Repurposing Old Macs with the iLamp

Keeping old Macs running is the primary goal of most collectors, but sometimes that’s not possible or practical. Apple made millions upon millions of machines, which means there are lots of cases and parts lying around awaiting better fates than recycling. Why not repurpose that old Mac into something useful?

iLampIn 2002 Apple released the iconic iMac G4, featuring a groundbreaking flat panel display floating on a polished silver arm above a white half dome base – “Flat Out Cool” said Time on the occasion. Very quickly dubbed the “iLamp” due to its floating arm design, the iMac G4 always cried out for alternative uses once its primary computing days were over.

Enter Jake Harms. Taking inspiration from a discarded Macintosh and the original Macquarium, Harms has been making beautiful iMacAquariums for several years using G3 iMacs, and eClocks out of eMac disc drive covers. Once enough G4 iMacs started to pile up, he knew exactly what to do: give them new lives them as iLamps!

These lovely, whimsical lamps are part Mac collectible, part object d’art. Harms cleaned and polished the parts, flipped the base upside down, mounted the arm to the bottom plate, then attached a lamp harp, bulb socket and pull chain to the end where the dome sits. Both the iMac dome and baseplate have their original port markings, and the original (non-working) logic board is included. As an additional bonus, a USB power adapter for an iPhone or iPad is built into the base, just add your own cord.

To use iLamp: (1) plug it in, (2) turn in on. Let there be light. There is no step three.

Nice job Jake. The iLamp now sits on my office conference table, adorned with an eClock. It’s sure to be an entertaining and illuminating conversation piece for years.

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Ben & Jerry’s Stoner Mac Tribute to 1984

In January 1984 Apple Computer released Macintosh. And we saw why 1984 wouldn’t be like 1984. Or at least Ridley Scott implied that in his groundbreaking commercial introducing the Mac.

Fast forward three decades, then add couple of greying hippies. Our old friends Ben & Jerry have just created a tasty new ice cream treat for stoners (as if there aren’t enough) called the BRRR-ito. It gets introduced on 4-20-15 (of course), and apparently we’ll see why 4.20 is exactly like 4.20.

This entertaining tribute to Ridley Scott’s classic commercial brings a big grin to my face. It works on so many levels – the facial expressions, reproduced look and feel, sexy babe running to the rescue, and of course the pothead puns. Hats off to you lads. Well done!

Suddenly I have the munchies…

The 13″ Non-Retina MacBook Pro Lives On (And On)…

So today was another Apple Event. The iWatch – err, Apple Watch – was finally introduced, along with the 12-inch Retina MacBook and a host of speed bumps. But one small item escaped media attention: the 13-inch MacBook Pro (non-Retina) is still available for purchase, six years after it’s introduction!

MBPro13The Unibody form factor debuted in 2008 with the first aluminum MacBook, which replaced the black and white plastic MacBooks. It lasted one generation and did not include FireWire. Soon thereafter Apple moved the Unibody enclosure to the MacBook Pro line, added back the FireWire port, and came out with 13-, 15- and 17-inch versions. These Core 2 Duo based laptops were the last Apple portables to sport optical CD/DVD drives, and removable back panels allow for easy upgrades to the hard drive, RAM and battery.

An easy-to-service Apple laptop? Clearly this kind of user-friendly design could not be allowed to remain. The 17-inch monster was the first to go, discontinued after the 2011 model. The 15-inch version lasted a year longer, finally retired in 2012 in favor of the Retina MacBook Pro. Retina models have beautiful high-resolution screens and zippy SSDs, but they do not have interchangeable RAM or disk storage, and their batteries are glued in place – not the most serviceable of designs for vintage computing fans.

Meanwhile the 13-inch MacBook Pro remained for sale. The 13-inch Retina version debuted in 2012, with two Thunderbolt ports, long battery life and a speedy SSD. Old reliable remained. By the time Lion and Mountain Lion became mainstream, it was clear hard drives were not optimal any longer for OS X – the phrase “dog shit slow” comes to mind. Lots and lots of beachballs. But people bought it anyway.

Apple is all about smaller and lighter. Today’s 12-inch MacBook is 2.2 pounds, yet the 13″ non-retina MBPro is a backbreaking 4.5 pounds! A CD/DVD drive? So last decade. Why is this system still selling?

PowerMacG4-MDDWe’ve seen this phenomenon before. In 2003, the PowerMac G4 MDD was upgraded to the FireWire 800 version, which only booted into Mac OS X. Due to user demand for machines that still booted into Mac OS 9, Apple brought back the older dual-boot FireWire 400 version a few months later when the PowerMac G5 was released. This was an online-only purchase, virtually buried on the Apple Store website, yet for almost the next year this model was consistently one of the best selling Mac models. It was repeatedly reported in the company’s quarterly results. Customers knew what they wanted, and Apple was forced to keep selling a model they wanted to retire.

Similarly the Mac mini was virtually an afterthought for Apple. For many years people had asked the company when would they release a sub-$500 Mac. In 2005 they finally did, with the smallest computer they could get away with and an entry price of $499. It was hard to service and the under $500 price didn’t last, but the model sure did. The mini has long been one of Apple’s best selling models, despite a much lower profit margin than those lovely iMacs and Mac Pros. It does the job, is inexpensive and (until the 2014 model) supported upgradeable RAM and hard drives.

The 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro is another such model. It may not be a powerhouse, but at $1099 it’s a good value and fully upgradeable. It has Thunderbolt, USB 3, FireWire 800, Ethernet, miniDisplayPort, an SD-card reader – so many ports! Want better performance? Replace the hard drive with an SSD, you’ll be thrilled. It’s easy to add more RAM or replace the battery. For the extra burden of a few more pounds to carry, this system has a far longer service life than the current non-upgradeable, battery-glued-in-place models.

Perhaps Apple customers are smarter than we think after all.

Vintage Mac Maintenance: Implementing the TAM Bose Buzz Fix

This is a guest post by Henry Plain, vintage Mac restoration specialist

Twentieth Anniversary MacintoshTAMs! Those who own ’em love ’em, those who don’t love ’em even more!

If you know anything about TAMs, you know that they are one of the most expensive, sought after and unique Macs ever produced. To this day they are the only mass produced anniversary Macs ever made. With an extremely limited build number, a plethora of accessories, boxes and gadgets they are collectors dream or nightmare. Sadly, service parts for these amazing machines are few and far between.

Even worse is the symptom all of these wonderful machines will ultimately suffer, commonly referred to as the TAM Bose Buzz. If you’ve heard it, it sounds like nails on a chalk board; well not literally, but compared to the blissful silence TAMs normally operate with it might as well be! First it starts off faint, unsuspecting and almost unnoticeable, until it manifests itself further and you’ve got a full on screaming banshee on your hands.

What causes the issue is a common problem with many old electronics: oxidation of electrical contacts.

If you’re handy with a soldering iron – and are comfortable working with electronics – the fix is fairly simple. If not, find a qualified geek friend or a professional to help.

First you need to take apart the Bose subwoofer/power module. Here’s a teardown guide. Once you’ve got everything opened up, follow this process:

• remove the power board from the inside of the Bose unit.

• with the board removed, using solder, tin the leads on the red/green speaker wire connector (3 prongs) so the contacts cannot oxidize.

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• again with solder, tin the leads on the power cable connectors on the opposite side of the board (12 prongs) so those contacts also cannot oxidize.

• finally, remove the green and red speaker wires that connect to the Bose subwoofer, and cut off the old terminal connectors. Notice any oxidization or pits on the old connectors? That’s part of the buzzing culprit.

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• strip the leads, and crimp on new, coated speaker terminal connectors (available from most electronics stores). Then reconnect the cables to subwoofer.

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• that’s all there is – reassemble your Bose bass unit and enjoy the sound of silence!

VideoWorks and Vintage Memories

One of the most rewarding tasks I perform working with vintage Macs is restoring artifacts and memories of days past. Many of the floppy disks and other media I receive for transfer and conversion contain more than just files, they contain pieces of people’s lives. One poignant but challenging recent job involved some old multimedia software called VideoWorks,About VideoWorks and was an all-hands-on-deck affair for both vintage and modern Apple hardware.

MacroMind VideoWorks was a multimedia animation program available for the early Macintosh; it was the first version of what eventually became known as Macromedia Director. While the black & white graphics and 8 bit sound on these early Macs are primitive by today’s standards, they were impressive in the mid 1980s. I think the artwork in the About VideoWorks dialog box is an ideal depiction of how entrancing this capability could be.

This particular conversion job involved a floppy disk full of old movie files. They were created by a young man while he was in high school, and copies were given to a friend to enjoy on her Macintosh. Sadly, the young man passed away a few years later, and the disk was one of the few things she had left as a memento. Was there some way I could access the files and convert them to be viewable on modern computers?

Mac PlusI received the disk and found that the files were in VideoWorks format. I have a copy of this software, and after a bit of experimentation found that they would play on my Mac Plus running System 6. The sound wasn’t working correctly and playback was a bit pokey, but it was a start! After two decades in a desk drawer, some very charming clips of a jet airplane flying around and a skier eaten by an abominable snowman were again floating around on screen.

I remember playing with VideoWorks back in the day. And a few years later, using Director for some interactive multimedia work. Memories…

OK, now how to convert these clips into something useable. Any Save As… or Export… options? Nope. Perhaps Director can import the files, then save to QuickTime? No such luck, doesn’t recognize them at all. Nobody really anticipated that these files would need to get converted back in those days. What to do now?

Fallback to Plan B: Use Analog. Point a video camera at the Mac screen, and record the playback.

I decided to try using an SE/30 for better playback. To transfer the files and software my Mac Plus relayed the files to a PowerBook 540c using LocalTalk (over phone wires – remember those days?) That system in turn can share files over Ethernet, and the SE/30 has an ethernet card installed, so away we go. The PB540 is called a “bridge machine” in this context. Three computers used so far.

Macintosh SE/30The SE/30 had enough processing power to play the movies but this machine quickly began acting very flaky. First it refused to boot until plugged in for about half an hour. Then it began generating hum and distortion in the audio output while the movies were playing. Eventually it began rebooting itself randomly. Such is life working with old hardware.

I put that Mac aside for repairs and pulled out my backup SE/30 (doesn’t everyone have one?) to get the job done. Four machines. The backup SE/30 ran fine, but on this one the sound was barely audible. I don’t remember having any audio problems before… Sigh… The solution: connect a pair of powered speakers to the audio out jack and adjust until the volume was loud enough to use. Five pieces of gear.

To record playback I used my iPhone in video mode. Constructing a Rube Goldberg’esque pile of boxes, tiles, business cards and an iPhone car mounting bracket, I made a stand for the phone and set it at the closest distance that would focus on the screen. Not exactly a high end video conversion, but it was sufficient for the task. Six pieces of equipment.

Finally after a few false starts, and some nudged equipment by a rather curious feline, I had all the movies recorded. Time to jump forward a few decades and copy the files onto a modern Intel iMac running OS X. Some quick editing in QuickTime Player Pro trims the heads and tails, then I exported the final clips as MPEG files for playback on current computing hardware. Seven items – and that’s not counting the Mac Mini being used as an FTP server to deliver the final media!

But all this effort is worthwhile. Here’s an excerpt from one of the movies (posted with permission):

The clips are charming, funny, and show the progress of our young filmmaker learning how to use his tools. They are a moment in technological history, but also priceless memories to his family and friends who watched and laughed at these movies during days past. This feedback that I received from my client really sums it all up:

I can’t thank you enough for all the hard work you’ve put into this. I don’t think you realize what a special thing this will be for all of the people who knew [him].

This is a big reason why I work to keep these old machines alive.

Back to the Mac – with Stickers!

Apple is a mobility company these days, and iDevices are all the rage. With the iPhone their bestselling product and the iPad in a comfortable second place, it’s not surprising the Mac has taken a back seat.

So it was a pleasant surprise for many of us Apple veterans to see the mothership giving a nod to our old friend with their latest MacBook Air ad, Stickers – an audio/visual collage of custom stickers on the backs of MacBooks. New Macs, old Macs, scratched and dented Macs, this is how we use our trusted friends:

Nice spot. A technology is truly ubiquitous when it recedes into the background and becomes part of the furniture. Even better, a flash of the six color Apple logo at the end. My goodness, how nostalgic!

In related news, MacBook sticker sellers report a large increase in sales since this ad began airing…