PowerBook 165: Testing my first vintage laptop

My 1994 Macintosh PowerBook 165 is alive.

After receiving a replacement AC adapter from a fellow 68kMLA member (the same one who sold me the ImageWriter II printer), I was able to power on the PowerBook 165 for the first time since it has been in my possession. It was likely the first time the machine was powered on in over a decade.

The PowerBook 165

The PowerBook 165 is my first vintage (pre-2000) laptop, as well as my first PowerBook. Unlike the compact Macs and other early Macs, my knowledge regarding laptop Macs from before 1999 is limited.

Before I could test the machine, I had to extract the old NiCad battery to prevent it from causing damage. The battery had swollen to a point where it was not wanting to come out easily. Partial disassembly of the machine was required, but in the end I was able to remove the battery and salvage the original battery door.

The original NiCad battery had swollen slightly, requiring partial disassembly to remove it from the machine.

After plugging in the new, bulky AC adapter and pressing the power button on the rear behind the I/O door, the machine chimed and sprung to life.

Fiddling with the brightness and contrast slide switches and on the PowerBook brought the display to life, as the machine proceeded to boot into the stock System 7.1 installation. (This is also my first System 7-native machine.)

The PowerBook 165 powered on fine.

The machine seems to work mostly fine. It has the stock IBM 80 MB hard drive, a 1.44 MB “SuperDrive” floppy drive, and the standard PowerBook 1xx line keyboard, trackball, and selection of ports. The machine is powered by a stock Motorola 68030 (much like the older brother I acquired with it – the 1988 Macintosh “SuperSE”) with 8 MB of memory.

The inside of the PowerBook 165.

Although the PowerBook 165 works, the PowerBook 1xx series is notorious for several problems, such as plastic and display issues.

Much like the cheap, fragile plastics found on later Macintosh models of the mid-1990s when Apple was stressing cost cutting, the PowerBook 1xx series is plagued with plastics issues. The most common failure is the screw posts inside of the machine. After decades, the plastic has grown brittle and in many instances the posts shatter or break – essentially meaning you can’t tighten the screw. I’ve heard JB Weld can be used to repair or rebuild new screw posts. Thankfully, the screw posts in my PowerBook 165 appear to be intact.

Screw posts, like this one, have a tendency to break in the PowerBook 1xx machines. Care must be exercised when removing or replacing screws.

The other issue the PowerBook 1xx series faces is display problems, which affects a lot of vintage laptops. The displays in the vintage PowerBooks can suffer from problems that produce dead rows or columns, or can produce a “tunnel eye” issue where the image starts to invert at the corners and slowly progresses inward. The display on my PowerBook 165 is bright and crisp, although can be temperamental at times.

Some lines acting up on the PowerBook 165 display.

Overall, much like the SuperSE, the PowerBook 165 appears to have been well cared for during its life. Unlike most other PowerBook 1xx machines, mine still has the rear I/O door intact. (Many quickly broke off as the power button and I/O ports are hidden behind the door.) That, along with the intact screw posts, indicate that it was never handled roughly.

Also, no longer do I have to lug around one of my 20-pound compact Macs to play with vintage Macintosh software on real hardware on the go.

Note I: The PowerBook Duo 270c I purchased following acquiring the SuperSE and PowerBook 165 has since been sold.

Note II: Because of the lack of a normal floppy port, I had to use a floppy disk and “sneaker net” to transfer this file to my Classic for transfer to the FloppyEmu so I could open on my modern MacBook.

Written on the 1994 Macintosh PowerBook 165 using Microsoft Word 5.1. Further edited and transferred using the 1991 Macintosh Classic.