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.

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 Macintosh SE/30

I suppose I should thank YouTube’s recommendation algorithm for getting this started. Sometime in 2018, I ran across several vintage computer repair videos that got me thinking about the great computers of the past. The videos both scratched a nostalgic itch and fed a need. I’d been looking for a hobby to get my mind off the daily grind, but I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t feel silly or uninteresting. Then I saw YouTubers explaining and repairing computers I’d spent countless hours hunched over in my youth along with many others I only saw in magazines.

As these things go, a few videos turned into a series of weekend binges, and before I knew it, I was on eBay bidding on a vintage Mac. But not just any Mac; it was an SE/30. The best of the compact Macs, and an inconspicuous powerhouse in its day.

My history with the SE/30 started in 1992. I was a freshman and my college built its first general-purpose computer lab filled with Macintosh Classics and a single SE/30. The little SE/30 sat on a small olive green cabinet and hummed along thanklessly at the center of the lab’s LocalTalk network. It was a simple file and print server, feeding countless documents to the connected LaserWriter II.

I bought my nicely maintained Mac from a seller in New Hampshire. It came with the keyboard, mouse, Kensington trackball, original disks and manuals, dust covers, and a carrying bag. I paid the healthy sum of $311, but it was in good condition, and I was proud to own such a classic machine.

When the computer arrived, I fired it up and heard the once-familiar chime of a happy Mac. Even more nostalgic was the whirring of the Sony 3.5-inch floppy drive and the distinctive sound of its eject motor. Unfortunately, the hard drive did not work, but the computer seemed fine otherwise. Until… I turned it off and on a few times. Before long the screen would fill with random lines and the Mac stopped making sounds.

After some Google searches, I soon learned the dangers of leaking capacitors. If you want to own vintage computers you should be willing to repair them. So, a hobby was born.

Before I could fix my little Mac, I had to learn how. Many hours were spent watching YouTube, reading websites, scanning forums, and selecting tools. Soon, I had a true hobby: something that occupied my time and took my money.

Electronic repair workbench assembled and ready for action.

Over several months, I built a good electronics workbench. This was certainly overkill for repairing a single Macintosh, but I was bit by the retro computing bug, and I was going all in.

With the help of my new tools and several YouTube tutorials, I successfully heated and pulled each of the surface mount capacitors, extracted two through-hole capacitors, cleaned the board with white vinegar (where needed) and isopropyl alcohol. I then replaced each of the capacitors, improving my soldering skills along the way.

Surface-mount capacitor ready for heating and removal.
Closeup inspection of pads after capacitor removal.
Recapped logic board with new battery.

With the logic board completed, it was time to upgrade the stock RAM from 4 to 8MB, scrub all the Mac’s nooks and crannies, clean and lubricate the floppy drive, and address the dead 80MB hard drive. The drive showed no signs of life. While I measured voltage on the drive’s circuit board, the drive motor was a stone. I have learned that rubber parts within vintage Quantum drives can break down and cause the head to stick, but it seemed to me the drive motor had totally failed. Being new at this, I badly stripped a screw trying to access the internal drive mechanism, so it was time to try something else.

I appreciate the benefits of solid state storage over degenerating magnetic media, so I pursued replacing the original SCSI drive with an solid state solution. After some research, I secured version 5.1 of Inertial Computing’s SCSI2SD. Once in hand, I was very thankful for a wonderful setup guide available at David and Steve’s Blog. This site also provided starter image files to load onto the 2GB SD card I had purchased for the Mac.

Once the drive image was loaded, I was ready to test the SE/30. After a quick prayer and double checking the cables, I powered it up and was greeted with a happy Mac and a booting drive.

With the parts lying on my bench, I noticed the SCSI2SD was roughly the same size as the hard drive’s circuit board. After some measuring, a few trips to the hardware store, and good use of a Dremel tool, I fashioned a metal plate for mounting the SCSI2SD to the Quantum hard drive.

Original 80MB Quantum hard drive
Fabricated metal plate for mounting the SCDI2SD
SCSI2SD hard drive circuit board replacement
A sleeper SCSI2SD

It took some work getting the modified drive properly aligned in the mounting cage, but with my sleeper SCSI2SD in place, the Mac was ready to be buttoned up.

Once back in one piece, I utilized the incredibly useful Floppy Emu through the external floppy connector to load a complete operating system and several useful apps. For the OS, I debated whether to go with the original System 6 disks that accompanied the computer, move up to System 7.1, or jump all the way to System 7.5.5. After taking all three systems for a spin, I decided System 7.1 provided the best experience. It could run System 7 programs, but was slimmer than 7.5.5.

In a stroke of luck, I completed this restoration on September 15, 2019. Almost exactly one year from the date I won the eBay auction. During that year, I learned new skills, built a workbench, and discovered a hobby. I’ll always be thankful to the Mac SE/30 for this great experience.