Stumped by a screw: Macintosh PowerBook 165 restoration woes, Part 1

Not much has gone right with the restoration of my 1994 Apple Macintosh PowerBook 165.

Since acquiring the PowerBook 165 alongside the 1988 Apple Macintosh SE “SuperSE” in January 2021 from a librarian at my alma mater, I’ve had plans to restore the machine. In addition to having the machine recapped, I wanted to upgrade its storage with a modern solid-state replacement (its original 80 MB mechanical IBM TravelStar hard drive was almost completely full when I got it, but this is mostly for reliability and another reason I’ll discuss later), refurbish its original nickel-cadmium battery and find a way to use it with modern external displays through adapters.

The PowerBook 165 has a special part in my collection as the most powerful/capable vintage Macintosh. Its Motorola 68030 clocked at 33 MHz outpaces the 25 MHz ‘030 found in the aforementioned SuperSE, which was restored in 2021 and has been in regular use since. In addition to having the fastest processor out of all my classic Macs, it is the only vintage Mac in my collection to have color graphics capabilities when paired with an external monitor. I picked up an Apple Hi-Res RGB monitor from a fellow collector back in April 2021 in Kansas City for this purpose, which I briefly but somewhat-successfully tested.

The PowerBook 165 displaying color graphics on an Apple Hi-Res RGB color monitor during testing in April 2021.

It was during that test — connecting the PowerBook 165 to the external display, and loading Oregon Trail — that the PowerBook 165 began exhibiting issues. With Oregon Trail loaded, the machine randomly crashed and proceeded into the all-to-familiar “chime cycle.” Thankfully, after removing the display, the computer booted fine. 

A photo of “The Oregon Trail” loading screen being mirrored — in color — on the Apple Hi-Res RGB color monitor during a test in April 2021. The machine started having issues shortly after.

A couple years later, I’d find more issues with the PowerBook 165 when using it frequently at work to write documents using Word 5.0, copying them to actual 3.5″ high-density floppies I found stuffed in a box at work, and using my 1991 Macintosh Classic to convert the files to rich-text format and transfer them to my modern M1 Mac mini. This time, the LCD would get real bright — and lose contrast — over time. Sometimes it would take hours for the screen to become unusable, while over time it would do it a lot quicker. After learning about the harm the LCD capacitors can do, along with the dangers of using my unrestored stock Apple power supply with the machine, I quit using the PowerBook 165 and put it into storage.

It took years to finally bring myself to tear into the machine and start restoring it. As someone with a mostly-negative experience with servicing laptops (like killing my former daily-driver — a ThinkPad T420 — after applying thermal paste on its heat sink during spring break, just for it to never work again), combined with knowing all the issues that can arise from servicing Macs from the mid-late 1990s, it was not a project I had particularly looked forward to. However, it was necessary to revive the machine back to life.

Therefore, this fall I started the process. I carefully dissected the machine, pulling out the LCD assembly and inverter boards to send off to Amiga of Rochester for recapping. I ordered some J-B Weld to address a common failure in the high-stress hinge area, and started preparing my laptop-sized BlueSCSI for installation.

The 1994 Macintosh PowerBook 165’s original inverter board, left, and LCD assembly removed from the machine and ready to be sent off to Amiga of Rochester for recapping.

It all sounds easy. Watching videos of others working on these machines — such as Colin from This Does Not Compute, Steve from Mac84, and others — make it look super easy. Unfortunately, I’ve been there before — something looks easy as others do it, but it becomes a completely different experience when attempting to tackle it myself.

As with those other cases, this project has not been easy. It’s been frustrating and fraught with issues so far.

Hinge issues

After getting the J-B Weld, I removed the lid from the upper-half to reinforce the hinge mounts. The plastic posts around the screw bosses that hold the hinge to the lid are notorious for breaking over time, as the plastic grows more brittle with time, and the pressure of opening and closing the lid wears on the part. Most people remove the original mounts altogether and install 3D printed replacements. I originally intended to do just that — to the point where I even had two replacements 3D printed and mailed to me.

However, many people suggested reinforcing the existing posts after posting a question about installing the replacement parts on a Facebook Group. I decided to take the easy route and use “higher-strength 5020 PSI” J-B Weld to shore up the posts.

The 1994 Macintosh PowerBook 165’s original screw posts on the lid used to attach it to the hinge are notorious for cracking. While most people replace the original mounts, mine were in good enough condition that many people suggested using J-B Weld to reinforce them.

I had never worked with J-B Weld before, or really any plastics. I mixed the two-part epoxy and applied it around the posts. Despite trying to be careful, it wasn’t a pretty solution — the J-B Weld was more liberally applied than I anticipated. (I was using a high-tech application tool — a plastic knife — to apply it around the posts. It was not the right tool.) While not pretty, my main focus was on function — as long as it functioned, we would be fine. (After all, it’s going to be hidden from view anyway by the bezel.)

The posts after applying some J-B Weld to reinforce them. It wasn’t pretty, but I was more concerned about functionality — and reliability — over form. After all, the epoxy will be hidden by the bezel once the machine is put back together.

After “fixing” the posts, I tried to reinstall the LCD. Unfortunately, the original display ribbon cable, a thin flat-flex cable, broke in half as I tried to reassemble the machine.

The PowerBook 165’s original display ribbon cable broke in half while trying to get the LCD reinstalled.

Thankfully, TinkerDifferent user Androda sells prototype replacement ribbon cables. While designed for a PowerBook 140, the cable — which cost $30 and took about a week to arrive — worked just fine with the SuperTwist Nematic (FSTN) display in the 165.

That didn’t mark the end of my issues, though. The left screw holding the hinge to the lid fastened just fine. However, the right screw — which was the original — would not reach, almost as if it was slightly too short. Putting it in first changed nothing. I thought the J-B Weld might be interfering with the fit, but I didn’t see any way that it would produce a noticeable gap.

Eight minutes of me attempting to get the correct screw inserted in the right hinge on the PowerBook 165. Beware… bad camera angles and some cussing.

Eventually, after weeks of fiddling with it off and on, I tried one of the gray screws used to hold the bezel to the hinge and lid. It fastened just fine, as if it was made for that spot. After removing it and trying the correct screw, it somehow managed to also fasten just fine. However, there’s still odd fitment issues in that spot. When trying to adjust the lid, such as closing or opening it, the right screw would “snap” out. (I checked the aforementioned posts, and they were still intact and undamaged. The J-B Weld flaked off… perhaps a clue?)

A gap seen on the PowerBook 165’s lid above the right hinge. This is the area that continues to give me problems with the screws… there’s something interfering with the fit. Perhaps some J-B Weld?

It’s one of many issues I’m still facing on getting this machine put back together.

BlueSCSI blues

The BlueSCSI has become one of my favorite vintage Mac accessories. It’s a lot easier to configure than the SCSI-2-SD, and more versatile, cheaper, but still can be installed internally. Eric Helgeson, Androda and the rest of the BlueSCSI team made it even better, however, by enabling WiFi modem emulation functionality on its Raspberry Pi Pico.

Unlike my other BlueSCSI experiences, I could not get the firmware upgrade necessary to enable WiFi functionality to work. The Raspberry Pi would show up on my Mac as a storage volume, as it should, but it would not accept the new .uf2 firmware file. The file would transfer and the BlueSCSI would reboot as stated in the installation instructions, but no “log.txt” would show up on the microSD card.

To add frustration to the process, Basilisk II on my M1 Mac mini — running Sonoma — would not work with the 500 MB .hda HFS volumes created in Disk Jockey for the PowerBook 165.

I finally had to use my trusty early 2014 MacBook Air (which received a new battery this fall) to work with the HFS volume. Turns out Basilisk II isn’t 100 percent compatible with Sonoma yet. The HFS volume would mount in Basilisk II, but it would be “locked” (despite not being locked in Sonoma, and being a new volume) and therefore unusable. By using an older version of Basilisk II running in Mojave on the MacBook Air, I was able to initialize the volume, and finally install System 7.5.3, software and files on it.

Basilisk II running on my M1 Mac mini with Sonoma would not open the .hda HFS volume created in Disk Jockey. It kept complaining the new, un-initalized volume was locked.

While a Facebook Group post helped me figure out the Basilisk II issue, I had to reach out to Eric directly to see what was interfering with upgrading the firmware. I had to remove a “HD0.rom” file found on the SD card. Afterward, the firmware installed as it should. I couldn’t find any mention of this issue by anyone else or in troubleshooting documents.

Fast forward to today, as I write this on the PowerBook 165. It’s still in pieces, with the bezel removed and the gray screw holding the hinge to the lid. I removed the original IBM TravelStar hard drive, and tried to install the BlueSCSI in its place. It caused yet another issue, and prompted additional questions.

The 1994 Macintosh PowerBook 165’s original 80 MB IBM TravelStar hard drive, left, is seen with its replacement — a modern, solid-state BlueSCSI that emulates SCSI devices. In addition to emulating a SCSI hard drive — like the IBM, a recent firmware upgrade enabled WiFi modem emulation thanks to the BlueSCSI’s Raspberry Pi. The BlueSCSI’s 8 GB microSD card seen in the bottom right corner can store approximately 100 times as much data as the IBM TravelStar, despite being a fraction of the size.

First, I noticed the BlueSCSI has fewer pins than the old hard drive and the connector. I want to figure out the pin-out, or how to properly install the BlueSCSI in the connector, before I accidentally fry something or kill the BlueSCSI. Thus, I put the original IBM drive back in. I also need to find screws to fit the BlueSCSI to its 3D-printed bracket, along with covering the BlueSCSI Raspberry Pi’s pins to prevent shorts on the metal drive bracket.

The BlueSCSI has fewer pins than the PowerBook 165’s original IBM TravelStar hard drive, which also likely required additional power to operate. I’ll need to figure out how to properly connect the BlueSCSI to the connector to avoid accidentally letting the magic smoke out. I also need to find screws to attach the BlueSCSI to its 3D-printed bracket, and insulate its Raspberry Pi’s pins to avoid shorts on the metal drive bracket.

Despite the hinge screw posts being in near-immaculate condition, my luck had just ran out. While removing the drive bracket, one of the original screw posts for it crumbled — leaving just the brass screw boss insert and gray plastic crumbs behind. After inspecting other posts for the bracket, a couple others were cracked. Thus, it appears I might have to disassemble this machine even further and bring back out the J-B Weld for some repairs.

A plastic post surrounding a brass screw boss used to attach the PowerBook 165’s drive bracket to the chassis broke after removing the screw, leaving behind crumbs of gray plastic and the boss. It wasn’t the only screw post for the drive bracket that showed signs of stress.
The plastic surrounding another screw boss used to attach the PowerBook 165’s drive bracket to its chassis is badly cracked and stressed. It will need to be repaired soon.

However, the setback gives me the opportunity to install more software on the BlueSCSI’s volume. Hopefully soon I can get the machine back together and fully-functional so I can (finally) have some fun with it and use it how it was intended to be used — as a portable laptop. Stay tuned for a part 2 … hopefully soon.

Happy holidays to everyone!

This post written on a 1994 Macintosh PowerBook 165 using Microsoft Word 5.0, and edited using the 1991 Macintosh Classic with Word 4.0.