Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: computer

Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part VII: System Experiments

In Part VI, I was able to install Mac OS 8.1 on my Power Macintosh 8600/200 using a SCSI2SD as the machine’s hard drive, and I was even able to get online. Now it’s time to play around with that setup.

The original plan

The plan for this machine has always been as a bridge machine between modern computers and older vintage Macs. It’s meant to give me some practice cleaning and restoring old parts, while also being as flexible and compatible as possible. It’s a utility machine.

In order to be the most compatible with the most software and the most hardware, I figured I’d need to install as many versions of Mac OS as possible. This machine officially supports System 7.5.5 through Mac OS 9.1, but rather than install the dozen of minor versions in-between, I thought one install per major version should be enough.

System 7

Let’s start with System 7. As far as I can remember, my childhood machines ran 7.0.1 or 7.1, older than what this new machine can handle. I remember the 7.5 series existing, and it’s possible that in the later years I ran it on the Centris 650 when I first got internet access.

System 7.5.5 is the earliest software this machine can run, and it’s the last version to support running 24-bit addressing (something the oldest programs need). The other contender for System 7 would be 7.6.1, which is considered mostly the same, except it’s got some PowerPC performance improvements that would apply to this machine.

In the end I actually chose 7.6.1 for this machine. It turns out the 24-bit support only applies to the 68k Macs, and this machine will never be able to run programs that need it. So 7.6.1 has the exact same compatibility as 7.5.5 but is just faster.

Beyond System 7

After System 7, we’re out of my personal experience. I may have used Mac OS 8 once or twice in high school, but I’ve never used Mac OS 9. I have no nostalgia for these systems, so the only requirement is to expand my access to software and hardware.

My initial plan was to pick just the latest in each line that I could run, Mac OS 8.6 and Mac OS 9.1. While I’m currently running 8.1, and having a little fun here and there playing some old games, as far as I can tell there’s no reason to run this version with newer ones available.

However, talking with people online, and it seems there are three camps when it comes to OS 8.

Camp one thinks System 7 was the pinnacle of Mac systems in terms of design and speed, and everything after that was bloat. They point out that the change from 7 to 8 was just to cut out the clone manufacturers, since they only had licenses to System 7. So 8 is really just a bunch of crap on top of 7.

Camp two thinks OS 8 is the pinnacle of Mac design, that 8 refined and filled in all of the gaps of 7. They say System 7 is too spartan for newer machines, and point out that 8 added better networking support and just as importantly, support for larger hard drives.

Camp three thinks OS 8 can be skipped entirely, thanks to Mac OS 9. Very little software lists OS 8 as a minimum, and even so, it’ll still run on OS 9. Same with hardware. Most things just work on 7 and above, or require 9, so unless you really like the style of 8, there’s no reason to use it if you can run 9.

I already planned on installing 9 as it gives me access to a variety of useful hardware upgrades on this machine such as USB and Firewire. So I decided to table the decision on OS 8 for now.

Let the experiments begin!

The first thing I did was backup the SD card with Mac OS 8.1. It doesn’t have anything particular that I care about, other than being a booting system. I re-setup the SCSI2SD with three virtual drives, then booted the 8.1 CD to use Drive Setup to format them.

I had already downloaded and burned CD images for a variety of versions: 7.5.5 and 7.6.1 specifically for this model, universal installs for 8.0, 8.5.1, and 8.6, and finally universal installs for 9.1 and 9.2.2.

I won’t go into all of the gory details here, but suffice it to say that I spent weeks installing and re-installing different OSes to the different virtual drives. I followed various suggestions online and took my own notes during the installation process of each. I ran benchmarks, browsed the web, and downloaded some apps and games to try out.

One win was getting an FTP server to run on the Mac, which meant I could more easily transfer files to it from a modern PC. That freed me up to download new software quickly on my PC, then upload the files to the Mac at my leisure. This gave me both an archive of downloads on the PC and saved me from having to browse the web on the Mac and deal with increased chance of download failures.

The other big win was installing Mac OS 9.2.2. Officially most machines can only run 9.1, because that was basically the last version of OS 9 meant to be run as an independent OS. By that point in time, Apple had switched over to OSX, but early versions still provided a “Classic Environment” compatibility layer that let those OSX users still run their old OS 9 apps.

Classic Environment still required a full copy of OS 9, and it got a few more stability and performance updates in the form of 9.2, 9.2.1, and 9.2.2. So installers exist for those versions, but of course they have protection measures in place to make sure you don’t just install them on older hardware.

However, thanks again to enterprising hackers, there’s a tool called os9helper that lets you trick the installer into working. And it worked!

The final plan

At the end of it all, I’d pretty much settled on a plan of only installing 7.6.1 and 9.2.2. I didn’t find any reason to keep 8 around, the installs sat dormant while I spent most of my time in 9.2.2. In fact, even keeping 7.6.1 around seemed to be “just-in-case”.

Anyway, this has been a pretty text-heavy post. I didn’t bother to take any pictures during all this software experimentation. Next time I’ll have more photos, as I dive into some hardware upgrades. So stay tuned for that in Part VIII!

/jon

Want to read from the beginning? Start at Part I.

Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part VI: Booting up and jacking in

In Part V, I was able to boot my Power Macintosh 8600/200 from a burned system CD. Now it’s time to get a system installed.

Hard drive options

At this point, I can boot the Mac OS 8.1 system CD, but I don’t have a hard drive to install it to. The first, most obvious answer, is to just get an old hard drive and install it.

However hard drives, especially mechanical ones, can have a rather short lifetime compared to other computer components. So while getting an “era-appropriate” hard drive is possible, it would be a gamble. Not to mention this computer originally shipped with a whopping 2GB drive – old hard drives come in sizes so small you can’t buy anything with that little storage any more.

So why can’t I just buy a new hard drive and install it? One word: SCSI.

SCSI is a old set of standards (cables, protocols, etc) for connecting computers to drives, and isn’t really used anymore for modern computers. Broadly speaking, vintage macs used SCSI and vintage PCs used IDE. These days there aren’t any new SCSI hard drives. It’s part of the reason I was so happy the CD-ROM worked – tracking down a replacement SCSI CD-ROM could have gotten pricey.

What does this mean for me? I already have an alternative, something I had bought in anticipation of this problem.

Hello SCSI2SD

The SCSI2SD is a device which simulates one or more SCSI drives using an SD card. Like the Floppy Emu, it was designed for people trying to keep older hardware up and running.

It’s not as easy to use as the Floppy Emu – that device is pretty plug and play – you copy your floppy disk images onto the SD card and use its built-in screen and controls to select which disk to load at runtime.

The SCSI2SD has a steeper learning curve and requires a little more setup. It connects to your PC via USB and comes with a configuration utility which you use to define the devices, or disks, that the SCSI2SD should report to the computer.

However, instead of having disk image files, the SCSI2SD requires you to map these drives directly to sectors on the SD card. So if you ever pop the SD card into your PC, it’ll tell you the disk is unformatted and ask you to format it. It also means you can’t easily add and remove files.

Basically, once you’ve configured it to your liking, it’s a great drop-in replacement for a missing hard drive, and you can backup your data by making a disk image of the entire SD card. Adding or extracting individual files is possible but requires a lot more work and tools.

Out of the box the SCSI2SD is configured for a single 2GB drive, a safe size for SCSI machines. And since my goal at this point is just to get a system, any system, up and running, I just kept the defaults for now.

Installing Mac OS 8.1

Time to install Mac OS 8.1. I plugged in the SCSI2SD and booted the system CD. Then I opened the “Drive Setup” utility to format the new hard drive.

Not supported. 😦

See, on top of using a connection that no one uses anymore, Apple also put in measures to make sure that you only install “Apple-approved” components. In this case, the utility for formatting hard drives has a fixed whitelist of specific brands, models, and versions of hard drives that it can format. So it doesn’t like my fancy new 2GB drive.

There’s a couple ways around this. One is to find a patched version of the program, where enterprising hackers removed the whitelist. I could put that into a floppy image and use the Floppy Emu to load it. Another option is to use a third-party drive utility, again by putting it into a floppy image.

The easiest way however, is to simply lie to the program. 🙂

Despite being a bit complicated to use, the SCSI2SD config does let you configure practically everything SCSI-related, including the vendor and product information reported by each drive. So I just looked up which drives were supported back then, and configured my drive accordingly:

Once I had that set, Drive Setup worked just fine and I was able to initialize my new hard drive. All that was left was to run the Mac OS 8.1 installer, where I gladly accepted the defaults along the way.

First boot and Y2K20

When it rebooted, my first vintage mac in twenty years was finally up and running. It wasn’t the final setup I envisioned for this machine – having multiple versions of the OS on different (virtual) drives, ready to support whatever older mac I want to restore, but it worked. Moreover, so far all of the original hardware seemed to be in working shape. I could read CDs and read and write floppies. If I really needed to, I could even do the tedious work of injecting files into the SD card.

Back in Part III, I mentioned that the first thing when opening the machine up was to replace the PRAM battery. The PRAM battery is responsible for maintaining the clock and some settings, so the first thing I did when the machine booted was to set the clock. Now we run into a funny bit of history – the Y2K bug, or specifically, how it didn’t affect macs. Long story short, many vintage computers saved memory by only saving the last two digits when keeping track of the current year. Their clocks were essentially restricted to dates between 1900 and 1999.

Macs didn’t suffer from Y2K – from the beginning their clocks took dates from 1941 to 2040. But just because the hardware supports 2020, doesn’t mean they didn’t take shortcuts in the software – the control panel for setting the date still takes only two digits, and interprets them as being between 1920 and 2020. So macs have the Y2K20 bug. If you set your clock in 2019, it would have rolled over fine to 2020 and beyond. But there’s no way to manually change the date to 2020 to later.

Thankfully, enterprising hackers come to the rescue once again, with a set of patches for the control panel to let you set the correct date. So after installing that and another reboot, I was able to properly set the clock on this machine, and get on to the very first thing I really wanted to test on an up and running system – networking.

Connecting to the tubes

Even the earliest macs had built-in support for networking, but, as with SCSI, they used protocols and cables that aren’t in use anymore. Thankfully this isn’t one of the earliest machines, and as I mentioned back in Part II, this machine has built-in 10Base-T Ethernet, with the still-standard RJ45 Ethernet jack. It’s literally the slowest possible connection that can still connect directly to a modern Ethernet network without any adapters.

I’d also just spent the weekend running Ethernet cable to my office, for “work” purposes. 🙂

So I grabbed a spare Ethernet cable and plugged the old mac into my switch. A couple clicks through the Mac OS internet settings to enable TCP/IP, and quick double-click on Internet Explorer 3.0.1, and we’re off to the races:

Well, races is a stretch, but success! It’s literally 100x slower than my network can handle, but that’s still 40x faster than an old dial-up modem. A lot of sites won’t work on such an old browser, but I didn’t hook this up to browse the web. Network access means much easier file sharing with my modern computers. Still, I took it for a spin on theoldnet.com, and even filed a bug when the website for the product I work on didn’t load properly.

Well, that’s a lot of progress for one post. Stay tuned for Part VII!

/jon

Want to read from the beginning? Start at Part I.

Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part V: Good laser, bad laser

In Part IV, I gave my Power Macintosh 8600/200 a good initial cleaning. Now it’s time to plug it in and see what’s working.

Where to start?

Since this is going to be a “crossover” machine, the most important thing for me to test is the floppy drive. But at this point, the only way I can get into a running system is via a Floppy Emu device and an image of the Mac OS 8.1 Disk Tools floppy (see Part III). Unfortunately, with the Floppy Emu taking up the floppy connection, I can’t test the floppy drive at the same time.

If I had or could make a real floppy of the 8.1 Disk Tools I could use that and try to boot the system, but I didn’t. Time to check out the CD-ROM.

Burning a Mac OS 8.1 CD

I didn’t (and still don’t) have the original system CD I ordered. However I found plenty of Toast images of Mac OS install CDs online, and through my research discovered that they’re just standard ISO images. Which means I should be able to burn them on my PC. Not wanting to mess with too many variables I downloaded an image for Mac OS 8.1, dug up a blank CD-R, and burned it.

I popped the finished disc into the mac, started it up, and… nothing. It tried to spin up, but didn’t boot. I assumed I messed something up – maybe you can’t create bootable CDs this way, or maybe the slower 12X CD-ROM was having trouble reading a CD-R burned at 52X. Despite storing digital data, the CD burning process is actually analog, and burning a CD too fast can make discs that older readers can’t read.

Next I tried booting from the Floppy Emu again, and putting in the CD anyway, just to see if I could see any files on it. It tried to spin up , but again, no dice. Maybe the CD-R was just bad – it had been sandwiched in a spindle of old PC games. I still had a couple more blanks, so I tried burning a new disc at the slowest speed my burner would handle, 32X.

Round two

Popped the second CD into the mac, and again, nothing. I flipped the disc over to check for scratches – then I noticed something peculiar. The Mac OS 8.1 CD image was only ~200MB, only a third of a full CD, yet the CD looked blank.

I won’t get into the details of optical media here, but basically, on professionally pressed CDs, the data is physically etched into the disc as a series of pits and bumps. Recordable CDs instead have a thin layer of transparent, heat-sensitive dye in them, and a CD burner writes data by heating up the dye until it becomes opaque, creating a series of transparent and opaque dots, rather than pits and bumps.

A side effect of this is that it’s easy to see if a disc has data on it just by looking at the bottom of the disc, and seeing the color of the opaque dye. Since data is written in a continuous spiral from the center to the outer edges of the disc, you can even estimate how full it is by seeing where the color stops.

Broken CD burner

The bottom of the two discs I burned showed no sign of having any data on it, especially not the third I expected. To confirm I put the discs back in my PC, where every program I tried saw them as fresh blank discs. I tried to burn on them again, and even though each program declared success, I noticed the read buffer (where data is stored before it’s burned) was always at 0%.

Turns out my CD burner (actually a modern DVD-burner, on my desktop from 2018) can’t burn anymore. While many modern computers (especially laptops) dispense with an optical drive all together, and I don’t burn often these days, I did burn a lot of CDs on this drive a couple years ago. Plus I regularly use the drive for ripping optical media, which I had noticed was giving me problems lately. Bottom line, it’s broken, and I can’t use it to burn CDs.

Thankfully, I still had an old external USB DVD burner from ~2009 that I could try. I plugged it in and tried to burn the image again. Success! It even supported burning as slow as 10X, safely under the speed of the 12X reader in this mac.

Third time’s a charm

Time to try again. I popped in the burned CD (with the definite color change on the bottom), held “C” on the keyboard to ensure it booted from the CD drive, and it worked! The Mac OS 8.1 install CD booted perfectly fine, right into a desktop with the installer ready to run.

Even better, once it booted I was able to browse the CD and I found it contained a copy of the “Disk Tools” floppy image I had used previously, along with the software to write it to a real floppy. A couple clicks later, I was able to confirm the floppy drive works too, and I created my first mac floppy in almost twenty years.

Now, they both probably could use some maintenance, but I’ll save that for another day. I was two for two with working drives – I could read and write floppies, essential for communicating with older machines, but I wasn’t limited to floppies for getting data onto the system – I could transfer large files with burned CDs.

That’s it for this post – the machine works, the drives work, next is to get a hard drive installed – but that’ll wait until Part VI.

/jon

Want to read from the beginning? Start at Part I.

Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part IV: Start scrubbing

In Part III, I proved my Power Macintosh 8600/200 wasn’t completely dead – at least it boots. Now it’s time to clean it up so I can start really working on it.

Cleaning out the cobwebs

Despite being in relatively good condition for a 20 year-old computer, the machine has its fair share of dings and scuffs. Neither it nor the included keyboard and mouse seem to have suffered from any yellowing (typical of old computer plastics) but still, they’ve all got a definite film of grime and dust that makes them a little gross to handle.

First step, haul everything outside. I took off the removable side panel so I could access the inside. Then I used an air compressor to blow out all of the dust bunnies. It didn’t take very long, much faster than if I’d tried with one of those tiny cans of compressed air.

Scrubbing off the grime

Next I focused on the outside panels. I wiped everything down with a rag dipped in rubbing alcohol, and the layers of grime came right off. The keyboard and mouse felt a million times better after a quick wipe down. The worst offenders were all the cables – the soft sheaths tend to degrade over time, almost as if they are melting, so they get sticky and collect all manner of grime.

A popular restoration is to “retrobrite” external plastics. That is, soak them in a hydrogen peroxide solution in the sun to bleach away the yellowness of age. This machine hasn’t really yellowed, so I could probably get away with skipping that process. But if I wanted to, I’d have to solve another problem first – it seems the panels are attached to the metal chassis by bits of melted plastic rather than tabs or screws. So I can’t remove the plastic from the panels without breaking them off.

But that’s a problem for another day. Right now, time to address some of the scuffs and dings.

I took the one removable side panel and got to work with the rag and rubbing alcohol. I scrubbed the panel for a solid hour – until my hands and fingers were too sore to continue. But what a difference!

There were a couple tiny spots where I used a Magic Eraser to buff out some deeper scratches. Not my favorite method, as it looks fine at a casual glance but under certain lighting you can see reflections where the texture of the plastic was buffed out too. For reference, here’s the before and after (sorry for the different lighting):

Overall the results were very promising. My hands were too tired to continue, and being unable to remove the other panels means the rest will be little more difficult to manipulate, but at least I know it’s possible to get this thing in tip-top shape.

Now that the machine doesn’t feel gross to handle, I can start focusing on getting it set up proper.

We’ll get to that in Part V!

/jon

Want to read from the beginning? Start at Part I.

Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part III: The Power Mac lives!

In Part II, I described my first purchase: a Power Macintosh 8600/200 in pretty good shape. But I left the most important question unanswered – does it work?

Replacing the PRAM battery

First step was to replace the PRAM battery – the little cell that keeps the clock in-time when the system is unplugged, and maintains a small list of basic settings like the screen resolution, which drive to boot, etc.

You’ll notice in the previous post’s photos that I’d already removed the original battery – in fact it was the very first thing I did when I opened the machine up.

December 1996. Seeing as this model was on the market in 1997, that’s probably the battery’s manufacture date, making it almost 24 years old!

I tested it with a multi-meter and it registered zero volts, confirming it was dead, well past its expected life of ~10 years. Thankfully, and most importantly, it failed gracefully – no leaks and no explosion. It’s a real risk too.

Thankfully, replacing the battery was smooth and simple.

Connecting a modern display

After replacing the battery, the next step was to get the machine set up and connected to a monitor. The only loose monitor I had available was a cheap LCD I’d bought a few years ago.

While many vintage macs could output VGA-compatible signals, Apple had their own unique video connectors. I had to pick up a cheap configurable VGA monitor adapter (FYI, the correct setting was 2, 3, 6, 7).

With that connected, it was time to start up the machine!

First proof of life

The machine started up with a satisfying startup sound:

It lives! The blinking “missing disk” icon is the exact behavior one expects without a boot disk present. Which means, the next step is to prepare a boot disk.

Breaking out the Floppy Emu

Without an already set-up hard drive, the two standard options I have for this machine are a boot floppy or a boot CD-ROM. I’d ordered the original system install CD, but it hasn’t arrived yet. (Side note, I’m behind in blogging all of this, but I ordered the CD August 17th, it wasn’t even shipped until September 4th, and it still hasn’t arrived as of this post).

Could I have burned a CD? It turns out yes, but I didn’t know that, or whether the CD-ROM drive even worked.

Could I use a floppy? Not right away – I do have blank floppy disks, but as far as I knew, no way to make a mac floppy on my PC, even if I had a floppy drive (which I didn’t). And again, no guarantee that the floppy drive in the mac works either.

So, time to bust out my first “modern” toy in this adventure: a Floppy Emu. I mentioned back in Part I that there are modern devices that emulate the older drive hardware and use SD cards, and the Floppy Emu is just that. It’s a little device that plugs into the internal floppy cable (or external floppy drive port) of these vintage machines, and lets you read from (and write to) floppy drive images on the SD card.

I put several boot floppy images onto an SD card, disconnected the real floppy drive, ran its cable out the front of the machine, and connected the Floppy Emu.

It took a few tries with different images (some threw up errors saying they wouldn’t work on this particular machine) but eventually the Mac OS 8 Disk Tools 8.1 PPC worked. Success!

Booting from floppy was slow, and this particular floppy image is really just to help you set up / troubleshoot your hard drives, but I was finally able to prove the machine wasn’t a lost cause.

About this computer

When getting a vintage mac up and running, it seems it’s tradition to take a photo of this screen, showing off how much RAM you have and that you’ve gotten this far. I myself was pleasantly surprised – I had counted the four RAM DIMMs and after a little research had concluded that they were 16MB each, for a total of 64MB RAM. Not amazing by today’s standards, but twice the standard 32MB this machine came with.

Turns out one of sticks was actually 32MB, so 80MB for me! Considering the price and availability of RAM for this machine (we’ll get into that in a later post) every little bit helps.

I think that’s enough for this time, stay tuned for Part IV!

/jon

Want to read from the beginning? Start at Part I.