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.