Ars Technica takes another trip to the past

After Andrew Cunningham’s experiment in 2014 with a PowerBook G4 running Mac OS 9.2.2, another tech writer from Ars Technica goes vintage, with an even older, but more fascinating setup: a Macintosh IIsi (introduced in late 1990), running System 7.5.5, and connected to a Macintosh Portrait Display (similar vintage). Back then, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with how Cunningham approached his exploration, and I wrote an article in response detailing my observations: Actual work on vintage Macs is possible.

This time I must say I enjoyed Chris Wilkinson’s article so much more than I did Cunningham’s. Chris’ approach seemed more open, and he sounded definitely more patient and willing to deal with the most challenging aspects of using a 28-year-old machine today. His is an excellent write-up of the experience, and I urge you to give it a read. As for my personal observations, I have very little to add.

In his conclusion, Chris writes [emphasis mine]:

In contrast, taking the IIsi through its paces was a joy. The limitations of the machine, with barely enough power to run more than one application at once, demands your attention to be 100 percent devoted to any single task. Paradoxically, it often felt like I was more productive with significantly fewer resources at hand. It captured and holds my attention on a single problem, rather than splitting my attention across dozens of unrelated tasks. Coming in with low expectations and knowing roughly what 20MHz can do for me these days, I came away from my sojourn pleasantly surprised.

This is something I have experienced myself numerous times when using my vintage Macs, and it’s the main reason I generally prefer to bring a vintage Mac with me when I’m not working from home (if you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed the occasional ‘Today’s vintage mobile office‘ photo). It really helps me stay focused, especially when I need to do some creative writing.

As I said, I really liked how Chris approached his vintage challenge. A couple of things I may have done differently: first, I’d have probably got more performance out of the IIsi by keeping it on System 7.1 — less feature-rich than 7.5.5, but also less RAM-hungry. And the second thing is related to music. Instead of pushing the Macintosh IIsi to its limits by handling MP3 files, I would have looked for an external SCSI CD-ROM drive, and just listened to audio CDs while working (the Control Strip had a handy module for quick access to CD playback controls). But this is just nitpicking.

Enjoy the article: 1990, meet 2018: How far does 20MHz of Macintosh IIsi power go today? by Chris Wilkinson.

 

 

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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]

Reader email: Performa 6320 and more

I have accumulated a bit of a backlog as regards to personal emails. I launched this weblog with very few expectations since it is obviously addressed to a niche readers’ base. Instead, it turned out to be more successful than I thought. An increasing number of readers have been writing me asking for tips and suggestions, even suggesting topics to cover. In the following weeks I’ll do my best to give more focus and attention to System Folder, and I’ll also try to get back more promptly to the nice people writing me privately.

Speaking of readers’ emails, every now and then I receive messages asking questions and opinions to which I can only provide an answer based on my personal experience. I feel it’s not enough. I may not know about some resources or possible uses for vintage Macs, so I believe it’s fair to share these requests and do some brainstorming in public, involving other readers (and possibly vintage Mac aficionados) out there.

Here’s an example at hand. Agostino wrote me two months ago. I’ve been terribly busy and therefore I haven’t been able to help him properly, yet. So I took the liberty to translate his email and share it with you. If you have ideas / opinions / suggestions, please chime in in the comments.

Hello, Riccardo

I have a Performa 6320. I’d love to put it back on its feet but I don’t know where to begin. For example, the PRAM battery will have to be replaced for sure, because the Mac doesn’t even remember the date and time, so I tried to remove it but the Performa’s case seems impenetrable. Not to mention how difficult it’s been to get hold of a bit of software… So for starters, I’m asking you if you know of online resources that can help me, because I do not find them or maybe I just do not know how to look for them.

Then I was wondering whether you believe a 1992 Performa 400 and a 1990 LC can still be useful today — and for what — or the game is simply not worth the candle and it’s better to take them to a recycling facility. It breaks my heart to throw them away! They are all equipped with many peripherals…

My usual workaround for vintage Macs with dead PRAM batteries is to keep them always plugged in. This way, they won’t lose track of date and time. (Of course I don’t keep all my vintage Macs plugged in, only those I use with enough frequency as to be bothered by having to change the date and time manually every time). As for buying new PRAM batteries, Other World Computing still sells some, and occasionally someone in the LEM Swap list comes up with these kinds of batteries, either new or used but still working.

For taking apart the Performa 6320, I have made available Apple’s Service Manual for Macintosh Performa 6200-6300 Series for download. It’s a rather complete reference.

As for software, that Performa can run System 7.5.3 to Mac OS 9.1, and that means a lot of classic Mac software should work. You can find a few relevant resources in the ‘Classic Environment’ link category in the sidebar, specifically System 7 Today, the Info-Mac archive, and the Macintosh Garden. The latter is a very good place if you want to use your vintage Performa as a sort of retro-gaming machine.

Regarding the Performa 400 (aka Macintosh LCII) and the LC and their possible usefulness today, well, firstly it depends on their configuration. I would try to maximise their RAM (10 MB is the maximum for both) and find a PDS Ethernet card to connect them to a LAN with more modern Macs more easily (especially for file transfers). I like the LC form factor because, even if it’s not an all-in-one Mac like the compacts, it doesn’t take much space on a desk, and a 14-inch Macintosh Color Monitor on top of it is the perfect match.

What would I do if I had to find a use for such Macs? Typically, with Macs of that vintage and capabilities, I tend to favour the following uses:

  • Distraction-free creative writing. If I hadn’t a Colour Classic, I would use my LCII for that task.
  • Something database-related. I’d look for an old copy of FileMaker and do something with it. I have created a small database to keep records of my books and the books I borrow from libraries, for instance, but the possibilities are many.
  • Retro-gaming. When I have time, I surely enjoy things like Half-Life 2 and Bioshock, but nothing beats playing Pac-Man, SimCity and other ‘oldies but goldies’ on a vintage Mac.
  • Data retrieval. Especially in combination with working peripherals of the same age, a vintage Mac can be very useful to retrieve old files, either residing on obsolete physical supports, or written by discontinued applications or in old formats that need vintage applications to be converted into something readable.

But this is me. Other people may have more specific, sophisticated, nerdy suggestions. It all depends on your disposition towards tinkering, generally. There are people who have been able to use such Macs as fax and print servers, as network bridges between modern Macs and a LocalTalk subnetwork, as scanning workstations (in combination with that great SCSI scanner that never dies and still makes great scans), and so on and so forth.

So, let’s hear your suggestions, and let’s help Agostino find some good resources and uses for his vintage Macs.