Project Backlog: SE/30 Restoration Part 1

Between work, family and social commitments, I’ve had very little time to keep up with projects (and blogging). But, every once in a while, I get a spare day and can pull something off the pile.

In the summer of 2015, I picked up a Macintosh SE/30 (link) off eBay with the intention of getting a working compact Mac. The reason that I picked the SE/30 is because it is well-known as the best and most capable of the compact Macs, with a beefy (for the time) 16 MHz processor, the ability to support up to 128MB of RAM, and the ability to run anything from System 6.0.3 all the way up to Mac OS 8.1 (with a 32-bit clean ROM), or even certain versions of A/UX. The built in PDS slot also allows for all sorts of interesting expansion capabilities, including accelerator cards (both faster ‘030s and even ‘040s) and Ethernet cards. Some enterprising souls have even put the SE/30 on the modern Internet.

The machine that I got came from Goodwill Seattle (Goodwill has an eBay presence. Who knew?) with very little information about it other than that it turned on and loaded to the “?” floppy icon. The fact that it successfully got there was good enough for me, because just about anything else can be fixed – you just need to throw enough parts at it. When I got it home, I made a few abortive attempts to work on it, but between my job, a new baby at home, and packing up everything and moving it to a new house, it just never got anywhere and languished on the project pile. Now there were home repairs and upgrades to take care of too!

I finally found some time to take a proper look at it last week – taking my first real day off in quite some time. Connecting everything back up, it fired up to the blinking question mark. I tried to boot it with a set of System 7 install disks that I had handy, but with no luck. This meant one of two things – either the disks were bad, or the floppy drive was. The trouble was that I had nothing else (working) in my office that could handle high density floppy disks. (I’ve since corrected that oversight). I was also missing a long-handled Torx T-15 screwdriver so that I could open the case if I needed to, but a quick trip to Home Depot fixed that.

Fortunately, my parents had my childhood Macs in storage, an LC II (which, after testing, needs a new power supply. But that’s yet another project for another day) and a Performa 6400/200, which still worked. So, I packed everything up and took it over there. Since I didn’t know exactly what I was going to need, I took everything: system disks, tools, my Pismo, my modern MacBook, an external SCSI Hard Drive, an external floppy drive (using the old DB-19 floppy connector), an external CD-ROM drive, and the cables to wire everything together. Between everything, and using the Performa as a transitional Mac, I’d be able to get information on the SE/30 somehow.

As an aside, the SCSI hard drive was another eBay purchase. At the time, I had no idea what was on it, or if it even worked properly, since I had nothing at home to connect it up to. Again, enter the Performa.

The first order of business was to set up the SE/30 and begin diagnosing. It still turned on “properly”, but would reject any floppy disk that I tried to boot it from with the “X” icon. I tried the System 7 Install Disk 1, the Disk Tools disk, and a copy of Word Munchers that will boot into System 6.0.8.

So, the next obvious thing to try was to fire up the Performa and test the media to see if it was readable. Success on all 3 counts!

That meant that the problem was likely with the floppy drive. First, I wanted to make sure of it. I really didn’t want to do surgery on one of these things if I didn’t have to, since opening a compact Mac can be hazardous to your health. Fortunately, an SE/30 can boot off an external SCSI drive no problem, and I had one to test with.

After a bit of mucking around which involved a dead PRAM battery (I’ll detail the fix in another post) and a SCSI ID conflict (which, before I figured it out, led to me stripping down both the Performa and the external drive enclosure in an attempt to troubleshoot), I had the drive successfully connected.

It turned out that the drive was fully functional and empty, giving me 810 MB of free space to work with. For something like the SE/30, which shipped with a 40 MB hard drive, this was the next best thing to unlimited storage. The Performa is running Mac OS 8.6, but fortunately, the Classic Mac OS will still allow you to load up the installer for an older version and install it to an external drive.

With my newly minted System 7.0.1 drive in hand, I took it over to the SE/30 and fired the whole thing up. Success! This meant that the system could work!

I also learned that the system had 5 MB of RAM in it. I knew that there was an internal hard drive in there too, but it didn’t show up.

The next test was to see if the floppy drive could read floppies at all. Results were mixed. It could detect that there was something in the drive, but it couldn’t read it, so just offered to initialize it for me.

Just for completeness’ sake, I hooked up the external 800K floppy drive to see if I could get that to read a disk, but it turned out that one was completely busted. I think that the drive mechanism was seized. (Possibly a project for another day). As part of testing that, it looked like everything had gone all checkerboard-y for a minute, which led me to tear apart the computer and look for leaking capacitors. Fortunately, though, everything appears to be intact, if dusty. I gave it a quick spritz with the air compressor anyways.

After further testing I learned that if you don’t power off the external SCSI drive between power cycles, the system won’t reboot properly. The screen just turns back on with weird graphics artifacts – sometimes in a checkerboard pattern.

Since I had the computer apart anyways, and had an appropriate replacement internal floppy drive handy, it was time to put it in. I very carefully stripped the whole thing down, replaced the floppy drive, and put it back together, only dropping a screw once, and managing not to electrocute myself.

I disconnected the SCSI drive, popped the Disk Tools disk in, and the computer booted successfully off the floppy drive!

From there, I ran the Apple HD SC Setup tool, but it did not detect a hard drive, so I suspect that the internal is toast. Internal SCSI drives are hard to come by these days, so I’m not sure if I will go through the trouble of replacing it, although I might look for something that will let me stick a CF card in there instead.

So, I now have a working SE/30. I ran the System 7 Tune-Up, loaded up HyperCard, played some Word Munchers and a game of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”, and then packed everything back up. At this point it was dinner time – a project that was supposed to take a couple of hours turned into a whole day, as these things do.

For the next part of the project, I’ve just finished collecting all of the parts. I plan to crack it open again and install additional RAM for a total of 32MB (128 MB is possible, but overkill) and a 32-bit clean ROM. I’ve also acquired a Centronics to Centronics SCSI cable so that I can connect the CD-ROM into the system as well.

For the future, I’d like to try and get this thing networked. I have some LocalTalk adapters, so I might be able to use the Performa (which has Ethernet) as a bridge. Or, depending on how kind eBay is, I might be able to find a PDS Ethernet card. I’d prefer to fill that slot with an accelerator, although those are even more rare and expensive. I might look into a solid-state SCSI replacement as well.

Next time: Replacing a hard to find PRAM battery with easy to find parts!