A Computer of a Certain Age

Occasionally I’ll be driving down the highway and suddenly see a vintage car in the other lane, one so old it looks like it was sent through a time tunnel and ended up in modern day. It always makes me smile and I’m a bit awed by the fact the car has lasted so long and is still doing what it was meant to do all these years later. Most physical objects are made for a specific purpose, used up, and unceremoniously thrown away. They have their time in the sun, people get value out of them, but the spotlight doesn’t last forever. Cars are perfect examples, but so are televisions, or toasters, or computers…

The first computer I ever owned was a Macintosh Performa 630CD. My dad bought it for me in 1994, and I used it for around five years. It was one of the last 68k Macs and had a 33 Mhz processor, 8 MB of ram, and a 250 MB hard drive. Yes, you read those numbers correctly. Apple recently released a Lightning AV Adapter that includes an ARM processor and 256 MB of ram. So the computer I used for five entire years had significantly less power than a modern day dongle.

After I upgraded to an iBook in 1999, my Performa was relegated to our basement, where it sat for a dark and lonely fourteen years. However, a few weeks ago when I was back home visiting, I stumbled upon it and became curious. Would this old thing still start up? If it did work, could one use it for anything useful? Could you get it on the internet? I packed it into a box and took it back home with me to find some answers.

Welcome to Macintosh

I’m worried it won’t start up.

It looks rather clunky and dated sitting on my desk, compared with the svelte and modern iMac that it has temporary replaced. I’ve given it a good cleaning, yet the years have turned its platinum casing into a dull beige. I make sure all the requisite cords are plugged in and gently press the keyboard’s slightly gummy power key.

My ears ring with the familiar C major chord startup chime and the screen fizzles to life. I stare at the curved glass CRT monitor as the startup status bar appears and extensions pop up along the bottom of the screen. Everything is working surprisingly well and soon I’m looking at my old desktop, exactly as I had left it fourteen years earlier. There are some scattered apps and documents, mostly old papers I had written for high school. I spend a few minutes reminiscing over these things, but realize I should probably give everything a clean install before I begin fooling around.

I start up the computer from the original System 7.5 OS CD which I had the foresight to save all these years. I perform a complete erase of the hard drive and a clean install of the OS. As the computer starts up, the low-res tiled background stares back at me, and an application launcher pops up, revealing all the pre-installed software. Things suddenly look exactly as they did when I first took it out of the box in 1994.

What do I do now? What can I get out of this old beast? There are a couple applications that is has built in including Clarisworks, Quicken 4, and Spectre. I try a few out and remember the fond memories I had using these programs back in the day. I go a few rounds in Spectre, draw a doodle in Clarisworks, and randomally play around. Yet, after about an hour, I realize that there isn’t much to do with just the pre-installed applications, and decide to move onto my next step… the internet.

The Information Super Highway

I proceed into the next phase of my mission, hooking this old Mac up to the modern internet. I had done some research on vintage computing forums and was assured I could use the Performa through a modern cable high speed internet connection, as long as I had an Ethernet card. My computer didn’t have an Ethernet card, but luckily there is eBay. I managed to find a guy in Texas who has multiple vintage Mac Ethernet cards for sale and picked one up for $15, probably more than what the entire computer is worth.

I manage to rather painlessly install the Ethernet card and its drivers, which conveniently were included on a floppy disk that came with the card. I also transfer some additional software to the computer that I had downloaded on my iMac. The most important piece is a web browser called iCab, which is the consensus pick for surfing the web on a 68k Mac. In addition, I’ll be using a text-only web browser named WannaBe, an RSS reader named Acuity, and an MP3 decoder called MpegDec.

After everything is installed and seems in order, I connect the computer to my router through an Ethernet cable and press restart. Then I realize I have no clue what to do next. There’s no Wifi menu to pick a network, there’s no ISP application to dial in – I’m a bit perplexed. I spend a while fooling around with the control panels, and soon move to Googling information on my iPhone. After much back and forth on various vintage computing forums I realize I need a a certain piece of networking software called Open Transport. Luckily I manage to locate it online and transfer it onto my Performa.1

Finally I think I have the settings correct, restart my computer, and open up the web browser. I enter in Google.com and wait a moment as I see the small spinning ball start to move. Slowly… ever so slowly. I can tell it’s fetching some type of information and suddenly a page starts to render. I am connected! I fight the urge to jump up and down and simply do a slight fist pump and wait for the page to completely load.

After a minute or two it’s complete, but everything looks horribly misformated. The links that normally go horizontally across the top of the Google logo are lined up in a vertical row, with the Google logo way down at the bottom of the page. I don’t care at the moment and am happy that I’m surfing the actual modern internet on a computer that has 1/125 the amount of ram as my iPhone sitting next to it.

Thoughts cascade through my mind. What sites should I visit? What will they look like? Will most sites even load?

I navigate to the Gmail page as I think getting email to work on this old machine would be a big achievement. However, the slowness is mind numbing. I have been so spoiled by lighting quick internet that this is torture on my brain. “Faster!” I beckon at the spinning ball of a cursor, “faster!” But it proceeds at its own delicate pace.

Eventually the Gmail page fully loads and again is horribly misformated. I still manage to find the boxes to enter in my screen name and password and click enter. Again, I wait many minutes, and after much churning and grating of the ancient processor, my email inbox shows on my screen.2 I click on compose, type in a test sentence and send it to one of my other email accounts. I quickly open up the mail app on my iPhone and it’s there, the words have traveled through the rickety 33 MHz processor, into the web at large, and been sent back into my iPhone. I can communicate with the outside world.

With email access a bunch of things are opened up to me, including the ability to post on my blog. For fun I open up Simple Text (very similar to TextEdit on a modern Mac) and type up a short post in Markdown. I copy it, paste it into an email, and send it off. After a few minutes I check my iPhone and the post is live to the world. I’m pleased but realize that’s about the extent of legitimate blogging I could do on this computer, as everything else about my blog would have to be managed on a modern computer.

I continue to type in more sites I want to see appear. However, the molasses pace of the browsing is really starting to get to me. A page that would load in a few seconds on my iMac literally takes many minutes. I watch it as its loading and contemplate my existence. Why am I torturing myself? Why does this computer exist? Why do I exist?

The sites eventually load, but most are a mess. Formatting is an issue, as these sites just were not designed with older computers in mind. I don’t blame them though, as only masochists like myself bother to stoop to the level of actually using a machine from before the turn of the millennium. In some ways its rather fascinating, as some sites almost seem like alternate 1994 versions of themselves.

I am able to load most sites to some degree, however certain ones basically are unusable. I manage to sign into my Facebook account, but the entire newsfeed will not load. I can sign into Twitter and see my feed, but for some reason the button to tweet does not work and I’m stuck in read-only mode. All this takes massive amounts of time, and after about an hour of surfing I might have hit only 5 or 6 sites. As I stare into glass monitor, smashing it in starts to seem like a sensible idea.

Gallery of Screenshots of various websites using iCab.

Eventually I take a break from the iCab browser, and try out a different ‘text-only’ browser. It is called WannaBe and I feel a weight lifted off of me as I start using it. It is fast, so much faster than iCab, yet everything is plain text. No pictures, limited formatting, most functions disabled. But for some sites it doesn’t matter, and I load up certain news sites and actually have a better experience than I might have had on even a modern day computer. All the crud of most modern websites is wiped away, and I can quickly browse the text. I feel zen in a way, simplifying my internet experience down to the bare essentials. Blocks of unformatted text, pure information. It is simple, yet beautiful.

I surf this way for awhile, but eventually the reality of this kind of text browsing hits me. It is basically a read only internet, in which any site that needs you to enter something into any kind of form is broken. It works for a few sites that are heavily based around text, but it isn’t really a solution to legitimately using my old computer on the modern internet, it simply is an interesting workaround.

Gallery of Screenshots of various websites using WannaBe

I move on to trying out Acuity, an RSS reader that is compatible with 68k Macs. It works fairly well, and I load a few RSS feeds into it and it downloads them at a decent clip. Soon I’m browsing five or six of my favorite site’s feeds. However, the same formatting problems rear their ugly head, and the posts appearing in the feed are all plain text and missing any pictures or advanced design. However, considering RSS wasn’t invented when this computer was manufacutred, RSS feeds in any form is an accomplishment.

Another technology that my computer predates is podcasts. Yet, I think with a combination of my web browser and MpegDec, a 68k Mac compatible MP3 player, I can play them on this ancient machine. I use WannaBe to navigate to a direct link of a podcasts MP3 file and it starts to download. I picked a short 5 minute podcast (The News on 5by5) and after about five minutes, it’s downloaded to my desktop. It looks in the right format and I open it in MpegDec. I turn the sound on my tiny internal speaker up to eleven and press play. Sound… voices… I’m listening to a podcast released yesterday on a computer released in 1994. The quality suffers and I’m sure the processor is just barely able to decode the file, but its sounds good enough to listen to and enjoy.

Are You Sure You Want to Shut Down

So after many, many hours playing around with this old computer I had managed to read and send email, post to my blog, do some limited web surfing, check my RSS, and listen to a podcast. In many ways it exceeded my expectations for a computer that was built while Bill Clinton was in his first term as President. Yet, there were still major bugs, misformating, and of course the utter slowness. After my experiment I used my iMac again and was blown away by how fast it seemed. It literally felt like I was using some impossibly fast futuristic computer, as my mind had adjusted to the slowness of the Performa.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of my experiment. Did I prove anything, or was it simply some nostalgic joy ride to nowhere? One couldn’t actually use the Performa for real world modern computing and internet, at least not if they wanted to remain sane. Yet, the amount of tasks I could still do on a computer with a 33 Mhz processor and 8 MB of ram was pretty eye opening. Most people involved with tech have an insatiable thirst for bigger, faster, better. Yet, maybe we might be in just a little too much of a rush to throw away our devices and replace them with the next thing that comes along. While I would never encourage someone to use a twenty year old computer, maybe using a five to ten year old computer is not the greatest travesty in the world.

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1. I was able to transfer files from my iMac using an old USB floppy drive that I had laying around.

2. Google has a fall back ‘basic HTML’ version that worked surprisingly well on this old computer.

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14 thoughts on “A Computer of a Certain Age

  1. I have a Performa 630CD with a 486DX2 DOS card sitting on my desk right now. This one: http://support.apple.com/kb/SP287I popped in a full 68040 CPU in it, along with an Apple TV Tuner card, too, with a black remote control to control the CD player and the Apple Video Player. Plugged into a Digital TV Tuner, I can watch TV on the monitor. I’ve got a an old SCSI Zip drive hooked up to it, too.It’s got an IDE interface for the hard drive, so I have an old 6 gigabyte drive with three partitions. One partition is simply for the DOS card, which can run Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. Yes, you read that right. Another is for system files and applications, and the third partition is nothing but games: Sim City 2k, all the Marathons, Myst, etc. This is a fully capable little machine.This is a great little word processor, too. Just use Clarisworks or Word 5.1a or WriteNow–or even better, the Nisus Writer 4.1.6, which at one point was given away for free.These old machines might be outdated in terms of technology, but they are still useful in and of themselves.

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    1. Wow, great setup you got there, I’m impressed. It’s good to see these vintage computers are still being regularly used.

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  2. Great post!But without the "insatiable thirst for bigger, faster, better", today’s iMac wouldn’t exist. That thirst drives progress.

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  3. I have a modern (comparatively speaking) G3 Powerbook that was basically gifted to me. It still looks really cool, though not really worth buying the requisite parts to get it up and usable. But I just like having it around anyway.What is really amazing to me is that you can buy a perfectly usable notebook computer (with say a Celeron CPU and 802.11b) these days for around or under a hundred bucks on EBay.

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  4. Hi. I was moved by your short story. I liked it. Im Venezuelan and I can relate. Recently I started collecting parts and Desktops that have been thrown away as trash. Ive been able to make some of them boot again, and I always ask myself the same thing you asked yourself. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. You would be amazed at how simply adding more RAM will make that Performa much more usable. I use a PowerBook 520c (68LC040 at only 25 MHz) with 36 MB of RAM (its maximum) to browse in iCab on a semi-regular basis (built-in Ethernet helps.)Of course, I also use an SD card via an adapter in the PCMCIA cage as the boot drive, which helps speed over the ancient SCSI laptop drive, too.

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  6. Thanks for posting your experience. In this modern world technology is consumed and discard as quickly as with food. We have a high tech metabolism 😉 I’m working on refurbishing a SE/30 w 8MB RAM and 2GB HDD.

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  7. Fantastic article, thanks for that!The Performa 630CD was my first Mac too (although my first computer was an Apple II 10 yrs earlier). In 1994 we bought it from an Apple importer here in Brazil for almost USD 3000. I used it for 4 years as our main home computer and graphics design workstation. In 1997 we replaced it for a PowerMac 5500 that lasted another 5 years. I still remember playing Marathon thru the night on those machines. Good times.

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