B&W Macs and Games

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Games on early B&W Macs traded colors for a higher resolution and they often looked very good. However, this was difficult to do in Warlords, a turn-based strategy game with eight nations, where the color was the only way to differentiate between them. The Mac version has unique graphics for buildings and flags (held by warriors) to overcome the lack of colors and the result is surprisingly nice, but the colors on PC are more practical anyway.

Bytefest 2019

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These were the computers we brought to Bytefest – a Czech vintage computer show. David and I decided not to bring more than two desktop systems. Amiga 2000 was an obvious choice – we fixed it not a long time ago and I played a lot with it recently. The other computer was SGI Indy with the original set of peripherals including the Indycam camera. There are not many vintage UNIX computers to see on vintage computer shows in this country. Thus, it is my duty to bring at least one every year.

The Aritma Minigraf plotter sitting on top of the Indy was connected using one of the Indy’s serial ports though a special ARM-based module that David built. The module contained the control software that allowed it to draw faster and with better precision than the plotter was originally designed for. From time to time, there were couple of people standing in front of the plotter, being hypnotized by the smooth movement of the pen. The Indy itself was communicating with the module as a serial terminal with the ability to send HPGL files that needed to be drawn.

I’d never played that much with Indy before (aside creating the OpenGL 1.0 version of our 3D graphics benchmark) and this was a nice experience. The graphics card in our Indy is able to display no more than 256 colors (or 16 colors for double-buffered 3D), but it’s pretty fast and allows you to have a different 256-color palette for an active window and the rest of the system. Therefore, the color flickering effects are minimized in comparison with PCs set to 256-color modes. I was surprised by the visual quality of the composite input from Nintendo 64 in 256 colors.

Commodore Amiga 2000 was configured to show the capability of this platform during the late 80s (thus, Workbench 1.3 and Kickstart 1.3 only). It didn’t have any accelerator board and the only expansions were a simple hard disk controller, 2-MB fast RAM card and A2088XT PC emulator (with an 8088 and 512kB of RAM). During the show, I also added an ISA card with a serial port (for Microsoft InterLink purposes) and a VGA adapter.

The other devices that we showed were: Apple PowerBook 100 (this year with a working hard drive and full of software), Digital DECpc 325SLC (because a 386 with color LCD is cool) and HP OmniBook 900 (just a service laptop to convert the Wi-Fi Internet into a cable form for the Indy).

Porting Sieve Benchmark to Mac

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I play a lot with my PowerBook 100 these days. It’s a part of a large article about early Macs for my main blog (in Czech). PB100 is a cool office machine and it’s always a pleasure to work with it. I mostly run a text editor and a terminal emulator (the 9600 baud connection to a Linux box that can be used for the Internet access). When I need to relax, I have Test Drive II: The Duel (among other games). The Mac version of this game is somehow more fun than on PC even though it displays just black and write pixels.

Anyway, my obsession is to port our Sieve Benchmark to every single old computer I play with. PB100 was not an exception. I already had a version for Mac so I only needed to modify the code to run on the plain Motorola 68000 and System 7.x.

PB100 with a 16-MHz 68HC000 CPU runs twice as fast as Amiga 600 (with no fast memory). That’s not bad. However, my another small laptop from the same era – Toshiba 2200SX – is still three times as fast as PB100 thanks to its 20-MHz Intel 386SX. I’m not surprised that higher-end models (with 68030) from the first generation of PowerBooks were more popular. Still, this PowerBook is my favorite machine among early portable Macs.

Mac OS 7.1 CZ, Serial Cable and File Share

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I’ve installed a new “hard disk” in my PowerBook 100 a few months ago. However, until now, there was no time to install an operating system other than the primitive System 6.0.8E that I used in the floppy-only mode. My goal was to have a Czech version that would allow me to read and write documents with our unique letters like Ř/ř. With a help of my friend, I got the floppy images of Mac OS 7.1 CZ and was able to copy them on real floppies (using my modern iBook G4 and a generic USB drive).

Working with old Macs can be painful due to use of file metadata (called resource forks) that can be lost very easily. Old Mac apps insist on this metadata and refuse to open a file if metadata is lost. Having a modern Mac is always handy to prevent these situations.

I don’t have a Mac serial cable. However, I recently bought two adapters for the conversion from Mac/SGI 8-pin mini-DIN to PC DB9. Connecting these adapters to a standard null-modem on both sides worked well and I was able to copy programs and documents from another old Mac. I’ve also managed copying files from/to a modern Windows PC. I pack the files into a ZIP file (to preserve resource forks) inside a Mac emulator and copy it using ZMODEM.

Early Apple Macintosh PowerBooks

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PowerBook 100 has a special place in my heart. I had one back in the 1990s and I loved its big trackball, comfortable keyboard and proper palmrest area – features that were not present in typical PC laptops. Other early PowerBooks were not as small and light as the PowerBook 100, but they shared many design decisions with it. I perfectly understand people who bought and used these computers when they were new. On the other side, I cannot agree with those who see early PowerBooks as universally superior machines to PC notebooks. That’s just not true.

From time to time, I see nonsense statements like that PowerBooks were the first laptops with stereo sound, optical drives, docking stations or other features. Not sure at the moment, but I think that you can find some of these statements even on Wikipedia. However, all of these features were previously available in PC laptops.

In fact, the generations of early PowerBooks that came after the first generation were not considered very innovative back then. Just a few examples:

  • Support for gray-scale video modes on internal screens was added at the end of 1992. Until that, it was possible to run only programs that were written to work with the black and white mode. All VGA-equipped PC laptops supported gray scale and could also translate colors into levels of grey in hardware (no OS or program support was required).
  • Unlike with PC laptops, there was no support for features like color LCD screens, PCMCIA expansion cards and microprocessors with built-in power management capabilities in 1992.
  • There was no graphics acceleration in Apple’s video circuits which resulted in significantly slower screen redraw. This started to be a problem when Apple offered PowerBooks with color screens where the graphics core had to process far more data. The first color PowerBooks with competitively fast graphics chips were available after Apple started to use generic PCI solutions from the PC world (mostly Chips & Technologies, later ATI).
  • Many of the PowerBook graphics chips didn’t support more than 256 colors on external screens even in 1994. Lower-end machines didn’t even have a video output for an external screen.

The first color TFT PowerBook – 180c – was released in August, 1993 – almost a year after major PC brands released their first TFT portables. The PowerBook 180c was equipped with a small 8.4-inch 640×480 screen when PC laptops often used 9.5-inch screens and there were some with even 10.5-inch screens (like the famous IBM ThinkPad 700C – December, 1992). That was not the only issue – it lasted only about an hour on one charge because (unlike PC laptops) it didn’t have a 3.3V CPU, advanced power management features and NiMH batteries.

Heat and power consumption was so big issue with Motorola 68040 that Apple had to release 040-based PowerBooks with a version of the CPU that didn’t have a math coprocessor. Thus, programs that used it heavily were twice as fast when running on the previous generation of high-end 030-based PowerBooks. 486DX-based PC laptops could run the same code four times as fast.

The machines on the photos:

(1) Apple PowerBook 100 (1991), 16-MHz 68000, 4MB RAM, 20MB HDD
(2) Toshiba T2200SX (1991), 20-MHz 386SX, 4MB RAM, 60MB HDD
(3) Apple PowerBook 145 (1993), 25-MHz 68030, 8MB RAM, 80MB HDD

Final step in PowerBook 100 restoration

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Although I’m not a collector, I always wanted to have one PowerBook 100 just to remind my childhood. It was the coolest Apple notebook from the early 90s. Last year, we brought back to life two out of three dead PowerBooks 100 from a friend of mine, so we could keep one for free. The restoration was not finished though. All the 2.5-inch Conner SCSI hard drives were dead.

These drives are hard to find so I installed the PowerMonster II adapter last weekend. I would do it maybe half a year ago but the first experiment was with a 2GB CF card and resulted in the “SCSI Bus Not Terminated” error. I was later told that old SCSI Mac don’t like large hard drives. With a 512MB CF card, the system immediately detected a new drive on the bus.

Making it usable with Mac was a different story. OS installer diskettes contain an utility for hard drive setup but it refuses to work with non-Apple drives. I tried even “hacked” versions that should work with other drives but with no success. Finally, after trying multiple utilities, Lido 7 rescued me five minutes before I wanted to give it up. I clicked on “Easy Setup”, set a name and icon for the drive and everything was ready to install the operating system.

Unlike DOS and UNIX systems, old Macs never had universal utilities to set up any third-party hardware. I don’t like that approach but Apple had that as a part of its strategy.

Grand Prix Circuit running on Apple PowerBook 100

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The game runs smoothly on the 16-MHz Motorola 68000 and has better music and sound in comparison with the PC version. Unlike other passive-matrix displays of the era, this 640×400 1-bit panel from Sharp is really fast and makes the game quite enjoyable.

Bytefest 2018

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I’ve brought some of my computers to Bytefest (a big Czech vintage computer show): Apple PowerBook 100 with an external floppy drive, IBM PS/2 P70 as a cool gas-plasma-screen serial terminal, SGI O2 (used only as a hard drive cloning machine running in headless mode), SGI Octane2 with all necessary peripherals and DELL Precision M50 for sharing wireless Internet connection with my other machines (and also to show how the graphics workstation market changed in less than two years from Octane2).

Repairing PowerBook 100

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It took us three evenings to get two of the three PowerBooks back to life. The logic board of one of them was so damaged by leaked capacitors that it was impossible to fix it. The other two are now in a working state except for the SCSI hard drives. The most difficult part was to disassemble the display panel. The layer with liquid crystals contained several electrolytic capacitors that needed to be replaced as well. The original Conner drives did not properly spin up but that was expected behavior – I think that all first gen Conner 2.5-inch drives are already dead.

The only way to boot the laptop is to use an external floppy drive at the moment (or an external SCSI device). Running the System 6.0.8 from floppy is not very convenient. Fortunately, there is a nice solution. You can create a RAM disk, install the operating system into it and then set it as a boot device. PowerBook 100 is the only PowerBook with a persistent RAM disk function which content is backed up by three coin cell batteries. Data remains intact even after shutdown.

Apple PowerBook 100

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This is the smallest model from the first generation of PowerBooks. It was very thin and light for its time but didn’t have an internal floppy drive, which resulted in poor initial sales (before discounts). The logic board is based on a low-power version of 16-MHz Motorola 68000 coupled with up to 8 MB of RAM and 20 or 30-MB SCSI hard drives.

I have three non-working units and all of them need (at least) to replace bad capacitors. Their owner told me that I can keep one if I fix another for him.