Introducing: 1991 Macintosh Classic

After about 6-7 years of waiting, it finally happened.

My desire to start a vintage computer collection has been around for about a decade. Unfortunately, I live in an area where vintage computers are rarely spotted for sale, and when they are for sale they usually have a hefty price tag attached to them.

For instance, the IBM PS/2 has been on my list for some time. In about 5-6 years of looking, I’ve only spotted one or two PS/2s… both outside of my price range, of course.

Vintage Macs are (slightly) easier to come by. When I say easier, I mean in that 5-6 year period I at least need my second hand to count the ones I’ve found for sale. (But still in the single digits.) However, vintage Macs can be slightly risky – they’re known to have capacitor problems and, worse, can be susceptible to being damaged beyond repair thanks to the internal PRAM (equivalent to BIOS) battery. (However, note that all vintage computers – from Apples to Commodores to IBMs – can have these problems. I’ve seen a video of an IBM PC-AT destroyed by a ruptured battery.)

After an hour-long road trip into the city with some cash in hand and some fast food, this 1991 Macintosh Classic followed me home.

The 1991 Macintosh Classic

A little bit about the Macintosh Classic: it was introduced in October 1990 at Apple’s October 15, 1990 event. Along with introducing its “new” features at Apple’s Singapore facility, Apple featured testimonials from users of early production units.

Skip to 33:00 to see the section introducing the Macintosh Classic

At the time, the Macintosh Classic was Apple’s cheapest Mac. The Classic started at $999 with a floppy-only model, but you could pay extra to get an internal hard drive and additional memory. (The $999 model only came with 1MB memory, which wouldn’t have been a lot at the time and wouldn’t have been compatible with Apple’s System 7.) The Classic was popular with schools due to its low price and being one of the “compact Macs” – meaning everything (except for the keyboard and mouse) was in one box.

To keep costs low, the Macintosh Classic wasn’t a step forward. In some ways, it was a step backward. The Classic was intended to replace the Macintosh Plus (introduced in 1986) and Macintosh SE (1987.) The Classic is somewhere in between the Plus and SE. The Classic features the same Motorola 68000 (“68k”) processor that the original Macintosh (1984) had. The Classic also featured the same black-and-white, 1-bit bitmap graphics the other compact Macs had. (Not even grayscale.) But the Classic did have an upgraded “SuperDrive” floppy drive, and could be configured with an internal hard drive. The Classic also featured Apple’s ADB (Apple Desktop Bus) for input/output with the keyboard and mouse. However, the Classic lacked the expansion port the SE featured.

The Macintosh Classic replaced the Macintosh SE (pictured) and Plus.

An interesting feature of the Macintosh Classic is the system ROM has a version of the OS. If your Classic has a dead hard drive, you can always boot into the ROM’s OS by holding “Option” + X + O on startup. (However, the ROM contains System 6, while many of these systems were upgraded to System 7 at some point in their life.)

An upgraded version of the Macintosh Classic – the Classic II – was introduced nearly a year after the original Classic was introduced. The Classic was discontinued September 14, 1992 and the Classic II followed by being discontinued in October 1993. The discontinuation of the Color Classic (and Color Classic II for some parts of the world) marked the end of the iconic “compact Mac” form factor.

My System

According to the serial number, my particular unit was manufactured in Singapore in 1991. (Most Mac Classics were made in Singapore with a small percentage being made in Ireland. I don’t believe any were made in the United States.)

The rear of my Macintosh Classic

My Mac Classic is in fairly good condition. The screen is bright and crisp. The case is slightly yellowed, but not as bad as some other units I’ve seen.

However, since the Classic is 30 years old, it needs some work.

First, many Classics have been destroyed by ruptured PRAM batteries. These batteries are installed to keep the computer’s time/date and other settings in memory while the computer is unplugged or turned off. (The PC equivalent of PRAM is the CMOS/BIOS battery.) However, after 30 years, these batteries have begun to leak their corrosive, destructive acid right on to the logic board. The result is a destroyed logic board. (As previously mentioned, this is an issue that plagues any type of vintage computer.) Purchasing old computers can be risky, especially if you can’t open it up before purchasing.

Second, Classics are plagued with bad and leaky capacitors. Like PRAM batteries, leaky capacitors can eventually bring a system down. However, it takes capacitors longer and in many cases the logic board can be repaired if it has suffered from leaky caps, while a PRAM battery will often yield the board beyond repair.

Opening these Macs up in the first place can be tricky. The compact Mac form factor has two Torx screws located under the handle, requiring a specialized long Torx T15 bit to be used to remove those screws. Once you have all of the screws removed, you can separate the halves of the case. Since these compact Macs have a built-in CRT that can store lethal amounts of energy (even when unplugged) you have to be extremely careful when working on them. One little zap could easily be fatal.

Before I do anything else, I’m going to open this bad boy up and yank the PRAM battery out. (At this point I have two fingers crossed that it’s still in good condition inside.) Then, I’m going to remove the logic board and send it to someone to be recapped. (If you’re handy with a soldering iron, you can do this on your own. But I suck at soldering – even thru-hole soldering, so I’ll leave this to the experts.)

After receiving the recapped logic board, I can breathe and actually have some fun with the system.

I can use the system after having its logic board recapped.

First, I will need to purchase a keyboard and mouse for this computer. The seller did not have one. Thankfully, ADB keyboard and mice are readily available on eBay as almost any type of vintage Mac made between 1987 and 1997 use them. You can also purchase a “USB-to-ADB” converter that allows you to use your favorite USB keyboard and mouse with your vintage Mac or Apple IIGS.

The current state of my Macintosh Classic

After that, I can finally interact with the system. First order of business will be to clear off the files the previous owner(s) left on the machine. I believe this system may already have some software loaded.

Eventually I plan on buying a FloppyEmu for this system, which will allow me to easily transfer files (including software) between my modern PCs and the Mac Classic. I already have a small software library built up from my tinkering in Basilisk II.

The Macintosh Classic (1990; left) with the 2018 iPad – showing the progression of computing after nearly three decades.

From there, it’s all fun and games – literally. I will be posting about the restoration process here, so stay tuned.

This post written and edited on the 2018 iPad in iPadOS 13.

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