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.

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 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.