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Why People Restore Vintage Computers, and How You Can Too

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

If my PowerBook G3 was a person, it would be of legal voting age and counting down the days until it’s legally allowed to drink. As a computer, it’s almost useless and outclassed by even the most basic of smartphones.

So, why keep it? And not just keep it, but also spend huge sums to maintain and preserve it? Because it’s an important part of the history of modern computing. Like the other geriatric computers crowding the shelves of my office, its design tells a story—and it’s one worth preserving.

Why Do People Collect Classic Computers?

When you tell people you like to refurbish and restore old computers, the first word to pass their lips is “why?”

It’s a fair question. The 15 machines in my collection combined are less powerful than a modern-day gaming computer. They can’t run the latest titles and some of them struggle with modern-day internet. While I view my tiny museum with an air of affection, I know each machine is fundamentally obsolete.

RELATED: Why I Still Use an Old PowerPC Mac in 2020

I suppose you could say the same thing to a collector of old cars. Why bother repairing a vehicle from the 1960s when a contemporary model will, undoubtedly, be more fuel-efficient, comfortable, and reliable?

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

Then, there’s also the historical aspect. It’s comforting to know if a computer is in my collection, it won’t end up at the recycling center. Beyond that, another reason I enjoy collecting old Apple computers is that I can follow the company’s changing approach to hardware design.

The PowerBook G3, for example, is fundamentally modular. Accessing the components is embarrassingly easy. You just lift up the keyboard, which sits in place thanks to three simple latches.

As you dig down, you notice the CPU and RAM sit on a daughterboard that plugs into the laptop’s logic board. This opens the possibility for upgrades. Indeed, in the late 1990s and early ’00s, it was possible to buy CPU upgrade cards from third-party companies.

In future models, you see that approach to modularity go out the window. In the following generation of Apple PowerBooks, the CPU was soldered to the logic board. Over time, Apple started integrating all components—from RAM and storage to networking cards—as integral components on the logic board. This prevented people from upgrading and repairing their own machines.

If you have a big enough collection, that changing design philosophy becomes obvious.

Where to Find Vintage Machines

You can find vintage machines in the usual places: eBay, Craigslist, Gumtree, garage sales, and so on. They’re not hard to find because most people regard them as junk. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

What you’ll pay will vary depending on the condition, rarity, and capability of the device. For example, early-generation Intel MacBook laptops are dirt cheap at the moment. I’ve found some for as little as $20. This is because they’re common as muck.

In 2006-07, Apple was selling over one million of those each quarter. Moreover, they’re largely useless as a day-to-day machine at this point. The latest operating system they can run is Mac OS X Lion, which was released in 2011. The latest versions of Chrome and Firefox won’t even run on them.

The original iBook G3 clamshells, on the other hand, cost more because they’re older and have an iconic design. Apple also sold far fewer of them, which makes them harder to find. It’s not uncommon to see them go for over $200, particularly if they’re in working condition with all the original accessories and documentation.

There’s a perception in the retro-computing community that older hardware has shot up in price this year. Theories swirl about why this might be. One frequent explanation is the pandemic. Some think people have picked up the hobby to pass time. Others blame popular YouTubers, like Psivewri and The 8-Bit Guy for popularizing the hobby.

I, however, don’t begrudge this trend. I’d rather see old kit restored than end up trashed. The best way for this to happen is if more people get involved.

It could also be argued that if there’s a greater demand for retro computers, more people will start selling their old machines. For the hobby to thrive, there has to be an ongoing supply of old hardware.

How to Resurrect an Old Computer

Once you’ve got your machine, it’s time to start the restoration. The complexity of this task largely depends on the condition of the machine. If it’s in working condition, you won’t have to perform any repairs, although you might be tempted to perform some upgrades.

If you encounter any faulty components, you might struggle to replace them with like-for-like alternatives. It’s hard to find brand-new IDE/PATA hard drives, for example. Also, many older specs of RAM have long been out of production—you’ll only be able to find these secondhand.

The internals of an Apple PowerBook G3.
Matthew Hughes

You’ve got a couple of options, though. You can buy another of the same machine you’re restoring and cannibalize it for components. Alternatively, you can get creative. When it comes to IDE hard drives, you can use an mSATA-to-IDE adapter. This will allow you to use a modern (and cheap) storage format.

An mSATA-to-IDE adapter.
Matthew Hughes

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

Do keep in mind that fully repairing and upgrading an old computer can easily cost more than the original purchase price of that machine. Plus, if you ever want to resell your upgraded machine, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to recoup your costs.

If you’re not embarking on a restoration project with any financial goals in mind, you’ll be fine. The payoff here is in keeping something ticking long beyond its expiration date.

What about software? Fortunately, it’s possible to find older operating systems and applications on various abandonware sites. Macintosh Garden is an excellent resource for anyone restoring older Apple computers.

Of course, if you’re hoping to use your restored computer for actual day-to-day work, you’re going to face significant headwinds. Something as simple as web browsing will prove troublesome.

Fortunately, there are ways to circumvent these problems. If you’ve got an older, PowerPC-based Mac, you can rely on the community-driven browser efforts TenFourFox and Classilla. If you’re trying to overhaul an early-generation Intel Mac, you can use Firefox Legacy, or run a newer version of macOS through an unofficial patcher tool. In all instances, your mileage will vary.

Alternatively, you can install Linux, which is what I did when restoring an old IBM ThinkPad. The main advantage with this approach is I can use a fully up-to-date browser from its original source, rather than an unofficial community “spin.”

Many older Wi-Fi cards will also struggle to work on contemporary routers, particularly if the chipset on your machine maxes out at 802.11b. In that scenario, you’ve got the following options:

  • Use a wired Ethernet connection: Then, you can bypass the issue altogether.
  • Install a more recent Wi-Fi card: This won’t necessarily require you to open the machine—you can get one that uses USB or PCMCIA CardBus.
  • Get a bridging device: These are ideal because you don’t have to install any drivers. They act as a go-between for your local wireless network and forward traffic via Ethernet.

Potential Minefields

There are a few things to be wary of when restoring old computers. The sad reality is these machines are liable to fall victim to old age. Screws become less durable and might strip, making the disassembling process tricky. Plastic can yellow and become brittle. You’ll have to be careful with the more fragile pieces and components.

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

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

For some machines, though, that isn’t possible because Apple uses a semi-proprietary format. However, the circuitry is fairly straightforward. It’s possible to reverse engineer your own replacement using the carcass of an original, some replacement cells, and a soldering iron.

A reverse-engineered CMOS battery for a vintage PowerBook G3.
Matthew Hughes

It’s worth noting that many older machines might have faulty capacitors. These circuit-level components are used to ensure a consistent supply of power to the rest of the circuit board. Like anything else, they’re also prone to failure from use and old age.

Replacing these is a tricky task. If you’re not confident with a soldering iron, you might want to consider outsourcing this task to a competent friend.

The Tools You’ll Need

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

Other tools you’ll need are spudgers and plectrums to pry open panels and circuit boards. Many computer repair kits include these. You should also invest in a magnetic screw bowl or tray, so you won’t lose any important screws you’ll need to reassemble your machine.

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

Definitely invest in a couple of tubes of Arctic Silver. You’ll also need some Q-tips and a bottle of isopropyl alcohol to remove any of the old, encrusted thermal paste. (There’s something quite cathartic about scraping away that old, crusty goo.)

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

Of course, a can of compressed air is always a useful way to remove any dust that’s found its way into a machine. Unclogging the heat sink is also, arguably, the easiest way to make a computer run cooler (and quieter), with less power consumption.

Matthew Hughes Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes is a reporter for The Register, where he covers mobile hardware and other consumer technology. He has also written for The Next Web, The Daily Beast, Gizmodo UK, The Daily Dot, and more.
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