Restoring the Fleet, Mac Edition

Restoring the past, and trying to keep some sanity in the process.

If you’re going to run a startup, I have a suggestion: Get a hobby. At some point, you will want to rip your hair out, and throw it at the nearest moving object… along with some large, formerly alcohol-stained glass, attached to it.

A hobby works to prevent (or at least, limit) this from happening. The hobby I’ve come up recently, is restoring all my old Mac models. All 21 of them. My goal is one per week, until they’re all up and running on the same network.

The List

  • Macintosh IIci
  • Performa 636CD
  • Mac SE/30 (I got this one later because I wanted a machine I could brick and not worry about it – hey, I was 9 years old, and didn’t realize its limitations)
  • Performa 6116CD w/ DOS Compatibility Card
  • Power Macintosh 7500CD/100 (upgraded to 7600CD/132 via 604 daughtercard upgrade
  • PowerBook 165
  • PowerBook 1400c
  • Performa 6400*
  • Power Macintosh G3 All-in-one*
  • iMac Rev B (technically I got a Rev A – but its motherboard failed and was swapped with Rev B)
  • PowerBook Duo 2300c (with DuoDock II)
  • Power Mac G4 Gigabit Ethernet
  • PowerBook G4 (DVI)
  • 12-inch & 15-inch PowerBook G4 Aluminum

* Technically I didn’t own these two. But I was the system admin for them in Jr. High School, and only bricked them once (QuickTime 3, ugh – but it was the only way to watch the Star Wars Episode I trailer…).

With that many machines in my past (no smart jokes, please), I don’t have room for many bonus systems. But I have chosen the PowerBook G3 series (Kanga, Wallstreet, Mainstreet, Lombard – plus the original iBook, which is a Lombard in candy-coloring, and finally Pizmo) as my “bonus” laptop to restore. PowerBook G3 literally spans the transition from OS 9, to Rhapsody, to OS X. It’s the turning point for Apple, and modern computing, really.

After that point it becomes a big blur of perpetual upgrading… and frankly, rubs so close to the modern Mac era that it’s not really vintage computing.

Step 0: Why?

Why is an important question to answer. Functionally, there is little good reason. A netbook costs $50, and can run Windows 10.

But there is a good reason, and that’s time.

As time marches on, you have two big problems with old technology. First, capacitors melt. It’s much better to keep them running, because if a capacitor blows – you can catch it quickly and clean up the damage. Old Mac’s have capacitors rated for twenty years. Some are now well past year 30 and counting.

PRAM batteries corrode, and also can ruin a motherboard. Like an old car, keep stuff running, and you’re much more likely to keep the problems fixable – sans two-day-long motherboard swaps.

I also support the theory that hard disk drives can seize up over years of non-use – the oils and bearings in the drive could gel up through lack of misuse. This is common in car components, it’s questionable how long it would take to set in on hard disks in general, however.

Two, case yellowing. Notice how older Mac models yellow? This is because of a reaction between the plastic in their cases, and a fire retardant coating that companies placed on them at the time (older computers were a bit more, ahem, fire-capable). This coating, when subjected to the everyday UV light of a home, will brown over time. It also explains why a Mac tucked away in a dark closet, is a lot less brown.

Fortunately, a solution has been found. It involves mixing hydrogen peroxide and OxyClean into a gel, and then painting the case in that gel. When subjected to strong UV light (like, a sunny day) the gel removes the browning. One can then spray an anti-UV coating to ensure the process doesn’t repeat itself.

Of course, the sooner you coat your machines in anti-UV paint, the sooner you can avert this case browning.

While I haven’t tested it (the retr0bright method, linked above) yet, my preferred solution to try will be clear plasti-dip. I’m not sure it’s the best UV blocker, but it is probably the most removable.

Step 1: Space

Space is a tough one. You have three eras of display connectors. Even if you have a mutli-bedroom apartment, this is no small feat.

I recommend dedicating a desk – and then re-working it to accommodate the machine load. This means many shelving units with open ventilation.

Cost might be a particular concern to many, but fear not – nearly all the systems on that list above can be had for under $50 each. And hey, I still own most of them.

Step 2: Tools

You’ll need recovery discs, diagnostic tools (especially old versions), and the willingness to admit when something is just broken. You should expect, at a minimum, to test the memory (on modern systems) and sector scan the HDD (especially on older systems). Many older machines don’t have SMART, so you’ll have to check all the sectors and rule out bad blocks.

Apple has released System 6 through 7.5.5 for free (though sadly, not in open-source), the rest you’ll have to obtain through other means.

Step 3: Start Restoring!

Pick the OS you want to load, and get started. If you’re buying machines second-hand, I suggest wiping the drives and starting over. You don’t want some file left on there by a previous owner, to cause you a problem. Plus wiping the drive, gives you that nice starting-fresh feeling.

Step 4: Make it Functional

There’s no point to restoring a system that can’t do something cool, particularly something your current machines can’t do.

For example, classic games often take advantage of the CRT’s tube screen’s lower resolution, and even sometimes its interlaced refresh rate. There are games for Mac OS 7.6-9 that do this, as well as a handful of OS X games that run best at 640×480.

With OS X 10.4 Tiger, the last release for PowerPC G3, and OS X 10.5 Leopard, the last release for G4/G5, you can run modern-ish ports of the Extended Service Release (ESR) of Firefox. So, you can hop on the web, even with Wi-Fi.

Office for Mac 2011 is still security-supported by Microsoft, and will run on PowerPC systems with 10.5.8. Office 2008 will work on Tiger, but requires a G5. Office 2004 will run on 10.2.8 or later, Office v.X will get you native for 10.1, and Office 2001 will stretch back all the way to Mac OS 8.1.

Only classic Mac OS will keep you from using/editing modern Office documents. If you install the Office Open XML converter app, you can use Office 2004 with DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX documents, with the usual litany of concerns about an older version of Office – most docs are fine. There’s also LibreOffice, and more specifically its Mac forerunner, NeoOffice to cover older systems on the freeware front.

Linux on PowerPC is in a bit of a tough state. A few straggling bugs keep Ubuntu MATE 15.04 from running on Radeon-based Macs. You have to fall back to 14.04 (14.10 is broken). Also, you don’t have working 3D, on any Mac model today. There is a push to improve Nouveau for older NVIDIA hardware, but that is still very nascent and may not pan out.

I only suggest PowerPC if you are using a desktop Mac with a G3/G4/G5, and want to use it on the web. With no 3D, your CPU will be doing the display-drawing, which is fine for most HTML use cases. If you want a spare system to blog – it’s not a bad bet.

So, with that, the grand stress-relieving experiment begins. Well, next week – I’ve burnt up all my free time this weekend on this article.

One Response

  1. Daniel
    Daniel September 28, 2015 at 10:57 am |

    I try to limit my older hardware as much as possible. Admittedly, my classic xbox will be part of my living room until I die. haha.


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