Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part IX: Captain, She Needs More RAM!

In Part VIII, I added USB to my Power Macintosh 8600/200 and got the final system setup installed and running. Now it’s time to address my final planned upgrade for this machine, adding some more RAM.

Video RAM was easy

The first thing I upgraded was the machine’s video RAM. The default configuration is only 2MB, giving a max display resolution of 1280×1024 with 256 colors, but it can be upgraded to a max of 4MB, bumping the max resolution to 1280×1024 with 16bit color. Now as a crossover machine, it isn’t a strictly “necessary” upgrade. It has no impact on any of the software I’m using, and without the high-resolution features of a modern OS (like sub-pixel anti-aliasing, or system-wide font scaling) I’ve honestly found more than 1024×768 to be hard on the eyes.

Really, the main reason I did it was because of the price – I found the two 1MB RAM sticks on eBay for pretty cheap, and it was strictly additive. That is, I didn’t replace the existing video RAM, I just filled in the rest of the open slots.

So if it wasn’t necessary, why spend the money? Well, this machine served a role in its day which I haven’t really spoken to yet – presentations and video production. You see, this model actually has built-in jacks for video capture and playback, via standard composite (the RCA yellow, white, and red) as well as s-video connections. With the right software, you can can capture SD video, edit in effects or what have you, and export back out to other A/V equipment.

The standard 2MB of video RAM even lets you use the A/V output to connect to a TV instead of using a regular monitor. With the 4MB upgrade, you can mirror your regular monitor display to the A/V output. This makes the machine perfect for live presentations as most video projectors of the era still used standard A/V inputs.

Frankly, the thought of using this old machine to capture video intrigued me as a fun project for another day. So I decided that I might as well upgrade it while I could.

Regular RAM was harder

Next came the regular RAM. The existing 80 MB is fine for a machine of this era, most of the time, especially if you’re offline and not doing any heavy media manipulation. Connecting to the internet is another story – especially browsing the web. Then, the more RAM the better.

Way back in Part III I hinted that the price and availability of RAM for this machine was going to be a problem, and I’ll admit, one that caught me by surprise. During my research I’d of course looked at the RAM specs for this machine – it had 8 slots and came with 32MB from the factory. In 1997 the largest stick you could buy for this machine was 64MB – giving an official limit of 512MB. Soon 128MB sticks were available, bumping that max up to 1GB – a monster amount of RAM.

So when I started costing out this machine, the first thing I did was look for those old 128MB sticks. I couldn’t find any, but the 64MB sticks seemed readily available for cheap, so I settled on living with 512MB. I saved off the listings for later, wanting to verify the machine even worked before I put more money into it.

It wasn’t until after I’d gotten the machine to boot that I returned to that saved listing, and noticed that something wasn’t right. During the cleaning I’d actually held the original RAM in my hands, and the pins looked very different from the photos in the listing. I held off on buying more to do more research.

Turns out I was right – the RAM was different. The Power Mac 8600/200 uses 168-pin 5V FPM/EDO DIMMs and the RAM I was looking at was 168-pin 3.3V EDO DIMMs. Despite having the same number of pins, the layout of those pins were thankfully designed such that you couldn’t accidentally mix them up and break something.

So I’d made a mistake, but at least I hadn’t wasted the money, and so I started appending “5V” to my searches.

It wasn’t long before I realized that all anyone had were 3.3V DIMMs. It turned out that the particular 5V variety used by this machine were not used by very many models, and as such were exceedingly rare to find these days. People restoring these machines today are usually stuck with whatever RAM was still in the box.

In fact, one thing I’d noticed when first cleaning out the machine was the rather odd placement of the existing sticks – rather than start in slot A1 (the pairs of slots are labeled A-D) they started on B2. It doesn’t affect anything, but usually people start with A1 right?

Then it hit me. When I got it, the machine was missing both its hard drive and the valuable internal ZIP drive – two things someone upgrading to a new machine might take with them. I didn’t even bat an eye at the missing hard drive – I’ve gotten through plenty of upgrades where, even if I wasn’t planning on using an old drive, I didn’t have time to wipe it properly, so it was easier to just pull it before sending the machine to a recycler. I didn’t care about the missing ZIP drive, and seeing how expensive it was to replace (well more than I paid for the rest of the system) I just shrugged and moved on.

The previous owner probably had the largest sticks in the first few slots and pulled them for their next machine. Or maybe a reseller knew how rare they were, and popped them out to sell separately. Either way, it looked like I was stuck with the 80MB I already had.

Success off eBay

My dreams of 1 GB, or even 512MB dashed, I moved on. Then one day I saw someone post on Reddit that they’d found a great deal on a bunch of 8MB EDO DIMMs, which they’d bought up to fill all the open slots in their Power Macs. Some store was trying to clear out vintage inventory.

To my surprise, they even listed 64MB sticks for $10 a piece! I jumped in feet first and ordered a full set of 8. After talking with some more people online, someone pointed out that they were listed as ECC memory, which I hadn’t noticed in my haste. I couldn’t find a definitive answer if my machine could handle ECC memory, so I was a little worried that after all that waiting I may have still wasted my money.

The store contacted me the next day to apologize – they actually only had 3 sticks in stock, so I could either get refunded for 5 or cancel my order altogether. I opted to take the 3, which made me feel better about the risk if they didn’t work.

 

They arrived and fit perfectly. I crossed my fingers, but unfortunately, one of the sticks didn’t work. I tried moving it around into different slots, but it just appears to be bad. But even with that loss, I still got 128MB of RAM for $20, when the best information I could find said those 64MB sticks still floating around in the past decade usually sold for around $50 a stick.

 

So at the end of the day, I’ve got 208MB of RAM in this machine. More than plenty for my needs, and I still have free slots if I stumble on any deals in the future. Not bad!

But I have to say, that’s it for this machine for now. I never got the original manual and CD, though I did finally get a refund two months after the initial order. The machine isn’t 100% restored – I haven’t finished buffing the case or bleaching it back to its original color – but it’s more than ready to be a crossover machine when the time comes.

Which surprisingly enough is much sooner than I expected.

Is there a compact mac on the horizon? You’ll have to stay tuned!

/jon

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