read one. Guess what I found among the tangle of SCSI cables:

USB floppy drive

It is the typical ‘Made in China’ unbranded affair, but I briefly tested it, and it works. So no complaints here.

I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. There were other things I could have picked up — keyboards, mice, cables — and other things that would have needed further inspection and more time. Then there was at least one thing I regret not taking: a 17-inch CRT Apple Studio Display, but I really really have no space for such a cumbersome item.

Studio17 side

If you’ve never seen one in person, you can’t imagine how imposing this thing is. To give you an idea, it’s bigger than an iMac G3, and is closer to an eMac in size and bulk. It would have made a nice companion for the Power Mac G4, but I guess I’ll look for the flat-panel 17-inch Studio Display, certainly more manageable.

Just as I was leaving, beneath a pile of other non-Mac equipment, there was this nice-looking cassette deck, a TEAC V-210C, manufactured around 1988:

TEAC cassette deck

I still have hundreds of tapes, and my Sony stereo cassette deck broke down a couple of years ago, leaving an old Aiwa walkman as my sole means to listen to cassette tapes. I asked the guys of the design studio whether it worked or not and they told me something along the lines of Who knows, but take it home and find out yourself, heh heh. So I did. And it works!

More about that Power Mac G4

IMG 1173

Above I said that I chose what appeared to be the better Power Mac by having a cursory glance at the label with the base configuration attached on the back of the machine. Once home, I examined it more carefully, and I was pleasantly surprised by a little detail I’d missed. The label actually says: 500 MHz / MP / 1M CACHE / DVD-V / 256MB SDRAM / HD 40G / 56K MDM. That “MP” stands for Multi Processor, making this a Dual 500 MHz Power Mac G4!

Another bonus: it actually came with 640 MB of RAM, and equipped with a SCSI card as well, which never hurts. The Mac was apparently last used in December 2008 and contained three user accounts which were basically empty. I had to use the Mac OS X Tiger DVD to boot the Mac and enable the root account, which I used to inspect the user accounts and then delete them. Among the software goodies: a full installation of Adobe CS3, plus FreeHand, StuffIt 12, and NeoOffice.

I was happy to find four 512 MB RAM sticks in my stash, which happened to be the exact type supported by this Power Mac, and voilà — I have brought it to the maximum RAM supported: 2 GB.

About this Mac  PMG4

The Mac came indeed with a 40 GB IBM Deskstar hard drive, which I discovered to be a 7200rpm drive. A quick check with Disk Utility didn’t find any problems with it. It’s rather fast, although a bit on the noisy side. The Mac also has a Combo optical drive: it reads CDs and DVDs, and writes CD-Rs and CD-RWs. My initial tests show that it works reliably when it comes to reading discs, not so much when writing them. But what I’m most bummed about is the ZIP drive, which doesn’t seem to work. System Profiler sees it, the unit appears to work when inserting disks, but nothing happens afterwards, and disks (even formatted, known-to-work disks) aren’t mounted on the desktop or detected by Disk Utility.

I thought it was a matter of drivers, but Mac OS X Tiger doesn’t need them to read ZIP disks from an internal drive. I thought it was a matter of jumper configuration on the back of the unit, but I’ve read that its current jumper-less configuration is the right one. I’ve seen units like this go for €25-30 on eBay; I also have an excellent DVD-RW/CD-RW drive salvaged from another computer — I might replace both in the future and have a fully-working Power Mac G4. Still, I really can’t complain. The Mac works very well, and the combination of dual G4 processors, 2 GB of RAM, and a 7200rpm drive makes for a surprisingly snappy machine overall. TenFourFox is quite responsive, possibly even more than under Mac OS X Leopard on faster machines. This is the Gigabit Ethernet Power Mac G4, so network transfers are very fast as well. This Mac has space for another two internal hard drives, so I’m thinking it’s a good candidate to act as a home server of sorts. I can’t wait to put it through its paces.

Everything else works

The Apple Extended Keyboard II only has one unresponsive key, but I’m reserving judgment until I have a chance to clean it thoroughly (it’s very dirty under the keys). The USB floppy drive works. The Fujitsu Magneto-optical drive works too: I was donated a 230 MB magneto-optical disk and last night I was finally able to access it on the PowerBook 1400:

MO drive and PowerBook 1400

And, as I already mentioned above, that TEAC cassette deck works as well. I’m very happy to be able to listen to tapes (and old mixtapes) again on my hi-fi stereo.

In conclusion, I wish I could have rescued more stuff (oh, that Studio Display!) but I’m quite satisfied with what I ended up selecting. The Dual 500 MHz Power Mac G4 is the most powerful machine of all those that were up for the taking, so… mission accomplished nonetheless!

A brief status update

handling-floppies.png

Brief status update

No, this place is not dead, but since April I haven’t had much time to write something related to this blog’s usual topics. I also spent less time with my oldest Macs, and all the other, more modern PowerPC Macs have been running very well and without issues. I’m always amazed by the stability and reliability of my small fleet of G3 and G4 systems running either Mac OS X Tiger or Leopard.

Conversely, I’m amazed at how utterly crappy and flawed the DuoDock power supply unit is. As you perhaps recall, in February I was given a complete Duo system consisting of a PowerBook Duo 280c and a DuoDock II. Unfortunately, the DuoDock didn’t power on and the PSU was emitting the infamous ‘tick of death’. Richard, the very generous donor, was a gentleman and shortly after sent me a working spare PSU. I swapped it with the faulty one and everything was fine, until one day last month this PSU too started ticking, and the system wouldn’t power on. I guess one day I’ll buy a soldering iron and learn to repair these things myself. But I swear, I’ve handled Macs and a lot of related peripherals for more than 25 years and I’ve never seen another machine or part as unreliable as the DuoDock’s PSU.

After the loss of Dropbox

In May, Dropbox stopped supporting PowerPC Macs running Mac OS X Tiger or Leopard. Needless to say, this was a major blow to my typical workflow, since I use a mix of current and vintage Macs and devices. I’m still trying to perfect an alternate solution that can be as smooth and ‘just working’ as Dropbox was. I’ll post it here as soon as I find it worth sharing. It’s a pity that Dropbox hasn’t been able to offer an ‘end of life’ version of its desktop client for Tiger/Leopard Macs.

About my data retrieval service

I thought the way I explained how my data retrieval service works was clear enough, but the way I’ve been contacted about it lately warrants a brief rant.

Four people have written to me enquiring about my service and my methods and my equipment. They all have critical data to be retrieved but they can’t make a copy of their original media and are afraid of sending me the original disks. I understand the concern. The only assurance I can make is that I will treat the disks as if they were my own and with the utmost care possible. These people, after a long email back-and-forth, after asking me every little bit of information, every detail of how I intended to handle their data, interrupted our correspondence and did not ultimately commit. Again, I understand that entrusting your precious data to a stranger and having to ship the disks internationally is a concern, but making me waste a considerable amount of time to then disappear is not cool, either.

It’s also not cool to pester me with repeated requests for tips and tricks about how to retrieve the data yourself. I mean, I can certainly give the occasional bit of advice, but I’ve been contacted by people who evidently could use my data retrieval service, but want to do the retrieval themselves, probably because they don’t want to pay me for it. And yet, they ask advice. Like going to an auto mechanic and, instead of leaving your car for a complete check-up, you approach the mechanic and ask him ‘tips’ to do the work yourself. It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

LC 575 or LC 580?

In my previous article, Finally: bringing Internet to my Colour Classic, I mentioned I have a motherboard from a Macintosh LC 580 in my possession, and wrote that it

…fits perfectly in a Colour Classic and makes for a nice overall upgrade (it has a Motorola 68LC040 at 33MHz CPU versus the original 68030 at 16MHz of the Colour Classic, and the RAM can be expanded to a maximum of 52 MB instead of the meagre 10 MB of the original motherboard).

A few readers have written to me, both via comments and private emails, that I got the reference wrong, that I must be referring to a Macintosh LC 575 motherboard, because the motherboard from an LC 580 wouldn’t fit in a Colour Classic without major modifications.

I want to thank everyone for the feedback. You are indeed correct — it’s a Macintosh LC 575 motherboard. And that quote should actually read:

Luckily, years ago I also acquired the motherboard from a Macintosh LC 575, which fits perfectly in a Colour Classic and makes for a nice overall upgrade (it has a Motorola 68LC040 at 33MHz CPU versus the original 68030 at 16MHz of the Colour Classic, and the RAM can be expanded to a maximum of 68 MB instead of the meagre 10 MB of the original motherboard).

Why I wrote LC 580

The person who gave me that motherboard 14 years ago didn’t remember whether it was from an LC 575 or 580, and I wrote ‘LC 580’ because, having never seen the motherboard of an LC 580 before, I relied on the information provided by Mactracker. The application lists the Macintosh LC 575 as having two ADB ports, and the LC 580 as having one. Given that, on paper, the technical specifications of the two Macs are rather similar, I used the difference in ADB ports to identify the motherboard in my possession — it has one ADB port only, so I deduced it was from an LC 580.

It turns out that Mactracker is wrong in this instance. The Macintosh LC 575, too, has just one ADB port, as correctly reported by Apple History, EveryMac.com and, of course, by Apple itself. I usually rely on Mactracker to quickly check up technical specifications for Apple products, because it’s usually a complete and reliable resource. But this little error threw me off track.

Motherboards: a visual comparison

Finally, in case other people get confused, here are a couple of pictures that should further clarify things visually:

Colour Classic and LC 575 motheboards
Macintosh LC 575 motherboard (left); Macintosh Colour Classic original motherboard (right) — [Image source]
 
LC 580 motheboard
Macintosh LC 580 motherboard — [Image source]

Finally: bringing Internet to my Colour Classic

Among the various goodies Richard donated me there was an Apple-branded Comm Slot Ethernet card (Part № 820-0607-A), which I hoped I could attach to my Colour Classic to bring Ethernet connectivity — and therefore Internet — to my favourite compact Mac. Now, the original Colour Classic motherboard doesn’t have a Comm Slot interface, its only expansion comes in the form of a PDS slot. Luckily, years ago I also acquired the motherboard from a Macintosh LC 580, which fits perfectly in a Colour Classic and makes for a nice overall upgrade (it has a Motorola 68LC040 at 33MHz CPU versus the original 68030 at 16MHz of the Colour Classic, and the RAM can be expanded to a maximum of 52 MB instead of the meagre 10 MB of the original motherboard). The LC 580’s motherboard also sports a Comm Slot interface, and the aforementioned Ethernet card can be installed without problems [Update: It’s actually a Macintosh LC 575 motherboard; see my clarification]:

Comm Slot Ethernet card installed

The first snag I encountered was right when I attempted to insert the motherboard with the attached Ethernet card back inside the Colour Classic. The top edge of the card, in fact, collided with a piece of plastic inside the Mac’s chassis that helps to keep the cables of the hard drive power connector in place. I took measurements and, not without difficulty, managed to cut away exactly where the plastic was blocking the card’s passage. Once firmly inserted the motherboard, I turned the Colour Classic on. The Mac booted normally, but there was no video. Suspicions fell immediately on the new card. Since the system had no way of recognising it, I thought, perhaps it defaulted to thinking that a video card was inserted in the Comm Slot, so it shut down internal video and expected an external connection. I had to make the system recognise the card.

Fortunately I had my copy of Apple’s Network Software Installer 1.5.1 on a floppy disk, which updates AppleTalk to version 58.1.5 and installs the most updated versions of a series of network extensions and drivers. I turned the Mac off, removed the card, turned the Mac on again, inserted the floppy and launched the Installer. After a few moments, AppleTalk was updated, the Apple Ethernet CS driver and related extensions installed (the following screenshot comes from a previous attempt, before I updated to AppleTalk 58.1.5):

Network install

To see if everything worked, once again I had to turn the Colour Classic off, remove the motherboard, install the Ethernet card, reinsert the motherboard and turn the Mac on. This time there was video, and the Mac booted normally.

Another good sign was when I connected an Ethernet cable from my router to the Colour Classic: the LED above the port turned on (that didn’t happen when I first attempted an EtherTalk connection between the Colour Classic and the PowerBook 1400). At this point it was merely a matter of configuring MacTCP:

MacTCP
 
MacTCP setup

The easiest way to set things up in MacTCP is to do a manual configuration. I did things right thanks mostly to two useful resources: Vintage Mac World’s Old Macintosh System Software and TCP/IP page, and the fantastic Classic Mac Networking page (scroll down until you find the MacTCP section). On this page in particular was a really useful clarification:

It is a common mistake to associate the “Server” mode of MacTCP with “DHCP Server”: this is not the case. Server mode is used with hardware MacIP routers like the GatorBox which assign the client a specified IP address from a pool of IP addresses, or with PPP which does a somewhat similar affair.

So I simply selected Obtain Address Manually, specified a Class C Address in the IP Address area, and entered my provider’s DNS addresses in the Domain Name Server Information area.

At this point, the only thing that was missing to check if the connection worked was a browser. On another floppy I had a copy of one of the earliest Mac browsers, Samba (MacWWW). I installed it and launched it. It threw some errors because it attempted to load pages at the old CERN website that are no longer at the original addresses, but once I entered a valid URL (I figured the afore-linked page at Vintage Mac World was simple enough to be loaded correctly), the webpage loaded almost instantly. I had to share my triumph:

But MacWWW 1.03 is indeed a very old browser, and today’s Web, unless you really know where to look, is too complex for this browser to load pages properly without throwing a bunch of errors. The day after I found a slightly newer browser in MacWeb 2.0. After installing it, and pointing it to the same Vintage Mac World’s webpage, the result was definitely prettier:

MacWeb 2.0

This browser, like MacWWW, can’t handle secure connections and the like, but at least is capable of loading embedded images in HTML pages correctly. The overall responsiveness is remarkable, considering the age of the hardware and the software involved.

I’m so happy that I’ve finally managed to bring the Colour Classic online. Not that I’m planning to browsing the Web much on this machine, but now that I know that it can access the Internet, I’m ready to move on to the next step, which involves configuring an email client and an email account, and even an FTP client (I’m thinking an old version of Fetch), so that I can exchange files with the Colour Classic via my own server if need be.

Not that everything was great with Palm devices, either

Netwon and WorkPad

Commenting on the final part of this article by Landon Dyer, where Dyer talks about the reasons the Newton failed compared to the Palm Pilot, Thomas Brand writes:

One of the miracles of the Palm Pilot was the reliability and ease of use of the out-of-box HotSync. The Newton came with a lot of features advertised on its box, faxing, beaming, emailing, and placing phone calls, but often those tasks were obstructed by the purchase of additional hardware and the required complication of the day.

I won’t discuss the reasons Dyer enumerates; he was a Newton developer, so his insights have certainly more value than mine. I’m just a Newton enthusiast who discovered the Newton ‘posthumously’ in 2001 and I’m still using it daily. I’m not finding particularly difficult doing stuff with my MessagePad 2100, my Original MessagePad and my eMate 300, but that’s probably because I’m using a few tools developed after the Newton was discontinued.

What I wanted to say is that — from the admittedly limited experience I’ve had with a Palm Pilot device of the same vintage — I just don’t understand how Palm users back then could put up with one drawback that strikes me (Newton user) as huge: non-persistent memory.

A few years ago I was kindly donated an IBM WorkPad 30X (which is a rebadged Palm IIIx). As you can see above and in this Flickr album I created back then, its size compared to a Newton MessagePad 2000 makes it a clear winner in portability. When I received this gift, being unfamiliar with Palm PDAs, I did some research and started looking for apps and software to make the most of the little guy. Along with the WorkPad I was also given a cradle to connect/sync with a Windows PC, so I installed HotSync and the Palm Desktop software on an old Toshiba Satellite I use when I need to connect legacy devices. I put some fresh AAA batteries in the WorkPad and started fiddling around with it for a while. I admit I liked (and still like) the WorkPad’s form factor and its well-balanced stylus.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a regular Newton user since 2001 and I’m accustomed to how the Newton handles handwriting recognition, but learning Palm’s Graffiti system was hard. It felt awfully slow and frustrating while writing, and I never got better or faster at it. A few weeks without using the WorkPad were enough to have to re-learn Graffiti, or at least to re-acquire the speed I had gained before with some training.

But imagine my surprise when one afternoon, while I was out, the batteries in the WorkPad died, and after purchasing new ones on the fly, I found out that all the new applications I had installed and all the notes I had entered were gone. I naïvely thought that the WorkPad would behave like my Newtons and store such information safely in the event of battery failure. Now, not all was lost. I soon discovered that it was enough to connect the WorkPad to the computer and launch a HotSync session. The software correctly restored everything as it was — at the time of the last sync, of course. So not exactly everything.

This however means that if you brought the WorkPad / Palm IIIx with you on a trip (or other Palm devices characterised by the same non-persistent memory feature), you should either make sure you put powerful, long-lasting batteries in it, or bring the computer along to constantly keep things in sync. This strikes me as a bit impractical, and when that first incident happened, I was surprised at how the WorkPad and similar Palm devices were/are so dependent on a frequent, constant connection with the computer. Thankfully the Palm Desktop software is indeed very good and reliable (even the Windows version I’m using). Newtons may have less efficient sync procedures, or it may be more cumbersome to extract information from a Newton device, but I find Newtons to be more reliable and more self-sufficient PDAs. I can see the appeal a smaller, cheaper device may have had back then, but — though I’m certainly biased here — I’m not sure I understand how Palm users put up with devices so prone to potential data loss (unless duly babysat), and so dependent on syncing software and a computer. I guess Palm had a different approach to what ‘personal digital assistant’ meant, and its devices were to be considered just handy portable instruments to store information in a more transient way. Newtons have always felt more like ‘portable computers’ to me.

A hard drive for the SE/30 — The long rescue

After the unexpected setback with the hard drive extracted from the Quadra 950, I once again rummaged inside a couple of boxes with stored assorted vintage stuff in search of a possible candidate. I found a few hard drives (both SCSI and IDE) in “I honestly don’t remember” conditions, so I took out three SCSI drives and put them in my external drive enclosure, connected to the Macintosh Colour Classic. The first drive, a 500 MB Quantum-something, made a few terrible clicks while trying to mount, and repeatedly failed. The second, a nice 9 GB Seagate ST39140N made a low humming noise when I powered up the SCSI enclosure, then silence. All the diagnostic tools at my disposal didn’t even detect its presence on the SCSI chain. The third, a surprisingly compact and lightweight 1.2 GB Quantum Fireball drive, powered up and made all the right little noises that indicate a possibly functioning hard drive. Also, it was immediately detected on the SCSI chain, and FWB Mounter gave me hope:

FWB Mounter

There it was, SCSI ID 4, “Recoverable”. And the adventure began.

I tried to mount it with FWB Mounter, but mounting failed after two long minutes during which the Mac appeared completely frozen. I launched FWB Hard Disk Toolkit 2.5, but the result was the same. My initial approach, I have to say, was to try to read and/or salvage any useful data stored on the drive before attempting a reformatting. Then I remembered I had a CD-ROM with a copy of DiskWarrior for the classic Mac OS (version 2.1, I think), so the fastest route was switching to a Mac with both a CD-ROM drive and a SCSI port. The PowerBook G3 Lombard was at hand, and fit the criteria. I booted in Mac OS 9.2.2, launched DiskWarrior, but it didn’t even detect the Quantum hard drive in the SCSI enclosure. I rebooted in Mac OS X Tiger and tried DiskWarrior 3 under Mac OS X. Same result. I rebooted again in Mac OS 9.2.2 and launched Disk First Aid, which did detect the drive but gave up almost immediately during the verification process, saying something along the lines of “This disk has too many errors and I can’t repair it.”

Since I still have all my Compact Macs out these days after performing a general check-up on them, I took the Macintosh Classic, connected the SCSI drive enclosure to it, and launched Norton Disk Doctor. At first, it didn’t detect the Quantum drive, but after issuing the “Show Missing Disks” command, the drive showed up. Clicking on Examine started a very long process where Norton Disk Doctor appeared to be running in slow-motion. After twenty minutes with the progress bar in the “Checking for bad blocks” test that was not progressing, I skipped the test (as soon as the Mac registered my input). When it came to checking the drive’s directory structure, Norton Disk Doctor kept throwing alarming errors. It indeed tried to fix a few issues, but I was starting to get the feeling that whatever had been on that drive was irrecoverable.

From that point on, I dropped any attempt to diagnose or repair the drive and focussed on actually trying to format and mount it.

On the Macintosh Classic I have an older version (1.8) of the FWB hard disk utilities, so I launched HDT Primer and see what it could do. HDT Primer recognised the drive and let me perform a low-level formatting, warning that the operation would take 81 minutes. I let it work and went to my studio to take care of other business. When I returned to the living-room after about an hour, HDT Primer was already done, and a dialog box informed me that the hard drive had been successfully formatted. So I went and tried to initialise/partition it, but unfortunately I kept getting errors.

Another frustrating chapter was beginning: trying different applications (on different Macs) to create partitions and logical volumes on the disk. Since I knew that that Quantum Fireball drive had bad sectors, I figured that the best course of action was attempting to partition it in different ways, so that maybe I could at least get to a point where, say, two out of three or four partitions were in a good-enough state to be mounted as volumes. After many, many fruitless efforts, and with Apple’s Drive Setup being this close to succeeding, my friend Grant Hutchinson suggested I tried using Silverlining Pro. I looked in my archives and found an old copy of Silverlining, then a newer one (Silverlining Pro 6.1). Thanks to Silverlining Pro 6.1 I could install a proper driver on the drive and managed to create two partitions of roughly 600 MB each; then, with version 6.5.8 I was finally able to initialise and mount one of those partitions.

I then used Norton Disk Doctor again to see whether such partition was good enough — and again, the “Checking for bad blocks” test was taking an inordinate amount of time, so I skipped it, assumed there were bad blocks, and let Norton perform the remaining tests. The disk passed them all, and knowing that the directory structure was sound was enough for me. With the disk now mounted on the PowerBook 1400’s desktop, I carried out some informal tests of my own, copying files to and from the partition (which I simply called “Q1”), launching applications from Q1, unmounting and mounting Q1 several times, and so forth. All went well, and I was actually surprised at seeing how fast this drive is in reading/writing files. Again, thanks to Silverlining Pro I was able to instruct the drive to mount automatically the Q1 partition when connected. Then I powered off the SCSI enclosure, disconnected the drive, changed the jumper configuration so that the SCSI ID was 0 instead of 4 (as it should be for an internal drive), opened the Macintosh SE/30 and mounted the Quantum Fireball hard drive on the metal shelf.

Drive inside the SE30

As you can see, the Quantum Fireball drive is rather slim (just so you have an idea: the former 40 MB beast of a hard drive that was inside the SE/30 weighed 850 grams, this Quantum Fireball weighs less than 250 grams).

I closed the SE/30, connected it to the mains, and turned it on for the moment of truth.

Silverlining

This, appearing at startup, was comforting. Then of course I got the floppy icon with the flashing question mark. Normal, since there wasn’t yet a valid system software installed on the drive. So I took the original set of floppy disks for System 7.0 and inserted the first one. After choosing a System 7.0 installation tailored for the Macintosh SE/30, it was time to see whether the Installer would recognise the Q1 partition… and it did! Once installation was complete, I restarted the SE/30 and it booted into System 7 in roughly 20 seconds. I was amazed and also very happy that my efforts and the time spent on this hadn’t been a complete waste…

Q1 mounted

So now the Macintosh SE/30 has a working-enough hard drive. Of course, it’s a temporary solution (the drive has a fair amount of bad sectors), but for now it’s usable, and even if I cannot take advantage of all the original 1.2 GB of storage space, a 620 MB partition for this system is far more than enough.

Older Opera versions: untangling the mess

(This is just a quick update of some information contained in this old post.)

If you’re using a Mac with a PowerPC G4 or G5 (or a fast G3) processor, the Web browser I recommend is without doubt TenFourFox. Some people prefer Opera, and I myself have witnessed that it may be a better option on certain G3 machines — a little faster than TenFourFox, a little better than Safari itself. TenFourFox remains the most secure option, of course, but sometimes one has to accept some compromises.

The problem with Opera is understanding the minimum requirements for your machine, considering the great number of versions released during its history. In other words, you may ask yourself: I have a Mac with Mac OS 8.6, or 9.1, or OS X 10.2 Jaguar, or 10.4 Tiger, etc. — what is the most updated version of Opera I can download for my vintage system? (You can download older versions of Opera from the Opera archive.)

In the past, finding an accurate answer to that question was certainly easier than today. A quick search on Opera’s support site revealed a great page titled Opera System Requirements that neatly outlined the minimum system requirements for each version of Opera from 5.0 onward. Then, sometime in the last two years, it has been removed and modified. I searched past snapshots of that page using the ever-useful WayBack Machine and one of the most recent is this one from February 2013.

For redundancy’s sake, and to provide an easier way to retrieve this information, I’ve copied the relevant contents of that page and I’m posting them here. I hope it may be of help.


 

Opera 12
Mac OS X Leopard (10.5), or greater.
32-bit and 64-bit Intel systems supported.

Opera 11.50 to 11.64
Mac OS X Leopard (10.5), or greater.
Only Intel-based systems supported.

Opera 11
Mac OS X Tiger (10.4) or higher.
Only Intel-based systems supported.

Opera 10
Last release: version 10.63
Mac OS X Tiger (10.4) or higher.
Intel- or PowerPC-based systems supported (hence the larger file size).
[Addendum from personal experience: Opera 10.10 works under Mac OS X 10.3.9]

Opera 9
Last release: version 9.64
Mac OS X Panther (10.3) or higher [OS X Jaguar (10.2) may work but is officially unsupported]
Intel- and PowerPC-based systems supported (hence the larger file size).

Opera 8
Last release: version 8.54
Mac OS X Jaguar (10.2) or higher.
PowerPC-based systems supported.

Opera 7
Last release: version 7.54
Mac OS X Puma (10.1) or higher.
PowerPC-based systems supported.

Opera 6
Last release: version 6.03
Mac OS 9 or higher.
PowerPC-based systems supported.

Opera 5
Mac OS 7.5 – Mac OS 9 [Opera 5 will not run on OS X]
PowerPC-based systems supported.


Compact Flash performance on the PowerBook 5300: very first impressions

In my article about the recently received PowerBook 1400c, I wrote:

The intriguing part of this setup is booting from the Compact Flash card: everything is even more responsive (opening applications, opening files, saving files) and the PowerBook becomes practically silent. […]

Just for fun, I performed an informal test. I booted the PowerBook 1400 in Mac OS 8.1 from its internal hard drive, then I booted in Mac OS 7.6.1 from the CF card, then I booted in Mac OS 8.6 from the PCMCIA Toshiba hard drive, measuring boot times using my iPhone’s stopwatch (all the following are cold boots, not just restarts; all times are approximate):

  • Internal hard drive (Mac OS 8.1): 54 seconds.
  • Compact Flash card (Mac OS 7.6.1): 47 seconds.
  • PCMCIA hard drive (Mac OS 8.6): 1 minute, 12 seconds.

As you can see, on this PowerBook 1400c there isn’t a dramatic difference between booting from the internal hard drive and from the Compact Flash card. Maybe it’s because the hard drive isn’t a bad performer after all; maybe it’s because of the G3/333 processor upgrade; I don’t know. Earlier today I wanted to test a hunch I had — that the Compact Flash solution would be an even better alternative for my PowerBook 5300. This machine has just a 117 MHz processor, and a noticeably slower hard drive than the one in the PowerBook 1400.

So I inserted the Compact Flash card with Mac OS 7.6.1 in the PowerBook 5300 and performed the same test as quoted above. First I booted the PowerBook 5300 from its internal hard drive, then I selected the CF card in the Startup Disk control panel, turned off the machine, and booted it from the CF card, again measuring boot times with a stopwatch. The results:

  • Internal hard drive (Mac OS 8.1): 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
  • Compact Flash card (Mac OS 7.6.1): 1 minute, 5 seconds.

Less than half the time when booting from the CF card! True, those are two different versions of Mac OS, but the amount of extensions loaded during start-up is more or less the same.

After starting the PowerBook 5300 from the CF card, I opened control panels, applications, files, and the PowerBook 5300 felt way more responsive than when operating from the internal hard drive. And considering how noisy the 1.1 GB IBM hard drive is, one really appreciates the quiet when working from the Compact Flash card.

As I said, these are just very first impressions, and I’ll perform a more thorough investigation in the following days, but what I’ve seen so far has left me rather amazed. I expected a better performance overall, since that internal hard drive is definitely a slug, but the difference is noticeable even after a cursory examination.

Added to the collection: PowerBook 1400c

PowerBook 1400c

This year, Christmas has come a bit earlier for me — I’m truly grateful to Alex Roddie for donating this beautiful PowerBook 1400c. The machine is in great shape, has very nice tech specs, and came with a bunch of extras which pretty much make it a complete system.

This is a PowerBook 1400c/166 from 1997, which means that it was already one of the best models in the PowerBook 1400 series when it came out, featuring the better active-matrix colour (TFT) 11.3″ display (the 1400cs had a DualScan passive matrix display), and the faster PowerPC 603ev CPU at 166 MHz. But what’s even better is that this unit comes with a Sonnet Crescendo G3 processor upgrade card installed, meaning its original processor has been replaced by a PowerPC 750 (G3) running at 333 MHz. It has 48 MB of RAM and an internal 2 GB hard drive.

Sonnet Crescendo sticker

And now, the extras:

  • Floppy drive module, 6x CD-ROM drive module, and VST Zip 100 drive module. All three drives work perfectly.
  • Two Transcend PCMCIA Compact Flash adapters. One includes an industrial-grade Transcend 512 MB Compact Flash card.
  • A Farallon PCMCIA Ethernet card, plus cable, plus an Ethernet cable extension (which is really useful when you have short Ethernet cables).

The PowerBook came with Mac OS 8.1 installed on the main hard drive, and a standard install of Mac OS 7.6.1 on the 512 MB CF card.

The only two ‘issues’ (between quotes, because neither really bothers me): the PowerBook doesn’t have a battery, and the CD-ROM drive module is missing the front panel. The latter, I’ve read, appears to be a common issue with this kind of modules. The drive works well and has read all the CDs I’ve thrown at it in the past few days, so I really can’t complain. As for the missing battery, even if the PowerBook had one, it would have probably held very little charge anyway, and it would have added a considerable weight to the machine. Thankfully, Alex left the empty plastic shell, so that the battery compartment looks populated from outside and there isn’t a hole where the battery is supposed to be. Normally, a PowerBook 1400 weighs 3 kilograms fully loaded. Thanks to the missing battery, my unit weighs approximately 2.7 kilograms. Not bad. (For comparison’s sake: the PowerBook G3 Lombard weighs 2.7 kilograms, the PowerBook G4 Titanium weighs 2.4 kilograms, the PowerBook G4 12″ weighs 2.1 kilograms, and the original clamshell iBook G3 weighs 3.04 kilograms.)

I’m still in the ‘playing around’ phase, importing needed applications and documents, and generally getting the feel of this machine, but I’m already impressed by its responsiveness (thanks to the G3 upgrade), its expandability and versatility, and of course by its keyboard. I had heard many people praise the PowerBook 1400’s keyboard as one of the best keyboards in an Apple laptop, and I can confirm its reputation. I was already finding the PowerBook 5300’s keyboard good enough, but the 1400’s is an order of magnitude better.

The intriguing part of this setup is booting from the Compact Flash card: everything is even more responsive (opening applications, opening files, saving files) and the PowerBook becomes practically silent. If you have a PowerBook of this vintage that has at least one PCMCIA slot, and want to try this kind of ‘solid state’ solution, check out this article on Alex Roddie’s Macintosh HD blog: Create a Compact Flash boot drive for your old PowerBook.

I also happen to own another excellent accessory that has become even more useful since this PowerBook 1400 entered my little collection: a 2 GB PCMCIA Toshiba hard drive. It’s not particularly fast, but one real advantage is that it can be used to quickly transfer files between older and newer G3/G4 PowerBooks, since it is recognised by all PowerBooks without having to be reformatted.

Just for fun, I performed an informal test. I booted the PowerBook 1400 in Mac OS 8.1 from its internal hard drive, then I booted in Mac OS 7.6.1 from the CF card, then I booted in Mac OS 8.6 from the PCMCIA Toshiba hard drive, measuring boot times using my iPhone’s stopwatch (all the following are cold boots, not just restarts; all times are approximate):

  • Internal hard drive (Mac OS 8.1): 54 seconds.
  • Compact Flash card (Mac OS 7.6.1): 47 seconds.
  • PCMCIA hard drive (Mac OS 8.6): 1 minute, 12 seconds.

(My main machine, a mid-2009 MacBook Pro, with a 2.66 GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 8 GB of RAM takes no less than three minutes to complete the boot process. I really need to replace its hard drive with an SSD, but I’m digressing.)

I’m truly enjoying this ‘new’ PowerBook 1400, and it will likely replace the PowerBook 5300ce as my main vintage laptop for writing, Newton connection and QuickTake photos management. It’s simply faster, has a better keyboard, and is even more versatile. It’s a pity that its main limitation is the maximum amount of RAM — 64 MB, which was okay in 1997, but feels a bit tight especially if you own a PowerBook 1400 with a G3 processor upgrade. Due to the low amount of maximum RAM, you can’t install Mac OS X on this machine (though I guess the performance would be ridiculous even if it were possible), and even Mac OS 9.2 is problematic. All the suggestions from PowerBook 1400 owners I’ve read online point to Mac OS 8.1 and 8.6 as preferred system versions for this machine (if you have more than 24 MB of RAM installed), and I have to agree. I’m happy with the 8.1 installation that came with the PowerBook, and I’ll probably upgrade to 8.6 to see if I can get a PCMCIA Wireless card working with the PowerBook.

Final fun fact: I inserted the PowerBook 1400 serial number in TattleTech and the resulting information is that this unit was assembled in Elk Grove, California, USA on July 30, 1997.

Links

  • I think it’s worth adding Alex Roddie’s Macintosh HD blog to your bookmarks. Much like this site, it’s not updated very often, but when it is, it’s always a pleasure to read.
  • If you’re looking for PowerBook 1400-related resources, an excellent starting place is Low End Mac’s PowerBook 1400 page. There are a lot of interesting links at the bottom. You’ll occasionally stumble on a dead link, but the Wayback Machine is your friend.
  • If you’re specifically interested in reading about the Sonnet Crescendo G3 upgrade card, you’ll like the review by Joost van de Griek.