With a Little Help From My Friends: Part 2

Actual photo of vintage-computer gremlin

Part 1 of this series focused on the hardware of an 1998 PowerBook 1400c/166 that was generously donated to the lab. I installed an original 166 MHz PowerPC 603e in place of the Sonnet Crescendo G3 and a video adapter that supplies a signal to an external display. Part 2 of this restoration will focus on the software and the hurdles I had to overcome to get a bootable image. The first issue that I had to overcome was the misalignment of what was being reported by reputable sources versus what I could find in the wild.

The PowerBook 1400 came in three different flavors: 117 MHz, 133 MHz, and 166 MHz. The first release was the 117 MHz and 133 MHz in November 1996. Their minimum supported OS was 7.5.3. The 166 MHz model was first released in mid-1997, shortly after the release of System 7.6.1. All the information on these shows 7.6.1 to be the minimum required system software, but all I can find for disk images in the archives is a restore disk showing SSW 8.0. While that’s all fine for proving the ‘book to be functional, I want the lightest system possible. 7.5.5 is my preference, but 7.6.1 will do as a backup. So I downloaded what I could find, and then I went shopping!

I tried to do it your way…

I was able to buy an original user’s manual, system restore disk, and disk tools floppy from a seller on eBay. The book is in great condition and goes a long way to describe basic uses as well as troubleshooting and upgrades. I miss well documented computers. I completely neglected to inspect the CD that came in its original wrapper.

Isn’t that cute?

Might have saved a little time if I had. I flipped in the floppy and booted just fine to the disk. I went through the usual process of checking hard disk health, updating the driver, and initializing the 2 GB PATA drive that I suspect is original equipment.

What followed was a series of exasperating experiences with various system restore disks. If you aren’t already aware, you can store an ISO disk image on your modern computer (RestoBytes refers to its own 2009 Mac mini as “modern”) and burn the image to a CD for use in your vintage machine. The process varies based on operating system, but for most Mac OS users it’s only a mater of selecting the ISO file and selecting “Burn Disk Image” from the Finder. I’ve got better success from CD-R disks than CD-RW. YMMV.

The disk image was classified as being SSW 8.0 and specifically for the 166 MHz, but the date on the readme didn’t quite align. I labeled the disk as such anyway. 

What ultimately worked for me was a combination of what I didn’t want to do and what I was told wouldn’t work. The first is that I didn’t want to do anything that involved going into storage and extracting something that I didn’t buy specifically for this project. But I began to suspect the optical drive was faulty in some way. Also…’tis the season for being kind of broke. I already spent about $50 on parts for this, and sticking to a budget is essential for this hobby to coexist in the same home as a kind and understand spouse. So I went to the closet and pulled out a SCSI CD drive that I purchased at an estate sale several years ago.

Please don’t look too hard at the background. It will only break your heart.

While classic Macintosh computers may be the most well documented computers in the industry, their accessories don’t share the same status. I love using this Pioneer CD-ROM drive. When I bought it, everything was in the box and it worked wonderfully. What I didn’t know at the time is that it will work natively on any Macintosh that has CD support in ROM. Basically anywhere the Apple CD 300 works, this will work also. Now, I’ve also read that this PowerBook can support any of the tray loading TEAC drives if you can package them up in the expansion case. I didn’t want to buy anything more, so this is what I tried next. Just use the HDI-30 to 50 pin adapter and SCSI CD bliss is yours for the taking.

In fact, any SCSI device is usable with this adapter. SCSI doesn’t discriminate.

What followed was a lot of waffling back and forth on how to report what was happening because, it sure wasn’t a Mac OS splash screen! No disks would work. Nothing burned, nothing native, only the floppy holding Disk Tools would boot. The manual, Wikipedia, Kevin from contracts…everybody says the same thing. To start from CD on this model, hold ⌘-Shift-Option-Delete when pushing the on/off button. Then I inserted a burned copy of a restore disk with Mac OS 8 and tried holding ⌘-C. “Mac OS Starting Up…”

BAM! I’m in, but only through an external drive and a key combination that doesn’t jive with the history books.

So there’s lots of options for getting the original system software installed. I opted for a clean install. The readme files on the disk explain the whole process. For all the options, just click the installer in the middle and follow the instructions.

Does anyone EVER read these?
Oh good! It’s 1996 and I’m finally going to get Internet access. Can’t wait to see all those websites and virtual reality! It’s going to be just like Lawnmower Man! I hope this Prodigy disk isn’t a huge raging failure.

This whole process took about 30 minutes. When it was finished, I was dumped back into the desktop and prompted for a restart.

On restart, the Setup Assistant was launched and ready to take my pertinents. I skipped most of this, because I still had some nagging concerns. The full system install should have deposited all the essential (as of 1997) extensions. IF the internal CD drive was in good condition, then it should now boot. After all, the status light would glow and the disk would spin and the head would seek…it just wouldn’t mount any information. But the external would still work properly. I verified this by inserting the older restore CD into the drive and watching it mount successfully on the desktop. It didn’t look like there was anything extra in the additional folders, so I wasn’t missing out on any key functionality. So, if the internal CD drive STILL wouldn’t boot after a full system install, if booting from an external disk drive was only possible when using an undocumented key combination, what are the possibilities that I could actually boot from the older 7.5.3 restore disk?

I didn’t want to launch the installer without booting from the CD first, so I went to the Startup Disk control panel half expecting the CD to be gray. However, it was totally an option as far as the Finder was concerned. So I selected it, closed the window, and chose Restart from the Special menu. With a cheerful BONG, I was delighted to see the CD background again.

System Software 7.5.3 running on a PowerBook 1400/166

The only difference in system installation this time, is that I chose a factory install option from one of the other folders on the disk. The idea is that it will file-by-file rebuild the hard disk to the same specs as the day it rolled off the line and landed in its shipping box. This smacks in the face of everything I’ve read about minimum installation, but it fills me with some hope. There is a small chance that there are other non-supported installations that can run on this. I intend to find out even if I don’t use them in the field.

With a booting system, this bridge machine now needs some accessories. The CD drive needs to be addressed. I have a PC card network adapter that needs to be installed so that I can grab tools from the RestoBytes server. The external monitor output needs to be tested. I’d like to max out the RAM and probably change out the hard disk for something solid state. And amid all of this, it still needs to be broken down to parade rest and have all the capacitors and batteries inspected. I expect something is a little off with the power supply circuits. It doesn’t reliably turn on or wake from sleep. These are things that will need to wait for another day.

Do you have other accessories that you like to use in the 1400’s many expansion ports and bays? Have you seen OS versions running outside of what Apple claims is possible? Are you still upset that I haven’t even mentioned how the BookCover templates are stored in a Claris Works file on the restore disk? Leave a comment and share your story. Don’t forget to follow RestoBytes on Instagram for more from the lab.

This is Ty; logging off

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