Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Tag: hardware

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.

Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part II: Getting a crossover machine

In Part I, I discussed my history with classic macs, my plans to restore a 30-year old compact mac, and some of the hurdles to getting started.

I decided that my first step would be to buy and restore a “crossover” machine. Basically, get a “newer” classic mac, one in-between the mac I want to restore and the modern PCs that I currently own.

It’s a staging ground

Despite the general availability of classic Mac software online, getting it off the internet and onto a pre-Internet, floppy-oriented device can be a bit of a pain if you only have modern equipment. Getting a crossover machine means more options than floppies: CD-ROMs, USB flash drives – even direct Internet-access itself.

It’s practice

I’m a fair hand at electronic repairs – I’m not worried about that aspect of a restoration. But there are other things I’ll need to do, cleaning and repair techniques I’ll need to learn too. Getting a crossover machine gives me a chance to test those skills out without worrying too much about ruining the final result.

Time to troll eBay

I’d been watching eBay for a while, but mostly I was looking for a good compact mac, or good prices on parts for an eventual compact mac. So I switched gears and started looking at newer macs. My requirements were pretty minimal – it needed to boot (at least enough to ask for a disk), have a floppy drive and some other way of accessing data – a CD-ROM drive, Ethernet card, USB, something.

I finally found a Power Macintosh 8600/200. It had no hard disk, but it included a keyboard and mouse, and there was a photo of it booting to the “insert disk” screen. Overall condition looked pretty good, but most importantly, it had a CD-ROM drive, built-in 10Base-T internet, and the option of adding PCI cards with USB. What sealed the deal, so to speak, was that I found the original manual and install CD online, which meant I could potentially get it up and running without having to resort to floppies at all.

So I bought it, and it arrived exactly as pictured – a little dirty, a little scuffed, but seemingly intact.

My Power Macintosh 8600/200 (Outside)

My Power Macintosh 8600/200 (Inside)

So, does it work?

Guess you’ll have to wait until Part III to find out. 🙂

/jon

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

Adventures in Macintosh restoration Part I

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

SegaController v1.3.0 now available

I’ve released an updated version of the SegaController Arduino library. If you don’t know, SegaController enables your Arduino sketches to read Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) and now Master System (Mark III) controllers.

What’s new in v1.3.0?

  • Now supports Sega Master System (Mark III) controllers
  • Optimized code to reduce compiled binary size
  • Reduced read latency
  • Fixed issue with errant button reads when inserting/removing controller
  • Temporarily disables interrupts while reading to prevent misreads
  • Added DB9 pinout diagram to readme and examples

So if you’re interested in reading Sega controllers in your Arduino projects, check out  SegaController Arduino library on GitHub.

I’ve also updated How To Read Sega Controllers with information on reading Master System (Mark III) controllers.

Enjoy and happy hacking!

/jon