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Beginners Guide to the Vintage Macintosh

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This will be a simple guide with tips on how to work with vintage Macintosh computers.

Getting Started

This section will cover the basics on types of Macintosh models and where you can frequently find them.

Which Macintosh Is For Me?

From my own personal experience, I decided to get into Macintosh models I either used or really wanted when I was younger. We'll take a look at some considerations to help you decide which vintage Macintosh you may want to look for.

68k or PowerPC?

There was a major shift in the Macintosh architecture right around 1994 as the release of the "Power Macintosh" models replaced the Motorola 680x0 based CPUs with the PowerPC processor. The Power Macintosh models will generally run most 68k applications, but there are some things to consider.

  • Early Power Macintosh models may run 68k applications slower than the actual 68k systems. For example, a 68k-only application may run slower on a Power Macintosh 6100 than a Macintosh Quadra 840av despite the PowerPC being the faster CPU. 68k software runs in behind-the-scenes emulation on PowerPC.
  • Some very early 68k software such as games for the original black and white compact Macs may not run properly on later systems.
  • System 6 or earlier will require an older 68k. Mac OS 8 will technically run on a Motorola 68040 but is better suited for PowerPC. Mac OS 8.5 and up will only run on a PowerPC.
  • System 7.5.5 is a good stable system and should run on any 68k Macintosh, but systems under 4mb RAM should consider 7.1 or earlier.
  • System 7.1.2 is the first to support PowerPC and can be run on the early Power Macintosh 6100/7100/8100 models.

Laptop, Desktop or AIO?

Factors such as your planned usage, available desk space, ability to perform electrical repairs may influence the choice of vintage Macintosh you should be looking for.

Laptop Considerations

  • The PowerBook Duo line of sub-notebooks do not include a floppy or CD drive. Without a Duo Dock or mini dock setup, you'll need network connectivity with another Macintosh via serial port to transfer files over.
  • The LCDs in the earlier PowerBooks have capacitors which fail due to age and will require replacement. These will cause issues with the display as they fail.
  • In some models such as the Macintosh PowerBook 3400c there is an internal PRAM battery which is known for leaking and damaging internal components over time.
  • Early PowerBook Duo models seem to have a poor quality keyboard prone to mushy key feeling or keys not working at all. A thorough cleaning may help.
  • Passive-matrix LCDs probably won't be suitable for gaming.
  • Some models of power supplies are more prone to failure from age and may require repair.

Desktop Considerations

  • You'll use up more desk space than a laptop but you'll likely have more expansion options.
  • Nearly all desktop vintage Macs will require logic board recapping. The power supplies in the LC line also seem more prone to failure from age.
  • Able to use consumer VGA LCDs with adapter instead of a bulky CRT.

All-In-One Considerations

  • Like the desktop models, you'll most likely need to recap the logic board. This will also apply to the analog board driving the CRT.
  • Typically a fixed screen resolution.
  • Certain models used cheaper shadow mask CRTs (LC 580, Performa 5000 series models). Trinitron is better.

Models In High Demand

There's a number of Macintosh models which are far more expensive than others on the used market. Some of these are desirable from the performance standpoint while others are more collectible due to rarity.

  • Macintosh Quadra 700 - Mid-range performance as a Motorola 68040 based Mac but it uses a mini-tower form factor, while most Macs at the time were designed to sit under the monitor as a desktop. The Quadra 700 also made an appearance in the Jurassic Park film, adding to its popularity. An additional benefit of the Quadra 700 is the lack of the commonly used SMD electrolytic capacitors which leak over time and require replacement.
  • Macintosh Quadra 840av - Fastest production Motorola 68040 Macintosh as it clocks in at 40MHz. The tower design is visually appealing but it is not known for being pleasant to work on. The interior plastic components are also prone to breaking if not handled carefully, making shipping these units risky. The "AV" component of this system is also something not found in most Macs, but not a whole lot of software took advantage of this.
  • Macintosh Quadra 950 - Not as powerful as the 840av but the Quadra 950 is the ultimate server tower from the Motorola 68040 line. This tower features six NuBus slots and room for various other expansion options. The Quadra 950 is the best choice for Apple UNIX (A/UX) hobbyists.
  • Macintosh TV - This system is not overly powerful, but it is a fairly unique Macintosh due to the all-black design. The short production run on this model also makes it harder to find these days.
  • Macintosh SE/30 - The SE/30 is the top of the line for the black and white compact Macs. The internal expansion port gives you a number of options, even doing multiple cards at the same time with the use of angled adapters and the like. This system can even hold 128MB RAM. This system can also run Apple UNIX (A/UX).
  • Macintosh Color Classic - In stock form these compacts aren't overly powerful, and they top out at 10MB RAM. Another problem is the screen resolution making it incompatible with some games. These are likely more popular in the "mystic" upgraded form which is the use of an LC 575 logic board, and often implementing a hardware hack allowing the CRT to display 640x480 resolution.
  • Macintosh LC 575 - This model is the most powerful of the 68k all-in-one Macs and uses a much nicer display than the LC 580 which was the last of the 500 series. These are probably going to be harder to find intact due to the popularity of taking the LC 575 logic board and using it in a Color Classic.
  • Macintosh 128K - Carries value from being the first model of Macintosh, but also due to rarity as many owners of original 128K systems likely performed logic board upgrades to the 512K. Original 128K boards were taken back by the vendor, reducing the number of actual original 128K systems in use.
  • Macintosh PowerBook 2400c - This is a sub-notebook design like the Macintosh PowerBook Duo 2300c but seems to have been more popular in markets outside of North America, making these harder to find.
  • Macintosh IIfx - This was the most powerful Macintosh using the Motorola 68030 processor and also used some other unique internal components. These were very expensive at the time and still carry value in the used market from being the most powerful Macintosh II but also being harder to find.
  • Macintosh Portable - Not a very practical Macintosh to actually use, but these take some effort to keep in running condition so working units are becoming harder to find.
  • Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh - The TAM design makes it a unique vintage Mac, but the original price kept it from selling in high volume making it a rare computer these days. Expect to pay a large amount of money if you really want one of these.

Other Model Considerations

  • If you're looking into a 6200/6300 series Performa, the recommended model for best performance is the 6360 as this is PCI-based instead of NuBus like the earlier models.
  • Despite having a 32MHz CPU, the Macintosh IIvx is said to actually be slower than a Macintosh IIci due to a 16MHz bus speed.
  • The PowerPC 601 chip on models such as the Power Macintosh 6100 is very fragile and can easily break if too much force is applied to the heatsink. Due to age, the processors may also overheat and die if the heatsink compound is not replaced (also applies to Power Macintosh 7100).
  • If you're looking for a Macintosh capable of running Apple UNIX (A/UX), the system must be equipped with a PMMU, FPU and not be an AV model. No LC models are compatible. No PowerPC model will run A/UX.
  • Early compact Macs which don't have an internal fan for cooling (128K/512K/Plus) may overheat if used for long periods of time. A third party "system saver" fan device is a recommended accessory.

Buying a Vintage Macintosh

Things You Need To Know

  • Most Macintosh models from the 1980s and 1990s will require logic board work due to leaking electrolyte from SMD capacitors. If this work has not been done, the system may still work but slowly die as electrolyte comes in contact with logic board components. If you are not capable of doing this repair work yourself, you should factor this work in to your purchase budget.
  • The original PRAM batteries are notorious for leaking onto the logic board and in some cases completely destroying the board. If you're purchasing an "untested" Macintosh without being able to see the inside of the unit, be warned that you may end up with an irreparable system. Most Macs will function without the battery but for units which require one, make sure you buy a brand new one with a recent manufacturing date and not one sitting on a shelf for 10 years.
  • The so-called "Spindler plastics" (term used by hobbyists to describe the brittle case plastic likely from Michael Spindler's cost cutting) in a number of 1990s Macintosh models can sometimes result in units destroyed in shipping due to insufficient packaging. Unfortunately even with the most careful packaging, you may still encounter damage due to the age of the plastics. If you absolutely must buy a 1990s Macintosh with shipping involved, make sure the seller packs the unit very well.
  • The original hard disks in older Macintosh computers may still work but will generally have horrible bearing noise. SCSI hard disks in good running condition are hard to find now, and with age they will only get worse. Don't spend too much time trying to find a working hard disk unless you really want the vintage sound of spinning disk. Options such as the SCSI2SD are far easier to deal with.

Where to find Macs

  • eBay - While online auction sites such as eBay will give you the best selection, eBay sellers are known for inflated prices far beyond actual market value. Impulse buying on eBay may cost you more than a system is worth, and you should instead spend some time researching previous sold prices to get an idea of the going rate. You may still find used Macs for cheaper elsewhere depending on your geographical region.
  • Flea markets - You might be able to get some great deals at a flea market, or you might find nothing at all.
  • Local classifieds - Craigslist/Kijiji/etc are often good places to find used Macs, assuming you live somewhere with decent population. Prices may vary from great deals to worse than eBay.
  • Recyclers - Organizations that do scrap recycling may receive vintage Macs from people who don't know any better, but not all recyclers will let you walk in and take/purchase computers that have been dropped off. If the recycler doesn't already do reselling, you'll probably have to make friends with someone working there.
  • Surplus auctions - You're probably not likely to find any real old Macs in government/education surplus auctions, but worth checking out if you're looking for G4 era Macs.
  • Estate sales - Might be a good place to start if you're hoping to find forgotten Macs from someone's attic.
  • Thrift stores - Some thrift stores may not sell computers and instead send them directly to recycling, but it's probably worth going to stores such as Goodwill or Value Village.
  • Vintage Mac communities - A great place to buy and sell vintage Macintosh systems is the forum at 68kmla.org. Other sites to check include Applefritter and VCFED. As of 2019 there are also numerous Discord servers dedicated to vintage computing and you may find other people to conduct deals with.

Bought a vintage Mac... Now what?

Here's a quick checklist of things you may want to do to help get you set up with a vintage Macintosh.

  1. Clean and re-cap the logic board. If you don't care about keeping the exact factory look, tantalum capacitors make good replacements for the original SMDs.
  2. If you're using an all-in-one Macintosh or a separate Apple CRT, inspect the analog board for bulging/leaking capacitors and replace if necessary. This is especially important if you notice "glitches" in the display as this tends to be an indication of failing components.
  3. Clean the floppy disk drive. The older auto-inject disk drives tend to get dirty easily and cause issues with reading disks. A good cleaning may help with this.
  4. Replace the hard disk if the mechanism is overly loud or if you encounter data corruption. The SCSI2SD is a popular choice for hobbyists.
  5. Retr0bright the case if the original color has since been replaced with a brown color from UV damage. If you like to display your vintage Mac collection, having them back at the original color is probably appealing.

Using a Vintage Macintosh

Once you have your hardware up and running, you'll probably want to get your operating system set up and some applications or games loaded.

Software Repositories

Vintage Macintosh software can be obtained from a number of online sources. You may also find software available on protocols old enough to be directly compatible with your Macintosh system, assuming it has Internet access. Most modern websites will not render on old Macintosh web browsers, so you may need to download software on a modern computer and then transfer it to the Macintosh afterward.

Web Sites

General

Drivers

FTP Sites

Hotline/KDX Servers

The Hotline Client (Software) will run on any Macintosh with minimum OS of 7.1 and Open Transport. The client software can be found at https://preterhuman.net/gethotlinekdx.php

  • hl.preterhuman.net - This is the Hotline/KDX server run by preterhuman.net and features a large collection of vintage Macintosh software.

Installing Software

Requirements

As Macintosh applications use both a resource fork and separate data fork, they must be compressed before being stored on filesystems which do not support this (such as DOS/Windows). This unfortunately causes a problem when it comes to extracting archives as you need to already have a copy of a decompression utility such as StuffIt Expander, but this wasn't always included with the base Macintosh system software. You can typically find these types of utilities bundled in with copies of Mac OS 8 and up, or on the demo/shareware CDs you'd find in Macworld/MacAddict magazines. For accessing downloaded software, here are some utilities you'll probably need:

  • StuffIt Expander version 5.5 or later - There was a change in the StuffIt format in version 5.5 so any archive made with version 5.5 or later will require Expander version 5.5.
  • DiskCopy version 6.x - This is to mount disk images. The earlier version 4.x may not read newer images so finding the latest 6.x copy is recommended for compatibility.
  • Adaptec/Roxio Toast - The Toast format is probably the most popular for Macintosh CD images, and the Toast software will mount and burn CD images (assuming you have a CD recorder).
  • ShrinkWrap - This is a disk image utility which may be handy if DiskCopy is not working with a particular image.

Operating System

If you intend on using Apple's System 7 operating system, this was available both on high-density floppy disks and CD-ROM. Any Macintosh with an integrated CD-ROM drive should be capable of booting off the system software CD, and most desktop Macs should be capable of doing the same with an external Apple CD-ROM drive.

  • CD images of System 7.x versions found online may be in Toast format, typically requiring a Macintosh with a CD recorder to properly burn. Some online download repositories may have the CD image available in ISO format, which should work with being written to CD on Windows or Linux workstations.
  • Floppy disk images and be obtained online but will generally require a Macintosh to properly write to floppy disk.
  • Actual Apple install disks can often be found on sites such as eBay. You may also find third parties offering to write the install images to blank disks for less cost.
  • If you're using a SCSI2SD as a hard disk, you can potentially raw write a complete Macintosh disk image to your SD card with everything already included. You'd need to find someone to provide this sort of thing.

Notes

  • Early versions of System 7 will have a 2GB partition limit on HFS. On larger disks you can either have multiple partitions or use a third-party utility such as FWB Hard Disk Toolkit to install a custom driver capable of larger volumes.
  • If you plan on running an OS higher than Mac OS 8.1, you should use the HFS+ filesystem. Note that this will require a fresh format, and no OS under 8.1 will be able to read it.

Applications

You may encounter applications which specify either 68k or PPC (PowerPC). 68k applications will run on a PowerPC though slower due to the required emulation, but PowerPC applications will not run on a 68k processor. Software applications were also commonly distributed as "FAT" binaries which included both the 68k and PPC code at the expense of larger file size.

  • If the disk image file extension is ".dmg" this is for Mac OS X based computers, not classic Mac OS.
  • If you have a disk image which DiskCopy will not read, the file's owner and type codes may not be correct. This may happen to files copied from other platforms without being compressed inside a .bin/.sit/.hqx container. ResEdit can be used to set these attributes (match them with a working disk image file).

Troubleshooting

This section will cover brief troubleshooting information for vintage Macintosh hardware and software. For more detailed information specific to certain models, please visit our Apple Computer article and find your model in the product list.

Hardware Issues

Mac chimes but there is no video signal

Models such as the Macintosh LC 475, Power Macintosh 6100 along with a few others will require a working PRAM battery installed or the system will not boot. Research your exact model to determine if this requirement affects you. Other causes may include a screen resolution incompatibility or failing capacitors on the logic board.

Software Issues

Mac freezes or produces a bomb crash during boot

This often means the OS is attempting to load an extension or control panel which is either conflicting with another piece of software or is incompatible with your hardware in general. If you reboot the computer and hold down the shift key right away (before the "happy Mac") until you see the extensions disabled message, it should allow you to boot and disable the problematic software. If the boot still fails, you may have a corrupted system file or a failing hardware component.

See Also