Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part I

by Jon

I have a lot of fond childhood memories with classic macs and after watching a variety of restoration videos on YouTube, playing around with some emulators, and needing a new project, I’ve decided that it might be fun to try and restore a classic mac on my own.

My history with Macintosh

Growing up in the 90’s, my family was an Apple family, and my first computer was a Macintosh IIfx with its Motorola 68030 processor and 20MB of RAM. When my father eventually made the switch to Windows for work, I inherited his Centris 650, which was my main computer for many years.

On that machine I learned to program in C with Metrowerks CodeWarrior and created my first web sites writing HTML in BBEdit. Before that, I bought a book on HyperTalk, and spent hours making black and white cartoons and little games in HyperCard to share with my friends.

While I never owned one of the classic B&W “compact” macs, I used them often enough at school. Even though I had a better System 7 machine at home, I still loved playing with those old System 6 machines, limitations and all.

Eventually I built my first Intel PC, jumping to Windows 98 instead of following Apple into PowerPC and Mac OS 8. That was in 1999, and I’ve never really looked back, in fact the only Apple product I’ve bought since then was a single iPod around maybe 2008.

Fascination with 68k

It wasn’t until I started getting back into retro games and consoles that realized that the Sega Genesis, my favorite childhood gaming console, ran on a Motorola 68000 processor – the same architecture as my old macs. It blew my mind that both systems, which couldn’t have been more different in my childhood mind, were more or less running the same CPU under the hood.

Wanting to try my hand at writing a Genesis game, I even started looking into programming in 68k assembly a few years ago, though I eventually abandoned the effort when I started costing out how long it would take me to actually make something, versus spending that time on my other hobbies. But the idea to do something with a 68k-based machine has gnawed at me ever since.

Emulators and disk format problems

Last year I started playing around with Mini vMac, an excellent classic mac emulator. Turns out there’s a lot of the old mac software still floating around online. Then I started thinking around buying and setting up some vintage hardware myself. I began researching and learned a lot about the various options for doing so, especially how to overcome the hurdle of actually getting files onto old hardware.

Getting bootstrapped isn’t easy. Basically, the primary option for getting data onto/off classic macs are floppy disks, and unfortunately, old mac floppies are just different. Even if you can get installers or disk images of all the old software online, you can’t just write them to a floppy from a PC. The disks are physically formatted differently, and you need an actual working classic mac with an original floppy drive to write them.

Once you have a classic mac up and running you can read PC-formatted disks with the right software, but the trick is getting the classic mac set up and working in the first place. A real chicken and egg problem.

The easiest thing to do is simply pay someone with a working classic mac to make a set of setup floppies for you, but even after that, you need to make sure the mac you’re using can read 1.4MB floppies (not just the older 400k/800k floppies) otherwise you still won’t be able to transfer data to/from a modern PC.

The crossover solution

The other (better?) option is to get a newer, but still old, classic mac as a “crossover” machine. Usually something from the PowerPC-era with a CD-ROM drive, Ethernet, even USB, with that special Apple floppy drive, as a staging ground for reading/writing old floppies. Then you transfer files from your modern PC to the crossover machine, then write floppies.

Now, and I’ll get into these later, there are also modern products that emulate floppy and hard drives that use SD cards, which you can read from / write to from any machine. But not only are they pricey, there are nuances to using them that don’t make it as simple as drag-and-drop.

Then there’s the question in any restoration: how original are you going to keep it? Every person, and every build is different, and the journey is just as important as the destination with a project like this. I mean, the emulators really are excellent – if I just want a quick rush of nostalgia, I can run all of this stuff in a window on my desktop.

Anyway, at the time I decided I didn’t want to invest either the time or the money to start such a project, and filed what I’d learned for later.

Now is later, looking for a new project

That’s where I left things last year: some emulator configs, setup disk images, and bookmarks saved off on my computer, in my perpetual project backlog.

Now it’s 2020, and while cleaning out a closet I found an old laptop I’d forgotten about. Not a powerful machine, but small and tough, and I thought “this would make a good emulator machine”. Now I’ve made my share of “emulator machines” and mini arcade-cabs, but I’d been watching a lot of videos on old 8-bit computers, and I thought, since the laptop is small and obviously has a keyboard, it might be fun to set it up as an old 8-bit computer emulator, specifically the Apple II and Commodore 64.

It was easy to set up, and I spent a few evenings exploring the old Apple II library. I never owned an Apple II, but like many 90’s kids I used them in elementary school, and it was fun to play through The Oregon Trail and Odell Lake again. But it was almost too easy to set up, and it only reminded me of the macs I used to have and all the research I did planning to restore one.

So I dug out my old notes and start trolling eBay. While it might be more “nostalgic” to try to rebuild my original IIfx or Centris, both are fairly large and would require an external monitor. I do have a home office now that I didn’t have last year, but there’s not a ton of space, and I don’t really want to add a big period-correct CRT onto my desk.

A laptop might work, but that’s a whole another layer of problems sourcing replacement hardware. And really, deep down, I want one of those classic compact macs. So I start working on a plan.

My goal is to take a 40-year old computer and give it a full overhaul – not just getting it up and running, but cleaning it inside and out, replacing components on the motherboard, fixing dead drives with new grease and gears, bleaching the case plastics back to the original color.

I don’t just want a working compact mac, I want to learn new skills, to get down and dirty in the hardware. Something that’s gonna take time and sweat to finish. Something that I can proudly display on my desk. Then, after all that, do what I always do with my hobbies, write some software for it. Finally scratch that itch to write something for a 68k machine.

Of course, I want to document my progress along the way. I’ve already gotten started, but this post is getting long in the tooth, so I’ll save that for Part II.

Stay tuned!

/jon