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Home / Tips and Tricks / Why people restore vintage computers and how you can too

Why people restore vintage computers and how you can too

An Apple iBook laptop in a museum.
Alena Veasey / Shutterstock

If my PowerBook G3 were a person, it would have the legal voting age and count down the days until it is legally allowed to drink. As a computer, it is almost useless and outclassed by even the most basic smartphones.

So why keep it? And not only maintain it but also spend large sums to maintain and preserve it? Because it is an important part of the history of modern computers. Like the other geriatric computers that crowd the shelves of my office, its design tells a story ̵

1; and it’s worth preserving.

Why do people collect classic computers?

When you tell people that you like renovating and restoring old computers, the first word that crosses their lips is “why?”

That’s a fair question. The 15 machines in my collection together are less powerful than a modern gaming computer. They can not run the latest titles and some of them are struggling with today’s internet. While I see my little museum with a sense of affection, I know that every machine is basically obsolete.

RELATED: Why I still use an old PowerPC Mac 2020

I guess you can say the same thing to a collector of old cars. Why bother repairing a 1960s vehicle when a modern model is undoubtedly becoming more fuel efficient, comfortable and reliable?

For some people, it’s fun to figure out how something works, as well as to restore it to working order. Whether it is cars or computers, the goal is the same.

Then there is also the historical aspect. It is comforting to know if there is a computer in my collection, it does not end up in the recycling center. In addition, another reason I like collecting old Apple computers is that I can follow the company’s changed approach to hardware design.

The PowerBook G3, for example, is basically modular. Access to the components is embarrassingly easy. You only lift the keyboard that is in place thanks to three simple locks.

When you dig down, you notice that the CPU and RAM are on a daughter card that is connected to the laptop’s logic board. This opens up the possibility of upgrades. In the late 1990s and early 00s, it was actually possible to buy CPU upgrade cards from third-party companies.

In future models, you will see that the method for modularity goes out the window. In the next generation of Apple PowerBooks, the CPU was soldered on the logic board. Over time, Apple began to integrate all components – from RAM and storage to network cards – as integrated components on the logic board. This prevented people from upgrading and repairing their own machines.

If you have a large enough collection, the changed design philosophy will become apparent.

Where to find vintage machines

You can find vintage machines in common places: eBay, Craigslist, Gumtree, garage sales and so on. They are not difficult to find because most people see them as rubbish. Beauty, as they say, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

What you pay varies depending on the condition of the device, rarity and capacity. For example, early-generation Intel MacBook laptops are dirty at the moment. I’ve found some for as little as $ 20. That’s because they’re common as muck.

In 2006-07, Apple sold over one million of them every quarter. In addition, they are largely useless as a daily machine at this time. The latest operating system they can run is Mac OS X Lion, which was released in 2011. The latest versions of Chrome and Firefox will not even run on them.

The original iBook G3 clams, on the other hand, they cost more because they are older and have an iconic design. Apple also sold far fewer of them, making them harder to find. It is not uncommon to see them go for over $ 200, especially if they are in working order with all the original accessories and documentation.

There is a perception in the retro-computing community that older hardware has risen in price this year. Theories swirl about why this might be. A common explanation is the pandemic. Some believe that people have picked up the hobby to pass the time. Others blame popular YouTubers, such as Psivewri and The 8-Bit Guy for popularizing the hobby.

However, I do not oppose this trend. I would rather see old kit restored than end up in the trash. The best way for this to happen is if more people get involved.

It can also be argued that if there is a greater demand for retro computers, more people will start selling their old machines. For the hobby to thrive, there must be a continuous supply of old hardware.

How to revive an old computer

Once you have your machine, it’s time to start the restoration. The complexity of this task depends largely on the condition of the machine. If it is in working order, you do not need to perform any repairs, although you may be tempted to perform some upgrades.

If you come across any faulty components, you may struggle to replace them with similar options. For example, it is difficult to find brand new IDE / PATA hard drives. In addition, many older RAM specifications have long been out of production – you will only be able to find these used.

Internally in an Apple PowerBook G3.
Matthew Hughes

However, you have a couple of options. You can buy another of the same machine that you restore and cannibalize it for components. Alternatively, you can get creative. For IDE hard drives, you can use an mSATA-to-IDE adapter. This allows you to use a modern (and inexpensive) storage format.

An mSATA-to-IDE adapter.
Matthew Hughes

You will end up with slightly faster storage (you will still be limited to the throughput rates of the old IDE / PATA sockets), as well as significant battery performance. You can also find IDE adapters that support M.2 and CompactFlash cards.

Keep in mind that repairing and upgrading an old computer can simply cost more than the machine’s original purchase price. Also, if you ever want to sell your upgraded machine, there is no guarantee that you can get your costs back.

If you do not start a restoration project with some financial goals in mind, you will be fine. The payoff here is to keep something ticking long after its expiration date.

How about software? Fortunately, it is possible to find older operating systems and applications on various abandoned websites. Macintosh Garden is an excellent resource for anyone restoring older Apple computers.

Of course, if you hope to be able to use your recovered computer for the actual daily work, you will face significant headwinds. Something as simple as surfing will prove difficult.

Fortunately, there are ways to get around these problems. If you have an older, PowerPC-based Mac, you can rely on the community-driven TenFourFox and Classilla browser efforts. If you are trying to review an early generation of Intel Mac, you can use Firefox Legacy or run a newer version of macOS via an unofficial patch tool. In any case, your mileage will vary.

Alternatively, you can install Linux, which I did when I restored an old IBM ThinkPad. The main advantage of this approach is that I can use a completely updated browser from its original source, rather than an unofficial community “spin”.

Many older Wi-Fi cards will also struggle to work on contemporary routers, especially if the chipset on your machine maximizes 802.11b. In that scenario, you have the following options:

  • Use a wired Ethernet connection: Then you can bypass the problem completely.
  • Install a newer Wi-Fi card: This does not necessarily require you to open the machine – you can get one that uses USB or PCMCIA CardBus.
  • Get a bridging device: These are perfect because you do not need to install any drivers. They act as an intermediary for your local wireless network and forward traffic via Ethernet.

Potential minefields

There are a few things to be careful of when restoring old computers. The sad reality is that these machines can fall victim to old age. The screws become less durable and can come loose, which makes the disassembly process difficult. Plastic can turn yellow and become brittle. You need to be careful with the more fragile pieces and components.

When buying an old computer, the first thing you should do is remove (and preferably replace) all internal batteries. Most have an internal battery that is used to keep track of time (among other things). These are called CMOS or PRAM batteries. Batteries fail, however, eventually. In some cases, they also leak. If this happens, your machine may suffer significant corrosive damage.

In most cases, you should be able to find replacements. It is not uncommon to see laptops that use standard 2032 button cell batteries. Alternatively, you can find third-party options on eBay or Amazon.

For some machines, however, this is not possible because Apple uses a semi-proprietary format. However, the circuits are quite simple. It is possible to transform your own replacement with the carcass of an original, some replacement cells and a soldering iron.

A rebuilt CMOS battery for a vintage PowerBook G3.
Matthew Hughes

It is worth noting that many older machines may have defective capacitors. These circuit components are used to ensure an even power supply to the rest of the circuit board. Like everything else, they are also prone to failure from use and old age.

Replacing these is a tricky task. If you are not sure about a soldering iron, you can consider outsourcing this task to a competent friend.

The tools you need

If restoring old computers is a hobby you want to pursue, you need to invest in a solid toolbox. A good screwdriver is worth its weight in gold. The cheaper ones tend to be flimsy. You may even find that the metal on the driver is cut off when you try to remove a stubborn screw. As the saying goes, “buy cheap, buy twice.”

Other tools you need are spudgers and pickpockets to pry open panels and circuit boards. Many computer repair kits include these. You should also invest in a magnetic screw bowl or washer so that you do not lose any important screws that you need to reassemble your machine.

Keeping a computer cool is an important part of service. If you buy an old machine, it is almost certain that the thermal paste that was originally applied has become solid and brittle. This means that it is no longer an effective heat conductor.

Safe to invest in a pair of Arctic Silver tubes. You also need some Q-tips and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol to remove any of the old, enclosed thermal paste. (There’s something quite cathartic about scraping off the old, crusty goo.)

A Q-tip that hovers over a computer circuit board.
Matthew Hughes

Of course, a can of compressed air is always a useful way to remove dust that has found its way into a machine. Turning off the heat sink is without a doubt the easiest way to make a computer cooler (and quieter), with less power consumption.

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