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.

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.

Checking up on my Compact Macs

#alttext#

I’ve been a bit under the weather these past days, so I thought that one thing I could do while staying at home was checking up on my favourite part of my little vintage collection: the Compact Macs. This check was long overdue anyway, and what happened recently with my poor PowerBook Duo 280c had me somewhat concerned with the health of other vintage machines.

I currently own five Compact Macs:

  • A Macintosh 128K, which is the only non-working Mac of the bunch. It needs the analogue board replaced and the task involves some work with a soldering iron. I don’t have such tool, and probably wouldn’t dare use it anyway.
  • A Macintosh SE FDHD, with 2 MB of RAM and a 40 MB hard drive, running System 6.0.8.
  • A Macintosh SE/30, with 8 MB of RAM and a 40 MB hard drive, running System 7.1.
  • A Macintosh Classic, with 4 MB of RAM and an 80 MB hard drive, running System 6.0.8.
  • A Macintosh Colour Classic: its original motherboard (with a Motorola 68030 at 16 MHz) has 6 MB of RAM, then I also have the motherboard of an LC575 (with a Motorola 68LC040 at 33 MHz) with 4 MB of RAM; the Colour Classic originally had an 80 MB hard drive, replaced four years ago with a 160 MB hard drive. It currently runs System 7.1.

I first checked on the most problematic of the group, the SE/30. The two major issues it displayed before storing it away were the lack of sound and the occasional appearance of strange patterns on the screen upon booting (though different from the dreaded ‘Simasimac’ effect described for example here). I had never opened up this Mac since it was donated to me, and I feared that with these symptoms I would find a very dirty motherboard with evident signs of leaking capacitors and whatnot. But when I pulled it out, I was kind of surprised:

#alttext#

I am no professional technician, granted, but this doesn’t look like the dirty, gunk-covered motherboard I was expecting. After a careful visual inspection, I really wasn’t able to detect any component with serious leaking on the outside. Of course, the Mac’s lack of sound may still indicate that a capacitor somewhere is failing (though I also wonder: what if the failure is in the thin, frail-looking speaker cable that connects to the socket located at J11 on the board?). Anyway, there was some dust laying around — again, much less than expected, considering how overall dirty the rest of the SE/30 looked when I opened it — so I blew it away and then gently scrubbed the various components with an old medium-strength toothbrush, just in case.

When I finally turned the SE/30 on, there still was no sound coming from it, but at least the screen was fine. The system did not load, though, and instead of the Happy Mac icon, I got the floppy icon with the flashing question mark. The hard drive in this machine is quite noisy and I heard it spin up. The activity LED was on. I inserted one of the floppy disks I have made, containing minimum system installations so that I can boot these Macs from the floppy drive, and the SE/30 happily booted from it. I was also amazed to discover that the backup battery still works — the Mac’s date and time were correct, with the clock being seven minutes ahead — considering this Mac had remained in storage for at least one year without power. The hard drive did not mount, as expected, so it appears that this is the only current issue with this machine (along with the lack of sound, yes).

I removed the hard drive (an old 40 MB Quantum ProDrive) to perform further testing by putting it in a very reliable external SCSI enclosure I resort to in such circumstances. I was amazed at the size of that thing. Here’s a photo: the SE/30 hard drive is on the left, while on the right you can see a later Conner 160 MB hard drive, pulled from my Colour Classic:

#alttext#

I have witnessed many hard drive failures, but in my testing this drive displayed a bit of a puzzling behaviour: on the hardware side, it powers up and seems to be spinning up also, and doesn’t make strange sounds that would indicate mechanical failure. On the software side, and unlike other dead drives I have around, this drive is correctly detected on the SCSI chain and identified by tools such as SCSI Probe, Norton Disk Doctor, and the FWB Utilities. Yet it evidently is unreadable for the Macs I connected it to, and I don’t even get the “Do you want to format it?” dialog box. Norton Disk Doctor quits the Examine procedure seconds after commencing it, and FWB Mounter has probably given the first real clue as to what may be going on, claiming that it can’t read the drive’s first block.

All this to say that I’m left with the impression that this hard drive could still be salvageable, perhaps by performing some sort of low-level formatting, but I’d really like to try extracting data from it before doing so.

The SE/30 is the most powerful and expandable of the Compact Macs I have, and I plan to do what I can to keep it in operation. At first I thought I had no useful hard drive substitute, but then it occurred to me that since my Quadra 950 isn’t currently working, I could transplant the Quadra’s internal hard drive (a 400 MB unit) into the SE/30, so I can still use the SE/30 and put an otherwise idle hard drive to work at the same time. A bit of a win-win situation.

By the way, this SE/30 also comes with a SuperMac Technologies Spectrum SE/30 PDS video card, so that I can even hook up an external monitor. I tried to find more information on this card on the Web, but without much luck. If you could help me out on this, I’d appreciate it. I just like to know what kind of monitors/resolutions it supports, and whether it brings some other capabilities with it. What I’d really love to get for my SE/30, though, is an Ethernet card. If you have one, let’s talk!

SE/30 check-up summary: The machine works. Issues before storing it the last time were display artifacts and lack of sound. New issues exhibited after bringing it out of storage: failing hard drive. Corrective actions undertaken: (planned) hard drive replacement.


Next up, I checked the Colour Classic. This Mac has never given me any problem, but four years ago its internal 80 MB hard drive failed to mount and sounded like it had difficulties spinning up. My friend Grant Hutchinson kindly sent me a 160 MB replacement, and I performed what can only be described as a painful hard drive replacement, which I documented here. In that article, I wrote:

In the next days I will restore the contents of the old hard drive (what I had from the last backup I did before the incident) and see if it powers up using an external SCSI enclosure.

I remember checking it only once at the time: the drive didn’t appear to work, I was busy, so I just left the drive in the SCSI enclosure and forgot about it. Meanwhile, sometime in early 2014 the 160 MB hard drive Grant sent me stopped working. Again, having little time to do a proper check-up, I just put the Colour Classic away. What happened when I pulled out my vintage Macs and equipment a few days ago was rather amazing: the previous 80 MB hard drive I’d left in the SCSI enclosure came back to life! I tested and re-tested it with different diagnostic tools and by powering it up and down several times. It looked reliable enough, while the 160 MB unit that replaced it was looking unquestionably dead, so for the first time since I’ve owned a Mac I was doing a reverse transplant, putting the original hard drive back in the Colour Classic, and again performing the painful replacement operation (painful for my fingers). But this time I figured I’d do some minor modifications in order to make this procedure a bit less painful in the future.

If you go back for a moment to the afore-linked post about the Colour Classic hard drive replacement, you’ll notice that the hard drive in the Colour Classic is mounted on a plastic tray that slides deep in the Mac’s innards. The plastic tab on the tray’s back is just too short and too slippery to grasp to easily slide the drive out once you unplug the data and power cables. So I’ve come up with a crude but effective solution — wrapping the tab in that thin-but-strong adhesive tape used for packaging — this way next time I won’t have to hurt my fingers trying to reach the recessed tab:

#alttext#

The hard drive was the only pending issue with the Colour Classic, and it has been resolved, at least for now. My distraction-free writing environment is back:

#alttext#

Colour Classic check-up summary: The machine works. Issues before storing it the last time were just a failing hard drive. New issues exhibited after bringing it out of storage: none. Corrective actions undertaken: hard drive replacement.


The Macintosh SE FDHD is the best-preserved Compact Mac I own. It was a gift from a technician friend back in 2002 or 2003 and it’s just beautiful inside and out. When you open it, you immediately notice it has always been kept in a clean environment. Everything is clean as if this Mac had just come out of the factory. Not bad for an almost 25-year-old machine (decoding the serial number, this SE was manufactured in Ireland around March 1990).

Anyway, the SE didn’t have any issues the last time I used and stored it, and luckily didn’t present any new issues when checking it up the other day, apart from the backup battery, which understandably has died (it was manufactured in 1989 as reported on its label). The reason I opened up this Mac was to upgrade its RAM. While cleaning up before Christmas, I found four 30-pin RAM sticks in an envelope (1 MB each) that I pulled from the Quadra 950 when I upgraded its RAM three years ago. Seeing that a) the Macintosh SE only had 2 MB of RAM, and b) that it uses the same 30-pin RAM sticks as the Quadra, I figured I could try an upgrade. What I hoped is that my SE’s motherboard was a ‘Jumper type’ board, not a ‘Solder type’ board:

#alttext#

#alttext#

According to the Service Source manual for the Macintosh SE, the older ‘Solder type’ motherboard “uses a solder-type resistor to identify system memory configurations; a resistor is installed in R35 for 1 MB and in R36 for 2 MB. The revised logic board uses a jumper to identify system memory.”

You see where this is going: on the ‘Solder type’ board, you have to clip the resistors as you install more RAM, while on the ‘Jumper type’ board, you just move or remove a jumper, which is immensely better if you have to revert to a previous RAM configuration in case the new sticks don’t work or are incompatible for some reason. Since I have no way of re-soldering resistors, I would leave the RAM as it was in case I had the ‘Solder type’ motherboard. As luck would have it, my SE had the ‘Jumper type’ motherboard, so the upgrade was easy.

As I was closing up the Mac, one of the screws fell and I had the distinct impression it fell inside the machine somewhere. But it was nowhere to be seen, and shaking the Mac I couldn’t hear it move. I began to freak out: I didn’t want to close up everything before finding the screw because what if it was stuck in some nook, only to move around at a later moment, with the Mac turned on, etcetera? You don’t want to have a loose screw in your Compact Mac (or in any Mac, for that matter), so I started disassembling it even more, removing both the hard drive and floppy drive. Nothing. At this point I was beginning to think that the screw had actually fallen on the floor, and indeed it had, ending up quite far away from where I was working; that’s why I had not found it when I checked the first time.

I was in a rush to reassemble the Mac and turn it on to see whether it detected the added RAM, so I ended up mounting the hard drive plus floppy drive assembly without aligning it properly. The result was that floppy disks couldn’t be inserted or ejected properly. But at least the RAM upgrade had worked, and the SE was correctly detecting the 4 MB of RAM. The following day I opened the SE again and remounted the drive assembly properly:

#alttext#

The floppy drive is in the lower metal casing (where you can see that MFD-75W-01G 70557741 label), and there are four screws securing it to the chassis. To align it properly, you have to insert two metallic tabs on the front of the drive casing in two corresponding holes on the chassis plane where the drive will rest. I didn’t do that the first time, so the drive was slightly angled upward where it meets the corresponding hole on the front bezel.

After reassembling the Mac for the second time, everything looked fine and floppy disks could be inserted quite smoothly. But a new issue came up, and I still can’t understand how this could happen: now the Macintosh SE wouldn’t eject floppy disks. When you issue an Eject command from the system, you can hear the usual sounds from the floppy drive as it prepares to automatically eject the disk, you hear the motor of the eject mechanism, but it sounds as if it weren’t strong enough to physically eject the floppy. The mechanism, when triggered manually with the traditional ‘bent clip in the small hole’ method, does work. But when invoked via software, the eject mechanism sounds weak, or as if there were something preventing the eject process to go all the way. I find this rather odd: the drive worked before opening the Mac, and I doubt it was the subsequent misalignment that broke something (I immediately noticed the misalignment when inserting a floppy disk, so I didn’t even try to have the Mac eject it). The only thing I did to the drive when it was out of the Mac was removing a couple of dust bunnies. Any suggestion is quite welcome at this point.

Macintosh SE FDHD check-up summary: The machine works. Issues before storing it the last time: none. New issues exhibited after bringing it out of storage: floppy disks cannot be automatically ejected (manual eject works). Corrective actions undertaken: none so far. Additional procedures: RAM successfully upgraded from 2 MB to 4 MB.

(By the way, you may recall I only used two of the four RAM sticks pulled from the Quadra, as the Macintosh SE only needed two. The remaining two have been successfully installed on my Macintosh LCII, upgrading its RAM from 4 MB to 6 MB.)


#alttext#

Last but not least, the Macintosh Classic. This is the Mac in my collection that truly has sentimental value for me, since it’s the first Mac I have personally owned. (I have used Macs since 1989, but always in work environments. My truly first personal Macs were this Classic and a PowerBook 150, acquired in 1993 and 1994 respectively.)

The only issue this Macintosh Classic was displaying prior to putting it in storage was — like the SE/30 — lack of sound. The difference between the Classic and the SE/30 with regard to this issue is that while on the SE/30 you can’t hear anything from the speaker and from the earphones when you connect them to the audio output, on the Classic there is no sound from the speaker, but you can hear it from the earphones (although it’s not quite loud). An inspection of the Classic’s motherboard didn’t reveal anything useful. Like the SE/30’s, it’s a clean-looking board, without evident traces of gunk gone wild.

Upon turning this Mac on, I was happy to see that everything was working. On closer inspection, the Classic showed just a couple of minor issues:

  1. The floppy drive is incredibly fussy, accepting or refusing the same floppies for no particular reason. It probably needs a good cleaning.
  2. The backup battery is dead.

Overall, I can’t complain.

Macintosh Classic check-up summary: The machine works. Issues before storing it the last time: lack of sound. New issues exhibited after bringing it out of storage: none.

Conclusion

My Compact Macs have regrettably remained in storage for longer than I wanted. I do my best to keep my Macs in use and in healthy conditions, but the last couple of years I’ve been really busy and trying to stay afloat financially. That eats a lot of time. I know that one of the first causes of failure in a vintage Mac is lack of use, so I expected the worst when I started this extended check-up. I was also saddened by the recent failure of the PowerBook Duo 280c and the less recent, but equally puzzling failure of the Quadra 950. I didn’t want to lose another Mac.

Thankfully, the overall conditions of these four little guys are satisfactory, and currently all of them work. I still need to do the hard drive replacement in the SE/30, but I know the drive works, so it’s just a matter of time before the SE/30 is back in service. Maybe it’s time to give some rest to the Power Macintosh 9500/132 and go back to using the Colour Classic and the SE/30 more often.

Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year to you all!

#alttext#

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.

In defence of the PowerBook 5300

PowerBook 5300

Whenever I stumble on some article listing Apple’s ‘worst Macs’ — sometimes called Road Apples, sometimes called lemons — even before looking at the list I already know that there’s one particular Mac I’m going to find: the PowerBook 5300. I won’t say that this PowerBook was completely issue-free, but I believe that its ‘lemon’ fame is in part undeserved.

Somehow, there’s a common denominator between the PowerBook 5300 and the Newton. Both got a bad reputation for what essentially was a non-issue, and from there it was just throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With the Newton it was the handwriting recognition (yes, it was not extraordinary in version 1.x of NewtonOS, but got amazingly better in version 2.x). With the PowerBook 5300 it was mainly the famous issue with the exploding batteries. As Dan Knight of Low End Mac writes (emphasis mine):

Originally designed to use LithIon batteries, Apple recalled the 5300 after some of the new batteries burst into flames on the assembly line. Not only was this an embarrassment to Apple, but the PowerBook 5300 became the butt of many jokes even though none of the troublesome batteries ever made it to market.

The PowerBook 5300 got included (obviously) in this recent article by Stephen Hackett, Some of Apple’s Lemons, which is otherwise a very well-informed and spot-on piece.

I strongly suspect that, among the tech writers who have written such lists of ‘worst Macs ever built’, there isn’t a single one of them who has actually used a PowerBook 5300 for as long as I have. I acquired my 5300ce second-hand in late 2001. It has a 117MHz PowerPC processor, 64MB of RAM and a 1.1GB hard drive. The original owner got it new in 1995 and took good care of it, to the point that when he sold it to me, the PowerBook was in mint condition after being in use for five full years. (Only the piece of plastic covering the ports on the back was missing, but I wouldn’t consider it a big deal.) The battery still held a 40-minute charge.

I’ve been using this PowerBook for the past 12 years without issues. Amazingly, the battery still holds enough charge to allow the PowerBook to complete the boot process.

Apart from my specific PowerBook 5300 unit, I have a certain expertise with Macs of this vintage because during the 1990s I did a lot of freelance Mac tech support, so I handled quite a number of these laptops.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the issues summarised by Hackett and review them one by one:

Cracks in the plastic casing.

I’ve witnessed this issue on very few PowerBook 5300 models. Comparatively, I’ve seen cracks in the plastic casing occurring much more frequently on clamshell iBooks, particularly around the small Apple logo beneath the screen; a problem possibly caused by tight hinges.

My PowerBook 5300 has started showing a small crack in the casing a couple of months ago, therefore 18 years after being manufactured. I’m willing to cut it some slack at this point, eh?

Vertical lines present on the display due to pinched ribbon cables in the hinges.

I’ve never seen this issue in person. I was told about one case by a fellow Mac consultant years ago. I personally saw this happen a lot with PowerBook 180 and 190 models, though.

Cracking hinges.

A few cases, yes, and in all of them the owner admitted to not treating the PowerBook with much care. I’m not denying the issue, of course, but let’s just say that in my career as a Mac tech support freelancer, I’ve seen more cracked hinges on Titanium G4 PowerBooks than on PowerBook 5300 units. Strange that the Titanium PowerBook G4 never gets a mention among the ‘road apples’ for that, no?

Poor performance due to the lack of a L2 cache.

Here I can only speak subjectively. At the time it was introduced (1995), the PowerBook 5300 wasn’t certainly as fast as some of the desktop Power Macintoshes of the same era (especially the 8500 and 9500 series), but as far as laptops went, it wasn’t exactly sluggish either. Having the maximum RAM installed (64MB) and upgrading to System 7.5.3 or 7.5.5 helped a lot, too. Theoretically, the PowerBook 5300 supports system software versions up to Mac OS 9.1, but in my experience you’ll want to stop at Mac OS 7.6.1 or 8.1, and I suggest going Mac OS 8.1 only if you have maxed the RAM.

Having used my PowerBook 5300 rather frequently over the past 12 years, I can say that, while it may not be the fastest pre-G3 PowerBook, it has proven to be a capable and reliable machine. For example, at the moment I’m writing this very article in BBEdit Lite 3.5.1 on the PowerBook 5300 itself, and there are a few apps opened in background as well:

  • Internet Explorer 5.1.7, opened on my main website.
  • Acrobat Reader 4, which by the way opens in less than 2 seconds and with two PDF documents open it only takes up less than 10MB of memory.
  • iCab 2.99, opened on Low End Mac’s website.
  • Graphic Converter 4.01, with a PICT file I needed to crop and convert to JPEG.

There are still 39MB of contiguous RAM available, and switching from an app to another is rather seamless, considering I’m on a 19 year-old machine using Mac OS 8.1.

Fires due to a bad Sony lithium ion batteries that overheated while charging.

As I emphasised at the beginning by quoting that bit written by Dan Knight, that problem happened internally during production and therefore did not impact users directly.

In conclusion, I’ve written about my personal experience with a PowerBook 5300 over 12 years of use and recalling the direct experience I had with these laptops as a freelancer doing Mac tech support in the 1990s, when these machines were new. I’m sure there are other experienced Mac users and technicians out there who will have different stories to tell; but from my perspective, I really can’t count the PowerBook 5300 among Apple’s lemons.

Checking on my Quadra 950

Quadra950 bezel close cc

 

It didn’t boot.

Compared to other Macs in my collection which have been in storage for a longer period (the LC II, for instance, or the Performa 630CD), I used this Quadra 950 for the last time around the second half of 2011, so it’s been a little more than two full years. Of course everything was working fine and, knowing I wouldn’t use it for a while, I stored the Quadra carefully, taking particular care in covering vents and other holes to avoid the excessive formation of dust bunnies.

Before connecting the Quadra to keyboard, mouse and display, I opened it to take a cursory look at the amount of dirt that accumulated inside of it since the last time I used it, but finding it rather clean overall, I went on and flipped the switch (actually I pressed the Power button on the keyboard).

The Quadra’s response: “KH-POP”, and nothing else.

Typically this beast of a computer, with a power supply capable of delivering 303 watts of maximum continuous power (you can, for example, connect an external display to the Quadra 950 PSU and the Quadra will power itself and the display), would make a sort of “KH-DUM” sound when powered on, followed by the spinning up of the various drives and the large fan mounted against the power supply. Instead all I got was a “KH-POP,” the power light would briefly turn on, and nothing else. The Quadra 950 has a security keyswitch on the front, with three positions: OFF, ON and SECURE. According to this archived Apple Knowledge Base article,

When the keyswitch is in the SECURE position, the ADB devices and floppy disk drive are disabled. For example, the keyboard does not generate characters, or the mouse moves but no menus can be pulled down. Also, when power is applied to the computer while the keyswitch is in the SECURE position, the computer automatically starts up.

Turning the keyswitch in the SECURE position made my Quadra 950 cycle in a scary loop of “KH-POP KH-POP KH-POP” — it was clear that the Quadra tried to power on but could not. A very faint burnt smell was not a good sign, either.

My first thought was: The power supply has bitten the dust, but I had my reservations. True, long periods of inactivity aren’t good for vintage Macs (or any computer, for that matter), but the Quadra 950’s power supply is considered one of the most robust, and I found it unlikely that it would give up the ghost this way. It’s just a feeling, of course, but something that happened later in my investigation may corroborate my instincts.

Cleaning out

I disconnected everything and started the cleaning process. I wanted to be as thorough as I could, and that meant removing the drive shelf and the power supply, then removing the large fan mounted on the power supply, inspecting each part and cleaning it gently. Then I removed all the connected NuBus cards and dusted them one by one; then I dusted the motherboard.

Power supply

As you can see, the power supply occupies a large part of the Quadra 950’s interior. In that empty space above it there’s the drive shelf (which I had already removed when I took the photo).

The amazing thing to note with regard to disassembling the Quadra 950 is how simple and straightforward it is. To remove the drive shelf I only had to remove two screws. To remove the power supply — just three screws. (Of course you also have to disconnect the various data cables and power cables).

Quadra950 inside motherboard

Here’s the Quadra without drive shelf, power supply, speaker bezel. I also removed one of the NuBus cards (the second from the top — I have four slots occupied of the five available) to be able to disconnect all data cables with greater ease.

This photo was taken before I dusted everything. As you can see, the Quadra was already rather clean inside.

The NuBus cards

For documentation purposes, let’s have a quick look at the four NuBus cards installed.

Asante Ethernet 2

1. AsanteFAST 10/100 NuBus Ethernet card by Asanté (Manufacture date appears to be 1996)

Paintboard TurboXL 1

2. Paint Board Turbo XL video card by RasterOps (Manufacture date appears to be 1993)

4 serial ports card

3. This one was hard to identify. It basically adds 4 serial ports to the Mac. After some digging, it appears to be either a Lightning or a Hurdler serial NuBus board manufactured by Creative Solutions, Inc. (“CSI”, as you can see on that label on the chip next to the large Zilog chip) in 1994. Here’s the related page from the original website (now archived).

Macintosh II PC Card

4. This one, instead, was very easy to identify. It’s a Macintosh II PC Drive Card by Apple Computer (part No. 820-0213-A). You can find more photos of this card here. It’s a rather old card (1987) that lets you connect an Apple PC 5.25″ floppy drive. I don’t have such drive — this card was already in the Quadra when I acquired it in 2003.

After the cleaning

After dusting and cleaning everything, I reassembled the Quadra and tried booting it again. And again, the Quadra’s response was “KH-POP,” just like before. But this time, since the room was darker, I could notice a spark on one of the NuBus cards every time I heard the “KH-POP” sound. I am not an electrician, but I’d say that this behaviour suggests that the issue may be on the motherboard (or on something connected to it, such as RAM chips or one of the NuBus cards, etc.) and not in the power supply. It looks as if every time I try powering the Quadra on, something creates a short circuit, interrupting the process. Perhaps a piece of dirt or a ‘dust bunny’ has lodged somewhere and I didn’t catch it, or a RAM chip has failed. Searching on the Web, I found someone having a very similar issue with his Quadra 950, but in his case the short circuit was caused by a pin of the main processor chip that he bent when he reinserted it after cleaning the motherboard. I haven’t touched any chip, and every RAM and VRAM memory stick looks firmly in its place.

I have already tried booting the Quadra after removing all the NuBus cards, but it went “KH-POP” again on me. Tomorrow I will try removing all RAM chips and even the PRAM battery, and see what happens.

I’m quite fond of this Quadra 950. I’ve used it on a regular basis from 2003 to 2006, and occasionally up to 2011. It’s the fastest 68K Macintosh I own (it has a Motorola 68040 CPU at 33MHz, two 400MB hard drives, and it used to have 28MB of RAM, which I expanded to 40MB by adding the RAM sticks I salvaged from the Quadra 700 when it died in 2005) and acted as a server in my vintage Mac LocalTalk network. I don’t want to give up on it yet. I’ve described the issue the best I can, so if you have any insight or suggestion, please do chime in — I’m all ears.

 

Quadra950 rear label

Checking on my Macintosh LC II

Mac LCII 2014

When you have a collection of vintage Macs, even if it’s a small and unassuming one like mine, you have to perform periodical checks to verify the state of the machines. Especially when you don’t have enough space to leave all the Macs laid out and plugged in permanently.

Due to space constraints, I only have two CRT monitors. One is a relatively modern 17-inch Belinea display with a VGA connection, which is currently connected to my Power Macintosh 9500/132 and can be used as an external display with a wide range of Macs. The other is a 14-inch Macintosh Color Display, an 11-kilogram beast with a DB-15 connection that is essential to be able to use three specific machines in my collection: a Quadra 950, a Performa 630CD and a Macintosh LC II (and a PowerBook Duo 280c if I had a working DuoDock).

Yesterday I finally dusted off the Macintosh Color Display because it was time to check on those aforementioned Macs, which sadly haven’t seen much action as of late. The LC II, in particular, was last checked in 2007 (I know, mea culpa, etc.). I had also attached a label to the display with a ‘Last used’ date, and discovered it was last powered on in April 2009. I connected everything with trepidation, basically expecting the LC II’s hard drive not to spin up.

I’m glad I was wrong. As soon as I flipped the switch on the back of the LC II, the Mac booted up as if it were last used just the day before. No problems with the display either. Whew.

This LC II has 4MB of RAM, a 40MB hard drive and of course a 1.44MB floppy SuperDrive. I’m always amazed at how fast these vintage Macs boot up. It took the LC II about 20 seconds from the moment I switched it on to displaying the Desktop. I know it doesn’t have much to load, but it’s always a 16 Megahertz machine booting from a hard drive manufactured in 1993.

Speaking of hard drive, I checked it using the Norton Utilities for the Macintosh, whose version 1.1 was installed on this Mac by the previous owner (sorry for the moiré effect):

Norton Utilities 1

And Norton Disk Doctor reported no issues. Other software on this Mac includes Microsoft Word, HyperCard (both version 1, visible in the opening photo, and version 2) and the then-ubiquitous ClarisWorks. Among the utilities, a file compressor/archiver called Disk Diamond, and TattleTech. Now, according to TattleTech, this LC II was manufactured in February 1989, making it 25 years old exactly — but it’s a mistake, obviously, since the Mac LC was introduced in October 1990 and the LC II in March 1992. TattleTech checks the manufacturing date against the Mac’s serial number, which has to be manually inputted. Evidently I had transferred this copy of TattleTech, along with its preferences file, from my Macintosh SE. The label on the bottom of the LC II says that it was manufactured in 1993, so it’s ‘only’ 21 years old. And works just fine.

During the weekend I’ll clean it inside and check the floppy drive, which has become a bit unreliable, then I’ll proceed with the Performa 630CD and the Quadra 950. By the way, I’m always interested in SCSI hard drives for these machines, so if you have some working units lying around, let’s talk about it.

30 years of the Mac: my personal celebration

On my main website, I’ve published a small contribution, a personal way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Mac:

In case you didn’t notice, the Mac turns 30 today. Apple has created a fantastic mini-site to celebrate this milestone. I wanted to celebrate in my own way, going down memory lane with a bunch of photos of the Macs in my collection, the majority of which still work today.

Continue reading: Celebrating 30 years of the Mac

Right now

(Note: I published this impromptu piece last week on my main website, but I think it’s worth republishing here due to the nature of its content, and also for the benefit of those who only follow this blog.)

Right now I’m writing this in TextWrangler 2.1.3. When the post is finished, I’ll copy & paste it in WordPress’ Web interface and publish it here.

I’m writing this on a clamshell blueberry iBook G3/300. It has both Mac OS 9.2.2 and Mac OS X 10.3.9 installed on it. It has 288 MB RAM. It has what now can be considered a tiny hard drive: 3 GB. Of those 3 GB, the OS X partition only has 803.4 MB of free disk space. But everything works fine. The screen is bright: brighter than, say, my other clamshell iBook G3/466 SE, which is a newer model.

Across the table there is a PowerBook G4 12” burning a CD-RW of stuff to archive (mostly documentation and manuals in PDF format), and a PowerBook 5300ce performing a backup on a few ZIP disks.

I’m writing this with three other apps opened: Preview, NetNewsWire 2.1.5 (which is very snappy and configured with some essential feeds I want to be able to read even from this machine), and Opera 10.10, which is the last version of this fine browser that is compatible with Mac OS X 10.3.9. It has six tabs open at the moment, two of which let me keep an eye on Twitter and App.net.

I’m writing from this old iBook because 20 minutes ago I decided to boot it with the intention of downgrading it to just a Mac OS 9 machine. Once this Mac had a very long-lasting battery (more than 5 hours) and an AirPort card. But I neglected it for a long time with the battery drained, and last time I tried reviving it was all in vain. The AirPort card was removed and given to a Titanium PowerBook G4, which needed it more than this iBook.

I’m writing this while connected to the Internet via Ethernet cable. It feels quaint, but I still smiled at how quickly the iBook connected to the Internet just four seconds after plugging in the cable.

I’m writing this while the battery — oh so magically, oh so surprisingly — is recharging after refusing to do so for so long. It’s at 11% now, and in 3 hours and 35 minutes the battery indicator says it will be fully charged.

As I’m writing this, I feel my writing flowing out rather effortlessly: is this vintage, minimalistic setup? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it’s just how I roll, no matter where I am, or which device I’m writing on. But now I’m having second thoughts and maybe I won’t wipe Mac OS X. Maybe with a full battery, I’ll still find some use for this iBook. Its design may look dated, but boy is it comfortable to write on. My wrists just rest in the right position. My fingers reach every corner of the keyboard without effort. I even like the feel of this keyboard more than when I type on my MacBook Pro’s keyboard.

When you browse the Web, you realise how cramped and slightly impractical a screen resolution of 800×600 is today. But in some sites it somehow helps you focus more on the articles, while ads, banners and other visual interferences remain hidden outside the browser window’s width and height. There’s more scrolling, there’s just a bit more effort, but it’s not as annoying as you’d expect. Not for me, at least.

I’m writing this and I’m thinking about all the obsession about workflows and frictionless setups and I’m thinking “Screw it, sometimes the best workflow is what you have with you” or something like that. Maybe a bit of friction is necessary to make you go just a wee bit slower, enough to make you think about what you’re doing and not simply do stuff in auto-pilot.

I’m writing this and I’m thinking about all the obsession about when to write, and how often, and that inspiration is a myth, and that you just have to sit and write everyday, and so on. I still think that inspiration is what makes you write a bit more meaningfully. But everything works. Why does a method have to be better than another? Perhaps something starts in the most unassuming, trivial circumstances, and ends up being more meaningful than something else you’ve been mulling over for days, while consuming dozens of cups of coffee.

I’m writing this on this iBook because I love vintage technology and thankfully when it comes to working with text, I’m lucky enough to be able to use any of my Macs or devices, no matter how old, in a productive way. And that feels good.

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.