Apple IIGS

The original Apple II first rolled off the assembly line in 1978, and Apple offered only modest improvements for nearly a decade. While the IIc provided a new form factor, the introduction of the IIGS in 1986 took the Apple II family to another level.

While I remember a television ad or two, I never had the opportunity to use a IIGS in its prime. Only recently did I realize how capably it bridged the 8-bit and later 32-bit eras of home computing.  

After the collapse of the Lisa and Apple III (and with a sluggish start for the Macintosh), Apple begrudgingly advanced the Apple II platform. A new wave of personal computers emerged in the mid-80s that eclipsed the capabilities of the early 8-bit systems. IBM was moving to Intel’s 16-bit processor, but more importantly, Commodore released the Amiga 1000 and Atari the 520ST. Both computers were built around Motorola’s 68000 processor and were aimed squarely at the home market. While the Macintosh also used the 68000, Apple targeted that machine for businesses and higher education–and priced it accordingly.

Apple began working on a significant upgrade to the Apple II as early as 1983. Technical problems stymied the project’s original design, and complicating matters, Apple needed to avoid upstaging the Macintosh then in development. After the Macintosh and Apple IIc launched in 1984, work resumed on a computer that retained Apple II compatibility and provided more memory and improved graphics and sound. Apple used Western Design Center’s 65816 processor, as it was an evolution of the MOS 6502, but offered 16-bit registers while retaining extensive 8-bit compatibility. Paired with the impressive Mega II, which reduced the rest of the Apple II to a single chip, this new computer could run Apple II software and explore new opportunities.

In September 1986, Apple introduced the sleek IIGS. The 65816 was clocked at 2.8MHz. This was an improvement but far from state-of-the-art. The system had 256K of RAM but could be expanded to an impressive 8MB (later models shipped standard with 1.125MB). It also emulated all Apple II video modes but natively provided 320 x 200 and 640 x 200 resolutions with a 4,096-color pallet. The notable Ensoniq ES5503 wavetable sound chip (designed by Robert Yannes, the father of Commodore’s SID chip) was capable of synthesizing fifteen voices—a far cry from the Apple II’s simple beep.

The first 50,000 IIGS systems were “Woz” limited editions bearing Steve Wozniak’s signature on the front. In total, approximately 1.5M IIGS units were sold between September 1986 and December 1992.

This particular Apple IIGS was my first pickup using Facebook Marketplace. Lucky for me, a pleasant couple was preparing to downsize for retirement. This meant they needed to part with a sizeable collection of early ’90s Apple computers and related material. Several Macs appeared to be from a nearby university but based on the software, joysticks, and other material accompanying the haul, I could tell the IIGS had been a family mainstay in its day.

Since I had just worked on my Apple IIc, I was drawn to the IIGS. My first step was to open it up and survey the situation. Like all Apple II computers, the layout is simple. This IIGS was likely manufactured in late 1989. It is a ROM 3 model with 1.125MB of RAM installed on the mainboard. Doubling the ROM size from 128K to 256K allowed a portion of the OS toolset to be built-in, speeding up routine operations. It also added “sticky keys” to help disabled users press multiple keys, it enabled keyboard mouse emulation, and a few sound and graphics problems were resolved.

I was pleased to see that while the battery was installed, it had not leaked. And in another stroke of good fortune, the IIGS came with the desirable Apple Hi-Speed SCSI card. When connected to an external hard drive, the card can move data at up to 1MB per second.

I was hesitant to simply flip the power switch, so I removed the power supply and gave it a good look. Unlike most Apple II PSUs, this unit was not made by Astec. It appears an aftermarket MWP-303 had been installed. The PCB had some sticky residue, and there was oxidation around a few solder joints, so I cleaned it and checked the voltages.

Knowing that switching power supplies need a load to produce accurate voltage, I wired in a 100W 4 Ohm resistor. With this in place, I was able to verify the voltages were correct, and it was safe to power the computer.

The main body of the IIGS was a bit grimy, but nothing elbow grease couldn’t remove. I carefully inspected the mainboard. While computers of this era frequently have problematic electrolytic capacitors, these looked okay to me. So, I replaced the battery and focused on cleaning the surfaces, ports, and nooks and crannies.

I then turned my attention to the keyboard and mouse. The IIGS was the first computer to use Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) ports. Created by Steve Wozniak, the ADB connector would later become standard on Macintosh and NeXT computers. Similar to IBM’s PS/2 connector, it provided an easy way to connect input devices. However, unlike the PS/2 connector, devices could be daisy-chained together, and for some Macs, it supported a special key on the top of the keyboard that turned on the computer. With the IIGS, this key was used as the Apple II reset key.

The IIGS came with a wonderful compact keyboard. Using Alps orange switches, the keyboard feels and sounds fantastic. The keys have plenty of travel, and while it is not quiet, it’s not too loud either. I’d be tempted to get a conversion kit so I could use this as my daily keyboard.

Unfortunately, this Apple ADB keyboard didn’t work. After a thorough cleaning, I noticed only small solder pins held the ADB connector to the board. Figuring the connection was likely unstable after years of inserting and removing keyboards and mice, I took a shot and applied fresh solder where both plugs met the board. Thankfully, that’s all it took. The keyboard now works perfectly.

The ADB mouse was severely discolored and very dirty. I disassembled and cleaned it (including using a dental pick to remove grime from the inset Apple logo). I enjoyed seeing the simple spoked wheels and LEDs inside the mouse that tell the computer how the ball is moving in the socket. This technique had changed little from Bill English’s 1972 design.

I took this opportunity to try my hand with retrobrite. While I’ve watched many YouTube videos on the process, I hadn’t taken the plunge. While I suspect liquid hydrogen peroxide is better for larger parts, I only needed to tackle one very mustardy mouse. A few days earlier, I had watched a presentation by chemical engineer Scott Hansen at KansasFest 2020 on his new Retrobrite cream, so I decided to give it a try.

After covering the outside of the mouse with the cream, I sealed it in plastic wrap and placed it outside. After about three hours of morning summer sun (turning it several times for good coverage), it was done. The mouse looks great! I can see very faint streaking on the palm rest, but even if you were looking for it, it would take some effort to see it.

I also cleaned and serviced the 3.5-inch floppy drive. Aside from crusty black grease along the spindle rod, the mechanism appeared to be in good shape. Even the eject gears worked properly. I was worried because once reassembled, the drive would not read two disks I inserted that came with the system. However, I was able to format and read a new floppy. I’ll need to determine whether the media is faulty or if the drive is unable to read anything other than its own formatted disks.

Finally, I tackled the monitor. The IIGS came with the 12-inch AppleColor RGB Monitor. The screen can display a maximum of 600 x 200 lines at a 0.37 dot pitch. Importantly, it operates at a fixed 15.7 kHz horizontal scan rate. This places it in a unique class of monitor. Commodore, Tandy, and a few other manufacturers with color systems during this period synced at this low rate, but later VGA displays were synced at 30 kHz and higher. Given the rarity of such CRTs, I was pleased my IIGS had a working monitor… or so I thought.

Upon first testing, everything looked great. The colors were bright, and the screen was sharp and steady. However, after using the computer for a while, the screen would flicker and eventually go out. When the image disappeared, the front power indicator also went out, but even with my aging ears, I could hear the display’s transformers humming.

I opened up the case and safely discharged the anode and removed the cap from the tube. Then I carefully looked at the circuit boards. The neck board looked pretty good, but the bottom board was sticky and had quite a bit of oxidation on several solder joints, most likely due to heat from the transformers.

Given the condition, I decided leaky electrolytic capacitors were likely in play, so I ordered a capacitor replacement kit from Console 5. I also used the handy schematics provided by Console 5 to make my repairs. Along the way, I replaced a 2W resistor with a 3W metal oxide component that had a better chance of withstanding high heat.

After finishing the meticulous work, I was nervous to push the power button, but after a beer and some rest I hit the button… and it was dead. No image, no light, just as before, but now it was dark from the start and not after warming up.

So I went back and checked my work. Even though I thought I was careful, I found two mistakes on the neck board where I had switched the polarity on a set of capacitors and used a 1.0uF instead of 0.1uF component. Unfortunately, after repairing my mistakes, I was no better off.

Then I went back and looked more closely at something I noticed earlier. I observed a slight crack under the flyback transformer, but it didn’t appear to break the thick traces. Yet I finally saw that several of the solder joints had separated.

I had been looking at the neck board because I could hear the flyback transformer and the tube charging up and down when operating the power switch. I now realized the decoupled transformer pins powered the neck board, which controlled the RGB signals and the front power LED. After adding a considerable amount of new solder to each of the broken joints, I powered it up and was happy to see the power indicator shining brightly. But now the image had collapsed into a single horizontal line.

I was actually pleased to see anything on the screen, so I began researching how to fix a loss of vertical deflection. After posting a message on Twitter, @particlebbs made short work of my problem by asking if I’d bumped the neck board’s diagnostic switch. I learned the switch grounds the tube’s high voltage for safer repairs. Pulling the cover off again, I saw the plastic rocker switch was a little off-center. I flipped it securely into the middle position, and all was well.

I was finally ready to use this computer as Steve Wozniak intended, but I thought one upgrade might be helpful. As noted above, this Apple IIGS was a ROM 3 model with 1.125MB of built-in RAM. I decided to spring for another 4MB of RAM using ByteBooster’s expansion board. This upgrade will provide headroom for IIGS-specific software.

The system also came with an external Power User Pro enclosure with a SCSI Quantum ProDrive LPS drive inside. When the spinning drive fails, I will replace it with a SCSI2SD, but before then, I may install an IDE controller for compact flash storage or a BOOTI USB drive as internal solutions.

While perhaps I should replace all the capacitors on the IIGS and its power supply, right now, it’s running well. I’m looking forward to exploring what the IIGS can do. I’ll start by digging into the games made for the platform and deepen my knowledge of Apple II system software. I like having a computer that can run Apple DOS, ProDOS, and GS/OS. I’m also eager to take advantage of the IIGS’s fantastic keyboard with productivity apps like AppleWorks, Bank Street Writer, WordPerfect, etc. Finally, I’ll use my WiFiModem232 to access vintage BBSs across the Internet.

Oddly enough, spending time with the IIGS helps me better understand Apple’s intention for the Macintosh and some of the tradeoffs and ambitions that separate the two platforms. I may have missed it back in the ’80s, but I finally appreciate the underlying elegance of the Apple II line of personal computers. While the machines are relatively straightforward, the rich software library, crafted by devoted fans, makes this a fascinating platform.

Apple IIc

The Apple II is an 8-bit wonder and was Apple Computer’s first success. It was also arguably the first big hit of the personal computer revolution. Steve Wozniak famously hand-built the original Apple computer kit in 1976, then he and Steve Jobs became tech darlings after the introduction of the Apple II. Part of the “1977 Trinity” when introduced that year, the Apple II significantly outlived its contemporaries: the Commodore PET and TRS-80. Until discontinued in 1993, the Apple II line defined home computing.

I watched the Apple II from afar. I saw the ads and software reviews in magazines, toyed with one or two briefly in school, but I only had direct access to CP/M and DOS machines in the 1980s. I’m happy to rectify that omission with this lovely Apple IIc.

The Apple IIc was the fourth member of the Apple II line, introduced in 1984, a few months after the Macintosh. It was created during a tumultuous period in Apple’s history. The business-focused Apple III had flopped, as had the technically-sophisticated but troubled Apple Lisa. The Macintosh was the latest attempt to develop a hit on par with the Apple II.

In the early ’80s, Apple began to think about a portable Apple II. After seeing the advances of Toshiba and others, engineers began experimenting with a “book-sized” computer with a built-in disk drive. Once Steve Jobs was involved, he focused this compact Apple II (thus the “c”) on new computer users. Unlike other Apple II designs, the case would be closed and the most popular adds-on already installed. While the IIc could not be squeezed into a book-sized footprint, the case was sized to fit within a briefcase.

The IIc was the first Apple device to utilize the “Snow White” design aesthetics carried forward to the Apple IIGS, Macintosh SE, and Macintosh II family of computers. Sadly, it’s hard to find a IIc that has not color shifted from the original creamy white of “fog” to a jaundiced yellow.

Cover of the 16-page Apple IIc product brochure

The computer is powered by a variant of MOS Technology’s 6502 processor. Western Design Center (WDC) crafted the 65C02 as a low-powered chip that remained clocked at 1MHz. Apple hoped the lower-power would produce less heat within the confined case.

Out of the box, the IIc had the ability to display 80-columns of text, an internal 5.25-inch drive, a separate external drive connector, composite and RGB video connectors, two serial ports, and mouse/joystick support. It also came standard with 128K of RAM.

Priced at $1,295, customers did not appreciate the compact design as much as Apple hoped. The Apple IIe remained more popular. Perhaps customers feared the IIc was a lesser version of the original, linking it to the IBM PCjr, also introduced in 1984. The IIc was manufactured until 1988, when it was replaced by the 4MHz Apple IIc Plus (which survived until 1990).

I acquired this Apple IIc through Craigslist. It was a well-used household computer. I was blessed to acquire a full set up: computer, monitor, printer, mouse, joystick, disks, manuals, and necessary cables. Everything sat in boxes for many years, but the dust and grime were minimal.

The only IIc peripherals not included were an RF modulator, modem, paddles (hand controllers), the external Disk IIc, and the rare flat-panel display.

A nicely-maintained Apple IIc set up.

While inspecting my haul, I discovered this is an early IIc, manufactured around October 1984. The logic board and power supply looked good, and I was ready to power it on for the first time. I was pleased to hear the usual startup sounds and an amber Apple //c greeting me on the screen.

Inside the Apple IIc manufactured in autumn 1984
The Apple IIc is ready to go

The keyboard needed attention. While it worked, it felt terrible. Later IIcs came with a more robust keyboard and Alps switches, but these earlier models used Apple’s “hairspring” switches. These switches are not as nice as the Alps, but the biggest problem was the rubber mat installed between the keycaps and the switches. Meant to reduce spill damage, the combo rubber sheet had warped and deteriorated with age, now inhibiting the keys’ ability to bottom out when pressed. After removing and cleaning all the keycaps, I decided to remove the spill guard to improve the keyboard’s feel.

Early model IIc Atlanta Photocircuit keyboard with Apple “hairspring” switches

With the computer itself squared away, it was time to slide a disk into the 5.25-inch drive and see how the Apple II operated. However, I was frustrated to find the disks were not readable. I tried several, and after each, the IIc responded with a “Check Disk Drive” message. I have bad luck with floppies, so I went about my usual practice of opening the drive, cleaning it, lubricating the metal rails and contact points, but still nothing. I knew the drive’s head was moving because I could hear its machine gun sound at startup. So, I flipped the drive over and realized the spindle motor was not running the drive belt.

The belt appeared tight and in good condition, but the motor itself wasn’t spinning. I tried manually turning the motor, and it moved freely. So, I took a chance and tapped on the spindle motor with the back of a screwdriver. I was surprised when it moved (though erratically) on the next startup attempt. I helped the drive spin with my finger the next time, and I saw DOS Version 3.3 System Manager greeting me on the screen. I’m relieved it has worked since.

Checking the floppy drive belt and motor

I also addressed a few nit-picky details. Someone had taken the computer apart in the past and forgot one of the screws securing the floppy drive to the bottom case. I found a properly threaded #5 machine screw, but it was a bit too long, so I cut it down to size. Also, the power switch was upside down (the off symbol was on and on was off). I quickly popped it off and put it in the proper orientation.

Cutting down a #5 machine screw to secure the floppy drive
A properly oriented power switch

Now it was time for upgrades. Nearly a year ago, I purchased Steve Chamberlin’s Floppy Emu for a Mac SE/30 restoration. The Floppy Emu can emulate any Apple drive, but its neatest trick is to serve as an SD-based hard drive for an Apple II. But before this IIc could use a hard drive, the ROM had to be upgraded.

Early Apple IIc units came with ROM 255. This 16K ROM did quite a bit in a small package, but eventually, it was replaced with 32K ROMs. Upgraded ROMs can support SmartPort disks. The most common SmartPort product was Apple’s Unidisk 3.5, a handy external double-sided double-density 800K 3.5-inch floppy drive, but several third-party vendors made SmartPort compatible hard drives. This IIc (with the right ROM) could now break the 140KB disk barrier.

Hunting for the right ROM, I stumbled across Steve Buggie’s eBay post. Professor Buggie not only produces quality ROMs, he also showered me with additional Apple II material. I was blown away with helpful information, free software, and tips and tricks he voluntarily sent my way.

A bounty of bonus material accompanying an upgraded IIc ROM

With the new ROM in hand, I followed the straightforward instructions. Since the ROM size doubled, it’s necessary to make a few changes on the IIc’s logic board. Apple was well prepared for this upgrade because all you have to do is break one trace connection and solder in a different one. With that five-minute task behind me, I pulled the original ROM and inserted the new one.

Placing a solder blob on W2
Testing to ensure continuity is broken at trace W1
New ROM ready to go

Now, I decided to go the extra mile and install Big Mess ‘O Wire’s handy Internal/External Drive Switcher. This simple device allows you to select whether the IIc boots normally from the built-in 5.25 floppy, or from the external drive. The switcher has two parts, connected by two small wires. The first part plugs into the internal floppy connector, and the second part plugs into the external connector. The wires run between the two and a switch on the external connector reverses the boot order.

Internal connection providing a pass-through connection to the built-in floppy
Plugged into the external floppy connector with the switcher control wire popping out of the case

Once in place, I could flip the switch and boot the IIc from the Floppy Emu’s stash of floppy images. However, I was stuck when trying to access the hard drive images. When booting, I saw the standard greeting on the top of the screen, but nothing else happened. If I pressed Control+Open Apple+Reset, I would only get a prompt. Perplexed, I tried many different things, and surprisingly, at some point it booted! I was so excited I immediately explored the drive and started playing games. However, I wasn’t paying attention to what made it work. So a few days later, I couldn’t repeat the trick.

Eventually, I learned the switcher had to be in the default position for the hard drive image to load. I assumed it should be switched so the external drive was the boot device, but an Apple II would expect a floppy to be first, so the hard drive was expected to be a secondary device. With that understanding locked in my brain, I’ve not had a problem since.

Now that I could play games, I realized the joystick had a problem. The primary trigger button didn’t work. When pressed, there was no click. I assumed the internal switch was worn out, so I cracked it open. Once pried apart, I was relieved to see the switch was simply dislodged and no longer contacted the button. It was a simple matter to put it back into position. I also took the opportunity to clean the well-used joystick thoroughly.

The joystick trigger was dislodged
Peripherals prepped

Thirty-five years late, but I’m finally exploring the Apple II universe. The computer came with stacks of floppies. Some are productivity and graphics apps such as AppleWorks, The Newsroom, Print Shop, MousePaint, etc. and a decent number are games, including Zaxxon, Sargon III, Spy vs. Spy, Spider-Man, etc. Of course, there is also a treasure trove of content available online.

It’s liberating to use an 8-bit machine that doesn’t need pampering. With no complicated OS to corrupt and no finicky setting to tweak, the Apple IIc loads software, runs software, or writes software. One at a time. That’s it. And that’s enough.

Gateway 2000 Nomad 325SXL

Known for its cow-patterned boxes and solid yet affordable equipment, Gateway 2000 (later just Gateway) was an early staple of the PC industry. Founded in 1985, the same year as its made-to-order rival Dell Computer, Gateway grew swiftly as the personal computer transformed from a hobbyist and gaming device into an essential business tool.

The Nomad was Gateway’s first notebook computer. It was a rebadged Texas Instrument TravelMate–a relationship that lasted for a few years. Coming in either a 386SX, 486SX, or 486DX version, the Nomad was designed to support the DOS and Windows 3.1 needs of tech travelers.

This Nomad was my first laptop computer. Purchased in the summer of 1992, it was my digital companion at college. Due to its poor display, the Nomad was never great for gaming, but it was fine for writing papers, using Quicken, and accessing CompuServe.

The Nomad was among the original crop of laptop designs. Advances in the late ’80s and early ’90s moved portable computers from early luggables to the clamshell laptops still recognizable today. Some criticized the Nomad for its flimsy construction, but Compute magazine noted, “The dark, charcoal gray color and squared, no-frills styling give the Nomad a bold, handsome appearance that would be equally at home on an airline seatback tray or a boardroom conference table.”

At the time, Toshiba and Compaq were top of the class, but the Nomad was well regarded. Weighing in at 5.8 lbs and running on a 5.7Ah NiCad battery, the 11-inch by 8.5-inch by 1.8-inch device was a well-balanced road warrior. In August of ’92, PC Magazine noted, “Gateway 2000’s Nomad line is lightweight, offers excellent battery life, quality performance, and a highly competitive price.

My Nomad has an AMD Am386SXL-25 processor. It was configured with the maximum 6MB of RAM and a 83MB Seagate ST9096A hard drive. I also sprung for the optional fax/modem.

Optional 4800bps fax/modem

The VGA graphics provides 800 x 600 resolution when driving the lackluster 10-inch passive-matrix monochrome display that is theoretically capable of displaying 64 shades of gray. While the screen is challenging, there is a hardware switch that inverts black and white for better visibility. When connected to an external monitor, the Cirrus 256K graphics package displays a color resolution of 1024 x 768.

Starting at $1,995, I suspect my configuration totaled to at least $2,300 before tax and shipping. I also added the custom leather bag and a portable Canon PN48 printer (with its bag), so the total price might have pushed $3,000. A princely sum for a high school senior, but I was blessed with a lucrative after-school job that enabled me to splurge on this dream set up.

The Nomad has a unique companion: the Field Mouse. This pointing device is handy for navigating Windows 3.1 on the go. Instead of a traditional mouse that needs a desktop, this little fellow is held in the palm with a thumb manipulating the tiny trackball.

The Nomad came with Gateway’s unique “Field Mouse” for navigating Windows 3.1 on the go.
The shortened keys are removed and cleaned

I last used this computer regularly around 1995 or 1996. Since then, it has remained safely tucked away in its black leather bag. I pulled it out from time to time for a trip down memory lane, but earlier this year, when I hit the power switch, I was greeted with a beep and startup text, but the CMOS battery had died, and the hard drive was inaccessible.

I spent a considerable amount of time trying every possible cylinder, head, and sector combination to regain access to the drive. With no luck, I cracked open the case for the first time to remove the drive.

It was a challenge figuring out how the computer was put together. Flipping it over, I knew the bottom screws must be removed, but after that, it was harder to identify the various metal and plastic tabs that kept the machine together. Eventually, I released each of the cables connecting the keyboard and LCD to the mainboard. Once fully opened, I assessed the layout and realized everything would have to be removed to get to the hard drive. Once finally free, I attempted to connect it to a late ’90s desktop using a 44 pin to 40 pin IDE adapter, but with no luck.

While tearing the machine apart, I discovered a pair of 3V coin cell batteries soldered to a circuit board tucked under the keyboard wrist rest. Recognizing these as the CMOS batteries, I first tried to remove the BR1225 coin cells from the tabs attaching them to the board. Once the old batteries were pried away, I ridiculously attempted to tape a new set into place. Of course, this did not work. I soon learned I could order a fresh pair of batteries with solder tabs installed. Once they arrived, I easily desoldered the now mangled tabs and installed the new batteries.

Foolishly attempting to tape replacement coin cell batteries into place
Proper replacements CMOS batteries

Having given up on accessing the drive, I reinstalled it and put things back together. With the new CMOS batteries in place, I entered the correct time and date and left the other settings in their default configuration. After a quick reboot, I was shocked to see “Starting MS-DOS” greeting me on the screen. The hard drive was now operating perfectly. It seems the CMOS’s default hard drive type was correct; however, it would not function without a charged CMOS battery.

Not wanting to push my luck, I rushed to back up the drive. The computer had DOS 6.2 installed, so I connected a parallel cable to a Windows 95 computer and fired up Microsoft’s Intersrv to copy the whole drive to the other computer. Once finished, I explored the drive and tested the computer’s capabilities.

Using a parallel cable to copy files from the hard drive
AMD beginning to make their move competing with Intel

Norton Utilities’ System Information benchmarked the AMD Am386SXL-25 processor at just under half the speed of an Intel 386DX 33MHz machine, but the hard drive was ranked nearly twice as fast as the venerable ST251. Despite its modest speed, the computer runs Windows 3.1 without a hitch. At some point, I had removed my personal data from the computer, but it was loaded with Word for Windows, Quicken for Windows, and CompuServe Information Manager for Windows. It also has several useful utilities, including CrossTalk and WinFax Pro.

I’m guessing no one at CompuServe will answer my call.

While using the computer, I discovered the floppy drive was faulty. Once again, I opened the laptop, and then disassembled the YE-Data floppy drive. I quickly saw the problem–the spindle motor’s belt had disintegrated. This launched me on a search for a replacement drive belt. After trying half a dozen belts purchased from Console5, and even buying a second Nomad (this time a 425DXL), I could not find a belt that fit. Some were close, but they were either too loose to spin or too tight, which slowed down the mechanism. 

What little is left of the spindle motor belt
Trying a variety of replacement belts

I hoped to swap the floppy from the 425DXL (which used a Citizen drive), but I was disappointed to learn it didn’t work either. After opening the case, I found a random surface mount capacitor sitting in the case near the floppy drive. It came from the floppy’s circuit board, and I found another capacitor rattling around inside the drive. Both capacitors had leaked badly and rotted away their connection to the board. After a through cleaning, I was able to solder replacement capacitors in place. Thinking all was well, I reassembled the 425DXL and tested the floppy, but it still didn’t work. Tearing it apart again, I eventually determined that while the belt was intact, it had stretched over the years and was now too loose to spin correctly.

Now, I wait for a slow boat from China to bring a bag of assorted belts to see if I can get both floppy drives in working order. In the meantime, I will utilize a parallel cable for transferring files to the 325SXL and 425DXL.

The Nomad 325SXL was a solid computer in its day, but it meant more to me. It was my transitional device taking me from teenage computer hobbyist to college-educated tech worker. I’m glad I preserved this memento from my past and the early days of portable computing.

Apple iMac G4

The iMac G4 was the memorable follow up to Apple’s revolutionary iMac. Upon the return of Steve Jobs in 1997, he boldly transformed Apple’s products and inspired a historic line of devices. This “Flat Panel” iMac was built to highlight its attractive LCD monitor, which turned the traditional Macintosh all-in-one design on its head.

I first encountered an iMac G4 when I helped a friend set one up in 2002. Every experience was new. From taking the alien-looking device out of the box, to seeing OS X, to launching Safari, it was my first exploration of a now common-place world.

The Bondi Blue iMac released in 1998 demonstrated Apple’s renewed prowess. It ushered in a series of bold decisions, including the use of translucent materials paired with bright accent colors. After the original iMac’s nearly a five-year run, this “new iMac” retained the translucent plastics, but pivoted away from color and embraced stark white. Echoing the styling of the iPod released the year before, the iMac G4 and iPod were a matched set. Simple and stylish, both designs are now legendary.

iMac G4 with a 4th Generation iPod

Named for its PowerPC G4 processor, the iMac G4 came in 700MHz to 1.25GHz variants. The RISC-based PowerPC chip was a technology partnership between Apple, IBM, and Motorola. Apple used this processor across its product line: from the portable iBook and PowerBook to the tower-style Power Mac and the amazing Power Mac Cube. Even the bargain-priced eMac and the early Mac Mini and rack-mount Xserve came in G4 configurations.

The display was available in 15-inch, 17-inch, and 20-inch sizes. The half-dome base housed NVidia GeForce graphics, at least 256MB of RAM, a 40GB to 80GB hard drive, and a CD/DVD optical drive. It offered USB 1.1 or 2.0 and FireWire 400 connections. A 56Kbps modem and 100Mbps Ethernet were builtin, with Apple’s AirPort WiFi as an option. The earliest versions of this transitional iMac could run Mac OS 9.2, but later models only ran OS X Jaguar to Tiger.

Exterior was in good condition

This particular iMac came to me through Craigslist. It is a “Spring 2003” 17-inch model with a 1GHz PowerPC 7445 G4 processor supported by 256KB of Level 2 cache. It also has Nvidia GeForce4 MX graphics with 64MB of dedicated VRAM capable of supporting resolutions up to 1440 x 900. It came with the standard 256MB of system RAM, but a 1GB upgrade was also installed. Finally, an 80GB Ultra/ATA100 hard drive was present, along with a 4X “SuperDrive” DVD-R/CD-RW.

It had been reasonably well-preserved, but needed a good cleaning. Opening the computer was like working a 3D puzzle. It was impressive to see Apple’s precision as each part fit together with tight tolerances.

Apple’s design didn’t give dirt many places to hide, but it always finds a way to collect somewhere.
While the keyboard looked good on the surface, nastiness was hiding under the keys.
Completely disassembled iMac puzzle

Once the computer was disassembled and thoroughly cleaned, I verified everything was in good condition and determined my upgrade options. I decided to max out the RAM, replace the 7200 RPM drive with an SSD, and add WiFi to the system. Along the way, I also replaced the battery and picked up Apple’s propriety speakers.

I kept the 1GB of laptop-style SO-DIMM memory in the user-accessible slot but secured another 1GB of DDR RAM for the logic board. The official specification limits the system’s RAM to 1GB, but a 2GB configuration works fine. For the hard drive, OWC offers a simple kit to replace the spinning drive with a 120GB Mercury Electra 3G solid-state unit. The Airport Extreme card, supporting 54Mbps 802.11g, was easy to find on eBay, and the installation couldn’t be easier tucked under the bottom plate. Unfortunately, I tried to add Bluetooth, but while Apple’s Bluetooth modules are affordable and easy to find, the cable that connects the module to the built-in antenna proved impossible to source.

Fresh RAM and battery
120GB SSD with a SATA to IDE/ATA converter
New thermal paste for the G4 processor and related heat piping

After reassembling the computer, I was pleased to see it power on without issue, though it took a bit of work to get OS X installed. While I had a DVD for Mac OS 10.5 Leopard, it would not install. I was able to download a copy of 10.4 Tiger from Archive.org, but several errors occurred during the installation. Eventually, I was able to get the base Tiger OS up and running. After removing WPA2 security from my WiFi router, I was also able to test the Airport Extreme card and download a small collection of system updates.

Installing Mac OS 10.4 Tiger
Loading software updates

I believe the iMac G4 is the most attractive and innovative-yet-functional computer made during Apple’s Power PC era. While my early Apple experiences were in the 68k days, soon after the G4 was retired, I returned to the Mac fold and purchased an iMac G5 for my home. I’ve had a Mac ever since. I am proud to add this beautiful machine to my collection.

PiDP-11

The PiDP-11 is a modern replica of Digital Equipment Corporation’s influential PDP-11 minicomputer. Before we had a computer on every desk and in every home–and long before they were in every pocket–computers were large, intimidating, and locked in special rooms at universities and corporations. The PDP series paved the way for making computers more accessible.

PDP stood for Programmed Data Processor, and this distinguished line of computers was produced from 1957 to 1990. Each PDP model was numbered sequentially from the one to sixteen (skipping PDP-2 and unlucky 13). The PDP-1, PDP-8, and PDP-11 are best remembered today. The PDP-11 was DEC’s first 16-bit computer, and cost $20,000 when released in 1970. Reportedly, 600,000 units were sold over its long life, and it was the tool of choice for countless computing innovations, including the creation of UNIX and the C programming language. The 32-bit VAX minicomputer eventually replaced the venerable PDP-11.

This PiDP-11 project was a birthday present to myself. I have long revered the early “big iron” systems that spearheaded the Information Revolution. I was eager to have a symbol of that influential era in my collection.

Oscar Vermeulen is the creator of this innovative PiDP-11 kit. There is no store; you add your name to a waiting list for future shipments. I didn’t have to wait long before he emailed, saying another run was on the way. After paying and waiting for the package to arrive from Switzerland, I was ready to assemble!

The high quality kit arrived without complication.

I was excited by this kit for several reasons: first, I wanted a good-looking PDP-11 replica; second, I wanted to bask in the glow of blinkenlights; third, I was eager for my first Raspberry Pi project; and finally, I needed to hone my soldering skills. I was able to achieve each of these in reverse order.

Following Oscar’s instructions and after watching a series of walk-through videos, I was ready to start with the passive components. After placing and taping the diodes and resistors in place, I flipped the board and started soldering. Up to this point, I had handled both through-hole and surface-mount projects, but always in small numbers. This project allowed me to spend quality time with my iron.

For some reason, my kit was missing the 330-ohm resistors. I had resistors close to that value in my stash, but I wasn’t sure how important it was to match the designed resistance. After looking at the board, it was clear the resistors were connected to the LED lights. Thanks to help online, I learned the level of resistance could vary within a reasonable range, though it might affect the brightness of the lights. I decided to take the opportunity to expand my in-house supply and ordered a variety kit with different sizes, including the 330s I needed.

Close look at the diodes and resistors

Next, I followed the instructions and placed the fiddly spacers on the LED lights and aligned them on the PCB using the provided guide. Next, I installed the pair of rotary encoders, the chip socket, and the Pi connector (on the back).

Passive components installed
A look at the back with the Pi connector installed

I was now ready to test my work. This involved setting up the Raspberry Pi. There is one electronics shop remaining in my area, so I stopped by to see what Pi-related gear they offered. Due to what I assumed was a pricing error (which I brought to their attention), I was able to pick up a Pi 3 Model B for less money than a stock Pi 3. Thankful for my good luck, I also purchased a suitable power supply and a 16GB memory card.

The Raspberry Pi website makes it very easy to install the Raspbian OS on the memory card and get the Pi up and running. Next, I downloaded the files needed to emulate the PDP-11 from the link provided by Oscar. After going through the testing process listed in the documentation, I felt good about my progress.

Loaded with the Raspberry Pi
Testing the lights and software installation

Next, I needed to wrangle switches. The instructions make it evident that some struggle to align the switches correctly. I did not have too much trouble, but I was prepared for difficulty. There is both a lower and upper guide. The lower guide helps you put the right switch in the right place. The upper guide helps align the spacing of the switches, so they aren’t cockeyed once soldered into place. Zip ties are used to squeeze the guides together to fit everything into place.

Aligning the switches
Soldering is complete

Finally, I turned my attention to the case. The case and front panel are well-made and provide a great fit and finish to the kit. I struggled to get the board and faceplate properly screwed into the case. The combination of spacers, nuts, and bolts was more troublesome than I expected. But once everything was aligned, it looked great.

By default, the front key switch is not connected, but the board is configured so the key can either turn off the 5V power or issue a software command to shutdown the Raspberry Pi. Not wanting to make a permanent decision, I soldered two wires to the key switch and installed screw terminals at both locations on the board. I then decided to place a barrel jack on the side of the case and install another screw terminal for the 5V power, bypassing the Raspberry Pi’s micro USB power connection.

Soldered wires to the key switch long enough to connect to either the software shutdown or power off positions on the board. Also, mounted a 5V barrel jack on the side of the case.

First, I played around with the software shutdown option. It took some trial and error to figure out which way the key needed to turn to operate correctly, but once you flip down the Halt switch, you turn the key to issue the proper “shutdown -h now” command before unplugging the Raspberry Pi. However, I preferred to use the key to cut power to the board-mounted barrel jack. This way, I could use the PiDP-11’s “secret” shutdown switch enabled by pressing the rotary encoder, and then cut power to the Pi by turning the key. Also, it is satisfying to use the key to power on the unit. Since the Pi automatically boots into the blinkenlight display, it is easy to operate without an attached keyboard and screen.

Ready to operate by powering on and off with the key and using SSH to access the Pi when needed.

I did attempt to install panel mount connectors to the back cover extending the Raspberry Pi’s power, USB, HDMI, and Ethernet ports, but there was not enough clearance for the cover to close properly.

I’m not done yet. I may enable a serial terminal connection for the PDP-11 emulator, and I will certainly continue to explore both the PDP and Raspberry Pi software. The point of any hobbyist kit is to tinker and learn. I can do both with this well-made piece of ’70s computing nostalgia.

Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch Unibody

This is not a satisfying tale. I was asked to repair a damaged MacBook Pro. Made in 2009, it is not exactly retro, but it’s also not something easily serviced at your local Genius Bar. When I received it, the laptop would not close properly as the screen housing was damaged and the display cable was popping out when the notebook was open. More troubling, the display showed odd color patterns, shifting certain blacks to green and inserting pink lines over some white areas.

This MacBook Pro belongs to my sister. It was given to her by a friend, and its had a hard life. Obviously dropped, spilled on, and used regularly, it is still fairly capable of handling daily work.

Apple’s 2009 MacBook Pro 15-inch was one of the many unibody MacBook Pros produced between 2008 and 2012. These “pre-retina” notebooks adopted the sleek design pioneered with the MacBook Air. As Jony Ive explained at the time, the unibody construction enabled the laptops to be thinner, lighter, more robust, and with a higher degree of fit and finish than before. This “Penryn” Intel Core 2 Duo notebook came with two graphic systems: the standard NVIDIA GeForce 9400M and the NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT with up to 512MB of dedicated SDRAM.

The battery had been replaced fairly recently and a Samsung solid state drive installed, so the computer was in decent shape aside from its display problems. After inspecting the display hinge for a while, I gathered my courage and went about disassembling the computer and removing the display assembly.

Disassembled and ready for repair

Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the adhesive holding the display hinge to the lower body had come lose. Also, likely due to a drop or sudden impact, the metal frame supporting the display had snapped at one of the screw holes. This resulted in significant weakness in the lower left assembly.

Adhesive holding the display hinge to the aluminum back had come loose
The display’s metal frame snapped at a screw hole

I suspected that due to the broken hinge mechanism, the LVDS LCD display cable was pinched and it’s delicate wires were shorting, causing the odd color renderings. After a replacement cable arrived, I completely disassemble the display, removing the front glass and the LCD panel from its housing, and attached the new cable to the bottom of the panel.

Assuming I was on the right path, I was ready to repair the damaged display hinge. I researched suitable epoxies and chose one with a high heat threshold. After carefully determining what parts of the frame should be glued to the aluminum back and which parts were left open to route cables, I applied the epoxy and clamped the frame in place for several hours.

Once the display was reassembled, I propped the MacBook Pro on its side to test the display without reattaching the hinge to the main body. At first I thought all was well, but after some time, the odd color patterns returned. My theory of a damaged LVDS cable was sound, but incorrect. Now I was stumped. I tried old tricks like resetting the PRAM and the SMC, wiping the hard drive, and reinstalling Mac OS, but the problem was not software related.

Dark black colors around the edge of the screen shifting to a pulsating green
Certain white blocks filled with pink lines

Eventually, I ran across an old iFixIt forum post describing a similar color-shifting problem. The post sent me researching a known issue with bad solder connections on the graphic subsystem. To test, I poked around the logic board while the computer was running, and low and behold, if I pressed in the center of the board–opposite the graphic controllers –the colors returned to normal.

I considered heating the entire logic board in an oven to re-flow the solder, but I was not that brave. Instead, I placed kapton tape around both graphics processors and heated them for several minutes with a hot air station.

Heating the graphics processors in an attempt to re-flow the solder connection

I knew there was only a slight chance this would work, and if it did, it might not last long. After both NVIDIA processors were heated and the tape removed, I faced the hardest part of the project: reassembling the computer. The MacBook Pro is not an easy machine to tear down, but it’s even harder to put back together. After taking my time, I had it fully reassembled and then realized the keyboard light was not working. Opening the case again, I reattached the missing connector and tightened the screws on the bottom for the last time.

Reassembled, but not fully repaired

The repaired display hinge works properly and the computer closes as it should. After heating the graphics chips, the color problem is a bit better, but I’m disappointed I could not fully repair this MacBook Pro. Apple/NVIDIA’s poor solder connections are a known issue, and sadly one for which there is not a good self-repair option. Some have had luck taking the logic board to a professional lab to re-flow the connections, but that is expensive and difficult to justify for an older computer. As it is, this is now a kinda functional, but somewhat color blind, MacBook Pro.

Apple iPod 3rd and 4th Gen

If you have more than one pocket, why not have more than 1,000 songs in each? After building confidence restoring the 6th and final version of the iPod Classic, I was ready to take on a dual restoration of a 3rd and a 4th generation iPod.

The 3rd generation iPod belonged to a good friend who insisted on only including full albums from different genres and shuffling between them with abandon.

The 4th generation iPod was my first. A gift from my wife given shortly after we were married. This iPod was my daily companion for many years, allowing me to enjoy custom playlists and introducing me to a steady rotation of podcasts.

Apple’s 3rd generation iPod was the first to come with the soon-to-be ubiquitous 30-pin dock connector and the second with a “touch wheel” interface, though its glowing red control buttons makes it unique to this day. By replacing the Firewire port, the new dock connector enabled connections via USB to PCs. First offered in 2003 and revised in 2004, this iPod has a two-inch grayscale 160 x 120 display, 8-hours of battery life, and was available in 10GB through 40GB configurations.

The 4th generation iPod was the first with the iconic “click wheel” interface and the last to come with a grayscale display. This generation launched in July 2004, with an updated but similarly spec’d display, increased battery life, and was available in 20GB or 40GB configurations. In October 2004, a “Special U2 Edition” was released in black and red–providing the first non-white iPod option. This generation was also the base for the iPod Photo, with its 60GB hard drive and a 220 x 176 display providing 65,536 colors.

To begin this restoration, I knew the batteries needed to replaced. The 4th generation model was in decent shape with a functioning hard drive, but I was uncertain about the 3rd generation’s drive. At first I thought the battery was completely dead and would not take a charge, but I later learned this model can only be powered via Firewire, and I was connecting it to a USB charger.

I visited iFixIt and picked up new batteries for both. Regardless of the drive condition, I planned to replace both spinning drives with solid state options. A few months ago, I installed an SD card in a 6th generation iPod, but for these older models, I decided to use Compact Flash.

I selected 64GB SanDisk Extreme Compact Flash cards. iFlash.xyz offers an inexpensive iFlash-CF card, but I also needed an adapter to interface with the pin connector used on the older model iPods.

Prying open the 3rd generation iPod case.
Inspecting the internals.

Opening the 3rd generation iPod was not particularly challenging. While I was careful and used plastic picks and multiple tools to slowly work the clips free, it seems I was not careful enough. After getting the top and bottom apart, I discovered the headphone connector had separated from its cable. That was a problem!

The 4th generation unit opened fairly easily and without damage. Both units were clean and had the same 20GB 3.3V Toshiba MK2004GAL ATA-100 series hard drive running at 4200 RPM, but they were housed in somewhat different blue protective bumpers.

Opening the 4th generation iPod
Clean on the inside

After removing the hard drives, both batteries were easily accessible and replaced. The 3rd generation hard drive connection cable had to be removed from the logic board to access the battery, while the 4th generation pin connector remained attached.

3rd generation battery replacement
New 4th generation battery installed

The iFlash card was easily installed in the 3rd generation enclosure. However, the 4th generation’s fit was more complicated. With the adapter installed, the card rested on the iPod’s internal battery connector. Unfortunately, the diagonal on the iFlash card went the wrong way to accommodate the conflict. So, after confirming no traces were impacted, I trimmed the top of the iFlash card.

3rd generation adapter and iFlash installation
Trimming the iFlash card to fit comfortably within the 4th generation enclosure
Completed 4th generation card installation

I was now ready to address the broken headphone connector. I first tried gluing the 10-point connector in place using 1mm double-sided tape. I hoped the connector’s legs would make satisfactory contact once the case was securely closed, but that was wishful thinking. I considered soldering the legs in place, but given the very small size, I suspected solder would stretch across and short the legs together. Also, while the tape held the connector if treated gingerly, once the connector was inserted into the plug, the slightest movement pulled it free of the cable. So, I headed to eBay. I was able to find a seller with a handful of 3rd generation headphone assemblies at a reasonable price. After receiving delivery, it was trivial to replace.

New headphone/hold switch assembly in place with a functional connector

As usual, gremlins affected the software installation. For the 4th generation model, the 64GB Compact Flash card was formatted using FAT32 Format, and it was setup with as a master boot record (MBR) partition. Once the card was inserted into the iPod and powered on, I plugged the iPod into a PC. iTunes downloaded a package onto the iPod, and then the iPod was disconnected and plugged into a wall charger. After a restart, a progress bar appeared under the Apple logo, and a few moments later, the iPod was ready to go. Returning to the PC, the unit synced and played music without issue.

After the initial iTunes restoration, the iPod needed to be plugged into a wall charge to complete the software installation.
Setup and ready to go

The 3rd generation restoration was not as smooth. After following the same format process, the iPod entered disk mode but was not recognized by iTunes or Windows. While troubleshooting the problem, the unit’s battery died. As noted above, this is when I discovered the iPod would only charge if connected to a Firewire cable. After letting it sit overnight plugged into a Firewire wall charger, I returned to the software problem. Now realizing the importance of Firewire, I thought perhaps things would work better if the iPod was connected to a Macintosh using a Firewire cable, and luckily, I had a mid-2007 iMac with a Firewire 400 port.

Since the iPod was going into disk mode, the Mac’s disk utility could see the drive. I decided to reformat it as an OS X Extended volume, and I was thrilled to see the drive pop up in the Finder. I was even more excited when iTunes launched. The system sat for several minutes, and then amazingly the iPod was recognized by iTunes and the restoration process began. I assumed I was home free, but no.

Once restored, the iPod connected with the Mac, but upon disconnection it would freeze. I soon learned that the unit never went to sleep and the battery eventually died. I had to regularly reboot the iPod by holding down the menu and play buttons. So, obviously there were problems. I entered diagnostic mode by holding down the previous, center select, and next buttons, but none of the tests were helpful.

Unsatisfied, I decided to try a smaller and slower Compact Flash card. This time, I selected a 32GB SanDisk running at 60MBps instead of 120MBps. This slower speed was still twice as fast the Toshiba drive’s 31.6MBps. Once the new card arrived, I formatted it to FAT32 using Linux, but Window’s iTunes still did not recognize it and the iPod was constantly rebooting and showing the folder icon with an exclamation mark. So, I headed back to the Mac and reformatted it for OS X, but that did not work either, and the iPod still showed the folder and exclamation mark. Perplexed, I eventually used a utility that showed me the card’s partition table, and I discovered that somewhere along the way (likely when using Linux), an EFI system partition was created on the drive. My subsequent formatting attempts did not impact the hidden EFI partition. After deleting it, I used Windows to format the entire drive, and everything feel into place. iTunes recognized the iPod, loaded the restoration package, and after plugging into a Firewire external charger and rebooting, the restoration completed and the iPod could sync without issue to iTunes on both Windows and Macintosh. The strangeness also disappeared. The drive disconnected without hanging and the battery now appears to behave normally.

3rd generation iPod after its software problems were resolved

I enjoyed this dual restoration. Such projects are a mental puzzle, and it forces me to recall long-forgotten tech memories. The 3rd generation iPod will go back to my friend, and I will enjoy a second life for my 4th generation iPod. I hoped to use it in my car, but at some point Ford’s SYNC removed iPod integration. Nevertheless, it is good to have my music library once again packed into a sleek white a silver box–available to me anytime with the click of a wheel.

Compaq Deskpro 386s

Compaq was a bold and innovative company, producing some of the best computers of the 1980s. Founded by trio of former Texas Instrument employees, the company famously (and legally) reverse-engineered the IBM PC and created the first successful portable PC. After making a name for itself, Compaq pivoted to the desktop. The Deskpro line of computers was known for quality, speed, and a steep purchase price. In 1986, the Deskpro 386 was the first computer with Intel’s groundbreaking 80386 processor, ushering in the 32-bit revolution. The later Deskpro 386s, manufactured in 1988, had an updated form factor and another first–this time with Intel’s new 80386SX processor.

I was visiting a friend’s house in the mid-80s when I was introduced to his father’s Compaq Portable. It had a mysterious suitcase design and “made for business” reputation. My friend’s father worked in the Texas oil business, so I’m sure he spent his days using Lotus 1-2-3, but we took to the skies with Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.

While that Compaq was the first PC to cross my path, I eventually got an XT clone in 1987. However, I had to wait until 1990 to make a homebrew 386SX.

The Deskpro 386s was positioned as an entry-level 386, offering a 32-bit processor but running on a 16-bit data bus. This particular unit is a Model 40, with a 16MHz 80386SX processor, 4MB of RAM (located on the proprietary memory expansion card), built-in VGA graphics, a 40MB Conner hard drive, and both 3.5-inch and 5.25-inch floppies. Along with a single 9-pin serial and parallel port, the computer has two PS/2 ports for connecting a mouse and keyboard. This was an innovation, as the PS/2 interface was created the year before for IBM’s PS/2 line of computers.

The Deskpro 386s sales flyer clearly positions this system as Compaq’s attempt to best IBM’s mid-range PS/2s, such as the PS/2 Model 50. IBM’s newest 286 ran at 10MHz offering 2MB of RAM, VGA graphics, and built on the new Micro Channel Architecture. Given the competition, this Deskpro was a strong play to dominate the mid-level corporate market.

This particular computer was an eBay find. I was looking for a solid 386, and Compaq is a gold standard. The unit arrived untested and in rough condition. After opening the case, I found a number of dead spiders and a fair amount of rust. Though, I was pleased to see a well-populated memory card and a self-contained battery safely attached to the side of the case. I was also pleased to track down the general maintenance and service manual for the Deskpro 386 line and the individual spec sheet for this 386s.

The front plastic was a bit yellowed, but in decent condition. The missing blank plate covered the location of the optional tape backup unit.
After blowing out the case and taking an inventory, it looked good, except for obvious rusting.
Everything except the bottom case laid out for inspection.

The first order of business was to completely tear down the computer, cleaning as I went. I was particularly interested in the custom power supply, as it would be difficult to source a replacement. After cracking open the PSU, I had concerns. One of the electrolytic capacitors was bulging and there was corrosion around it. Also, the PCB had burned near a thick-film metal glaze power resistor.

Bulging electrolytic capacitor on the proprietary power supply.
Scorched circuit board around a power resistor.
More signs of significant heat from the power resistor on the back of the PCB.

The capacitor was easily replaced, though I had to use non-conductive paint to repair the damage caused by the corrosion. The hot resistor was a bit more complicated. After researching the issue, I suspected the resistor might be working as expected, but it was simply too close to the less-heat tolerant circuit board. Therefore, I removed the resistor and re-soldered it a bit higher from the PCB and placed heat-resistant kapton tape under the reinstalled component.

I was finally ready to power it on. The power supply utilizes a proprietary connector, and I was unable to find the connector’s pinout information. Therefore, I plugged it in to the motherboard, added one of the drives so there was a reasonable load on the PSU, and I held my breath. Unfortunately, my test only resulted in a periodically flashing LED on the motherboard and a simultaneous flash of the floppy drive’s activity light. Checking with my multimeter, I found odd and varying voltages, but the most common reading was 30V–hardly what was expected.

Given the propriety design, and lacking any detailed technical documentation, I was uncertain whether the problem was with the PSU or the motherboard. After setting the project aside for awhile, I took to eBay and found another Compaq Deskpro 386s available for parts. I was watching the item, but the “Buy Now” price was too high for me. After some time, the seller noted my interest and offered to sell me the computer at half the asking price. I jumped on the offer, and now had two questionable Deskpro 386s computers.

The second computer was rustier than the first, but the front plastic was in better condition. It lacked a hard drive and had less RAM, but was otherwise very similar. According to dates on various components, it appeared to be manufactured a few months after the first Deskpro.

A second Deskpro 386s arrives
Testing with the second power supply

The power supply from the second computer had slightly different markings, but otherwise looked identical. I resumed my testing with the second PSU and found the same results. Feeling frustrated, I pulled the second computer’s motherboard from its case and connected it to the PSU, floppy drive, and speaker. Instead of a blinking LED, I heard long and short beeps of the PC speaker and saw normal activity from the floppy drive. I swapped the second PSU for the repaired unit and got the same results. So, both power supplies operated normally, but the original motherboard has a fault. Perhaps the surface-mount tantalum capacitors near the power supply connector were the problem, but that repair can wait.

I was finally ready to reassemble the computer, picking the best parts available from either computer as I went, but first I had to deal with the rust. I had learned of the benefits of fallout remover from Adrian Black’s YouTube video. I stripped the machine down to bare metal, taped off stickers or markings, and applied the smelly Iron Free compound one piece at a time. I watched as the yellow chemical turned rust into a wine color. After a few minutes, I wiped the pieces dry.

After the fallout treatment, if necessary, I sanded the treated spots until I saw clean metal and then prepared to paint. For the inside of the case, I selected Krylon’s Fusion Matte Glacier Gray spray paint. This provided a fresh and clean look to the inside components. For the exterior top and sides of the case, I used Krylon’s Satin Almond, but the color was a bit warmer than I hoped. Matte Clamshell was an alternative I also considered.

I addressed rust on various ports and small components, but with the power supply reinstalled, I added the motherboard and was pleased with the clean and shinny computer coming together on my bench.

Rust gets everywhere, but luckily is fairly ease to remove.
Fine grain sand paper usually does the job and rusty screws get soaked in vinegar.
Factory fresh after cleaning, rust remediation, and painting.

Luckily, I was able to secure the appropriate blank face plate from the second Deskpro, and I cleaned and lubricated the floppy drives. The battery was the last hardware detail. While I was able to find a new replacement Tadiran 3.6V battery, it took me awhile to notice the pins were not the same. With a little fiddling, I was able to move the red wire next to the black, matching the pins on the motherboard.

The drive stack looks good.
Original and replacement 3.7V batteries

While hardware is fun to tinker with, computers are built to run software. Before I could do that I had to configure the system. I was able to find the spec sheet describing the motherboard DIP switches, but kindly Compaq also posts such pertinent information on the inside panel of the computer. While this computer is more sophisticated than earlier XT computers, it does not have a boot-configurable BIOS. Compaq’s early computers are setup through a floppy-based configuration utility. Luckily, this software is still available online along with Compaq’s OEM version of DOS 3.31, complete with customized setup and utility applications.

After some trial and error, I confirmed all 4MBs of the RAM were working; then I moved on to the hard drive. In another first, Compaq was the first to support IDE hard drives. The Conner hard drive in this 386s appeared to be in good condition. After making the appropriate Type 43 selection with the configuration software, I was happy to see “Starting MS-DOS…” on the Model 470A Compaq VGA Color Monitor.

The computer appears to have been used in an elementary school classroom. DOS 6.22 was installed and the hard drive’s well-organized contents consisted exclusively of age-appropriate educational titles, except for a stock version of Windows 3.1. The hard drive runs fine, but the spinning platters sound a bit odd each time the computer starts. For that reason, I decided to install a Compact Flash adapter with a 256MB card. The provided IDE cable is a custom length, barely long enough to stretch from the motherboard to the single hard drive. I attempted to replace the cable with a longer one capable of connecting both the Conner drive and the Compact Flash adapter, but I was unable to get either drive to work unless I used Compaq’s provided cable. I don’t understand how the cable could be customized, but at the moment, I am only able to use the short cable to connect one drive at a time to the onboard controller.

Thankfully, with the help of an XTIDE card, I could install the Compact Flash card as a second drive and backup the original Conner drive. Installing XTIDE was tricky. After much mucking around, I finally discovered the XTIDE needed the latest IDE_386 binary file flashed to its EEPROM and block mode must be disabled for the legacy drive to reliably copy files.

Compaq Deskpro 386s Model 40 with a Model 470A VGA color monitor and somewhat newer Compaq speakers, keyboard, and mouse.

Compaq was a standout among IBM-clone manufactures. In its early days, the company was rightfully regarded for its innovation and quality. Thankfully, this computer was well-made and is reliable once more. I am proud to own an early Compaq, as it characterizes the spirit and promise of the early PC era.

Apple iPod Classic – 6th Gen (Rev 2)

The iPod fueled Apple’s resurgence. While the iMac and iBook indicated change was underway, it was the iPod that made Apple a household name again. It was also the classic iPod that pivoted Apple from a computer company to a consumer electronics behemoth.

This iPod belongs to my mother. For many years she carried it everywhere she went. It was rare to see her without an ear bud inserted as she enjoyed having her complete music library conveniently tucked in her pocket .

This model is the last of a historic line. Unofficially knows as the 7th generation iPod Classic, this 2nd revision of the 6th version maxed the storage to 160GB and sold from 2009 to 2014. This final Classic sports a 2.5-inch color LCD display providing 320 x 240 resolution with an LED backlight.

This particular iPod clearly endured several drops and scrapes. The aluminum cover held up fairly well despite its dings and dents. It’s the battery that wore down with steady use. Luckily, a replacement was readily available thanks to iFixIt.

When restoring an iPod, the first step is the most difficult: opening the darn thing. After watching several useful videos, I secured the right tools and manhandled my way into the device.

The painful opening process
Opened without lasting damage.

Once the iPod was opened, I was decided to do as much as I could to preserve the unit before sealing it back in its aluminum vault. While the 160GB 4200RPM ATA-66 spinning drive still worked, one day entropy would ensure its demise. So I went online and discovered the useful iFlash product line. There are a variety of solid state drive replacements available, and I selected the iFlash Solo. This customized device allows a wide variety of SD/SDHC/SDXC cards to replace the stock hard drive. I purchased a compatible Samsung 128GB U3 Micro SDXC, but in hindsight, I could have gone with an iFlash Dual and installed a 32GB card along with the 128GB to keep the iPod at its original 160GB of storage.

Removing the delicate ribbon cable attaching the existing hard drive
Prepping the new storage solution
New battery and iFlash Solo installed

The screen was functional, but it had taken damage. A crack and dents in the plastic cover, along with a corresponding fuzzy blob on the display, were scars left from something impacting the screen. After some eBay searches, I found a low-cost replacement. Installing the new display required unscrewing the side brackets and peeling away the front cover from the main board and click wheel mechanism. Once in place, it was as good as new.

Accessing the front of the iPod to replace the screen

Before closing the case, I plugged in the 30-pin connector and made sure it would power up and screen functioned properly. I was greeted with a “Restore iPod” message and the battery began charging. Luckily, I happened to notice a post on the iFlash website detailing an issue with large capacity SDXC cards resulting in slow music transfers, odd syncing errors, song skipping, and even system crashes. The cross-platform iPod’s were formatted using FAT32, and modern SDXC cards come formatted with exFAT. Therefore, I needed to reformat the card before buttoning up the iPod.

Ready for testing

Reformatting the SDXC to FAT32 was more complicated than I expected. FAT32 accompanied Windows 95 and replaced the venerable FAT16 as Windows’ default drive format. Microsoft has not allowed drives larger than 32GB to utilize FAT32 for some time, though the format can support drives up to 2TB. Many believe Microsoft created this barrier to force users to accept the more robust Windows NT-inspired NTFS file system. Later, the capable exFAT format became a cross-platform standard. However, I could still utilize FAT32 thanks to a handy third-party tool: FAT32 Format. I wiped and setup a clean partition and then used FAT32 Format to ready the drive for iTunes.

While this last of the iPod Classics may not be considered retro technology by some, it is a discontinued product from a bygone era. An era where portable digital music became the norm, and we grew to expect access to any song at any time with the click of a wheel.

Dell Dimension V333c

Restoring vintage computers is certainly nostalgic, but it is also therapeutic. It feels good to clean something dirty, restore something old, and improve something so it lasts. I have a long history with this early Celeron computer; so awakening it from its long slumber was particularly satisfying.

I bought this computer in December 1998 as a Christmas gift for my parents. It replaced the home-built 386 I assembled as a teenager. Now a college graduate with my first “real” job, I was proud to provide them a significant technology upgrade.

When Dell created the Dimension V333c, it was was a great value at an important time in PC history. The race between Intel, AMD, and Cyrix was neck and neck, and Intel was trying to upend the market with its Pentium line of processors. While the original Pentiums (P5s) were a decent upgrade from the 486 processors, the architecture noticeably matured with the Pentium II (P6) systems.

Intel’s Celeron was a low-end Pentium II, with the front-side bus limited to 66MHz, and little to no L2 processor cache. The processor in the V333c is a second generation Medocino Celeron using Intel’s 440BX chipset and running at 333MHz with 32KB of L1 and 128KB of L2 cache available for the processor.

The V333c was released a few months after Microsoft’s Windows 98, and Dell’s reasonable price and well-rounded configuration attracted attention.

I rediscovered this system in early 2019. It had been in storage for many years, and I could have formed a full-sized rabbit from the dust bunnies inside. After a thorough cleaning, I replaced the battery, tested the power supply, and powered it on. It booted to Dell’s A08 BIOS without issue. The original Maxtor hard drive still worked, though the system struggled under the weight of the later installed Windows 2000 operating system. To give it a performance boost, I replaced the spinning drive with an IDE to CompactFlash adapter and upgraded the RAM from the stock 64MB to the maximum 384MB .

Completely disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled.
Fresh battery installed with no damage from the original coin cell

The installation of the CompactFlash adapter was fairly straightforward once I realized the BIOS would not recognize a large drive. Going with an 8GB card worked fine. Once the fast and capable drive was installed, I loaded Windows 98 SE and luckily could still find the necessary device drivers on Dell’s support site.

CompactFlash hard drive replacement.

Built during a transitional time, the motherboard has two legacy 16-bit ISA expansion slots along with three PCI slots. It sports a 3.5-inch floppy, a 32X CD-ROM, and a Iomega Zip drive. Connectivity was available through traditional serial, parallel, and PS/2 ports, but also includes two USB connectors and built-in 10/100 Ethernet. The video system has an SXGA-capable ATI Rage Pro AGP 2X controller with 8MB of SDRAM. Sound is handled by the onboard MIDI, OPL3, and Sound Blaster Pro-compatible Yamaha YMF724 audio controller.

To enhance its “in-between” usefulness, I tried unsuccessfully to install at 5.25-inch floppy drive in an empty drive bay. Unfortunately, the BIOS would not recognize a second floppy, and installing an ISA-based floppy controller only resulted in frustration. However, I’ve not given up hope, as it would be helpful to access 5.25, 3.5, Zip, and CD-ROM media in one machine.

Running Microsoft Office 97 Standard Edition
Playing 688 Attack Sub in DOS mode

The V333c was a well-regarded, value-based home system in its day, and the computer’s versatility and dependable components have enabled it to stand the test of time.