Getting Started With Your Vintage Macintosh

So you bought your first vintage Mac… now what?

When I purchased my first vintage Macintosh – the 1991 Macintosh Classic – in March 2020, I had already been in the vintage computing hobby for a few years by participating in online forums and reading about various vintage computer models and their common problems. However, not everyone has this experience before actually delving into the hobby and acquiring their first machine.

My first vintage Macintosh: the 1991 Macintosh Classic, which I purchased in March 2020.

Since, I’ve offered up tips for newcomers to the hobby who just acquired their first vintage Macintosh computer but don’t know how to proceed.

Note: While this is tailored toward vintage Macs, a lot of these tips can also be applied to other vintage computers.

Step 1: Disarming the PRAM battery

Inside nearly every vintage Macintosh is a battery called a parameter RAM, or PRAM, battery. This battery allows the computer to retain settings such as the time and date even when the computer is removed from power. After three decades, many of the batteries no longer serve their intended role and, instead, present a huge threat to the machine they reside in.

When the batteries fail, sometimes they can fail dramatically. The batteries can leak, causing corrosion that will destroy the logic board it is located on. In the best case scenario, the damage can be repaired by cleaning up the mess, jumping damaged traces with bodge wires, and replacing destroyed components. However, in most cases, the leaks destroy the boards beyond economical repair – rendering the board (and in many cases the entire computer) junk.

Damage to a Macintosh IIcx logic board caused by a leaky PRAM battery. In this case, the board was too far gone.

Thankfully, for the most part, removing and/or replacing the PRAM battery is easy. In many cases, a working PRAM battery is not required for the computer to operate. (However, there are exceptions to this rule – such as the early Macintosh II models and later Power Macintosh models.) In almost every case, the PRAM battery easily pulls out of its holder. Installing a replacement battery is just as easy as pushing the new battery in the holder. (Some models, like the Macintosh SE, have soldered PRAM batteries. In that case, the old battery must be snipped or desoldered out. A battery holder can be installed in its place for easy replacement. For added protection, you may even install the battery holder elsewhere in the computer.)

With a new battery installed, your computer will remember the time and date settings you enter.

Step 2: Recap Time

The PRAM battery isn’t the only threat your vintage Mac faces. The old capacitors can also leak their electrolyte on the board, which can cause erratic behavior or damage to the board.

Recapping the board is sometimes a controversial decision. While the majority of retrocomputing hobbyists agree replacing the old capacitors is a good idea, some argue it is a waste of money and resources. Others believe it should only be done on certain models, while other models (like the Macintosh SE) are fine. I disagree with both thoughts; I feel that every machine should be recapped. If nothing else, the new capacitors will increase the reliability of your machine by eliminating parts that can randomly fail.

However, bad capacitors CAN cause damage if left unchecked. The analog board in my 1991 Macintosh Classic started acting erratically and prevented the machine from booting early on. Turns out, the electrolyte from leaky capacitors ate into the traces on the board, causing all sorts of issues. Replacing the capacitors and cleaning the board solved the issues. In some cases, the damage to traces by the leaked electrolyte can be so bad that a jumper wire must be installed. Thankfully, in my case, I lucked out and the traces were still good.

Damage to my Macintosh Classic’s logic board, caused by leaky capacitors.

The recap process requires disassembly of the computer: removing the analog and logic boards, as well as the power supply. For many models like the compact Macs (128k-Color Classic) this can be a daunting task due to the CRT and high-voltage circuitry inside. While extreme care must be taken when removing the boards and working around the CRT, it is still fairly straight forward. (After all, if I can do it – I’m pretty sure anybody could do it.)

The inside of many vintage Macs can seem daunting and dangerous due to the CRT and associated high-voltage circuitry. However, they are easy to work on if you know what you’re doing and take the appropriate safety precautions.

For earlier models like the 128k, 512k(e), Plus, and SE, Apple used through-hole components. They didn’t completely transition to surface-mount components until around 1990 with the introduction of the Macintosh Classic. Therefore, someone with soldering skills can easily remove and replace the capacitors on their own. There are guides and videos online on how to do this, including lists of required replacement components.

For later models that used surface-mount components – like my Macintosh Classic or the PowerBooks – you will most likely need to send your boards off for professional rework. Surface-mount technology requires special tools and skills to properly remove and replace the components without damaging the board or other components. In the past, I’ve used Amiga of Rochester and have been thoroughly satisfied with their work. The process usually costs around $120-140 for both the analog and logic board. (Note: I am not sponsored to “advertise” any services. This recommendation is based on my own experiences.) Other rework service providers exist both here in the United States and abroad. Just make sure you do your research before working with one, as some providers have been known to do shoddy work or scam customers.

One note that I learned the hard way: when you have a machine recapped, have all of the boards recapped at the same time, if possible. With my Classic, I only had my logic board recapped as I thought the analog board was good. Less than a week after getting my logic board back, the analog board failed. As the person who recapped my logic board was swamped with other work, it took me a couple months to find someone else who could recap the analog board.

One more thing regarding capacitors: on earlier Macs – the 128k, 512k(e), and Plus – Apple used a RIFA safety capacitor on the analog board. After many years of use, these capacitors can fail spectacularly. When they fail, they usually go off with a flash and a thick cloud of smoke that smells like burning wood. Despite the dramatic failure, the RIFA capacitors rarely cause any damage to the machine – often times, the machine will continue to work. When having a machine recapped, do not overlook the RIFA capacitor. Similarly, be cautious when plugging an early Mac in. These caps can fail even with the computer turned off, as they are wired before the power switch. (The RIFA capacitors are present in most pre-1990 computers, including Apple II, Commodore models, and IBM PC and PS/2 models. Therefore, similar precautions should be exercised when using or recapping other old computers. Also, the Macintosh SE and Macintosh SE/30 use a Sony power supply that does not have a RIFA capacitor installed.)

With new capacitors, your vintage Macintosh should be able to provide years of reliable, worry-free operation.

Step 3: Storage – FloppyEmu vs. SCSI-2-SD

In addition to removing the PRAM battery and recapping your machine, you will also want to find a way to easily transfer files and software between your vintage Mac and your modern computer. In many cases, you may also be looking for storage solutions, since some vintage Macs shipped without hard drives or the old drive has since failed.

There are two storage solutions for vintage Macs which currently dominate the industry: the FloppyEmu by Big Mess O’ Wires, and the SCSI-2-SD sold here in the United States by Inertial Computing.

Personally, I prefer the FloppyEmu. Sure, the FloppyEmu is more expensive (double the price) than the SCSI-2-SD. However, I find the FloppyEmu much easier to use and more versatile in comparison to the SCSI-2-SD. The FloppyEmu allows you to emulate floppy disk images in floppy mode, as well as an entire hard drive in HD20 emulation mode. The FloppyEmu works in the floppy emulation mode with all Macs that have an external floppy drive port, and emulates single-sided (400k), double-density (800k), and high-density (1.44MB) disk images. The HD20 emulation mode works with many Macintosh models, starting with the 512k. (Some minor modifications are required to use the HD20 emulation mode with the 512k. The HD20 emulation mode does not work with the 128k, many later models, and Macs that have accelerator cards installed. A complete compatibility list is available on Big Mess O’ Wires website.) The FloppyEmu can also be used with Apple II and Lisa computers.

The FloppyEmu is, at least in my opinion, the ultimate storage/transfer option for vintage Macs. It’s easy to use and versatile.

Where the SCSI-2-SD shines is replacing failed (or non-existant) internal hard drives. Inertial Computing sells many different varieties of the SCSI-2-SD, including internal, external, and laptop versions. With a bracket, the SCSI-2-SD can act as a drop-in replacement for an internal SCSI drive in an old Macintosh while providing improved performance and reliability over the older mechanical drives. 

The SCSI-2-SD works differently from the FloppyEmu and has a slight learning curve to get it up and running. The SCSI-2-SD is faster than the FloppyEmu since it works on the SCSI bus.

For transferring files and software between your vintage Mac and a modern computer, the FloppyEmu is the best way to go. However, for replacing your Mac’s internal hard drive, the SCSI-2-SD is a good drop-in replacement.

The SCSI-2-SD (external version shown) is a good replacement for failed internal hard drives.

In addition to the SCSI-2-SD and FloppyEmu, other storage solutions exist. The BlueSCSI is a lower-cost, open-source SCSI storage solution spearheaded by Eric Helgeson. The BlueSCSI claims to be easy-to-use and offers decent performance. Since I have been using the FloppyEmu and SCSI-2-SD, I have not had a chance (yet) to test the BlueSCSI. The BlueSCSI is based on the BluePill Arduino and comes either fully-assembled or in kit form.

Step 4: Other Issues

As these machines get older, other issues have started to arise due to age. PRAM battery failures, bad/leaky capacitors, and failed hard drives constitute the majority of problems associated with vintage computers – but does not rule out everything.

Mechanical components, such as the floppy drives and CD-ROM drives, can be another source of problems. While the FloppyEmu provides a nice, solid-state alternative to using floppy disks, many (such as myself from time to time) prefer the nostalgia of inserting and swapping disks.

Floppy drives need to be cleaned and lubricated to stay in working condition.

It’s recommended to clean and lubricate floppy drives to keep them working properly and prevent damage to disks or corrupted data. While the cleaning and lubrication process on floppy drives require delicate handling and care to prevent irreparable damage to the drive, it is a fairly straight-forward process. JDW on YouTube made an excellent tutorial on how to clean and lubricate your drives, as well as how to replace a problematic gear that can cause issues in some drives. He also made a separate video on how to replace the capacitors in your drive.

In addition to cleaning and lubricating the drives, many owners also look to make their machines look like they did on day one. A process known as “Retrobriting” restores yellowed plastics to approximately their original color. However, personally, I advise against retrobriting as sometimes it makes the plastics even more brittle and can produce other undesired effects. While many have had good luck retrobriting their machines, I’ve also seen instances where the process has gone horribly wrong.

One last thing: Since three decades have passed since a lot of these machines were made, it’s easy to overlook simple things we take for granted today – such as hot-swapping cables. Unlike modern standards like USB, old interfaces such as ADB, SCSI, serial, and the external floppy port don’t take kindly to being hot-swapped when the machine is powered on. Doing so may damage your peripherals or the computer itself!

With these tips, you can restore your vintage Macintosh (or other computer) so that it can provide many more years of reliable service.

This post written on the 1991 Macintosh Classic using Microsoft Word 4.0.